søndag 17. september 2017

The lost element

According to various sources, F.M Alexander used to say that the procedure of doing "hands on the back of a chair" gave you all the experience you needed for using your hands in teaching. (See for instance Carrington &Carey 1992 p. 93; Carrington & Carey 2001 p.21; Carrington & Carrington 2017 p. 180; Dimon 2015 p. 4).

There is of course more to hands-on teaching than this. We do for instance put our hands on living being, not furniture. But the procedure does give you the basic skills and understanding of how to organise yourself to achieve the necessary quality and sensitivity of touch. 

Put another way I would say that if you don't understand the dynamics of "hands on the back of a chair" (HOBC) you have not understood the basics of using the hands in teaching. Understanding the procedure is of vital importance. 

Whether we actually use it as a practice procedure procedure is another matter, as is the question whether it should have a place in the lessons of the average pupil. We teachers have to understand it. Here I am going to write about something I have noticed when doing HOBC assisted by a teacher.

I have done the procedure assisted by a teacher many times over the years, as a pupil, as a student, and as a teacher myself. Very often, even maybe more or less always, one thing has not been clear: what to do with the weight of my arms. 

This is not a problem when performing the procedure on my own. Then I have the control and responsibility of the weight myself. The problem arises when the teacher takes the weight of the arm, which by the way is not necessary but probably the most common way of doing it. It is the most common way probably because it is part of Alexander's description in Constructive Conscious control.

The curious thing is that Alexander is very clear in his description about what to do with the weight of the arm, yet hardly any teacher I have ever worked with seem to have taken notice of this important point. 

In CCC Alexander writes: 
The pupil must now again order the neck to relax, the head forward and up, whilst the teacher with his hands secures that position of the torso in which the back may be said to be widened. These orders should be repeated several times and be continued whilst THE TEACHER TAKES THE PUPIL'S RIGHT ARM WITH HIS HANDS, AND MOVES IT FORWARD UNTIL THE PUPIL'S HAND IS ABOVE THE TOP RAIL OF THE BACK OF THE CHAIR. THE PUPIL SHOULD THEN BE REQUESTED to repeat the orders set down at the beginning of this paragraph, and then TO TAKE THE WEIGHT OF THE ARM ENTIRELY, as the teacher disengages his hands from the supported arm. 

GREAT CARE MUST BE TAKEN TO SEE THAT THE PUPIL HAS NOT INTERFERED WITH THE MECHANISM OF THE TORSO IN THE EFFORT TO TAKE THE WEIGHT OF THE ARM. This interference can take place in various ways, but it always implies that the pupil has forgotten his orders and has harked back to one or other of his subconscious habits. What is essential here is a coordinated use of the arms, and the only way by which he can secure this is, first, by giving the necessary preventive orders, and then by rehearsing the series of new orders given by the teacher, in which the movement of the arms is linked up with the use of the other parts of the body  
IF THE PUPIL HAS NOT INTERFERED WITH THE MECHANISM OF THE TORSO IN THE EFFORT TO TAKE THE WEIGHT OF THE ARM, he should next be requested to grasp the top rail of the back of the chair gently and firmly ... (Alexander 2004, p 117. For clarification I have changed the capitalisation from the original).

You can see that Alexander emphasises the importance of the process of reintegrating the weight of the arm into the pupil's body. 

What normally happens when working with a teacher is that the teacher takes the arm as Alexander describes, but proceeds to place the fingers against the rail of the chair while I as 'pupil' am supposed to somehow at some point in time regain control of the weight. 

It can be argued that an experienced teacher is able to communicate through his/her hands in such a way as to elicit the correct response by the pupil. Even so, I am most often, even when the procedure could be categorised as successful, left feeling uncertain. Uncertainty causes unclear thinking and unclear thinking causes breakdown in the process of directing. The success of the procedure is then dependent on some degree of luck. It should not be.

