I’ve been lucky to have experienced the late Alexander teacher Patrick MacDonald’s work first-hand a number of times. It was because of my having been connected to (and later a trainee of the teacher-training class of ) Ottiwell/Pincas where MacDonald was a visiting master teacher. MacDonald was the one to personally determine that I was “ready” for the hands-on part of my training. Before MacDonald, I never knew what forward and up was until I got to experience the rachet-like precision in MacDonald’s ability to direct for me. The presence in his awareness was a pleasure; it inspired complete trust from me.
Possibly because my significant coordination problems began before I learned to walk, I had little resistance to following MacDonald’s clearly indicated Directions, even before I became an A.T. trainee. In my first lesson with MacDonald, (probably my fifth A.T. lesson!) he “took me” much farther than I probably should have been taken. He probably assumed my experience level to be much higher than it was, because of my ability to follow his lead. His mistake was that this ability of mine to follow his Direction reflected in my ability to maintain on my own what he could show me. Sustaining a new coordination beyond ten or fifteen minutes was a skill which I did not possess at the time.
But at the time, I did not want to be the one to set him straight! I wanted to kick out all the stops and go for getting what I could about A.T. on the innate insight level. I had experienced enlightenment before and I had complete faith that further enlightenment was possible. I considered A.T. to be another form of enlightenment at the time. (As a working description of A.T. for a beginner such as I was, “a form of enlightenment” was not too bad of a description.)
I managed to walk out the door of the hotel after this fifth lesson of mine with Patrick, and as soon as I looked down to the descend the steps – I fell down, unable to balance at all! As I sat there, I reluctantly realized that I had to allow my “old ways” to reassert themselves if I was going to get up again – which of course I didn’t want to do because it seemed as if I was “wasting” the lesson. I had intended to go for a really long walk to see how long I could sustain this new way of moving I’d just been doing for the last 45 min. with this amazing master teacher.
If a Danish teacher had not been there to frog-march me to my car, figuring out how to walk after that confusion would have taken me quite a bit longer…but I probably would have gone for that walk even if I had to crawl down the stairs. Perhaps it was better to have help, I might have hurt myself. I later decided that perhaps MacDonald removed my coping compensations which was how I had learned to walk as a toddler. But at 25 years old as I was at the time, a person feels as if they can’t hurt themselves.
Fortunately, I knew enough about what had happened to willingly welcome the strangeness of that paradoxical state. I really wanted to rely on my ability to Direct myself, dammit! I had gotten such a clear experience of what Direction was, I just knew I could sustain it.
Later I realized that I had to write off my experience with MacDonald as being a case of what had happened to me in almost every skill I had ever learned: I would get a tantalizing flash of inspired genius, and then I would have to traverse the long road like everyone else to actually learn the skill from scratch. At the time I had no idea about how long a way I needed to come, as my misuse was congenital and had been set into place when I learned to walk oddly as a baby while tensing the side of my neck from a medical procedure.
Being able to welcome that experience of being taken “too far” didn’t do much to help me sustain it. It really wasn’t until I stumbled into Marj Barstow’s style of teaching that I was able to sustain my tolerance for such unfamiliarity as I could willingly imagine – and do something with my own sense of knowledge that worked for me to continue learning indefinitely without the help of a teacher.
My own later understanding of the MacDonald style is this: In any art form, (and each style of teaching A.T. is an art form) there are a number of objectives that evolve. In classical AT style, (besides being in concert with FM’s principles,) one of the objectives are to prevent a pupil from moving down on themselves for the period of time the lesson lasts. The idea is that if a pupil can surrender their own sense of “self-control” and allow the teacher to assume control, the teacher can be trusted to fittingly demonstrate what is desired to be emulated by the student. This is motivated from intending the student to directly experience it in their own coordination first-hand. Then with enough constructive kinesthetic experiences, by the time a student learns to Direct for themselves, (not willfully do them,) the experience of moving easier that they had with the teacher will work a state of “do-less-ness” in the student. That’s how the process from 1.) teacher guided to 2.) student self-initiated movement was meant to be practiced via that style.
This plan didn’t work for me, but at the time I thought it was my own shortcoming and perhaps I merely wasn’t done yet on that plan when I ran into Marj Barstow and learned that language was an important piece of my learning process that needed to be satisfied.
Then, I remembered that these objectives were evolved for a somewhat Victorian and British sensibility of culture and educational style, not an American, Canadian, Australian, etc. Times change and cultures are very different. Just because we all speak a version of English gives the mistaken meaning that we are also able to surpass our cultural conditioning of how meaning and conclusions are arrived at.
