This is the translated and slightly rewritten version of ‘Fra ord til intensjon’ in Norwegian. It is written primarily with Alexander teachers and advanced pupils in mind.
In an earlier blog post I quoted Alexander's brother, AR Alexander, who said the Alexander Technique directions were “doings” . The quotation comes from a lecture by Patrick Macdonald. It is also to be found in Macdonald's book The Alexander Technique as I See It. In the lecture Macdonald says:
Giving directions, then, is not and cannot be the same for a new pupil as it is for one of a few weeks, months or years experience of the Technique. For the new pupil, directions start merely as words. These should be learnt by heart, in the proper order and they should gain in content with time, experience and the frequent application of a teacher’s hands. They must progress from being merely words to a release of force, which acts in certain ways and along certain paths. The words, therefore, turn into acts, but acts of a very delicate and subtle kind and these are not to be confused with the ordinary kind of activity which is commonly called “a physical act”.
In the early days of my studentship I was much confused over this matter when, talking to A.R. Alexander, F.M.’s brother, he remarked to me, “Of course, Directions are doings, but they are very small. They are usually below the sense register.” This made the matter very much clearer for me, and I offer you A.R-’s comment in the hope that it may do the same for you (Macdonald 1988 p. 5, 1989 p. 76, 2015 p. 68).
Is Macdonald right? Yes, and no.
At the time Frederick Matthias Alexander wrote his books, behaviourism was on the rise in the field of psychology and seems to influence Alexander's descriptions of his method of teaching. He describes it at least in part as a ‘conditioning’ process:
... the teacher will ask the pupil to give the new messages necessary to carrying out the new "means-whereby" required for bringing about that employment of the primary control of the use of himself which is fundamental in reconditioning reflexes. At the same time the teacher will with his hands give the pupil the actual sensory experience of this new employment of the primary control, and thus will be able to help him to maintain the improving manner of use which results from this new experience in making any movement that may be required in the course of the lesson, such as that of moving from standing to sitting in a chair. [...]
The habitual wrong employment of the primary control of the pupil's use of himself, responsible for his reaction in performing such acts as sitting in and rising from a chair, is prevented, and is gradually superseded by a new and improved manner of use which, by a reconditioning procedure, is associated with new reflex activity (Alexander 2000, p. 82)
Wilfred Barlow has the following description of the teaching in The Alexander Principle:
The Alexander Technique, briefly, is a method of showing people how they are mis-using their bodies and how they can prevent such mis-uses, whether it be at rest or during activity. This information about use [italics] is conveyed by manual adjustment on the part of the teacher, and it involves the learning of a new Body-Grammar - a new mental pattern in the form of a sequence of words which is taught to the pupil, and which he learn to associate with the new muscular use which he is being taught by the manual adjustment. He learns to project this new pattern to himself not only whilst he is being actually taught but when he is on his own (Barlow 1990 p. 194).
(Barlow does not differentiate between the Alexander Technique itself and the method of teaching it, a distinction I believe to be vital for a clear description of our work).
In the paper titled Postural Homeostasis from 1952 Barlow describes explicitly the teaching of the Alexander Technique as a form of conditioning:
I should like to stress again that the re-education is not done by physical exercises, but by means of a conditioning procedure which alters the body image and through it the capacity for postural homeostasis. (Barlow 2014, p. 89)
The conditioning procedure is explained as involving the ‘Konorski Type 2 reflex’ (Barlow 2014, p. 79)
The idea seems to be that the student repeats the words to himself while the teacher gives the corresponding experience by creating the desired effect with his hands, and that with time and repetition, the words and the meaning (directions) will, hopefully, be subconsciously associated.
Macdonald seems to have a similar view of how to teach directions. There are several problems with such a view.
I have my doubts that this constitutes a correct description of the majority of Alexander Technique teaching, even at Alexander's time. It involves a procedure that is not very much in use in today's teaching. I myself have never been exposed to a teaching situation where I am as a pupil meant to verbalise the directions while the teacher is “giving the experience” with the aim of “linking up” the thoughts and their content. (Although one could argue there is an element of “conditioning” or we might even say “dressage” in traditional chair work).
