Teaching the Alexander Technique to Drama Students: The Problem of Professional Knowledge

I teach a module in the Alexander Technique and performance as part of an undergraduate university drama course. In my teaching practice as a lecturer and an Alexander teacher, I assess students, evaluating whether their performance work meets various criteria established according to university examinations processes, but there are further questions to be asked in assessing whether students make progress in learning the Alexander Technique and how I can ‘know’ whether they have made progress or not. I’m going to consider these questions in relation to one student and refer to relevant theoretical discussions of knowledge in relation to professional practice, including nursing, where considerable attention has been given to the topic.

I should explain that the Alexander Technique is not a technique of acting or performance but a way of gaining conscious control of life’s activities. While the primary purpose of the module I teach is the improvement of performance skills, the application of the Technique is fundamentally about enabling people to bring change in the way they live their lives. The module, therefore, aims to provide the student with an introduction to the Alexander Technique in general, as well as an insight into its application in performance. In regard to performance, the idea is to give the student an understanding of how vocal and movement skills can be improved and how to address problems of performance through the Technique. Such problems may include stage fright, insufficient stamina, vocal strain and injury, and placing limitations on what can be achieved.

During the module, I work with students on everyday activities, e.g. standing, walking, vocalizing, so that they can learn how to carry these out efficiently, that is with the optimum amount of effort. This process represents an improvement in general ‘use’ of the self (Alexander 2000: 144-5) as well as an increase in awareness of what they are doing with the whole of themselves. Later in this piece I refer to this whole self as the ‘psychophysical machinery’ but I do not mean to imply a reductionist view of human as machine; the term is used merely to give an indication of the unity of the human self. The student then applies the principles to specialized activities, such as how they ‘use’ themselves in singing, playing a musical instrument, performing monologues or in scenes.

The work can be viewed as a very gentle process of re-education, where, drawing from my own experience of applying the Technique to my own life, I teach others, working on them with my hands, encouraging them to let go of excessive muscular tension and giving verbal explanations to encourage the change of thought and approach that enables the development of conscious control. This work is based on a ‘body of knowledge’. This can be compared to Carper’s (1978) body of knowledge that serves as the rationale for nursing practice, which has ‘patterns, forms and structure that serve as horizons of expectations and exemplify characteristic ways of thinking about phenomena’.

Carper emphasizes the need to understand these patterns in teaching and learning nursing, but notes, crucially:

Such an understanding does not extend the range of knowledge but rather involves critical attention to the question of what it means to know and what kinds of knowledge are to be of most value in the discipline of nursing (1978: 13).

In teaching the Alexander Technique, we, too, depend on

the scientific knowledge of human behaviour in health and illness, the esthetic perception of significant human experiences, a personal understanding of the unique individuality of the self and the capacity to make choices in concrete situations involving particular moral judgements (Carper,1978: 22).

Carper states that none of the patterns ‘alone should be considered sufficient. Neither are they mutually exclusive’ (1978: 22).

Berragan amplifies how the patterns are interlinked and how nurses must view their patients from all aspects.

In nursing we take a holistic view of our patients and clients and the world in which we live. We all have values and beliefs which cannot be broken up into rights and wrongs; these values have an undeniable influence upon health and illness (1998: 212).

She adds that using this approach may resolve things that the traditional ‘objective’ methods cannot. Similarly, Alexander emphasized that it is essential for the teacher to understand that the individual acts and reacts as a whole, a psychophysical unity, in everyday life and that physiological knowledge alone will not get the teacher very far (2000: 106).

M was a third year undergraduate, whom I had known since his first year and I had taught him in his first and second years. He achieved low marks in assessments on more than one occasion and, it is fair to say, got through the second year by the ‘skin of his teeth’. My impressions of him were that he was an engaged and interested student in class but did little or no preparation for classes, often missed classes, and his essays appeared to have been thrown together with very little research. He was always respectful towards me but appeared unsure of himself in the presence of lecturers in general.

In the first teaching sessions, I gained information on and impressions of M that reinforced how these patterns are interlinked and demanded my ‘critical attention’, in working out how I could give M the best experience possible of the course. In a short individual session, the perception I had when working on him with my hands was that he habitually distorted his bodily framework, stiffening his neck and pulling his head back, pulling his back in and locking his knees – the universal pattern of pulling oneself out of shape (Door 2003: 27- 8). In M’s case, the locking of the knees was to me as a teacher, particularly salient.

I asked what he wanted from the module as it is important that the students choose how they want to begin to apply the Technique and though I teach on a drama course, I do not limit the students’ choices to acting. He said he would like to work on playing the electric guitar and singing. As we were talking, he mentioned that he had been in a band in Leeds, where his family lived, but I got an impression, in relation to this, that somehow there was something problematic for him in the thought of this.

