- the dangers of chair work
This is an article written for Alexander Technique teachers. It was written in 2010 but never published on this blog. I publish it now because it is touches upon some of the issues discussed in the blog post Habitual Procedures. The article is slightly rewritten and updated.
What we call 'chair work' is the most important element in a traditional Alexander Technique lesson. Because of its prominent position in Alexander Technique pedagogy people sometimes equate chair work with Alexander Technique, thereby mistaking the means of teaching the technique for the technique itself.
Some teachers use chair work almost exclusively. Other teachers, with a more of an experimental or 'application approach', spend more time on other activities and less time at the chair, and some even claim to not use chair work at all.* From time to time I see discussions between teachers representing different approaches, the traditionalist praising chair work for its high value, the 'experimentalist' describing it disparagingly. They are both right of course. But I hardly get the impression that any of them really know in what way they are right. As a teacher coming from the traditional camp I feel I'm entitled to take a sideways look at chair work.
Challenges and possibilities
So why do we use the chair? Chair work is claimed to be the best way to teach someone the Alexander Technique. I don't think it necessarily is. Chair work is on the other hand one of the most practical and effective way for the teacher to help reorganise the pupil's musculoskeletal system.
The large movement in and out of the chair requires lots of adjustments in the pupil. Moving with a free neck and lengthening and widening back ensures that these adjustments can take place. The moving pupil is within easy reach of the teacher's hands which makes it convenient for the teacher to aid the process of inhibition and direction and also to guide the initiation of movement. The movement has an easily defined beginning, making it well suited for the study of reactions to the stimulus to move.
Then, very often, the question comes from the pupil: Am I going to practice this at home? Most times the answer is: no. The question we have to ask then is: why do we spend so much of the lesson on doing something that the pupil is not going to work on at home? It is as if I had a violin pupil playing scales most of the lesson and then giving him or her something completely different for homework. (I'm also a trained violin teacher). It is normally more useful to spend the time on what the pupil is going to work on at home.
Many will argue that the pupil is moving in an out of chairs all day anyway, and that the point is to increase the awareness in daily activities. The problem is that when moving down to or up from the chair in daily life the pupil will be about to do something else, and the chance for the pupil actually being aware during the movement is very slim. The movement in and out of a chair is rather quick. It comes and goes in a short moment. If the movement is not repeated immediately the pupil is not very likely to remember being present next time either.
One argument against having the pupil practising specific activities is that the pupil is going to try to 'get it right'. In most cases that will be true, if the pupil hasn't learnt how to go about working on him/herself. And the same goes for any activity. The challenge is how we go about teaching pupils to work on themselves
If we are able to teach them how to make use of the Alexander Technique principles when moving in and out of the chair, that is great. If 'chair work' is a useful tool for the teacher to re-balance the pupil's musculoskeletal system, then it would be equally useful for the pupil re-balancing him or herself.
But then the pupil's skills could be just as well spent in another activity, because who is interested in moving in an out of a chair? No one is doing that for a living, or a hobby, so maybe other activities are going to spur the pupil's interest to a greater extent. Maybe it is useful to spend at least some of the time of the lesson on something else than chair work. Otherwise it is like using only 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star' when teaching violin. It is possible, you can get quite far (as proven by the Suzuki Method), but what about other melodies? What about other activities, something that is of particular interest to that pupil?
What is of interest to the pupil? Maybe it is a good idea to ask.
Even more important than to be aware of the pedagogical challenges of chair work is to be aware of the dangerous side effects of relying too much on one format of teaching. I want to address three issues.
First of all the movement we use in and out of the chair when teaching is one hardly met in real life, it is artificial. Most of the time when we sit down we are not going to have our feet parallel, and probably there is a table in front of the chair, which makes going into the chair more of a sideways affair. The movement in the lesson is simplified for good reasons. Do it the easy way first. But if this goes on and on, lesson after lesson in the same way, the pupil will subconsciously learn that this is the way to do it, and the movement becomes stereotyped. It is like 'Twinkle Twinkle' again, only always played in the same fashion.
