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Tim Soar’s Review of Teaching By Hand/Learning By Heart for STAT News

It has been over 40 years since I first began studying with Marjorie Barstow, and this fact reminds me of a teaching story.

Within the tradition of Chanoyu, Japanese tea ceremony, it is said that for the first 10 years a student should learn to do everything exactly the way his teacher does. In the second 10 years the student should continue to do everything exactly the way his teacher does, but should begin to wonder why his teacher does what he does the way he does it. In the third decade, the student should begin to change ever so slightly how he does what he does to suit who he is as a person.  And in the fourth decade, his way should be a different from his teachers as night is from day.

And so it was and is for me now. I am as different from Marj as night is from day. My vocabulary is not the same. I use my hands very differently. My way of relating to people is as warm as Marj’s way was cool. My pedagogy as a teacher trainer is as formal as Marj’s was informal. And yet, at the same time, there remains something quintessentially Marj inside of me. I pass on her sayings, her spirit, her understanding of Alexander’s work. I do my best to inspire others the way Marj inspired me.

Tim Soar begins his review referencing Michael Frederick’s description of me as “one of the foremost representatives of Marjorie Barstow’s lineage.” He goes on to note that his experience of now-senior teachers who apprenticed with Marjorie Barstow is that they are as diverse in their approaches to the Work as were the first generation teachers who trained with F.M.

marj-bruce-sword

With all do respect and love for Marj, my work is now, for better and worse, only my work. No one else’s. Yes, I am part of the Alexander/Barstow lineage, but I cannot claim to represent Marj’s way of working. How Alexander taught is gone forever, and how Marj taught is gone forever. That is the way of it, and the way it should be.

The work continues.

Here’s Tim’s review. Enjoy.

Review of Teaching by Hand, Learning by Heart

Tim Soar

Pubished in STAT News, May 2018

Teaching by Hand, Learning by Heart offers the reader a “fly on the wall” view of Bruce Fertman’s very particular way of teaching the Alexander Technique. Michael Frederick’s comment on the back cover describes Bruce as “one of the foremost representatives of Marjorie Barstow’s lineage”, but in my experience the now-senior teachers who trained with Marjorie Barstow are at least as diverse in their approaches to the Work as were the first generation teachers who trained with FM. In any case, although Bruce acknowledges “Marj” as his principal mentor, he points out that he also learned from four other first generation teachers, whose differences he clearly values. Whatever the reader’s previous experience, there is much of value to be found in this book, perhaps particularly for teachers who would like to develop their work with groups beyond the introductory level, towards mixed ability, more advanced, or specialised audiences. Bruce makes the most convincing case that I have come across for the positive advantages of learning the Alexander Technique in a group setting.

Part One: The Work at Hand, sets out the field of enquiry – the subject matter of the Alexander Technique: Choice, Primary Control, Sensory Appreciation, Use, Non-Interference … all presented in Bruce’s own vocabulary. One particularly telling example of which is the idea not of “misusing” oneself, but of “mistreating” oneself, with all the ethical impact of that word fully intended.

Part Two: Student Centred Teaching, leads the reader anecdotally through a large number of individual lessons, either one-to-one or in group settings. Some of these lessons last a whole chapter, others just a few sentences. This format gives a lively “person-centred” way of presenting the almost endless scope of our Work, in a way that hardly ever finds its way into print.

The illustrations are unusual – avoiding the conventional “head back and down”, “head forward and up” illustrations. The nearest thing to that is a photo of a cowboy wrestling a steer (you have to read it …). The other illustrations are split mostly three ways: firstly, very characteristic photos of Bruce working with students in workshop settings; secondly, half a dozen illustrations from Albinus on Anatomy, the series of beautiful, accurate, lively, whimsical-but-layered-with-meaning anatomical engravings published in 1747, which Bruce uses as a primary source for his anatomical and body mapping work, and thirdly, and perhaps most compellingly (the handful of colour-printed pages of the book are reserved for this third category), art illustrations: paintings, sculpture, a thrown pot, landscapes … One of the main ideas here is that we do not tend look at a Renaissance painting, or a sculpture of a human figure in a way that emphasises postural criticism. On the subject of criticism, Bruce quotes Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing there is a field; I’ll meet you there”. Instead we see what the figure, through its implied movements and reactions, expresses. Bruce suggests – and this seems to me to be the absolute epicentre of his teaching – that we would do well to learn to look at people as we look at works of art: to see the beauty before the body-mechanics, and to empathise with (and thereby become able to help) a person’s Use by seeing how they express themselves.

Because of the structure of the book as a series of vignettes, a lot of ground is covered quickly, and it is not possible for me to list them all. However, I shall choose three particular themes that seem to me to be characterise Bruce’s understanding of the Work, and which I personally found to be good. Firstly, he does not try to make it easy. He says (in understatement) that the Alexander Technique needs “practice”, that a good teacher has, necessarily, to be “living the work every day”, and that “This road is longer than any one person’s life”. Secondly, he is a dyed-in-the-wool non-dualist. He does not talk about “how we use our bodies”, neither (more subtly) does he talk about the “mind body connection” (which always seems to me like approaching psychophysical unity from an essentially dualist perspective, unnecessarily making a simple thing complicated). Instead he simply and straightforwardly treats each person as a whole. This gives his work access – when appropriate – to a student’s emotional life in a straightforward and unforced way, as a natural aspect of their Use, and very much part of what we, as teachers, are there for. For example, he is likely to ask a student who says that he wants to relax, “How do you know you are not relaxed?” to which the student replies “I feel nervous.” This then opens the way to the psychophysical subject matter of the lesson. It’s as simple (and profound) as that. Thirdly, he places great emphasis on learning to use one’s senses in a skilled and healthy way, asking “What would happen if we were able to go from having adequate tactile, kinaesthetic and proprioceptive senses, to having extraordinary tactile, kinaesthetic and proprioceptive senses?”. “Feeling” is not, for him, a word to be avoided, or the exclusive polar opposite of “thinking”. Right at the beginning of the book he tells us of a conversation with an anaesthetist: “You say to people, you’re not going to feel a thing, and I say to people, you are about to feel everything.” In one chapter Bruce suggests a series of sensory investigations, meditations, Directions – I don’t know what to call them – leading the experimenter towards more subtle and more colourful sensory experiences. An important extension of this thinking is that humans-sensing-other-humans is a vital part of life – “To be means to be with other people.” – and an essential part of the Alexander Technique. Interestingly, for a teacher who does so much of his work in groups, individual hands on work is very central to his teaching. He clearly thinks of Alexander work essentially as partner-work, with all the subtle and paradoxical give and take of leading-in-order-to-follow, and following-in-order-to-lead that subtle partner work always embodies (one chapter tells the story of a lesson with an accomplished Tango couple), and he understands what he sometimes calls “high touch” (exemplified by the best Alexander hands on work) as one of the highest expressions of our shared humanity: “Touch … is our sense of togetherness, of closeness, of intimacy, of union and communion.”

Bruce freely uses stories, autobiography, quoted aphorisms, illustrations, poetic language and a wide range of metaphors to set the scene and to make his points, and this is surely the only Alexander book with a Japanese glossary! In writing such a book, the author is necessarily just guessing at a reader’s connection with a particular image – unlike presenting ideas in a workshop situation where communication is two-way. I imagine that each reader will have their own spectrum of recognition: some points seeming no more than common sense, others interesting and informative, some concepts may be outside their experience, and others still, less attractive – metaphors that simply don’t work for them. That is the risk, consciously taken, in writing a book that seeks to convey the flavour of a very personal experience. For me, it is interesting to think that each reader’s spectrum will, most likely, align itself with quite different themes and images in the book.

The greatest strength perhaps of this new addition to our bibliography is that it clearly and repeatedly shows us (as we as teachers and committed trainees naturally already know) that “Alexander’s work, when it works, can work miracles; quiet, little miracles that can change a person’s life forever.”

 

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