This is the first part of several posts stimulated by questions from AT teacher Regina Stratil of Graz, Austria. Some of her questions revolved around the ways in which FM describes giving lessons in his books. This reminded me of an important conversation I had during the years I was working every day as an assistant to Walter Carrington. On this subject Walter said to me:
“If you try to teach literally, exactly, as FM describes lessons in his books, you will get yourself into a lot of trouble!”
So let’s see what that might mean.
Saying No and Feeling Wrong
One of the key places in which FM writes about the process of giving lessons is in Part II of Chapter V of UCL, especially pages 79 to 84 of the Mouritz edition. Here FM writes about the first lesson: he emphasises the need to allay any anxiety on the pupil’s part, which is of course good educational psychology, and the likelihood that the pupil will feel wrong when introduced to better use. His solution to these potential problems is to advise the pupil right from the beginning that whenever given an instruction by their teacher the pupil’s immediate response should be to refuse to give consent to carrying out that instruction. Along with that it should be pointed out to the pupil that any change in his/her manner of use “may, and probably will, feel wrong to him at first.”
The tricky thing about reading this for a young teacher (and for this purpose I am going to use the word “young” to mean young in years of experience of AT teaching) is whether to take it literally as a sequence that should be followed at the start of a first lesson. This is one of the areas where Walter’s warning about getting into a lot of trouble comes into play.
Of course it’s quite likely that a new pupil may be a bit nervous, but put yourself in the shoes of that nervous pupil, arriving for a lesson in something a bit unusual, a bit out of the range of what they may have encountered before, dare we say a bit odd. To be told straight off to respond to the teacher’s instructions by refusing to respond and to expect to feel wrong doesn’t seem very well calculated to reduce this anxious sense that something very odd may be going on. I believe the crux of the possible confusion here between what FM recommends and Walter’s caveat lies in separating the principles FM is aiming to convey from the literal descriptions, or even prescriptions, he writes.
The points FM is making are clear and important, but that doesn’t mean they have to be conveyed in precisely the manner and the order he describes here. I have known teachers who do proceed from the outset using the in and out of the chair movement as an exemplar, and immediately launching into telling the pupil to say No to the request to sit or stand, and perhaps then to allow the teacher to guide them. And I’ve heard some pupils say their first lesson experiences went along those lines and it worked for them. However I have heard others whose first experiences followed that formula and were very dissatisfied by the strange and seeming dogmatic artificiality of it. I always advise young teachers to think back to their own first ever Alexander lesson and consider how that worked – if it worked well you can build on that, and if you felt it wasn’t a good introduction you can learn something about what not to do!
What counts is that in your own time, over a period of not one but several lessons, you find a way that suits both your personality and interests and those of your student, to gradually introduce the practice of a conscious pause to consider before reacting, and to deal with any concerns about a new use sometimes feeling wrong. I’ve said “several” lessons so how many is several? The answer can only be “as many as it takes!” Teaching any craft or skill involves the teacher being sensitive to how much a pupil can take in and only bringing in new elements at a pace the pupil can absorb. So in Walter’s terms, taking this FM description literally would mean assuming you have to introduce both these elements at the very start of the very first lesson, and that might very well get you into trouble! 🙂
On the feeling wrong issue, personally I’ve found in my own experience after forty five years of teaching, that FM rather exaggerates the degree to which people feel wrong. When I as a teacher help someone to get some improvement in their use they will most commonly say it feels good if they notice the change. The occasions when someone says it feels wrong have, again in my experience, been when there’s a change in the angle of the body. For example, when someone whose upper body is habitually leaning backwards to unconsciously balance their lower body being pulled forwards is brought into a better balance, they may say they now feel they are leaning forwards with the upper body. Or where there is a twist in the body which with the release into lengthening and widening partially untwists they may say they feel crooked. Or when the head is not pulled back and down in the movement of stand to sit they may feel their whole body is bending unnaturally far forward. If any of these things happen it’s usually easy to explain why the difference may feel wrong, and use a full length mirror, photo or video to illustrate that the feeling of, say, leaning forwards, is not born out by the external evidence and simply reflects a change from the habitual. But I’ve normally found that when you can help a pulled down person find some upward release they really like the experience.
As an example from AT literature see Frank Pierce Jones description of his first lesson which was with AR Alexander, described in his book Freedom to Change (chapter 2). Far from feeling wrong Frank felt “strangely comfortable”, and enjoyed the “sensory effect of lightness”. Later as a teacher himself he writes in the same chapter about pupils having new experiences: “The feeling of pleasure in an everyday movement takes most subjects by surprise, and their faces break spontaneously into a smile as they notice it.”
I hope that any teacher reading this will have more of the FPJ moments with your pupils than the “But it feels wrong… ” moments. 🙂