In the next session, we worked on his guitar-playing and singing and what was evident was that though he was a skilled musician and had a pleasing voice, he occasionally struggled for breath to get to the end of a line and to reach high notes, which sounded off-key sometimes. My perception was that he was straining to reach the high notes, and also that he was straining to express the emotion in the song, exacerbating the habitual way he pulled himself out of shape.

What was involved in these initial perceptions? What could I be said to ‘know’ about this student and how did I know it?

As regards Carper’s first pattern, empirical and factual, theoretical, and publicly verifiable knowledge (1978: 15), my studies of anatomy, physiology and movement studies, as part of my training as an Alexander teacher,
corroborated my observations. I knew that he was using too much muscular effort simply to remain upright. For example, the constant stiffening and pulling back of his head meant that he never allowed his head to be in what physiologists have referred to as the ‘normal’ position (Roberts 1978: 228). Edwards refers to this kind of knowledge as positivist (2002: 40), in a slightly negative way, whereas in itself it is important; it is the prioritizing of this kind of knowledge that is problematic, as Berragan notes, when ‘science and the scientific methods of validating knowledge’ are seen as superior (1998: 212). She quotes Schultz and Meleis, stating that nurses ‘use knowledge from other disciplines but through reflection and imagination evolve perspectives on that knowledge which are unique to nursing’ (1998: 211). The perspective that I as a teacher take to this physiological knowledge is what is important, in Carper’s term, the ‘critical attention’ I pay to it. If I were only to think about my students’ problems in terms of mechanics this would not be a good thing; nevertheless, the knowledge I have of anatomy, physiology and movement studies is essential underpinning for my teaching.

To be at least proficient as an Alexander teacher, I must, as Benner notes, see the situation as a whole. She writes about how nurses ‘by meeting and recognizing each patient, family and community in their particular life world, overcame an “objectifying clinical gaze” that attends not only to the disease and not to the human experience of illness’ (2000: 103). In allowing M free choice of what to work on, rather than imposing a project on him, I hoped to open up a dialogue with him about his music, enabling me to understand more about him, bit by bit. The art of the Alexander teacher involves ‘perception, understanding and empathy and acknowledges the value of everyday experience lived by individuals’ (Berragan 1996: 211). Carper’s formulation of aesthetic knowledge draws on Dewey’s view of perception as gathering details and scattered particulars into an experienced whole (Dewey, 1978: 17).

In terms of ethical knowledge I had asked the students to give permission for me to work on them, which is standard practice. As regards this student, though I perceived that he was troubled, I knew I should not press for information. Part of my role as lecturer is pastoral but as an Alexander Teacher I have to tread carefully in talking to students about how the Technique might help with life problems. MacLeod describes Sister Dunn’s intervention with a patient, judging the point at which he could be more actively involved in his own care, opening up the opportunities for increasing independence (1994: 364). While students need a lot of help and encouragement to learn the Alexander Technique, it is essential that I encourage them to take responsibility for their own learning and while being open to whatever they wish to discuss or confide, leave it entirely up to them which aspects of their lives they want to consider, and when, from the point of view of the Technique.

Of course, this crosses into the realm of personal knowledge, which Carper suggests is ‘the most essential to understanding the meaning of health in terms of individual well-being’. The other person is seen as ‘not a fixed entity, but constantly engaged in the process of becoming’ (1978: 18-19). What exactly is meant by ‘self-awareness’ is debatable; Edwards’ definition of personal knowledge as ‘becoming self-aware’ could be seen as reductive (2002: 40) because ‘becoming self-aware’ is so complex. Berragan emphasizes that this form of knowledge is problematic because it is subjective and depends also on reflection (1998: 211). In Alexander’s terms, our ‘sensory appreciation’, our subjective interpretation of events and other people, can be inaccurate, our distorted use involves distortion in our conception of the world (2004: 70): we can hold habitual attitudes and prejudices of which we are unaware and which affect the way we work with others. It is unethical for the Alexander teacher to bring their own reactivity into working with a pupil and not doing so demands personal knowledge of one’s habitual reactions of, for example, impatience or anxiety, which are manifestations of misuse.

The complexity of the concept of ‘personal knowledge’ is reflected in the literature. Smith questions whether all knowing is personal knowing as all meaning is personal (1992: 3). But importantly, knowing about oneself opens the possibility of knowing others more profoundly and deeply (1992: 2). The Alexander teacher works consistently to hold habitual reactivity in abeyance (2000: 140) and that personal knowledge enables us to be more open to the pupil, to have ‘wholeness and integrity in the personal encounter… engagement, rather than detachment’ (Carper 1978: 20).

Berragan includes within personal knowledge, citing Moch: experiential, interpersonal and intuitive knowing (1988: 211). Edwards also includes experiential knowing and intuition under personal knowledge, stating that the latter is often not ‘directly communicable in language’ (2002: 40). Experiential knowledge is learning from experience. Benner and Tanner define intuition as ‘understanding without a rationale’ (1987: 23).