If any amount of the weight of the pupil's arm is taken by the teacher, then this weight must at some point be transferred back to be supported by the pupil's own body. The grip on the back of the chair should as a rule be a neutral one. (Variations like pulling or lifting or adding weight should be treated as subsequent steps). 

If the transfer of weight is done automatically and subconsciously , it will also be done habitually and most probably will include tensing in the armpits and pulling in of the arms and shoulders. 

Resting the arms 
The confusion about how to support the weight of the arms is potentially aggravated by the way HOBC is performed in the Carrington tradition where the hands are first put palms up on the rail of the chair. 

Resting the hands in this way has some obvious advantages. It facilitates the release in the armpits, the 'upper part of the arms', the area where the latissimus and pectorals insert into the humerus. Tensing up in this area is possibly the most important tendency to inhibit during hands-on work or when performing HOBC. But resting the hands on the rail of the chair also accentuates the need for reintegrating the weight of the arms in a constructive manner. 

The "support" described further on in CCC achieved by the widening of the back is extremely subtle and not the same as you get from this way of resting the hands on the back of the chair. 

In the newly rerelased DVDs of the Carringtons, (Walter and Dilys Carrington Demonstrate The Alexander Technique), you can see Walter Carrington demonstrate HOBC with a student. The student is resting the arms on the back of the chair palms up, (from 01:57:00). Then Carrington takes one arm at the time and places the hands in position for "hands on the back of the chair". The student, being experienced, seems to cooperate very well and is, (as far as I can see) having no problem dealing with the reorganisation of weight. For an ordinary pupil or less experienced student the story could have been another one. 

Weight confusion 
It is interesting that this redistribution of weight goes on unnoticed during a procedure which should be the ultimate in conscious use of oneself. The reason could be that with a skilled teacher and not too inexperienced pupil it tends to go reasonably well thanks to hands on skills. And if it doesn't go well the tendency (and tradition) is to blame the level of inhibitory/directing skills (unfortunately normally on the part of the pupil) rather than the lack of a clear conception of the required means-whereby. 

I have met the same confusion when working on activities like walking or going up on the toes, being instructed by teachers who claim it is possible to lift one foot without adding a corresponding amount of weight on the other, or going up on the toes without any forward displacement of the centre of gravity. Denial of physical facts causes confusion and leads to bad teaching. 

Weight dilemma 
The taking of weight in any hands-on procedure is associated with a dilemma. The more weight the teacher takes, the more the pupil can let go and the easier it can be for the teacher to facilitate physical change; at the same time, the more the responsibility is taken away from the pupil, the more the situation differ from the pupil's real life and its usefulness as a situation for practical learning can be questioned. 

If the pupil never gets to perform the movement/procedure with full responsibility of his/her own weight, it can not be said that the pupil has learned to perform the procedure. How can we know whether the pupil is able to perform it satisfactorily on his/her own? 

Anything that the pupil learns, they should be capable of performing independently. This means that the teacher must refrain from taking weight at least some of the time. (The same goes for initiating movements). 

When the teacher decides it is a good idea to take the pupil's weight, as for instance when guiding in HOBC the traditional way, the teacher must be clear about how this weight is managed, and if necessary make this explicitly clear to the pupil. But most important of all this must be clear to the teacher him-/herself, which in most cases in my experience it isn't.

Related blog articles:
Alexander, FM. 2004 (1923). Consctructive Conscious Control of the Individal. Mouritz
Carrington, W;Carey, S. 1992. Explaing the Alexander Technique. The Sheildrake Press.
Carrington, W;Carey, S. Personally Speaking. 2001 (1986). Mouritz. 
Carrington, Walter & Dilys . 2017. An Evolution of the Alexander Technique: Selected Writings. The Sheildrake Press
Dimon, Theodore. 2015. The Use of the Hands in Teaching. Dimon Institute (Self-published).
Walter & Dilys Carrington Demonstrate the Alexander Technique. (1985/1986). 2016. [DVD]. Constructive Teaching Centre Ltd, UK.