Tuning Into FM: Have You Read Your Alexander Lately?
My friend and colleague, John Macy, attended the recent Alexander Technique Congress and chose that venue to do a little research about which of F. M. Alexander’s books teachers had read, when when they read them. In addition to being an Alexander Technique teacher himself, John is a physical therapist and the owner of a Pilates studio in Omaha, Nebraska. Here are his findings, posted below as a guest blog. (If you would like to weigh in on this, or any other topic relevant to the Alexander Technique with a guest blog of your own, let me know. You can contact me here.)
Tuning Into FM: Have You Read Your Alexander Lately?
by John Macy
I recently wrote a blog in this space, Why Study and Teach the Alexander Technique?, about the questions I asked teachers and trainees at the International Congress in Chicago. This time I want to address another question I asked teachers: “Have you read Alexander’s books?”, and “When was the last time you read them?”
The most common answer was “I’ve read some of them, just parts of several.” The second was “We read through them in my training but I don’t remember much and I have not read them since.” Usually people also mentioned that they found them difficult to read due to the language and the concepts. Often people had read other books or articles about the Alexander Technique that were more modern, but not F.M. Alexander’s writings. Even people who were doing research on the Technique told me they had not read all his books.
As a professional with experience in medicine, archeology, and astronomy I find this to be very odd in a group of people whose careers are based around teaching the discoveries of one man. In other areas it is common, in fact expected, that one will to go to the source material as some point during training but also to return to it later, particularly if you intend to do research or teaching. A standard part of science research in any field is to go back and look at the first paper(s) written about the thing you are researching as well as any others that may have bearing on the topic. In this way the researcher can see the total evolution of thought on a topic and prevent wasting resources on reinventing the wheel. It also can illuminate new paths of inquiry based on ideas of people who have already analyzed the topic.
For example: In astronomy researchers and teachers are expected by their peers to understand what Einstein discovered and his arguments (equations) for his view of the universe because they are the source material for how we understand the cosmos today. This leads to new ideas in how to search and understand the universes. In medicine, any researcher of infectious disease would certainly know well the story of John Snow and his role in the London cholera epidemic of 1854. His was the first study of its kind using epidemiological information to find the source of a disease outbreak.
It is expected in the sciences that a researcher or teacher is familiar with the source materials – the first writings – as part of knowing the complete data set on the topic. So why aren’t Alexander Technique teachers doing this?
I think one part of the problem is that in many teacher training programs students are not taught to see themselves as researchers, or even teachers, at first. But they are. Every time they work with each other, every time they give a talk or demonstration they are seeing what happens when they interact and apply the Technique. Over time their teaching style, language, and methodology changes based on their research. Just as F. M. Alexande’sr did.
Which brings me to what I think is the second reason Alexander teachers don’t read his books. Most teachers had their one and only attempt at them while they were training to teach. However, Alexander wrote his books after hundreds and thousands of hours of experience – depending on the book. He wrote about overarching issues and ideas on human perception and learning derived from his observations and he makes sociological arguments about the ramifications of his theories. The student, on the other hand, is just beginning to see some of the individual data points Alexander draws from.
Trainees are busy learning how to do things like use themselves in a lesson and organize their time and run a practice. In short, students don’t yet have the experience to understand much of why Alexander says the things he does. The student must struggle to follow F.M.’s argument from the ground up every time because they have not seen enough to say, “Oh, yes. people do that a lot in my teaching so I understand easily what Mr. Alexander is basing his generalization and conclusions on.” Teacher trainees are learning to identify trees and Alexander is talking about the forest ecosystem.
I have read Alexander’s books several times since I began studying the Technique and each time they become more useful to me. A few years ago, I read all of them over a summer in preparation for writing a chapter on Alexander Technique for a physical therapy textbook.* As I read I realized how much deeper I understood his ideas (and disagreed with some) since the last complete reading, five years before, because of my experiences in teaching and working with people in those intervening years. And, as it has every time I read the books through, it made a significant, positive change in how I understood the work and how I taught.
As to the argument that the books are too difficult to read I must ask: If we apply the concepts of the Technique, such as using our conscious reasoning to determine our actions, then why would we let who we were several years or decades ago decide what we are capable of comprehending today? At the very least, why not run the experiment today to see if you view these books differently after years of experiences teaching and observing, just as Alexander had before he wrote these books?
I submit that reading F.M. Alexander’s books at least several times over a career is a reasonable expectation of ourselves as professionals and educators. These books are the source materials for our field of inquiry. Alexander has been dead for over 60 years, and there are few people alive who met, let alone studied with him. Alexander’s writings are the primary sources that we have, and are our best source for understanding what he discovered, thought, taught and envisioned for the future of his work. It is the glue that binds us all together in this field of study.
It’s Robert again. We’d love to know what you think of this. Please post your comments below and/or on Facebook.
*Here’s a podcast interview I did with John some years ago titled “The value of reading all Four of Alexander’s Books”: