fredag 29. oktober 2021

My Barstow Project

This is an updated version of an article I wrote in 2009. It is written for Alexander Technique teachers.

My background as an Alexander teacher is from what one can label as «Carrington-style» teaching. When reading about the Alexander Technique, both on the internet and in books and articles, I've come across quite a lot of teachers who has been influenced by Marjorie Barstow. Her style of teaching seemed to require a more active role for the pupil. Since the pupil's independence from the teacher should be the aim of any pedagogy I found this interesting. I decided to have a closer look at Marjorie Barstow's teaching.

I found a short tv film from 1982 on the internet, and 33 clips from a 1990 workshop on Youtube. These are my thoughts after having watched this material over a period of time.

Marjorie Barstow
One thing that is obvious after having studied Barstow is that she certainly was a great teacher. She knew what she was doing, and why. It is also interesting to study her own movements. In the workshop clips she is marked by osteoporosis and is bent over, but if you study her balance, the movements of her body, arms and legs, she is still in total command of herself. In the tv film from Nebraska in 1982 she is already 83, but disregard her face, and she could have been 18, her movements are that soft and elegant.

Touching a little
It is said about Barstow that she was «touching a little, asking a lot». I found that she was indeed asking a lot, but she was touching a lot as well. In fact, she was touching more or less all the time! Now and then she was discussing with the pupil with hands off, but that's something I would do from time to time myself.
I could see that she had an exceptional high level of skill. On many occasions you can literally see the pupil go up. Her use of hands was non-invasive in that she didn't take much (or any?) of the pupil's weight, which some teachers sometimes do, and which leaves the pupil very passive.
But I couldn't see that she was using her hands much different from any experienced teacher, so what was the difference in her approach?

Words and touch
When observing how she matched words with the use of hands I noticed that when she asked the pupil to think/direct she very often said 'this' instead of using the name of that part of the body: 'this', 'here', 'this way'.

Maybe using a word like 'arm' is experienced by somebody as 'that' arm, an object apart from oneself, whereas just saying 'this' combined with touch more intimately connects to the pupil's immediate experience of her/himself without having to 'translate' the meaning of the word into bodily understanding; a translation process which could be influenced by wrong mental concepts.

Asking a lot
Barstow did ask a lot of questions. Especially she asked: «How does that feel», or «What did you notice»?
These are questions that would make the 'orthodox' Alexander teachers bolt. Feelings are unreliable and not to be trusted. But we feel what we feel anyway, so why not have a conscious attitude towards it

Potentially there could be two problems with asking pupils what they feel. One is that the pupil will try to feel something. Then you will often see them move very slowly and heavily. The other problem is the pupils trying to come up with the right answer, trying to please the teacher. I had the impression of this happening a few times in the clips.

But there are advantages with describing experiences. Putting words to experiences makes the pupil pay attention and engage in the learning process. Describing nuances makes the pupil more skilled at observing subtle changes. Even if feelings themselves are unreliable, the changes we can notice in our feelings are real. And most importantly, asking the pupil is the only way for a teacher to know what is going on in the pupil's head. If what the pupil is describing is clearly wrong from what is happening, it is an opportunity to put out the mirror and let the pupil see for him-/herself that the change was real but that the interpretation was wrong.

There are two things to be clear about: when it is alright to focus on feelings, and the distinction between thinking (directing) and feeling.

It is perfectly alright to be aware of one's sensation during and after movement, as long as one is not seeking the 'right feeling'. Marjory Barlow said something about this at the 1999 Congress in Freiburg: 'If you think you're wrong - which is most of the time - give yourself the stimulus to move. Then you'll get the experience in the movement. Otherwise we are just feeling out' (The Congress Papers p.149).

Once I heard a teacher say: «the feelings are the directions», a statement I totally disagree with. But some people think kinaesthetically and to them this could be an accurate description of what they perceive is going on.
Discussing with the pupil what they actually were thinking at a certain point in time would make them aware the fact that it was their thoughts that actually made the good thing happen, and that the feeling was an effect, not the cause. It will also make them aware that they have got the ability to 'think for themselves'.

What do you want to do
Another question Barstow asked a lot was: What do you want to do? This is an excellent question. By having the pupil decide the activity, the pupil 'owns' it and has responsibility for it, and also chooses something of interest to the pupil and so are more likely to implement in daily life. This leads to a stronger motivation for observing, and learning.

Very interestingly not a single person in the thirty-three clips from the workshop chose to stand up or sit down. Sitting was an issue, and someone was interested in bending down, but not the act of sitting down or getting up. Why is that?

Maybe the act of sitting down/getting up is something that happens so quickly in daily life that it is normally something people don't think very much about. And because it is a rather quick movement there is little time for observation.

We should think about this as Alexander teachers. Although using the movement up from and down to the chair is very useful in the lesson, for several reasons, it is NOT the easiest activity for pupils to use for practising applying the Technique to their daily life. This does not mean that the chair shouldn't be used in the lesson, far from it. What I'm saying is that we should be conscious about WHY we use the chair when we use it in the lesson. And that other activities are important to work on to help the pupil implement the Technique in daily life.

Direction = movement
In the film Barstow is asked what the Alexander Technique is. She is almost taken off guard and answers: 'it is a certain type of movement.'

I'm not sure that I agree with that definition. I would say the aim is quality of movement, but not that the Technique itself is a particular type of movement. This links probably to Barstow's view on direction. She seems to equate direction with movement.

Personally I would say directions might lead to movement, but the directions themselves are messages we send. Saying the directions are movements may increase the risk of 'doing' them. It also misses out on the inhibitory aspect of directions. Directions are, and must be first of all, preventive.

I think it is more precise to define the directions as intention for movements. These are movements we are not able to perform directly. Movement is to some extent necessary for the brain to make sense of what we feel and to organize the body. Having the intention to move activates processes that makes the musculoskeletal system available for recalibration. The brain uses the input from movement to update the internal body map. Giving directions could be updating the brains body map and thus prepare the body for efficient movement.

End note
There are lots of videos about teaching the Alexander Technique on the internet. This can be a source for inspiration and new ideas, especially, I think, if you have look at teachers who teach differently from yourself. The videos of Marjorie Barstow teaching are useful because they are from situations where the observer is supposed to be watching and listening and learning. I think there is much to learn from observing her, even if one doesn't agree with everything she said or did.

*I could no longer find the link to the film from 1982 mentioned above. You can find many videos with Marjorie Barstow teaching on Youtube. You can also find both video and audio resources on this websites which is dedicated to her work:

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