I suspect the description of learning to direct as a kind of conditioning process was an attempt at providing a scientific explanatory model for the teaching method, and that it might have been a belief that this was the way one should teach, even though one generally didn't.
The most serious problem with this way of teaching giving directions is, however, that it is bad teaching. It is haphazard and mechanical, inefficient and ineffective.
Macdonald is also wrong when he says that directions are ‘merely words’. The directions are never just words. New pupils will interpret the words in their own way. Intentionally or unintentionally they will attribute meaning to the words that will have an effect on the body, good or bad. What is the meaning for example, of ‘neck free’? Does it mean to relax? If that's the initial idea the pupil gets (which could happen even if you say that it is wrong), he or she will very easily let the neck collapse.
But Macdonald is also wrong on another level. The directions are not words at all. The directions are intentions. The words we use are only descriptions. Alexander writes about giving directions in Constructive Conscious Control:
Another difficulty which pupils make for themselves is in connexion with the giving of guiding orders or directions. They speak sometimes as if it were a strange and new thing to ask them to give themselves orders, forgetting that they have been doing this subconsciously from their earliest days, else they would not be able to stand up without help, much less move about. The point that is new in the scheme we are considering is that the pupil is asked consciously to give himself orders, ... (Alexander 2004, p. 104).
Directing is having an intention just like we have an intention to perform any movement, the difference being that these are conscious intentions for a movement not to be performed. We began moving before we had words to describe what we did. The directions, therefore, exists independently from words.
We can compare the directions with gestures performed by a musician or dancer, gestures that can be both natural and spontaneous while at the same time being learned and practised. A violin student can imitate his/her teacher and play a note high on the fingerboard, and eventually learn to find the note on his/her own, without knowing that this note is called A or B.
Similarly, an Alexander teacher may invite the pupil to let her/his head to move forward and up, and/or the back to lengthen and widen. Eventually, the student can allow the same directions to take place without the teacher's help. This can happen independently of what words the teacher and pupil agree to use for the directions. This way, the directions might come before the words just as the music comes before the notes in modern music education. The directions are intended gestures that can take place non-verbally.
This does not mean that words are superfluous in Alexander Technique teaching. On the contrary. It is exactly because words are never merely words, and the directions in themselves are not words, that the way words are used in teaching is absolutely vital. It means that repeating words parrot fashion is out. The use of words and the verbal explanations and interactions must be adapted to the individual pupil.
As Alexander writes in a footnote in CCC:
It is not possible, of course, to give here all the detailed instructions that would meet every case, because these instructions naturally vary according to the tendencies and peculiarities of the particular pupil. An experienced teacher, however, should be able to supply these instructions in the practical application of the technique to meet the needs of the individual case. We must learn in this connexion to differentiate between the variations of a teacher's art and the principles of the teaching technique which is being employed (Alexander 2004, p. 110).
An Alexander teacher who does not offer the pupil the opportunity to form appropriate and functional verbal concepts based on practical experience with the technique is not doing his/her job.
Word are useful. For an experienced musician, the words ‘F sharp’ give extra content and meaning to the gesture that is performed to play the tone, just as we associate the name of a person with certain characteristics and personality traits.
Words can also facilitate the process of thinking directions. For example, when a pupil or student performs a procedure like ‘hands on the back of a chair’ the teacher saying the directions out loud at the same time will make it easier keeping the directions going. This is a typical situation in the training of hands-on skills in traditional Alexander teacher training.
But the teacher can also use her/his hands. Carolyn Nicholls, for instance, one of my teachers, would ask for ‘more of this’ while her hands suggested the direction. Another example is Marjorie Barstow. There are many video clips of her, having hands on a person, saying things like ‘you want this going this way’. The advantage of this approach of not formulating the directions specifically is that the person doesn't have to “translate” the meaning of the words into directions. Instead, the directions are experienced directly, leaving the person free to label them with the individually appropriate description.
