When did FM begin to use his hands?
A friend and colleague, Paolo Frigoli from Coccaglio, Italy asked me to set down anything I know about this subject as there seem to be so many different assertions about it floating around in the online world. So here are some stories I heard from first generation teachers I knew in London, and some other observations.
The following is a story I heard Walter Carrington tell:
“An elderly woman from New Zealand had contacted Ashley Place to ask for a lesson with FM, and said that, as a much younger woman, she’d been in that first group that he taught in New Zealand—the group that asked him to stay on and teach them because they were so impressed with his voice and breathing when he was doing a recital or acting tour.
“So they booked her in for a lesson. She came along; she had her lesson, she went out, and FM said to Walter, who must have been nearby in the hallway at the time, ‘It was lovely to see her after all those years.’ And then FM added, ‘But I look back in horror at what I was doing to them with my hands in those days. I was lucky that I got away with it.'”
Now if that was during FM’s tour of New Zealand as a reciter, after which by request he stayed on for a while in Auckland and gave lessons, that would have to be in 1895. (See p.40 of the FM biography by Michael Bloch.)
In the book Personally Speaking Walter Carrington tells a somewhat similar story to Sean Carey:
“I remember him (FM) telling me the story of working on a woman in Australia who had a very fixed ribcage after having contracted TB. When he looked back on that episode in the light of what he subsequently knew, he was horrified to think what he’d tried to do in an effort to free her ribs. He was obviously making some sort of positive effort to get the ribs to move—performing a definite manipulation, if you like. But my overall impression is that it wasn’t until quite late in his life that FM really appreciated the tremendous importance of the skill he’d developed with his hands.”
Since FM is here describing something that took place while he was still in Australia, this would have to be prior to April 1904 when he set sail for London. (See p.12 of Personally Speaking 2nd edition.)
In 1990 I took quite a number of lessons with Marjory Barlow and I recall her talking about how FM described to her beginning to use his hands. She said he’d told her that from very early on he began taking hold of people in sheer frustration at their inability to follow his verbal instructions. (See also p. 65 of An Examined Life by MB and Trevor Davies and p.47 of Alexander Technique: The Ground Rules by MB and Sean Carey.) I also learned from Marjory that her mother Amy, who was one of FM’s sisters, had assisted FM in Australia and later in London up until her marriage. Amy’s role was particularly to give “lying down” work to students, which indicates also that the lying down work (which of course implies hands-on) was part of FM’s teaching right back in the Australian days. (See p.25 of An Examined Life.) Notices advertising his work that FM placed in the Melbourne Age newspaper mention him being assisted by Miss Amy Alexander and Miss Lillian Twycross, a singer who had performed on stage with FM in his recital years.
In 1973, around the time I began training with Walter Carrington, a collection of excerpts from FM’s books (which were unobtainable at the time) was published under the title Resurrection of the Body, edited by Edward Maisel (later in the UK re-titled simply The Alexander Technique). It included a very long introduction by Maisel who had taken lessons from various teachers, primarily in the USA, and had previously published books on music and on Tai Ji. This introduction contains the following passage:
“Initially Alexander had attempted – in words, futile words – to teach the new feeling by telling his pupils how to attain it. Visitors to his first headquarters in London could observe the two brothers, FM and AR, each with a single pupil at opposite ends of the studio, shouting their disparate and desperate verbal instructions at the two victims. All patience with language had been exhausted.” (See p.xxix of The Alexander Technique, ed. Edward Maisel.)
I do remember Walter at the time saying he had no idea how Ed Maisel came to write this description as he had never heard of such a scene, and no other first generation teacher I knew ever said anything that suggested such a scenario might have happened. Indeed it seems historically highly unlikely since FM began teaching in London in 1904 and his brother didn’t join him there until 1912, and by 1908 FM had already stated in writing about his work that he was using his hands (see below). Mind you, however fanciful and fictitious this scene may be, it does also suggest that verbal instruction was not going well! 🙂
Another source of possible misunderstanding may be a quote in Frank Pierce Jones’ book Freedom to Change. At the beginning of Chapter 5 FPJ quotes FM as having said to him that:
“In 1914 he was just beginning to find a new way to use his hands in teaching. By applying the inhibitory control (which had proved so effective in breathing and speaking) to the use of his hands he was learning to make changes in a pupil that were different from ordinary manipulation or postural adjustment.”
Given the quotes above in this blog post about FM resorting to a crude use of his hands in his early years in New Zealand and Australia, this comment to FPJ must surely mean that he had found how to refine the use of his hands for teaching by inhibiting endgaining manipulation, and should not be taken to mean he only began to use his hands for the first time in 1914. In fact the first direct reference to using his hands in FM’s own writing occurs in a pamphlet he published in 1908 where he states that the teacher “himself renders assistance by the skilful use of his hands.” (See p.83 of FM Alexander Articles and Lectures, ed. Jean Fischer.) Of course there are other references to FM using his hands in MSI and CCCI but the 1908 one is the earliest, and the casual reference to “skilful use of his hands” gives the impression of a modality he had already been using for quite some time.
Interestingly on p.116 of Michael Bloch’s FM biography there’s a long excerpt from a review of MSI by American historian James Harvey Robinson, published in 1919, which includes the author’s experience of lessons from FM which must have taken place around 1918. It includes the description of FM using his hands “gently and persuasively.” Perhaps a result of the 1914 application of inhibition!
The later mentions of the use of the hands in teaching that occur in MSI and CCCI often specifically relate to imparting to the student the sensory experiences corresponding to the directions the student is being asked to project, as in this example:
“The teacher, having made his diagnosis of the cause or causes of the imperfections or defects which the pupil has developed in the incorrect use of himself, uses expert manipulation to give to the pupil the new sensory experiences required for the satisfactory use of the mechanisms concerned, while giving him the correct guiding orders or directions which are the counterpart of the new sensory experiences which he is endeavouring to develop by means of his manipulation.”
(P.99 of CCCI.)
Finally I’d like to include one further source that I’ve seen used in a misleading way. I heard Walter Carrington on a number of occasions tell the story of FM’s earliest London assistant, Ethel Webb, asking FM’s advice about what she should do the first time she was going somewhere to teach by herself, not simply assisting FM. He replied ” Well whatever you do Ethel, don’t just do what you’ve see me do!” I’ve actually heard this quote used to imply FM was saying you don’t need to do anything at all like I do, including using your hands, but there’s obviously a certain “tongue in cheek” element in FM saying this, implying don’t simply imitate me without actually understanding why I’m doing what I’m doing. As I heard Walter add on one of the occasions he told the story: “FM believed that if you had the same sort of experiences he’d had you would come to the same sort of conclusions.”
You can read more about this on the Mouritz Books website here:
And especially in the wonderfully thorough article Handing the Experience to the Pupil by Ruth Rootberg in the Summer 2019 issue of the AmSAT Journal.