For a lightness in living
With Harriet Anderson in Brighton & Hove BN3

The Teacher’s Body as a Teaching Tool

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The following article appeared in English Language Teaching News 47 (June 2002)

The Teacher’s Body as a Teaching Tool
The Alexander Technique and Performance Skills for Teachers

By Harriet Anderson

“All the World’s a Stage” (William Shakespeare)
“All the World’s a Stage, and most of us are unrehearsed” (Sean O’Casey)

Whether we like it or not, we are all performers. Everyday life is full of small stage entrances and exits. And whether we like it or not, every time we enter the classroom, we are putting on a performance. Which does not mean that we are entertainers or in any way play-acting. But it does suggest that it might be worthwhile considering how we could become better performers.

The Three V’s

Any spoken performance consists of three ingredients, the three v´s, namely the verbal, the visual and the vocal. Research suggests that an audience can give as little as 7 percent of its attention to the verbal and as much as 93 percent to the non-verbal elements. Yet in most teacher training courses that non-verbal factor is left largely out of account and certainly for many people it appears to be frustratingly outside their conscious control. We need to start paying more attention to the teacher´s body as a teaching tool and resource. And here, I believe, the Alexander Technique can be of help to us.

However, let me make clear first what I do not mean. I´m not talking about body language a la Desmond Morris. And I´m not talking about using gesture, posture, voice as a means of manipulation. Nor am I talking about a right or wrong way to do anything. I´m talking more about achieving that state of emotionally neutral but alive relaxation which is the precondition for all good performances and the ideal mental state for both teaching and learning. I´m talking more about achieving congruence between vocal and physical expressiveness and verbal communication.

The Alexander Technique in a Nutshell

So let me tell you a little about the Alexander Technique (AT) and how it might fit in here. The AT deals with how we use our mind and body (and that of course includes our voice) in everyday life. The muscles of the human body form a kind of elastic suit which we inhabit. If the muscles are habitually contracted (as they are in many people) then the suit is a few sizes too small and we don´t have enough room for ourselves. We are constantly being squeezed, squashed and twisted, and movement, breathing and voice are impaired. Under the hands-on guidance of a teacher of the AT, we can learn to release those contracted muscles to readjust the size of the suit so that it is a good fit and gives us enough room and also support in our daily activities. This also means that we can begin to use the gravitational field in which we all live as a friend rather than an enemy. Everything we do – how we stand, sit, walk, talk, eat, breathe – is determined by our relationship to gravity. And that relationship is a very personal one for each of us. But unfortunately for most of us, it is not as good as it might be, indeed most of us are unaware that we have such a relationship at all – until we fall over! By learning to release muscles we can trigger off natural reflexes in the body which use gravity to send us up rather than letting it pull us down. On a sensory level, this leads to a lightness and ease of performance in every way.

Yet although the Technique is based on hands-on work, it is more of a mental activity than a primarily physical one. It is based on the premise that how we move, speak – that is, use our self – is intimately linked to our habits or patterns of thinking. And it is this repertoire of mental and physical habits which needs to be expanded, so that habits can stop being habits and become choices instead.

But more concretely: how does the AT work? Basically, through a combination of gentle, non-manipulative manual guidance and verbal instruction on the part of the AT teacher the pupil is given both new kinaesthetic experiences and thoughts which complement each other and which with frequent repetition and regularity lead to new ways of using one´s self. The AT is taught and learnt with a teacher and a pupil; it is not a form of treatment with a healer and a patient. A standard lesson might consist of working in standing and sitting and maybe other daily movements and also with the teacher working on the pupil lying down. But all this NOT in order to learn the right way to sit and stand etc. We use these daily movements as our lowest common denominator in order to learn and practise the three main principles of the Technique, namely: self-awareness, inhibition and direction (to use the words of F.M.Alexander, the founder of the Technique). I´ll explain them in what follows.

Know Thyself

Obviously we need first to be aware of what our habits are in order to change them, and here it is very helpful if a trained pair of eyes and hands can give us feedback. With time we become more sensitized to ourselves (and, usually, others) and to the finer/finest levels of muscular activity – and believe me, that process of sensitization can be intensely exciting. Everyday activities become a source of fascination; we recapture our curiosity and explore the ways we think and move. With guidance from the teacher we can become aware of how our internal body map (and every one has one however unconscious) influences the way we move and use our self, and we can if necessary begin to redraw it so that it corresponds more with the anatomical lie of the land. We can thus begin to use our self more appropriately.

Just say no …

However, we cannot change just by superimposing something new over what is old, like re-painting the wall bright white without filling in the cracks and maybe cleaning off the old paint first. And that´s where inhibition comes in. Which in Alexandrian terms (as opposed to Freudian terms) means withholding consent (as Alexander put it) to your old habits – or simply just saying no. Inhibition is about creating an open space for choice to occur, rather than remaining enclosed in the narrow furrow of habit. And that in physical terms often means learning to stop, to use less muscular effort rather than more (most of us use far more than we really need to perform the act of daily living). It means learning to allow more to happen rather than trying to make it happen, to focus more on process as well as outcome. Or, in the context of a lesson in the Alexander Technique, it means considering how we, for example, get out of a chair. And that may sound trivial but is surprisingly difficult for most people, for we do live in an activist, goal-orientated, speed-orientated culture and the AT goes against many of the conventional premises of good and right living of our environment.

Which does not however mean that the AT is about letting it all hang and complete passivity. Not at all. It is about achieving a balance between means and ends, doing and non-doing. On the physiological level this balance means a gradual redistribution of muscle tone. In most people tone is unequally distributed with parcels of too much conflicting with parcels of too little. With a more equal redistribution we can use the appropriate effort for the task in hand which leads to a sense of ease which leads to a sense of pleasure in everyday living which leads to an emotional and mental balance. Not bad, is it?

Thinking Aloud

But we say no in order to be able to say a wholehearted yes to something else. After all, a real yes depends on there being a real choice, otherwise it´s just pre-programming, and that´s not what the AT is about. But what are we to say yes to? Simply put, to new ways of thinking, or directions as Alexander put it. Which might sound a bit mind over matter-ish, but actually it has an undisputed basis in neurophysiology as every top sportsperson and trainer will tell you. A large part of a sportspersons training is taken up with mental training of various kinds. In the AT there are a few fundamental verbal directions which are used as a basis for the individual pupil´s development of their own directions and which can be tailor-fitted to each pupil´s requirements. And the most basic direction deals with the relationship betwen the neck, the head and the back – what Alexander called the primary control – which it is essential to have released and integrated if the rest of the body and the voice are to work well.

The Alexander Technique and Performance Skills

The AT is a standard part of the curriculum in leading performing arts colleges (drama and music academies) in the UK, being used for movement and voice training, and also for controlling stage fright and audition nerves. But I see it as a potential part of the teacher training curriculum too. We are also performers; we also go on stage. Having the AT at our disposal can help us to be more grounded and centred (to get those butterflies flying in formation) and to use appropriate effort in the act of teaching. It can free the voice and help increase its range, resonance and expressiveness, and also heighten our physical presence in the classroom. In short, it is a highly useful technique which can put us into a state of mind, body and voice from where we can give an engaging performance. And all that quite apart from the personal benefit to be gained from easier movement, and increased self-awareness and general well-being.

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