The intention of expansion that is commonly described as ‘neck free, head forward and up, (etc)’ can be described in a multitude of ways, and Alexander teachers, and pupils, may develop their own ways of phrasing the sequence.
Some people seem to be unable to think without using words. For them, Macdonald's description of the process of learning to direct may be relevant, but I think that's the exception rather than the rule.
What Macdonald definitely is right about, is that thinking directions changes with experience. In principle, however, there is no difference between what a beginner does when thinking directions and what an experienced teacher does. This is similar to a beginner violinist and a virtuoso. They can both play the same note on the instrument. As Alexander pointed out, we are all giving ourselves direction or give ourselves “orders” whenever we decide perform a movement. It is the quality that is different.
When I give introductory courses in the Alexander Technique, I am often surprised that participants are able to think directions quickly and easily, in a way that has a positive influence on the movements they make. The problem is that often they are not able to register the changes themselves, or, if they notice a change, they are not yet able to understand the importance of what is happening.
Of course, in an introductory lesson, class, or workshop, the point is to try out one simple thought or idea. An Alexander Technique teacher, however, is able to think multiple directions in a sequence. This is similar to an experienced pianist easily being able to play different notes in each hand, while for a beginner it is enough of a challenge to play one note at a time. In this respect, experience certainly makes a differences.
The main difference, however, is that beginners often forget that the directions are primarily preventive. They very often try to do them. This is why the quote from AR, saying that the directions are “doings”, is very unfortunate.
Typically, beginners try too hard. They stiffen and hold on. (Easily observable by eyes glazing over, or fixedly staring, and the holding of the breath). Or they try to “feel” the directions instead of just thinking them, with the same negative consequences.
What characterises experienced Alexander Technique teachers is the absence any “noise” in terms of trying to do anything. It is direction in pure form. It is only thought. Experienced Alexander Technique teachers are also thinking more accurately. They have a clearer idea of what they want and what they do not want, and they definitely don't want to do the directions.
Experience and practice in using Alexander Technique ‘inhibition’ and ‘direction’, stopping and thinking, also increases bodily awareness. There is a heightened sensitivity, and the body becomes more responsive. This makes thinking the directions easier, and at the same time it is easier to observe the effect of the process.
As Macdonald correctly points out, the hands-on instruction a person receives speeds up development. But not necessarily. The persons conscious mind must be engaged. It is quite possible to receive years of hands-on work without really learning how to direct. This is where words, and verbal interaction, really matters.
All the foregoing – a clearer idea, increased body awareness, increased sensitivity and responsiveness, give more “power” to the directions, making the directions “stronger.” But the directions have some “power” from the beginning, whether you want it or not. If you try “doing” the directions this power will have a negative influence, albeit it will also make them weaker in Alexander Technique terms.
The directions are never just words, and must never be something you do. The directions are intentions, a wish for movement (lengthening and widening) or a wish for potential for movement (e.g. a ‘free neck’),
Learning to ‘give directions’ in the Alexander Technique is like learning to ride a bike or to juggle, and just as devoid of mystery. It's a matter of skill and practice. You can learn to direct in the first lesson, or after five, ten or twenty lessons. A few seem to never learn to direct. The main reasons for this is that they either try to “feel” the directions, or they try to do them. The directions are not “doings”. They are thoughts.
Related blog posts
Fra ord til intensjon (Norwegian)
Alexander, Frederick Matthias. (1946) 2000. The Universal Constant in Living. Mouritz.
Alexander, Frederick Matthias. (1923) 2004. Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual. Mouritz
Barlow, Wilfred. (1973) 1990. The Alexander Principle. Prentice Hall.
Barlow, Wilfred. 2014. Postural Homeostasis: Papers and Letters on the Alexander Technique.
Macdonald, Patrick. 1988. On giving directions, doing and non-doing, The STAT Memorial Lecture November 12, 1963. The Alexander Journal 9 (September 1988).
Macdonald, Patrick, 1989. The Alexander Technique As I See It. Rahula Books.
Macdonald, Patrick. (1989) 2015. The Alexander Technique As I See It. Mouritz.