In November 1965, Marjory Alexander Barlow, first generation teacher and niece to F.M., delivered the Annual Memorial Lecture for STAT*. This 6 part series is the transcript of that address.
*“In 1958, the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT) was founded in the UK by teachers who were trained personally by FM Alexander. STAT’s first aim is to ensure the highest standards of teacher training and professional practice.” (STAT website)
The Teaching of F. Matthias Alexander
By Marjory Alexander Barlow
Another aspect of traditional teaching worth mentioning is the necessity to live in the present. It is a recurrent theme in the great mystical writings. The Now is all that we have. We cannot inhibit next week, direct ourselves tomorrow, or even control our reactions five minutes hence. All this has to be done Now. The fact that we find it so difficult to BE in the present, and to deal with the requirements of the present moment in the most appropriate way is, I might suggest somewhat fancifully, also mirrored in the way we stand. How can we BE all present and correct, if our heads are driving back into the past, our bodies rushing forward into the future and only our feet all too firmly anchored in the Here and Now?
But you may say, “Let’s not be so gloomy about it,” and, of course, you would be quite right. Nothing is achieved by gloom and heaviness. As one of our students pointed out, “If there is a force of gravity there must be a force of levity.”
Frequently, when he was training us, Alexander would come into the students’ room, look around at all the earnest, serious faces preparing diligently for his class, and send us packing for a walk round the square saying, “That’s not the way to work, let’s have a bit of gaiety and lightness.”
One of the most endearing things about him was his capacity for enjoyment and his refusal to be serious about things which did not really matter. He liked particularly jokes against himself and would tell them with great gusto. He knew the meaning of the words “enjoy yourself.”
In 1946 my husband and I were on holiday in Brittany with Alexander and a South African QC with rather expensive tastes. We were nearing the end of our stay and were awaiting, rather anxiously, the arrival of some travellers’ cheques belonging to the South African. They did not come and, meanwhile, the rest of the party was supplying him with cash.
On the last day the cheques still hadn’t arrived and we had 1,600 francs between us to foot a large hotel bill. After consultation we decided that the only thing to do was to send Alexander to the Casino in the hope that he would retrieve our fortunes. We all went with him and stood behind his chair while he, with the greatest composure in the world, proceeded very slowly and diligently to lose every sou that we had. As he remarked in another context, “You cannot change the course of Nature by primarily coordinating yourself.”
All ended happily enough as Alexander had made friends with a young French couple who were staying in the hotel, and they agreed to stand surety for us until we could collect the money from the nearest large town.
But to return to his teaching. It is, like all important things, invisible and fragile, the heart and core of it I mean. There is a nice little piece by Rilke which I can’t resist quoting, “This is the creature that has never been, they never knew it, yet, nonetheless, they loved the way it moved – its gentleness – its neck, its very gaze, calm and serene.” I am also reminded of Bernard Shaw’s remark, “Alexander calls upon the world to witness a change so small and so subtle that only he can see it.”
Alexander’s teaching comes into being – it is born anew, only when someone uses it. In this way it is like music, it is brought to life when someone plays it and makes the music manifest.
Alexander used to tell us that he wrote his books to ensure that a record of his work would exist if the teaching of it died out. His hope was, that in this event, someone might come across the books and reconstruct the practical side of it. Now, I know that these books come in for a lot of criticism. It has always been so. They are not easy to read and certainly they were not easy to write. But there they are – the man’s own words – how he worked the problem out and what he thought his discoveries meant.
Francis Bacon said, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”
I suggest that Alexander’s books are obligatory reading for anyone who takes his teaching seriously.
He is accused of being incomprehensible. I would like to quote a passage from a recently translated book by Merlaeu Ponty called The Phenomenology of Perception. “The excitation is seized upon and re-organised to make it resemble the perception which it is about to cause,” end of quote.
I don’t pretend to know what the author means, but I’m sure he is trying to express something important. It might even be worthwhile studying his books to find out. So with Alexander’s books – they require study and hard application, given this they will yield up their gold.
Before the war I had a pupil who was home on leave from army service in India. He had a course of lessons and went back to his unit. Two or more years later he returned to London for a refresher course of lessons. I congratulated him on the change in himself which he had brought about. “Yes”, he said, “I have been working hard. One thing has helped me more than anything else. I keep Alexander’s books on my bedside table and read a chapter every night.”
The following day I told Alexander this story while we were having a training class. He was silent for a long moment and then said thoughtfully, “Yes, and I would be a better man if I did the same.”
These then are the two aspects of Alexander’s teaching. First as a means of allowing the natural laws of the organism to work without interference – as a means of giving back the birth-right of good use, which, as children, we all possessed. Alexander said, “When an investigation comes to be made it will be found that every single thing we do in the work is exactly what is done in Nature, where the conditions are right, the difference being that we are learning to do it consciously.”
Ideally, the teacher has to be a craftsman in the use of his hands, a scientist in his adherence to principles which are subject to “operational verification” and an artist in conveying his knowledge to others.
The teacher’s responsibility for the continued existence of the work is heavy, especially if he trains other teachers, to ensure that none of the essential elements of the teaching are lost.
In the second aspect – the application of the work to deeper spheres of our experience – the division into teacher and pupil vanishes.
There is no end to work on oneself – here we are all in the same boat.
When Alexander was nearly 80 years old he said to me, “I never stop working on myself – I dare not.” He knew that the only limits to this kind of development are those which we impose on ourselves.
He continued to teach within five days of the end, at the age of 86, and then, having refused all drugs which might deprive him of it, he achieved the rare distinction of being present at his own death.
Tonight we have remembered him – but the memorial that would please him best is that we should do his work.