The Alexander Technique
Chapter Four - An Alexander Lesson
by Jeremy Chance
How Many Lessons?
Whenever anyone asks me this question these days, I ask them: how many lessons does it take to learn the piano
Learning the piano is no more complicated than learning how to co-ordinate your body, but essentially: whats your purpose? Do you want to be a concert pianist (read Alexander teacher) or play a 10 finger exercise (read help yourself)? If you have sustained a recent injury, then even one lesson can be of tremendous help. If you have had a chronic problem all your life, then you may need to be taking occasional lessons for the rest of your life. Most of us come somewhere within those two extremes. In the end it depends on your motivation, your aim and your application, just like learning the piano.
But it is interesting to look at Alexander himselfwhat did he ask of his pupils? A friend of mine once took lessons from him in the early 50s, not long before his death in 1955. At that time, this is what he recalls were Alexanders terms: First, read all his books. (My friend didnt and Alexander never asked.) Second: a minimum of 30 lessons. Third: for the first 20 lessons, he had to have 5 lessons per week, Monday to Friday. For the final 10 lessons, 2 lessons a week. Alexanders lessons were of 30 minutes duration. Fourth: pay in advance.
Well, no-one that I know of makes such terms these days, but then, no-one is quite Alexander. However, the 30 lessons is still conventional wisdom amongst most teachers, although very few these days will insist upon it before accepting you as a pupil. However, when you consider that an Alexander teacher spends the equivalent of 3,200 private lessons to gain a qualification to teach, 30 lessons is really nothing at all.
About the same as dinner and a movie, where-ever you live. Alexander lessons arent cheap but neither is a visit to the therapist. Of course, Alexander lessons are ongoing for quite a while so they represent an investment in yourself. A full series of lessons is like buying yourself some new expensive luxury itembut lessons are likely to give you far more joy and enduring value for your money.
If you commit for a lot of lessons in advance, some teachers will give you a break. If they dont offer, ask. No harm in that.
These days you will often find an Alexander teacher working in a centre with a variety of other therapists. I used to teach in a place like thiswe had a doctor, a psychologist, a nutritionalist, two chiropractors and me. Less commonly, there are some "Alexander Centres" where you can get lessons or go to groups. (see Chapter 6 "Teachers") Alexander Centres are usually places where a teacher training school operates and if thats the case, its often possible to get cheap, even free lessons, with final year students.
However, the vast majority Alexander teachers work out of their home. This may seem odd at first, especially for a professional person charging professional fees, but, unlike other professionals in the medical and para-medical field, Alexander teachers dont consider them therapists. Its like piano teachersharking back to that metaphora lot of them work out of their homes too.
However, as they do get healing results, Alexander teachers exist in a kind of limbo. While they insist they are teachers, many of their pupils see them as therapists who are helping them to get better. Its a constant dilemma for Alexander teachers, for despite their own self-image, they do manage to get mixed up with medical insurance and the like. Perhaps coming to their home helps underline the fact that you are their pupil, not their patient.
When you enter the teaching room, there will most probably be three things: a chair, a table and a mirror. The chair is for sitting and standing, the essence of Alexanders approach, and the table is for more therapeutic workalthough your teacher may not like you calling it that. Its an affront to their status of teacher. Alexander politics can be complicated.
The crux of an Alexander lesson is the hands-on skill of the teacher. During a lesson a teacher will use their hand to skillfully guide your body into a whole new pattern of co-ordination and it can feel odd. Pleasant, but very strange. The mirror is helpful for the teacher but its primarily there for you to see that you dont look at all the way you feel.
The Actual Lesson
Now you know the teacher will touch you (with your clothes onif they want you to take them off, ask to see their teaching certificate first!) and how important it is that you are comfortable with themthe next thing is to talk about what you will actually do. The overwhelming predominance to-day is still a choice of two things. Alexander teachers quaintly describe them as "chairwork" and "tablework". A third less likely thing you may do is called "activities" in Alexander jargon.
Chairwork involves getting in and out of the chair, looking at your co-ordination as you do so. As has been previously pointed out, this has nothing to do with teaching you how to get in and out of a chair. It is teaching you how to inhibit an inappropriate reaction to a stimulus (in this case to sit or to stand) and redirect it to bring about a condition of co-ordination that is more beneficial to you. Once you have learnt this procedure, you can apply it anywhere, anytime to anything. The actual method of this procedure has been explained at length above.
Pupils love tableworkthey lie down on their back, with their knees bent up and their head resting on a book or two, while the teacher gently lengthens their torso, arms and legs. Some teachers will do it silently, while others will chat away about anything with you, some will give you guided instructions as to what to think and still others will ask you to actively participate in different procedures and activitiesall as you remain lying on your back.
Alexander himself rarely did any tablework, although he didnt disapprove or discourage it. He is reported to have remarked to teachers if you cant get what you want with the pupil upright, then get it on the table. Alexander was so good, he didnt need to do tableworkI imagine he could get more changes with his hands in two minutes than I can in thirty! Were not all Alexanders so tablework has become an essential tool of an Alexander lesson.
My personal view is that tablework has sometimes become too essential and too liked by our pupils. It is more therapeutic than educational and, while theres nothing wrong with that at all, Alexander lessons are supposed to be teaching you something, not just making you feel good. I have heard of teachers doing nothing else but tablework and that surprises me. I am not sure how you learn to co-ordinate yourself differently during activities from lessons that consist of you lying passively on your back the entire time, but I know that many teachers argue that you can. If its working for you, then good, keep it up. If it isntchange teachers.
Chairwork is an activity. Aside from chairwork, most teachers will also explore with you walking, bending and doing things with your arms. However, a large portion of Alexander teachers dont explore much more than that, but then, neither did Alexander. Remember, it is the procedure, not the activity itself, which is the focus of learning. It really doesnt matter what activity you dothat isnt the point of it.
That said, it is often of value to apply this procedure to more specialised activities such as playing a musical instrument, dancing, making pots etc.an activity that you are involved in regularly as part of your hobby or profession. It is of value because if you examine this in your Alexander lesson, the activity itself will serve as a reminder to apply what you are learning during everyday life. Ask your Alexander teacher if you can do thiswhile some may not be accustomed to teaching in this waymost, but not all, will be willing to explore this with you. See the CH 6 on "Teachers" for more information on this point.
"An Alexander Lesson" - Part I
"An Alexander Lesson" - Part II
"An Alexander Lesson" - Part III
"An Alexander Lesson" - Part IV
The Alexander Technique by Jeremy Chance is available from the Alexander Technique Bookstore(USA) in Association with AMAZON.COM and the Alexander Technique Bookshop(UK) in Association with AMAZON.CO.UK as both a book and an audio cassette book. (The later is called Thorsens Principles of the Alexander Technique and differs slightly from the book.) In both stores it is listed under "Introductory Books about the Alexander Technique"
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