Interview with Barbara Conable

During her years as an Alexander Technique teacher and member, consecutively, of ACAT, NASTAT, AmSAT, and ATI, Barbara Conable developed the theory and practice of Body Mapping and spelled out its application to AT teaching in How to Learn the Alexander Technique: A Manual for Students and to making music in What Every Musician Needs to Know About the Body (available from Andover Educators. Her book The Structures and Movement of Breathing: A Primer for Choirs and Choruses is available from GIA Publications, Chicago. Barbara is founder of Andover Educators, a network of music teachers saving, securing, and enhancing musical careers with accurate information about the body in movement. Retired now, Barbara lives in Portland, Oregon, where she writes, gardens, and relishes being a grandmother.

The following was excerpted by permission from the June 2006 issue of ExChange, the Journal of Alexander Technique International. For more information, contact: ati-exchange@ati-net.com

(AM = Andrea Matthews, editor of the ExChange; BC = Barbara Conable

AM: In the discussion of the structures and movement of breathing in Body Mapping materials, it is noted that the spine "gathers"on the inhale and lengthens on the exhale. How did you come to this conclusion, and what do you see as the mechanism for that?

BC: I learned about gathering and lengthening of the spine in breathing from Don Zuckerman, an Alexander Technique teacher and psychotherapist in the [Washington,] D.C. area. I do not know how he came to understand it so well, but I suspect it was chiefly from his own observation, probably informed by his expectation of an lengthening aspect to breathing based on his Alexander training and his own singing. I do not remember what Don claims as "the mechanism's" for gathering and lengthening, but the lengthening is the one we are all familiar with as AT teachers, a complex coordination led by the head, with gathering as its prerequisite.

AM: How do you see the "gathering" phase fitting in (or not) with the Alexandrian view of the overall lengthening of the spine throughout breathing and movement?

BC: Well, I'm troubled by the word "throughout" in your question. A spine could not, of course, gather on inhalation if it were lengthening throughout breathing, and how could a spine lengthen throughout movement? We'd reach to the treetops, and beyond. The human spine lengthens periodically in movement, as does a cat's. The cat's spine gathers up when the cat is resting in a chair and lengthens out as the cat gets up and leaps off the chair. You would never see a cat's spine lengthen as the cat settles in for a nap. That's its gathering time, which prepares for its eventual lengthening. Likewise a cat's running: a cat's spine gathers at one point in each stride in running and lengthens at another, as does the spine of a human runner who is free and nicely coordinated. It's a problem, I think, that an Alexander student is so often invited to sense the lengthening and so infrequently invited to sense the gathering. Next time you're guiding a student in and out of a chair, ask him or her to notice not just the lengthening on getting up but also the gathering on sitting down. A student can learn to perceive the gathering and to distinguish gathering from pulling down, which is a very different phenomenon. Gathering involves no tension, just a natural resilience in the spine, a flexibility, as Marjorie Barstow used to say, top to bottom.

We're speaking here of a body-mapping issue. Many people have the spine mapped as moveable in bending and spiraling and twisting but not as mobile up and down, constantly changing its length. Once the student has corrected the body map in this regard, he or she displays an increase in natural spinal movement.

The gathering of the spine makes the lengthening possible. No gathering, no lengthening. It's that simple. I learned from Don Zuckerman in a weekend workshop in Columbus many years ago that I had inhibited my gathering on inhalation out of fear that is was downward pull, when it really was the natural deepening (some people prefer to call it) that is partly just the product of getting bigger around on inhalation. When I stopped inhibiting the perfectly natural and normal gathering, I had the natural and normal lengthening on exhalation completely available to me. This was a tremendous revelation for me, and I have since found other AT teachers and students in the same pickle I was in, inhibiting the natural along with the unnatural. In the natural gathering, the vertebrae come closer together without compression, the curves of the spine change, deepen, and the stage is set for their springing apart on exhalation, thus the spine's lengthening.

Last year I had a chance to watch my own breathing using the world's fanciest movement analysis program in the Balance Lab in the Center for the Study of Posture in the Neuroscience Institute at Oregon Health Sciences University. It was very exciting because we could all see the gathering and lengthening with perfect clarity on the monitors, no matter how the movement was being represented, and it could have easily been measured. The neuroscientists present were speculating as they watched on the complexity of this natural coordination of spine and respiration. Some of it, as I said, is just an artifact of greater circumference (pull out the sides of a balloon and it gets shorter top to bottom). There may be some effect on the spine from rib movement and the descent of the diaphragm, and there is almost certainly the presence of an automatic postural pattern, what scientists used to call a postural reflex. Of course, the gathering and lengthening of the spine coordinates and supports the breath when that is the most important thing happening, when we are singing, for instance. If we stop singing and go out and run or walk, the spinal gathering and lengthening coordinates the gait, becoming independent of breathing. It is servant to whatever is happening.

AM: Do you discuss Primary Control in training Andover Educators, and if so, a) is it important to AE training, and b) how do you describe it?

BC: Oh, sure, but we treat it as a body mapping issue, that is, does the music student have the spine mapped as gathering and lengthening and as being led into length by the head, and does the student have the head and spine as central, or primary, to any local movement at the instrument.

AM: Has your study and development of Body Mapping changed your thinking about Alexandrian principles and/or priorities? If so, how?

BC: Yes. First of all, I have come to believe that almost all downward pull and muscular tension is the direct result
of body-mapping errors, which is why the tension goes away when the errors are corrected. This makes life much simpler for students than it is when no cause for their tension is known.

Second, I am confirmed by my experience in the conviction that much too much is made of inhibition in most AT teaching, and here I will tell a little story. I walked into an AT training school one morning to see a circle of people sitting bolt upright with blank faces and their hands turned upward on their thighs. "What on earth are you doing?" I asked. After a time, one said, "Inhibiting." "Oh, my god, so you are," I said. I went to a blackboard, saying, "I'm going to list here what I see you inhibiting," and I wrote in big letters: Life. Breath. Impulse. Emotion. Expression. Movement. Conversation. Fortunately, I got a good laugh out of them, and then I said, "Honestly, folks, what are the chances F.M. Alexander ever did for one second what you were doing as I came into this room?" The students had to admit that the likelihood of that was zero, given what a dramatic, vivid, lively person he was. I said, œLook here, Alexander inhibited the bad stuff. You're inhibiting the good stuff. Just stop it. Don't do that ever again. It's awful."

Not only do many AT people inhibit the good stuff, they go on inhibiting long after the bad thing is no longer active. Once you've got your primary control going, just enjoy it. No need to go on inhibiting. Inhibition is a strategy, not a lifestyle, and it is much overused. When in doubt, choose direction over inhibition, in my view.

Click here for Alexander Technique Student and Teacher Resources

Click here for The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique