Celebrating Marj Barstow's Legacy: Observation, Activities & Groups
Based on the workshop presented at the12th International Alexander Technique Congress in Berlin
Marj Barstow was a visionary innovator, and the richness of her teaching legacy is more relevant today than ever before. The worldwide pandemic severely limited teaching Alexander Technique in-person in the classical hands-on one-on-one style. As Alexander Technique (AT) teachers, we have the opportunity to thrive in the current reality by making good use of the potential to connect around the world online. We also have the opportunity to reach more people by making our work accessible to people across a wider variety of socio-economic communities by offering group classes. Marj’s teaching provides a unique template particularly well-suited for online and group teaching and can help teachers and trainees from all backgrounds and at all levels of experience to enhance and further both their skills and adaptivity. My experience is that teaching in groups and online helps teachers and students flourish, and my offering here aims to support both.
There isn’t anything either right or wrong when dealing with co-ordination. There are degrees of movement. Life is really moving from one position to another. We never stop and say, “This is right – this is my posture, this is the way I ought to be.” If we do that, we’re stiff trying to hold that posture. It isn’t natural for our bodies to be held in positions.
– Marjorie Barstow, quoted in Practical Marj
Marjorie Barstow 1899 - 1995, from Lincoln, Nebraska, was the first person to graduate from F. M. Alexander’s first training course in 1933. After working as A. R. Alexander’s assistant in Boston and New York in the 1930’s, she returned to Lincoln. She continued teaching until shortly before her death in 1995 at age 95. During the last two decades of her teaching, she attracted thousands of students to her workshops in Lincoln, and around the world, with her unique approach to teaching Alexander’s discoveries. (Taken from www.Marjoriebarstow.com)
One of the most recognized hallmarks of Marj’s teaching was teaching in groups – sometimes quite large groups of upwards of 80 students of all ages, backgrounds, interests and levels of experience. Many of her innovations and key stylistic choices probably grew from her willingness to commit to teaching F.M. Alexander’s discoveries in this very different format compared to private lessons. While private lessons are often still touted by many as the “standard” way to teach AT, my workshop was offered as a way to not only celebrate the legacy of Marj’s teaching, but equally to highlight the many ways I find group teaching equally or more effective than teaching private lessons. My views are my own and have been formed by studying with Marj from 1984-1990 and from my own teaching private lessons and group classes and training AT teachers over the last 34 years.
In order to succeed in teaching large groups, Marj relied on two key factors. She insisted that her students think for themselves, and she developed a way to directly apply the work to everyday and specialized activities – or what is commonly called “teaching in activity”. Marj taught what is referred to as “Constructive Thinking”. Instead of relying solely on her hands – which were indeed splendidly delicate and clear in direction – she taught us, her students, to pay attention to our own Use and to Direct our own thinking. In fact, if we waited for her hands to direct us, we’d likely get a (gentle) swat on the back and a teasing smile with her admonishment “well, what are you waiting for?”. Marj’s playfulness was ever-present, scolding us if we got too serious and insisting “you always move better with a smile.” (Taken from https://web.archive.org/web/20040213021534/http://www.ati-net.com/dm-marj.htm)
One of the positive consequences of working with Marj in a large group was that I learned to observe what was happening in my own psycho-physical coordination in order to avoid her teasing or even dismissing me entirely. I also learned to be curious about what was happening in the psycho-physical coordination of the student with whom she was working, so that I wouldn’t be bored to tears waiting for my own turn! The engagement of a room full of people’s awareness and curiosity was palpable. Observing with curiosity led me to noticing the sometimes small and subtle changes in psycho-physical coordination such as changes in muscle tone, postural alignment, movement direction and sequencing. Careful listening revealed changes in coordination as evidenced by changes in such things as vocal tone, timbre and resonance, as well as the sound of footsteps. By insisting that her students take responsibility for their own observations, Marj was modeling self-reliance which, in turn promoted our agency. Actively supporting our own students’ agency leads them to cultivate their own ability to succeed by enacting a process of discovery - captured by the beloved aphorism from F.M: “anyone can do what I did IF they’ll do what I did.” (Taken from https://www.alexandertechnique.com/selfstudy/)
Teaching in activity promotes a student’s agency in several ways. The student must be proactive in choosing the activity with which they want to work, and they gain a template for practical application – a way to interrupt their habituated responses to a stimulus that is relevant to them. Additionally, the student is steered away from relying on their unreliable feelings towards attending to how their coordination impacts their functioning. Instead of asking “how does that feel?” or “does that feel right?” they are encouraged to inquire “does that work better?”. The psycho-physical coordination of our self is not the end or goal, but rather the “means-whereby” we achieve goals such as improved balance, increased strength or flexibility, or improved artistic performance. Helping our students succeed in improving their functioning in activities they value will help motivate them, help them learn more effectively and bring more students to the Technique.
The workshop explored three key areas of Marj’s pedagogical approaches:
• Observing use and patterns of interference
• Directing psycho-physical coordination in activity
• Teaching in groups
I. Observing Use & Patterns Of Interference
Marj had a keen eye and never missed even a momentary change in someone’s Use. She would look across a room and know EXACTLY what was going on with your Primary Control. When we as AT teachers don’t have our hands to sense what is going on, we need to optimize what we see, sense and hear, as well as fully engage our students as collaborators in the process of discovery. When we do have the ability to use our hands to sense the movement and psycho-physical coordination of our students, these skills add dimension and clarity to our observations and increase our ability to both decipher and redirect Patterns of Interference.
There are countless ways we can decipher visual and auditory clues that reveal a student’s thinking as well as their movement quality, sequence and direction. These experiments are offered as a way into finding one’s own creative pathways to discovery.
We began by exploring one of my favorite Marj-isms. She used to add “no pushy – no pully” to the well-known axiom: “the head leads and the body follows”. Pushy is defined in this context as when the sequence of a movement is led by somewhere in our structure other than our head. Try sitting up straight and see what happens. Most of us will push upwards from our low or middle back, or perhaps our shoulders, chest or legs – all of which are not our head. Pully is defined in this context as the head leading, but the whole body is prevented from following. Here is a short video with a similar demonstration:
Experiment #1: Seeing “Pushy”
Each workshop participant partnered with someone and played with various patterns of interference while walking - leading from our feet, hips, back or chest. The game was to pick a “pushy” variation and see if the observer could correctly identify the area from which you were pushing. We identified that in well-coordinated walking the head leads the body for postural movement, as the knees freeing forward lead the locomotion movement.