AN ACCOMPANIMENTAL APPROACH
TO EXCHANGING HANDS-ON WORK
BETWEEN ALEXANDER TEACHERS
Boston, September, 2018
I’d like to offer a suggestion for an equalized approach to exchanging hands-on Alexander work between fully trained Alexander teachers—especially between those of different training backgrounds and possibly different degrees of experience. I’ve been meaning for a long time to write about this way of working, and I realize that others may have already thought of it. Even if they have, I’d like offer my own account in case doing so might add to what others may have been discovering along these lines and encourage more teachers to look beyond the traditional teaching format when working with each other.
My ultimate idea—which I’ll describe later—stems from an exciting exchange of hands-on work I did with Nelly Ben-Or in the 1990s on one of her teaching visits to Boston, where I had been teaching since 1972. Nelly had asked if I’d like to meet for doing some Alexander work together, but I accepted her invitation with some degree of reservation because of the differences in the McDonald and Carrington styles of teaching: Nelly had trained with Patrick McDonald, and I had trained with Walter Carrington.
When we got together, we immediately liked each other—not least because we were both serious and accomplished musicians and shared a keen interest in applying the Alexander Technique to musical performance—so we were eager to see how things would go. But, as I suspected, we quickly found ourselves at odds as we started to do our versions of traditional hands-on “chair work” with each other. It was confounding to both of us, but we felt determined to persist in trying to find some common ground because we liked each other so much and believed in the Technique’s intrinsic value.
In time, we saw that our difficulties lay chiefly in the contrasting approaches that were used in the sitting-to-standing-to-sitting format in our training courses. We thought that if we could somehow set those approaches completely aside, we might still be able to come to a positive exchange that would improve each other’s quality of integration and perhaps get closer to the essence of hands-on work in the Technique. Eventually we found that each of us, when acting as the hands-on person, could direct the chair person’s head-next-torso coordination, and move the chair person into standing or sitting, by only directing our own head-neck-torso coordination. A light contact with one hand at the back of the chair person’s head and neck juncture, and with the other hand spanning their chin/jaw-line, was all we allowed ourselves. Then each of us would do nothing more than that while employing our own primary direction to move the chair person into standing or sitting while intending to encourage a deeper integration in the chair person’s conditions of use from that head-neck-chin contact alone.
Nelly and I mainly relied on the chair person to assess and comment about whether or not the direction from the hands-on person was giving the chair person a stimulus that really fostered an improved integration. Often, we found that this wasn’t the case until the hands-on person took greater time and care to attend much more fully to her or his own primary directions in order to best direct the chair person’s integration. In this situation, the chair person was actually more “in charge” of the exchange, since the chair person would say whether the hands-on person was really giving the best, non-endgaining and integrating experience before, during, and after conducting the movement from sitting to standing or from standing to sitting. Of course, this echoes the dynamics in a training course when a teacher has a student work on her or him for instructional purposes, but there was much more of an equality about our exchange that day.
That equality was fostered mainly, I think, by the fact that we constantly switched roles after each standing and sitting “evolution.” This usually also meant that we only had our hands on the other person’s head-neck-chin for a few minutes. I don’t remember exactly how much total time we spent working in this back-and-forth, alternating format, but I think it was at least half an hour, or maybe a bit longer.
The outcome was that we both found that we experienced a more powerful and profound improvement in our overall integration than we usually would when we had hands-on work administered to us in the traditional half-hour “lesson” format—even by a highly experienced teacher in our own accustomed styles. For me, the integrating effect seemed to reach far more deeply into my torso and spine than other hands-on work I’d had up to that time. I’m not sure how Nelly would describe the details of the work’s effect on her, but she did tell me later that it had been quite profound. We were both astounded by the results—especially by the fact that we could so accurately assess whether the hands-on person was directing his or her own integration fully enough to affect our own integration on a deep level.
Nelly hasn’t made any teaching visits to Boston since then, and I have only visited her in London once briefly, so we really haven’t had the opportunity to explore this approach further. But I did have a chance to try out a version of the same idea with a teacher who had trained with me in Boston, and that leads me to my main suggestion for teachers exchanging hands-on work on an even less endgaining basis.