Was the thought I had about something in M’s background being somehow problematic an intuitive one? I think it could be compared with examples of intuitive knowing but I do think there was a rationale. I heard in M’s voice an expression of something that was painful to him: I registered a slight movement with my hands that indicated that, with the painful thought, he stiffened.

What did I then do? I could not be sure about M’s personal circumstances but I should bear in mind that this student may have had painful experiences. If all I think about is whether a student is stiffening his legs and so on, my teaching will be mechanistic, reducing the Alexander Technique to postural therapy. Of course, technical work is essential, but I have to take into account the whole, all the aspects of human being, as far as possible. What I perceived about the student’s interests and troubles should be there as a backdrop, along with my ethical considerations and my personal knowledge, in order to inform my art as a teacher.

I asked M to come to the next session with a new song and he said he would write something especially for it. Ideally, I would want to begin teaching him how to maintain good use in singing and playing before addressing the more complex situation of how to express painful emotion in performing while maintaining good use. However, the song he wrote was highly emotional, being about the death of a close friend. We worked on the technicalities of his set up while playing and singing. The danger was that the stimulus to pull himself out of shape about these painful memories might be so strong that it would overwhelm his developing understanding of how not to shorten and constrain his psychophysical machinery in singing. But I do not think I could have prescribed what he was to write. He also worked on a duologue with another male student, which was from a play by Edward Albee, where the character he played experiences a range of emotions but nothing very painful.

M worked in a very committed way in applying the Technique to his everyday life and performance. At one point, I saw him walking down the road and could see that he walked with more ease than before. MacLeod notes metaphors nurses use expressing ‘movement towards something, a journey’ as in ‘he’s on his way’ (1994: 363). I might have said that he looked as though he was ‘going forward in the Technique’. If we had measured his height or made spectrograph recordings of changes in voice quality, as pioneered by Jones (1977) this would have provided quantifiable evidence of his change and improvement.

In his performance of the song, I could see that he did not distort himself in the way he had done previously. His voice was less strained on the high notes. He himself stated that he had more breath to get to the end of a line. He also said that the main thing the Technique had helped him with was the expression of emotion in performance. In a feedback session, another student commented that, though the song was about a personal painful emotional experience, it appeared to her that he was in control of this, which made it a good performance, as the audience was able to enjoy it rather than being concerned that the singer was suffering in some way.

The performance of the duologue at the end of the course was very successful. He and his fellow student gained a first class mark, corroborated by the other examiner, a drama tutor who has no knowledge of the Technique. It was clear to me that when M was performing he was working on the poise of his head and other principles of good ‘use’. His voice was clear and resonant and his movement expressive and confident. These are the substantial aspects of general criteria for marking drama performances.

I had a feedback session with the group at the end of the course, which involved a little social time. M, who appeared no longer ill-at ease with me, as he had been before the course, volunteered information about his vacation plans. He referred to a loss in his family but said that he was looking forward to a holiday with his mum, dad and young sister.

A further aspect for consideration is the ethical dimension of the Alexander Technique work. As a teacher, I must consider my attitude to students and whether my desire to help them could, in fact, prompt unethical behaviour, unless I work to remain true to principle. Vaughan notes in discussing personal knowledge that she experiences the desire to mother a patient and considers how this conflicts with her role in advocating independence (1992: 163). Similarly, I know I sometimes want to ‘make things all right’ for the young people I teach, which is not possible. I can give them tools to help them develop conscious control of their own lives. In this respect, I found Munhall’s ‘unknowing’ a useful concept in terms of my reflection. She points out the problem of intersubjective conjunction, where the nurse thinks she has a good rapport with the patient, the result of which is that the further exploration of what is going on with the patient is closed down, as the nurse, is, in my interpretation, using the relationship with the patient to validate herself and her own opinions (1993: 127). If I were to want students to see me as someone who could sort their problems out for them, that might benefit me in that it would make me think highly of my abilities, but would not help the student. Before I learned the Alexander Technique, I would sometimes ask people about their problems directly in order to attempt to sympathise with them. I cannot say that I was not curious about M’s family situation. However, I took the decision not to probe but to find ways of indicating to the student, as kindly as I could, that the Technique can help us deal with difficult stimuli in our lives in a way that left the responsibility for exploring this to him. To be the best teacher of the Technique involves the art of unknowing, as Munhall puts it.

To be authentically present to a patient is to situate knowingly in one’s own life and interact with full unknowingness about the other’s life. In this way, unknowing equals openness (1993: 125).

I believe that M gained a lot from his participation in the module and this was borne out by his comments in the module evaluation. I hope that he took from it an insight into the fact that there is a lot more he could gain from the Technique and that he might, at some point in his life, return to it.

Rose Whyman

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