Years ago, I was quite intrigued with Neuro Linguistic Programing (NLP) and at one point was even certified as a “Master Practitioner” although I certainly didn’t think of myself as such and never actually had any NLP clients. I did find it very useful in a number of ways, one of which was discovering just how peculiarly I responded to the question: “What is the Alexander Technique?”
Unbeknowst to me, I went into some sort of weird altered state in which I averted my eyes from the questioner and acted in other ways that clearly showed this question was not one I was comfortable answering. Pretty strange considering that I actually was a certified Alexander Technique teacher!
I’ve overcome this unfortunate pattern to a large extent, but I do see elements of it surfacing when, at the start of my podcast interviews, I ask Alexander teachers the same question. Often, their answer will be prefaced by a statement something like, “Well that’s a challenging question.” Or “I was afraid you’d ask me that.”
By contrast, if you ask a professor what she does, she’s likely to give a clear answer – “I’m teach history at a university, with a specialty in the early Medieval period.” A plumber might say: “Well, I install and repair water pipes in residential and commercial properties.”
Lately, as a result of my experiences on some of the Alexander Technique Facebook pages, where hundreds, sometimes thousands, of Alexander teachers and students reside, I’ve gained a new perspective on why Alexander teachers so often hesitant about answering this basic question.
There are widely divergent views within the profession about just what an Alexander teacher should be doing in order to be a “real” teacher. And at times those differing views can lead to nasty interchanges.
So, dear reader, I’d like you to consider the work of some pairs of fictional Alexander Technique teachers. For all the pairs:
Teacher 1 has happy students who have changed some ways in which they function which they, and most observers, consider beneficial.
Teacher 2 also has happy students who have changed in some other ways and which they, and most observers, consider beneficial.
Students of both teachers would be glad to give glowing testimonials about the Technique, and about their teacher. And those testimonials could be very similar:
“Teacher 1 (or Teacher 2) helped me with chronic back back pain.” Or: “Teacher 1 (or Teacher 2) helped me deal with performance anxiety and I am a better musician now that I’ve learned how get out of my own way.”
But if you were to observe Teacher 1 and Teacher 2 as they were teaching, (and here’s where multiple versions of the two teachers enter the picture) you would clearly see they have very different approaches to sharing the discoveries of F. Matthias Alexander. One teacher might have a fairly standard lesson format while the other’s lessons might be more varied in appearance. One teacher might work primarily with individual students, the other with groups. One teacher may use her hands a great deal of the time while teaching, the other might use his hands very little. One teacher might teach in-person students exclusively, while the other might use Skype or Zoom. One teacher might use classical directions, the other might use newer ones.
The list of possible differences goes on and on.
Both teachers have helped their students, by using different ways of teaching with somewhat different, sometimes overlapping, results.
Are both teachers real, legitimate, teachers of the Alexander Technique?
Of course to answer that question, one would have to go back the very question I started with – the one that is challenging for so many teachers.
So, again: What is the Alexander Technique?
Alexander himself didn’t provide a lot of help. He started his teaching career as a Delsarte Method teacher and his teaching process changed several times over his lifetime. Also, he didn’t seem ever to have actually used the phrase “Alexander Technique”.
His writings can be used to support multiple views of what the Technique is, and is not. In places he describes in great detail specific ways in which he works with students. Elsewhere he makes in pretty clear that he sees his work as just the very beginning of an evolving process. In the introduction to his first book, he even states that he’s looking forward to the time when there will be no need for teachers of his work!*
So we’re left with the same question: What is the Alexander Technique?
Can you come up with a definition (or even the beginnings of a definition) that would take account of all this? Or do you think that some – or none – of this is important in the formulation of a definition? I’d love to see your own replies below and/or on those Facebook Alexander Technique pages.
*Here are a couple of relevant quotes by Alexander:
After working for a lifetime in this new field I am conscious that the knowledge gained is but a beginning…my experience may one day be recognized as a signpost directing the explorer to a country hitherto ‘undiscovered,’ and one which offers unlimited opportunity for fruitful research to the patient and observant pioneer. (This quote appears in the Introduction of The Universal Constant in Living, Alexander’s fourth book.)
I wish to do away with such teachers as I am myself. My place in the present economy is due to a misunderstanding of the causes of our present physical disability, and when this disability is finally eliminated the specialised practitioner will have no place, no uses. This may be a dream of the future, but in its beginnings it is now capable of realisation. (This quote appears at the end of his Preface to Man’s Supreme Inheritance, his first book)
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