A number of years later, after I had stopped training teachers, I used to exchange work with David Perrigo, who had trained with me in the 1970s. We would meet occasionally to discuss aspects of the Technique and to exchange work, and I would usually give him regular chair and table work first because he was tired or stressed out from his full-time job as a high school principal and preferred not to give me hands-on work right away. But one time when we got together he seemed to be in fairly good form, so I suggested that we try to use our hands on each other intermittently for a while along the same lines that Nelly and I had done.
But instead of “assessing” each other’s hand contacts and giving more or less constant verbal feedback on their effectiveness as Nelly and I had, we decided merely to take turns putting our hands on each other and directing ourselves only to improve our own use—leaving the chair person to use that contact, as much as possible, to improve his conditions of use. These hands-on contacts could also be anywhere we chose, but we mainly stayed at the upper back, chest, and shoulders rather than the usual head-neck-chin juncture, leaving our hands in those places for a minute or two at the very least. However, in this situation the chair person was in charge of deciding when to move, and he had the liberty to stand up, sit down, twist, move backward and forward from the hips while seated, walk around, or do other actions as he pleased in a well-directed way with the intent to go on improving his own conditions and manner of use—all at a reasonable speed that would allow the hands-on person to maintain a more or less continual contact. So there was no “taking” each other in and out of the chair. Standing up and sitting down were the main actions going on, but they took place entirely at the chair person’s discretion.
But again, as when I was working with Nelly, David and I maintained the hands-on and chair-person roles only for a little while before we would change places, continuing in this way for half an hour to forty-five minutes. Afterwards we were both very surprised at how much improvement we experienced in our respective conditions of use. Also, as with Nelly, we agreed that this improvement seemed much greater than what we would usually experience when we merely gave each other a full bout of regular chair-table-chair work for half an hour or so apiece.
The most striking thing about this improvement in our conditions was that it seemed not to be due to any specific aspect of the hands-on work—or even to any particular segment of the hands-on contact. Instead, it seemed much more to be a result of the “sum total” of the whole work period and to our dedication to focusing exclusively on, and wishing to improve, our own conditions and manner of use instead of intending to improve the other person’s. We merely trusted that our hand contacts would be basically positive because we were attempting to direct ourselves as well as we could at every moment. (I think if the hands-on contacts hadn’t been positive, we would have decided to discontinue.)
Eventually, as I thought more about how this approach to an exchange between teachers bypassed the traditional roles that most Alexander teachers adhere to—and teachers of anything, really—I came to calling it “accompanimental work,” since the hands-on person is merely following, or accompanying, the chair person as the chair person moves of his or her own volition and in his or her own time.*
I haven’t explored this approach much with other colleagues, though. When I’ve tried or suggested it, some have seemed reluctant to give up “being in charge” of the use and movement of the person they’re using their hands on. So those earlier positive accompanimental experiences have made me wonder if the conventional Alexander teaching format inadvertently cultivates a social dynamic with an element of power and role-formation that can eventually hamper our individual freedom and responsibility to be masters of our own selves in relation to each other—as it seems Alexander challenged us to be, and as was he himself. If traditionally trained teachers find ways like I have described here to leave behind—at least temporarily—the standard lesson format of one person being in charge of improving the other person’s integration and movement, a more equalized exchange of direction can be established as a basis for working together. Then it also seems that such an exchange could eventually merge into the form that I described Nelly and I were able to discover together—one in which the hands-on person is in charge of moving the chair person by solely directing the chair person through contacts with the back of the head and the chin/jaw. But this more traditional type of exchange might then be based more on the equality fostered by the approach where the chair person is in charge of moving him/her self. Then a frequent alternation between the two forms might also have its value in enhancing and perpetuating the equality of roles.