In fact, MacDonald style does all this in superb ways – and these “strange” antics you see in his style of working are demonstrations of how primary control can be maintained even under odd circumstances of movements that look as if they might hurt. In a sense the teacher is “proving” to the student that they can do extraordinary, inconceivable movements. I remember one MacDonald-trained woman showing me how I could step up onto the seat of a chair without effort…with my “weaker” leg leading the step. That I could do this was unbelievable and “blew my mind” at the time.
After some experience, I believe this ability to Direct oneself works in relationship to how far you have come and in measure of your willingness to welcome and sustain unfamiliarity. Directing oneself clearly is not based on an absolute state of being entirely free or possessing “good use”. This is why someone who is twistedly shaped can “use themselves well.” This is why MacDonald could complain about how bad his own use was, and why he also could make the mistake of taking me “too far.” Of course, one’s own standards also rise in relationship to one’s own inability to surpass one’s own standards.
This ability to surpass one’s own conditioning and refuse to habitually react is something which I have found to be quite rare out of the A.T. teaching room, even for those trained in A.T. People would rather be outraged at others for inciting or “making” a reaction happen in them …rather than suspend and reflect that their own reactions have valuable information to offer them personally. June Chadwick’s enlightened attitude I see to be a reflection of the spirit of A.T.
The other issue is one of dominant senses. I suspect the classical A.T. approach which MacDonald people have preserved appeals to a “research” sensibility. The pieces of information in the MacDonald style are assumed to arrive and make sense gradually as the habit stops its control bit by bit. That was not true for me personally. I would become a sponge if I trusted the source, completely soaking up the information whole, without question, and then deal with the issue of figuring out what to do with it later.
For me, my experience of the MacDonald style was that it was as if a house is being built and the pieces of the construction were arriving haphazardly; then once enough essential pieces are present, they could suddenly “congeal” in a sort of insight that here was a “house” that was being built – by finally being able to perceive what all the pieces were. In a sense, MacDonald builds from the ground up new perceptual assumptions that do not need to have linguistic names.
It turned out that I’m naturally a conceptual learner who must integrate language. This may be partly why, (no matter how innately I could surrender my habit,) the MacDonald model worked for me in a limited way. Learning works much easier and more completely for me to have the idea of a “house” structure in place first in the form of any structure that could be removed later (like training wheels.) Otherwise, I have nowhere to put the (kinesthetic) information that arrives out of sequence. No matter how much information arrived, it couldn’t mean anything to me other than in that specific, literal action. I could not hold it in my awareness in the moment using the process of A.T. Partly this was because there was no process in the way A.T. was taught in that era – there is only present-tense awareness in the interaction between student and teacher. The way it was taught in that style was designed to completely bypass language and respond directly to what was happening in the moment, applied in a codified movement actions between teacher and student. I couldn’t apply this example to other movements except by having a lesson using those movements specifically, (in spite of being quite an abstract thinker by nature.) In a sense, I was at the mercy of a “literal” sort of thinking style that relied on rote animal training, rather than an abstract ability to think for myself…which I knew I had, but was deliberately being put aside during A.T. lessons.
For me it was the paradox of “non-doing” that confused me. In A.T. we’re told that this inability to duplicate the results of lessons is a result of “trying to do” (which I knew wasn’t the case with me, because I could readily suspend my “doing” during a lesson with an innate ability I possessed before I knew what A.T. lessons were.) But I knew there was something missing here for me in how A.T. was being taught, so I was intrigued enough to stick around to figure this out. Mystique was the attraction that kept me interested. The answer (for me) came when Marj Barstow taught that non-doing had a very different quality of action with specific, identifiable characteristics that were very different from habitual back-and-down doing. After Marj Barstow’s point of view, feeling was something that was useful and sometimes offered valuable insight about your suspended goal – once you had, in fact, made a head/body move in a factually new direction as you clearly intended.
I still believe teaching any skill is a “different strokes for different folks” sort of thing. There may be as many learning styles as there are learners and teachers. There is no doubt of the absolute value of the MacDonald style in itself for others, even given its limitations for application to my own learning style. The preservationists deliver that amazing, tantalizing flash of inspired genius that motivates students to carry through the long road of learning – no matter how long it takes. I gained quite a bit from my education in it and I still admire it as a form. The field of A.T. needs it’s preservationists as well as it’s innovators.
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