by Nicholas Brockbank
I started training as an Alexander teacher in 1986. At that time, there were far fewer schools, and most of them had long waiting lists. They also had what I considered stringent conditions for joining those lists, including a lengthy period of lessons with the course directors.
I had had relatively few lessons, and I had no particular preference for one training school over another. I was vaguely familiar with the different approaches – Carrington, MacDonald, Barlow – from my reading of the available literature; and I suppose, if asked, I would have veered towards a Barlow based school, simply because I found Wilfred Barlow’s explanation of the Technique more illuminating and thoughtful than any other.
My eventual choice of school was entirely due to chance. I happened to have a lesson with a teacher who had heard of a new training course about to open. I visited it, met and got on with the directors, who had, as it happened, been Barlow trained, and joined shortly afterwards. I was one of nine, most of whom had gone through a similar process to me. Perhaps because of this, we shared a refreshing – I thought – non allegiance to any particular approach.
If I was planning to train now, I would be far clearer about where I would want to go. Not having the benefit of hindsight, I would suggest any intending trainee, having established a short list of financially and logistically viable schools, discover as much as possible about each before even thinking of visiting any of them. This is because an Alexander training school can seem a strange and sometimes intimidating environment. Visiting one isn’t necessarily the best way to obtain information.
Useful questions to ponder might be:
How structured is a course? Is that structure decided by the directors or the senior students? How rigidly is it adhered to? Would you consider such rigidity a good or bad thing? How much say, if any, might junior students have? Is there any provision for individual students to ‘take over’ the occasional running of the course? Personally, I found I preferred a fluid structure; and I particularly liked it when students ran the course, temporarily. However, I loathed it when all structure became temporarily lost.
When does a student begin to use their hands? This can differ widely from almost immediately to not before the third year. It might seem difficult to know as an intending trainee which is preferable. I, personally, would have liked to use my hands immediately, and not have had a special or precious thing made of it. Others might disagree.
How much hands on work is there, overall? An intending trainee might not know how much they would like there to be. Perhaps, if their experience of lessons had been that the more a teacher used their hands the better, they would prefer that sort of ratio to continue during training. For me, the opposite was the case, and I would have positively welcomed a more hands off approach.
There’s also the issue of how the hands are used. This is a subtle matter, and obviously requires time spent at the school itself. Some teachers can seem alarmingly heavy handed, or disconcertingly light fingered. My personal bias errs towards the latter.
How much time is set aside for ‘work on the self’? In truth, all Alexander work is work on the self, and a better question might be to ask ‘how’, precisely, such work is done. Any answer to this question from a course director outside a brief reference to inhibition and direction could prove very illuminating. Merely attempting to answer the question, in detail, would be a plus, in my view.
How much if any reading is done in class; and what books are read? If Alexander’s books are considered de trop or too difficult in any way, this might be a telling point. If someone is after an academic approach, it might be worth asking about any follow up to ‘reading’. One of my fellow trainees was disappointed we didn’t discuss in class, and later write about, what we had read, as he had done, in depth, with texts at university. For my part, I found reading in class of most interest not because of what we read but how we read it, out aloud.
Anatomy and physiology is a tricky question. How much formal study goes on? How much is necessary? If it is included, is an equivalent portion of psychology taught? Personally, apart from learning about the way the head sat on the atlas, and the atlas turned on the axis, the relative position of the hip joints and the striking mobility of the ribcage, I found most of this superfluous. Of far more interest, to me, was the mechanism of thought. For others, though, the exact opposite might be the case.
How soon do trainees put hands on other students, other teachers or – most importantly – visitors? I would simply say, the earlier the better, even with members of the public, so long as they are not paying. I don’t think this is common practice.
How many visiting teachers are there in a typical term or year? And, even more crucially, how many of them are from alternative strands of the teaching web? This is probably the most important question of all. Visiting teachers cost money, and if the school is a small one, the directors would obviously prefer to do as much work as possible themselves. What I clearly recall, though, is the massive advantage we all gained from visits from teachers whose approach we were not familiar with. Insights abounded, and blockages cleared, like magic. The key word here is familiarity. Having the same visitor, constantly, becomes less and less illuminating.
What lineage are the directors from? Is this the same as the visiting teachers, the same as the trainees, before they joined the course? How important is this? Some schools may have a reputation for not only believing their understanding of the Technique is the only valid one, but expecting their students to believe it too. To further that end, any visiting teachers, as well as senior trainees, will probably teach along similar lines to the directors. This might, or might not, seem attractive.
Are there any extracurricular activities? By this, I mean anything that isn’t either straightforward Alexander work or directly relevant to its application. A trainee may, or may not, have strong feelings about this. In moderation, I didn’t, and don’t.
Is any time devoted to easing the passage from training into professional life? Some schools will treat this far more seriously than others. Again, much depends on how a person views becoming a professional.
Various ways to establish the above information might range from phoning or emailing the course director, checking the school website, if it has one, or asking for contact details of previous students. I would recommend the last approach. I’m sure that recently qualified trainees would be happier to answer questions in detail than course directors. They might be more honest, too. I’ve found, in other areas of life, if I want to learn about something I’m considering paying for, asking advice from those who have already paid for it is a great help.
Finally, there are the obvious questions that can only be resolved by a personal visit to a school.
Do you get on well with the course director(s)?
Do you like the place?
How do you find the other students?
These three are all gut level decisions. You either feel good about the place and the people or you don’t. We had several visitors on our course. I remember one, an Israeli, who came with his father, said nothing the whole day, and refused to be worked on. We never saw him again. Others couldn’t stop talking, or else never left the safety of the couch. Some came often but failed to become trainees; others made a single visit, and then joined the course a year later.
Only one person ever left our course, unqualified; and she completed her training elsewhere. This was a clear case of the school not suiting the personality. However, that doesn’t mean that everyone else was ideally suited where they were. Given a choice, it’s far easier to select the ideal place at the outset than move to it later.
To reiterate. For me, the most important issues, besides the obvious practicalities of locality, finance and rubbing along with everyone, would be how much emphasis was placed on work on the self, rather than work on others; how much hands off work was done; how early hands on work was introduced; how soon students got to work in real life situations; how frequently visiting teachers came; and how open to alternative strands of teaching a school was.
The one issue that would probably tip the balance for me today would be the amount of time spent teaching trainees to work with other people without using their hands. In other words, time spent investigating our thought processes, and how they affect our physical use, in action, in depth. I’m unaware of any training course offering this as a speciality.
Although I taught on a training school for many years, as a visiting teacher, I don’t run one. So my advice to potential trainees is strictly from the point of view of a teacher who remembers how it was to train and how he might have preferred it to be.
Nicholas Brockbank is an Alexander Technique teacher living in Sussex, England. He also trades stocks and futures and his other interests include gardening, writing, tennis, and travel. You can visit his website at http://www.dodman.org