If teachers are interested in trying out this approach to working with each other, I suggest that they decide beforehand in what places the hands-on person will mainly offer hand contacts on the chair person. And it might be a good idea—at first, at least—to avoid the chair person’s neck and head (as David and I did) because there’s such a tendency, I think, to “take control” of the chair person from that contact in the way that most of us are so carefully taught to do in our training.
Also, it would probably be a good idea to decide together at the outset how long each hands-on segment should last—and even to set a (quiet!) timer to signal regular change-over points so that no one has to be concerned about remembering when to switch places. Three minutes—or maybe even less—could be a good amount of time for each hands-on period. And the total duration of the session should probably also be agreed upon at the outset. I’d recommend no more than half an hour, but a longer period should be optional if both teachers feel they want it. The main characteristic of the session, though, is the equal time spent by both teachers in hands-on and chair-person roles.
And maybe, when the whole hands-on exchange is over, it would be good for both teachers to take time to say how much (if anything) they felt they received from the entire period of work in comparison to receiving a traditional turn or lesson where one teacher is usually being “administered to” (or “taught,” or “guided”) by the other teacher’s hands. This general reflecting upon the effect of the entire hands-on period should especially replace either person’s evaluating—even, in some way, rating—the other’s specific hands-on contacts at this or that moment, which can so easily set up a competitive dynamic that this way of working seeks to avoid.
If both teachers are fairly experienced in directing themselves, it should be possible for the chair person to “use” the contact from the hands-on person to improve her or his conditions without the hands-on person’s taking any special responsibility to achieve an improvement in the chair person’s use or even intending an improvement to happen in any particular way or place. Once, after I stopped teaching full time, I invited a longtime pupil to try some of this hands-on exchange with me. He had no training at all in using his hands to teach, but I was able to show him how to place his hands on the back rail of a chair while mainly intending just to continue with his best going up and lengthening and widening. Then I told him to stand behind me while I was seated and place his hands lightly on my shoulders (in that same left-alone way) and simply to go on directing himself as he usually would from moment to moment as I stood up, sat down again, walked around, etc. We also switched places every couple of minutes as David and I had done, and it all seemed to go very well and easily as each hands-on person placed hands on the various key places while following the chair person’s choice of motions. The experience seemed quite a positive one for this former pupil—at least, I think, it was a good deal better than having no Alexander hands-on work at all. And the lengthening and widening in my own back and my overall upward energy was markedly improved for the rest of the day because I had used his hand contacts to improve my own direction beyond what I could normally muster on my own in that short amount of time. I was able to “take” something from his years of self-direction and “up” even though he didn’t have much idea of how to direct someone else in order to encourage an improvement in their overall integration. **
*I’m reminded here of my years (1972–1988) of exchanging Alexander work with Kitty Wielopolska. She was able to help us get around the “teacher/pupil” structure in our working together by referring to what she said to her pupils—or to herself—to encourage a fuller directing of their Primary Control. For instance, while she had her hands at my head, she might say, “Now, ‘my neck to be free, my head forward and up…,’” rather than “Now, ‘your neck to be free, your head forward and up....’” Since she had been involved in the Technique from its early years, it was refreshing to be able to have our exchange happen without any sense of superiority or greater experience on her part. It was a joy to exchange hands-on work with her—which was always table work so that there was never any of the control issue involved with “taking” each other in and out of a chair.
** I should add two points: 1) It occurs to me that this example of allowing an untrained pupil to put his hands on a teacher might be seem to mean that I would also condone untrained people experimenting with using their hands on each other in this way, but of course I do not. 2) It’s also worth mentioning how Peggy Williams, a senior teacher, would sometimes enlist a student in our training course to “put a hand on her back” while she was working on another student—especially if she was tired at the time. The student would follow her around as she moved, and it was clear that Peggy was using the student’s hand contact to reinforce or aid her own self-direction. Otherwise, I don’t recall a single instance of Peggy allowing a student—or even another teacher, for that matter—to “work on her” by putting their hands on her with any intention to move or direct her in the conventional way. I do remember, though, that she and Walter used to spend the last half of our lunch hour working on each other in his teaching room, where, I assumed, they alternated in taking the traditional “teacher/pupil” roles..