To be precise the problem is the lack of rotation, the movement is two-dimensional. Rotation is the hallmark of free movement. You can convince yourself of this by trying to move without any degree of rotation in your movements. The effect is often described as 'alexandroid.'
Of course we say we only use this simplified movement in and out of the chair for convenience, we could be using any movement. But what is the pupil going to learn the most from, what we tell him or what we make him do?
The second problem with the chair has to do with the role of the arms. The problem is that the arms have no role. It is, on the contrary, a sign of bad habits if the pupil is trying to help by using the arms, trying to do with the arms what should be done with back and legs. Traditional chair work can be like practising not using the arms, and the pupil can become quite good at it. And if that's the only activity in the lessons the pupil will have a tendency to act like a rag doll in other activities as well.
Our interface with the world is the use of our hands and of the voice. Chair work forms a basis by co-ordinating the head, neck, back and legs, but only a basis. Chair work doesn't address the artistic and intelligent parts of our system, the cutting edge of human development. The pupil uses the hands in all sorts of skills outside of lessons, a bit like a violinist plays all sorts of melodies. Are we taking advantage of this in the lessons or is it only going to be Twinkle Twinkle?
The control of the hands and voice occupies large resources in the sensory and motor areas of the brain. The quality of use of these parts will influence the rest of the system, in effect putting a spanner in the working of the primary control if not good. The pupil could be all-right in the lesson when not using the arms, but will be messing him/herself up outside of lessons when using the arms. The pupil might end up being tempted to seek salvation in rag-dolling in the two dimensional world of the alexandroids.
The sensitivity of the hand represents a road, or rather a dual carriage way, into the pupil's thinking brain. Directing the hands, and using the hands in various ways, can be an aid to the learning process, as well as being vital for the pupil's ability in applying the Alexander Technique in daily life. The use of the hands should not be left out of the lessons.
The third problem with chair work has to do with the role of the teacher. It should be a supporting role, not the main character. In traditional chair work the teacher is the one giving the stimulus to move, either by asking the pupil to move or by using touch. There is nothing wrong in this. Guiding the pupil into movement can be an easy and elegant way of making the pupil aware of possibilities of moving with less tension, and in daily life we frequently act as a response to external stimuli.
But most of the time the stimulus to move comes from within ourselves. This can be more or less absent in traditional chair work, again adding to artificiality. Letting the pupil decide himself when to move completely changes the focus of the pupil. He has to take responsibility. The contrast to the teacher guided movement is useful, so both modes of initiating should be used. But we should bear in mind that the pupil deciding is the natural way, and the only way in which the pupil can take complete responsibility for his own actions.
An added problem arises when the teacher uses force, or to be more precise supports the weight of the pupil. The extreme variation of this I heard about from a fellow student. She visited a training course in Germany where they consistently used the procedure described by Frank Pierce Jones as 'reflex standing' (Jones 1997, p.129). The sitting pupil leans back on the teacher's hands and the movement is a co-operation by pupil and teacher. This is fun to do, and it requires lots of inhibition and direction from both teacher and pupil, so there is much to be learnt from it. But what the pupil also can learn from it is that 'I can't do this by myself'. When taking any of the pupil's weight we should ask ourselves if we are doing it in a way that integrates it into the pupil's independent use of him/herself, or if we are doing it in a way that promotes passivity.
I hope that you by now have been sufficiently provoked to do some constructive thinking. That is what I have been trying to do myself. I have to admit that I'm the sort of Alexander teacher who would rather prefer to just shut up and put my hands on. I trained to be an Alexander Technique teacher to be able to communicate with my hands; and I prefer to use the chair of course. *Today, more than ten years after writing this article an increasing number of teachers also do online teaching (not the least thanks to the covid 19 pandemic). In a digital teaching situation some of the aspects discussed in this article are of course irrelevant. Online teaching does however present other challenges and pitfalls which will be the subject of another article.
Related blog posts
Jones, Frank P. 1997. Freedom to Change, Mouritz.