Wednesday, January 23, 2013

W04.03 If You Don't Do Tablework Or Chairwork, What Can You Do In Your Lesson?

Answer: You Can Touch (and Talk)
I've always thought that had the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet awarded a Nobel prize in Physiology to Alexander, he merited two of them: his first prize for the profound discoveries described in the first chapter of his third book Use of the Self; his second prize for developing a means of touch to communicate those discoveries. This second discovery was the subject of a fascinating paper delivered by Lucy Brown at the first Lugano Congress. She introduced a new term for it: Sensory-Motor Contagion. She compared this phenomena - known most intimately by teachers and students of Alexander Technique - to the more familiar, and scientifically validated phenomena of Emotional Contagion.

In the Alexander community, Sensory-Motor Contagion is more commonly referred to as Hands-On. I personally think that term obscurants it’s true meaning - it comes with too much cultural baggage, too many imbedded associations. Hands-On work most often happens in a remedial or healing context, not a teaching context. I prefer to use the simpler moniker of ‘touch’. Touch is a form of communication that is seen in teaching: ballet & yoga classes are obvious examples. So ‘touch’ is the term we use in Japan, and it is the term I will use in this blog while discussing the development of your unique Service Product.

Whatever Service Product you develop, touch is core tool of communicating this service!

Alexander’s development of touch is a magnificent discovery, but it is not within the original collection of ideas we usually associate with Alexander's discoveries. It came later, much later, so thinking of it as part and parcel of Alexander’s original discoveries is inaccurate. Along with Alexander’s other teaching procedures, it is an innovation of teaching.

I loved Walter Carrington, and he took a keen interest in what I got up to in Japan, but he was concerned about me. Towards the end of his life, we exchanged emails about teaching methods. The last time we met was in 2002 in his London teaching room at Lansdowne Road. We continued to discuss teaching processes, as we always did, then he remarked something like: “Jeremy, the use of hands is a critical element in teaching. You need your students to develop these skills. This is important to the development of the work.”

So let me set the record straight, as I did to Walter on that day: of course I continue to value this discovery, and integrate it into my evolving teaching technology. To not use your hands, when you have this ability available, is a rather extreme position to take: why build a log cabin with a penknife, rock and some string when you have available a saw, hammer and nails? I am sure someone can argue the point, but at some point the obvious argues for itself.

Alexander’s evolution of touch is a Nobel-level discovery - an amazing thing - and it is another thing Alexander contributed. He took his whole life to perfect it - you could argue he only truly completed it’s development after 50+ years of teaching. Walter spoke about his time at Ashely Place during the final 10 years of Alexander’s life: after his stroke, Alexander claimed to have made a significant break-through discovery about this use of his hands in teaching.

I do regret that Alexander never sought to document the evolution of this skill - or perhaps his notes were lost in the famous fire? Either way, I think this lack of documentation contributes to Sensory-Motor-Contagion being mistakenly wedded to Alexander’s original discoveries. It is not a principle, it is a tool. You can teach Alexander's discoveries without this tool - I am quite certain about that - but why would you disregard such a magnificent tool? As I reassured Walter, I have no intention of abandoning it!

In summary: our ability to communicate through touch is not fastened to either tables and chairs nor Alexander’s initial discoveries. Yet it is the one commonality of all niche-based teaching. It is the hallmark of a true teacher of Alexander’s discoveries, because your ability to communicate effectively through touch is functionally linked to your personal integration of Alexander's discoveries. This is something that can not be faked - whereas words can be faked - which is why I am sure Walter sought to make this point to me. It takes years of effort, thought and practise to develop, and it must continue to exist at the core of any new Service Product you develop.

However, like any tool, it evolves in its usage. Marjorie Barstow innovated an entirely new way to use touch, quite different to the methods Alexander employed. There is no right way. Even it’s absence of use does not imply a lack integrity or false application of Alexander's discoveries, since it was never part of those discoveries in the first place!

Once we distinguish this tool from principles, it is easier to discuss how and when it appropriately fits within the development and communication of your Service Product. And that’s exactly what I intend to explore tomorrow.

TOMORROW: A Universal Dilemma: When To Talk, And When To Touch?
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