This is a new page devoted to my published articles. I hope it will grow steadily as I hunt down and compile articles I have already written and write some new ones.
You can also check out my newly launched blog at: bristolalexander.com
First up, to wet your appetite, is the first article I ever wrote on Alexander Technique. I was a mere trainee when I wrote this, so some of my information should be taken with a pinch of salt. However, many people have said how much they enjoyed this piece over the years and I believe there is value in reading a naive point of view.
This article was originally published in Musician magazine.
Alexander Technique is for everyone
by Simon Gore (2002)
What would you say if I told you there was no such thing as tension and that practice was not important? Well, whether your response is outrage or hysterical laughter I’ve probably got your attention, and that’s just the way Don Weed likes to do things. Welcome to the annual Interactive Teaching Method Association summer workshop; welcome to the weird and wonderful world of the Alexander Technique.
I guess most people think of the Alexander Technique as something that can help you when you’ve got a bad back or are feeling stressed. Speaking as a professional drummer, this already sounds like a really good idea and it was certainly a recurring back problem that got me involved a little over two years ago. But I soon learned that Alexander’s work is much, much more than the most effective way to sit on a drum stool. So what is it exactly? Ah…well…um that’s the problem you see, I’m not exactly sure I can say exactly what it is. I’m not sure anyone can. The ITM (Interactive Teaching Method) definition is “the study of thinking in relation to movement”. Hmmm, not much help there then. What I can tell you is what it’s like to be on the receiving end of this stuff, particularly in the heady atmosphere of this exciting and highly entertaining summer school, and most particularly from the man who invented the ITM, the aforementioned Don Weed.
Donald L. Weed, D.C. is a big, loud American with a big, loud American approach to teaching and big, loud Hawaiian shirts. He has a highly developed (some would say over-developed) sense of humour and is something of a showman. Now I know I’ve made him sound like just the kind of in-your-face character that many English people take an instant dislike to, but let’s not be hasty. Dr. Weed has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Alexander’s writings and anything written about Alexander or the Technique, some profound insights of his own into the way we function, (developed over many years of Chiropractic work as well as Alexander teaching), and although the teaching method is often challenging, frustrating or just downright confusing there’s no denying the results. Challenges come in phrases like “there’s no such thing as tension” (If your neck is tense it’s because you made it tense), or “practice is far less important than people think”. Frustration comes with repeated demonstration, (you just stopped the tension; you just got better without practising).
The summer workshop takes place at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester. No previous experience of Alexander’s work is necessary and people from all walks of life attend. I’ve met actors, civil servants, osteopaths, lawyers, builders, teachers from the different schools of Alexander Technique and, of course, musicians. The participants are divided into smaller groups and during lesson time these groups alternate between working with Don Weed and with teachers trained by Don, then sharing experiences in the big group. In this way we work with many different teachers with their own personalities and approaches and gain as wide an experience as possible in four days.
So how does it work? Most lessons go something like this: The students pick an activity - sitting, standing, walking, singing, giving a massage, …er… banging a drum. The teacher will usually start asking questions about the activity: “what do you need to do to stand, sing, walk” etc. (This is a question you hear a lot. It’s a dumb question. But some of the answers you hear – including some of your own – are extraordinary and very enlightening). The student will then usually go ahead and perform the activity and then talk about how it went and how it could be better. The whole group is invited to make observations or ask questions throughout the process. Sooner or later the teacher will start to work with the student more directly using a kind of gentle manipulation, or perhaps “suggestive touch” would be nearer the mark. It’s not easy to describe the experience of being worked with in this way. You might feel lighter and somehow easier in yourself, or you might get very odd sensations of being in the wrong body and not quite knowing where the controls are, or you might feel nothing at all. Sometimes the changes in the student are quite subtle, a change in breathing or just a general sense of calm. Then again, sometimes you get something more spectacular, six inches in height or an extra octave in the voice. What you almost always see is an improved performance.
The highlight of the week is the “scheduled performance night”. This is not just for any professional performers present to strut their stuff in front of the whole group. Anybody is welcome to get up and recite a poem, swing a golf club or put on a rucksack for our entertainment – whilst getting a nice Alexander lesson. But when we see a seasoned performer having a lesson we have a glimpse of the real power and potential of this work. As a musician the experience of hearing a very good performance of a Bach fugue and then hearing the same organist give a breathtaking rendition after a couple of minutes work leaves little room for doubt. Funny thing is, though, when you’re the one having the lesson you can’t always see what all the fuss is about. The experiences are so different – especially for a performing musician – that you honestly have no idea how the performance is going. A case in point was my first big drum lesson with Don Weed which went something like this.
I played a couple of minutes worth of drum solo, I went for an ostinato study – soloing over a 3/2 clave – which went pretty well for a “cold” performance in front of a class. Then along came Don, fiddled with my neck for a bit and suggested I start again with this subtly different head/neck relationship. My arms felt a little weird but I decided to go for it anyway. Then the really weird shit started. I had been given lots of indications over the preceding days about how flexible the spine really is but I was pretty damn sure that I should not be seeing the ceiling from that angle whilst playing the drums. So I shut my eyes and kept playing while my back –in Don’s capable hands – did a passable impression of a sidewinder on acid. At this point I noticed that, far from being put off my stroke, I had a crystal clear communication with my instrument, even if I seemed to be communicating from the next room. I thought up a completely new combination and just played it without hesitation. To this day I have no idea how it sounded but everyone else in the room was sufficiently gobsmacked to still be talking about it two years later.
That experience convinced the people watching about the value of Alexander’s work. I, on the other hand, was persuaded by seeing other musicians improve their playing in a matter of minutes; by seeing a severe attack of nerves cease to be a problem; by hearing the sound of instruments improve – a deeper, more resonant tone coming from the same cello/horn/guitar/you name it. I was persuaded by the young singer/song writer, unable to play the piano for more than a few minutes because of “R S I”, playing and singing one of her compositions to an enthralled and slightly tearful crowd.
That’s why I go back year after year. For the price of a long weekend in Paris you can have four and a half days in Cirencester, freedom and ease of motion, oh and perhaps I forgot to mention that this is the most fun I’ve ever had with a bunch of complete strangers.
This next article was originally published in Osteopathy Today, volume 13.05, back in 2007. Although it was written for a particular readership, I think the examples will make sense to everyone.
How Alexander Technique can help your clients
by Simon Gore (May 2007)
If you are taking the time to read this article you are probably looking for some simple answers to some basic questions like: What exactly is the Alexander Technique? What does an Alexander teacher do? Who can benefit?
Answering these questions is not an easy task. F. Matthias Alexander published 4 books in order to explain his technique and yet people still misunderstood what he was about. His work seems to defy simple explanations. Just deciding whether it’s a therapeutic process or an educational one is problematic.
For example, we help clients to develop mental disciplines that will enable them to bring about continuing improvement in mental and physical performance. This is clearly education. Then again, we put our hands on people and frequently their pain goes away and their general well-being improves. This looks like a therapy. However, when one remembers that not all pains are caused by clinical conditions but may be the result of movement behaviours or the manner in which a movement is carried out, then it becomes easier to see how we can clearly identify the Alexander Technique as an educational process despite its therapeutic benefits.
An example from my own practice might illustrate this and help shed some light on what an Alexander teacher actually does.
Several years ago I worked with a young man who had a sharp pain in his neck during certain movements, particularly looking up. About ten years prior to this he had sustained a serious neck injury which, despite osteopathic and other treatments, had apparently never been resolved satisfactorily. (please notice that I said “apparently”.) The client in question had just about given up and decided to live with the pain. In fact he came to my class to improve his guitar playing, not his neck.
I worked with this individual six times and, each time we worked, we did nearly the same thing. Early on I noticed that every time he looked up, there was a very small, extra and unnecessary movement – a quirk, if you will – which clearly wasn’t part of normal neck extension. More importantly, this same movement “quirk” took place in every movement that he made – not just neck extension – including, incidentally, his remedial exercises.
Over the years in the Alexander Technique, we have learned that movement quirks like these, particularly when they occur in the relationship between students’ heads and their bodies, can have a significant impact on a person’s movement, performance and well-being. When students are taught how to stop these unnecessary movements, very often their difficulties disappear.
In this case, by using questions to engage and challenge my student’s thinking and using my hands to help him experiment with different ways of moving, we worked together in such a way that how he thought about moving, how he organised himself for movement prior to moving, and how he actually moved began to change.
Finally, during the sixth class, while working with me, he looked up without his beloved quirk and was astonished to find himself looking at the ceiling without any pain. More importantly, he was able to repeat the movement by himself.
I didn’t see this client again, but two years later I heard from a third party that he was still telling people that the Alexander Technique had cured his neck.
Neither did I.
Because there was nothing to “cure”.
Oh yes, there had been an injury and this had been treated. With respect to the actual injury, osteopathy had been appropriate and had been effective, but the pain in question was not being caused by the injury. It was being caused by how the client prepared himself for movement and how he carried those movements out. No form of clinical treatment – however appropriate to the resolution of the initial injury – could relieve this individual’s pain because the pain was being caused by something he did to himself while moving. The instant he stopped doing the thing that caused the pain, the pain went away.
Have you ever successfully treated a condition but the client still reported discomfort? Have you ever had a client who came back week after week needing the same correction? Have you ever come across someone who complained of pain or discomfort but had nothing apparently wrong? I do not claim that the Alexander Technique will resolve all of these cases, but if your patients are doing something that is causing their problems and if they can be taught how to stop doing it, then their self-induced problems will go away.
With a history of neck and back injuries, I have had my fair share of osteopathic treatment over the years. My experience has been that a combination of treatment and Alexander lessons is extraordinarily powerful. After all, doesn’t it stand to reason that clinical interventions are likely to be more effective if patients are also taught how to use their mental-physical mechanism in a coordinated and efficient manner?
Although I have tried to present some of the basic elements of an Alexander lesson, you could still find yourself saying: “but I still don’t know exactly what the Alexander Technique is”. The best way to understand this work is, of course, to have lessons with a certified teacher. At the I.T.M. (Interactive Teaching Method) website, www.itmalexandertechnique.org, you will find more information about our approach to teaching Alexander’s work, a list of certified teachers and links to other certifying organisations. There is also information on open days and public workshops, including our residential summer workshops.
Next up, my first blog post. You can read all of my blogs (and subscribe if you like) at: bristolalexander.com
The question that begins the Alexander Technique
It’s that story again
In order to talk about the journey that we, as Alexander students, must take, I have to talk about the journey Alexander took. His first steps must be our first steps.
The journey begins with a question. It’s actually quite a simple question. The problem is, if you don’t know how Alexander got there — if you don’t have the context — the question won’t make complete sense, or at least you might miss the full impact or import of the question. You need the story.
Alexander himself told this tale in the first chapter of his third book, The Use of The Self, published in 1932. It’s probably the best known of Alexander’s writings, and if you have had even a fleeting experience of Alexander Technique you have probably heard a version of this story.
However, despite the frequency with which this story (parts of it, anyway) has been repeated, I have noticed that people often don’t give it the attention that I think it’s due. Having heard or read it once or twice, students seem to think they’ve done their part and don’t give it much more thought.
And that is such a shame, because this story has the power to transform the life of anyone who will take the time to read it.
I mean properly read it.
Read it as it was written.
I will leave you to explore that chapter at your leisure, but for our purposes here, we just need the very beginning of the story. We just need to understand the events that led Mr Alexander to ask his remarkable question.
In the beginning
F. Matthias Alexander was an actor.
In fact, it would be more accurate to say that he was an elocutionist – a professional reciter. In the last decades of the 19th century, before bingo halls or cinema, one could make a decent living reciting Shakespeare, and by all accounts Alexander was pretty darn good.
A few years into his career, though, he began to have trouble with his throat and vocal organs. As time went by, the problem got gradually worse until he started to lose his voice altogether.
At first, Alexander did just what you or I would have done. He went to the doctor.
Knowing something of Alexander’s character I am reasonably certain he followed the doctor’s advice to the letter. But it didn’t help.
So, Alexander found the best voice coaches and acting coaches he could find, thinking there might be something wrong with his technique.
Knowing something of Alexander’s character I am reasonably certain he followed their advice to the letter. But it didn’t help.
By this time Alexander was worried. Despite all the medical help and educational help, the problem just kept getting worse, until he believed that he would have to give up his career.
One day he was offered what he called “a particularly attractive and important engagement”, which he was frankly afraid to accept. Can you imagine? You’ve spent years working at a career you love, honing your skills and building up a reputation. Then when your big break comes along you feel like you have to turn it down because you’re afraid your own body could let you down at any moment. That’s tough.
He saw his doctor again. The doctor examined him again and said that if he rested his voice and didn’t recite for two weeks, while following a prescribed treatment, then his voice would be fine. (We don’t know what the treatment was, but we do know that rest was a significant part of it, and that’s the part that’s going to be important)
The ‘solution’ that didn’t work
Alexander accepted this advice, and I’m willing to bet he said almost nothing during the following weeks. His condition improved and he was soon feeling optimistic enough to take the gig. By the time of his recital his voice seemed to be back to normal. But before he was half-way through his program his voice began to fail, and by the end of the evening he could barely speak.
Alexander saw his doctor the next day and asked what he thought they should do about it. The doctor didn’t have anything much to offer except to continue the treatment, but Alexander wasn’t having any of this. He pointed out that he had followed the doctor’s instructions and had not used his voice during the treatment, but that as soon as he had gone back on stage the problem had returned.
The question that did
It was at this moment that Mr Alexander asked an extraordinary question. An extraordinarily powerful question. It is the question that began Alexander’s journey and therefore began the Alexander Technique. And it is a question that all of us must ask ourselves if we want to do what Alexander did. He said:
“Is it not fair, then, to conclude that it was something I was doing that evening in using my voice that was the cause of the trouble?”
Do you see what he did?
By asking this question in this way Alexander has done something amazing. He has turned the kaleidoscope; he has changed the way we see the problem and, therefore, the way we look for solutions.
When the trouble started, the question he asked, very reasonably, was: “what is wrong with my throat?” Is the voice damaged and can we fix it?
When that didn’t help, the second question was: “am I doing it wrong?” Is my technique bad and can I learn to correct it?
Having ruled out, at least to some extent, both of these he asked: “what if I am making the problem?” What if the throat and vocal organs are fine (there is nothing to fix), and I am reciting well with good technique (there is nothing to correct), but I am also doing something else, which is causing this problem.
A whole new problem
As I sit here writing this section, I have the cartoon “He-Man and the masters of the universe” on my mind. Obviously. This is very annoying because I really hated those cartoons. Anyhow, the reason it’s on my mind is that, one day, He-Man waves his magic sword in the air and says: “I HAVE THE POWER”. And, oddly enough, it turns out that he actually does.
Alexander did something very similar, but without waving a sword. The phrase “something I was doing” represents a changed point of view, and the essential first step in Alexander’s journey — self-responsibility.
Up to this point he has been looking for external causes and external help, whether medical or educational. But as soon as he starts to consider the possibility that: “I did this. I am the one in control”, that changes things. To paraphrase a well-known saying: with self-responsibility comes great power.
The simplest of solutions
These days, in my own teaching, I typically use a slightly more generalised version of Alexander’s question: “What if there is something I am doing that is causing my problem?”
I think this reframing makes it a little easier to see, not just who has the power, but also the vital distinction between “doing something wrong” and “doing something that is causing trouble”. I say “vital” because these two kinds of problem lead to two very different kinds of solution.
If you are doing something wrong, then you need instruction on how to do it right, and probably some practice. For example, you might need a tennis coach to correct your grip, help you with your timing and show you a better line for that perfect forehand.
If you are also doing something else that is limiting your movement options generally, the best coaching in the world isn’t likely to change that. Good coaching and good practice will certainly help your game, but you can have the best grip, the best timing and the best line, and still be doing something else that is limiting your movement.
This ‘something else’ is the category of problem that Alexander postulated, that he spent years investigating, that he was able to demonstrate and then solve. The solution is simple, straight forward, and is the last thing that occurs to most people.
If there is indeed something I am doing to create my own limitations, in tennis or any other activity, then there is only one solution that makes any sense.
If I am in fact creating this problem, then all I have to do is stop creating it. If I stop making the problem, the problem won’t exist and there won’t be anything left to fix. Simples.
One small step
The first step on this journey, then, for us as it was for Alexander, is self-responsibility. Not in the sense of ‘fault’ or ‘blame’, but in the sense that “YOU HAVE THE POWER”. If there is something that you are doing, which is creating some kind of interference or limitation on the way you move, then hooray! That means you already have the solution.
Stop doing whatever that is.
Is there more to it? Sure there is. In the course of his experiments Alexander discovered many fascinating and occasionally ground-breaking ideas about the way human beings operate. He developed a set of mental disciplines and skills that will enable anyone in any field to become more effective at what they do. You could easily spend a lifetime at this work and never run short of new insights and new experiences.
This first step, though, is the key. If you can learn how to recognise the limitations that you have created for yourself, and if you can stop creating those limitations, you will open up a whole new world of possibilities.