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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.


Seeing Sequence


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.


Seeing the Whole


Once we attuned our observations to the sequencing of movement, we added a challenge pertinent to teaching online. Being able to perceive and understand the entirety of the pattern of interference is key to our success as teachers, a task complicated by not being physically in a room with our students.


Experiment #2: Zoom views


Each pair of explorers were given a sheet of paper and instructed to repeat the first experiment while the observer used the paper to hide the walker’s lower body. This simple exploration replicates the challenge we often encounter of not being able to see our student’s whole body on screen. Surprisingly to many, they were indeed able to begin to perceive and sense the whole – even when they couldn’t actually see the whole person by discerning the whole pattern. Of course, it is also helpful at times to ask your student to back up, turn their bodies and/or move their camera to provide a different or fuller view.


II. Directing psycho-physical coordination in activity

One of Marj’s greatest innovations was to teach in activity – helping singers as they sang, jugglers as they juggled, etc. She understood that the stimuli for discoordination were deeply embedded in the habits surrounding these activities. When we go directly to the source of the stimulus/response we help our students navigate directing themselves in the very dynamic manner in which they are most interested. This requires a keen eye, a dynamic appreciation for Use and the ability to transpose AT Principles in any situation.

One of the crucial components to teaching in activity is to decipher the “critical moments” within the activity, i.e., the moment the student’s coordination changes or deteriorates in response to the activity. Identifying these particular moments helps prioritize where to begin working in the arc of an activity. Those moments commonly occur when the thought of doing the activity is introduced, in the preparatory moment before the activity begins, or during key transitional moments. For instance, this might be when a singer thinks about a difficult passage, or when an actor inhales to begin reciting, or before a transition in direction for someone using a walker.


Visual and auditory cues can help us uncover changes in muscular tension, movement sequencing or direction and even how a student is organizing their attention. One physical indicator we can look for is the poise of the student’s head on their spine and specifically the directionality of backwards or forward rotation.


Experiment #3: Finding “Critical Moments”


For the next activity we crumpled the sheets of paper used in experiment #2 above into a ball. Each pair of explorers was asked to observe the “critical moments” in the coordination of their own Use as well as their partner as they played catch, tossing the paper ball back and forth. Several prompts were given to encourage observation: “Do you notice a change in your/their coordination as they anticipate throwing or catching?” “Do you/they hold your/their breath or tighten arms, backs, necks or legs?” “Is there a moment when you notice backward rotation of your/their head in the action of throwing or catching?”


We then experimented with pausing at those critical moments by cueing our partners verbally (by saying “pause”), visually (by raising a hand) and by asking our partner to notice their own coordination and pause themselves in the moment they notice a change. In this way we practiced our own skills at both revealing those critical moments and helping our students identify them on their own. These inhibitory explorations could then lead to redirection in further experiments.


III. Teaching in groups

Marj is perhaps best known for teaching in large groups – a practice that is still often misunderstood. The benefits of teaching in groups are plentiful; it promotes the student’s agency and diminishes dependency, and it is cost-effective, making the work more accessible to greater numbers of people, as well as promoting AT teachers’ ability to build a thriving livelihood. Teaching effectively in groups requires specialized skills to transcend from merely teaching a series of private lessons in a group setting to creating dynamic, interactive and experiential learning opportunities for the group to share.


Teaching adeptly in group settings requires teaching the “part within the whole” – considering each participant within the context of the entire group. Crafting experiential learning activities helps engage students’ attention, enlivens their sensory mechanisms and helps build community. Deconstructing activities to find and develop themes creates a template for all participants to both understand the underlying principles of our work in addition to its practical applications. Many of these aspects were “built in” to the workshop itself – actively engaging the participants in experiential activities, breaking down the theme of observing psycho-physical coordination into elements of sequence and direction, and promoting self-inquiry with a lively and fun exchange with each other.


Closing Activity: Transposing Classical Procedures


We ended our workshop with a shared group activity of a sequence I developed and call “Thai Chi Breathing”, which is how I currently teach the Whispered Ah. I developed this choreography and transposition of the classical procedure to specifically highlight the lengthening action of the spine on exhalation and to enliven the sense of the whole body in motion for breathing. I also use this activity to demonstrate the concept of oppositional or complimentary directions. This sequence helps unify a group in movement and intent, highlights limbs freeing away in relationship to the floor, and the spine lengthening. I often use this sequence with students as a calming practice or specifically to address issues for singers and wind players of tightening and muscular shortening for onset of sound or on extended notes. The procedure cumulatively adds the motions of arms, legs and spine extending from a semi-squat as we exhale with a whispered “ah”. This whole-body motion helps prevent the common pattern of holding one’s arms while focusing on breath, as well as fully using the connection to the floor to aid with the action of lengthening out and away. Here is a short video demonstrating the procedure:


Resources


This workshop constructed for the Berlin Congress was a sampling of experiments that was originally offered as a 16-hour specialized online track as part of the 2022 Barstow Institute Summer Workshop. My deepest appreciation to the Barstow Institute and those workshop participants as well as the Berlin Congress workshop participants for their willingness to explore and discover with me.


The benefits of Marj Barstow’s innovations of teaching in activity and groups can help the AT community share the work of F.M. Alexander to a much wider global community. The limitations of classical approaches to teaching prevent accessing the powerful tool of online teaching and reaching potential students that may not have access to a teacher due to location or financial resources. Her playful style encourages multi-sensory engagement and models an approach that encourages self-reliance for our students. Promoting our student’s ability to work on their own will help ensure diversity, inclusion and sustainability for the work for generations to come. There is so much to learn and benefit from her innovations.


My aim here was to share my own perspective on how Marj’s teaching has influenced my own. There are many gifted people teaching and training teachers that studied more extensively with Marj. I’d like to recommend the following resources about Marj and her teaching:


Marj’s Intro to Use of the Self:

https://files.cdn.thinkific.com/file_uploads/347108/attachments/17f/c4c/1d4/Jun_24__Doc_1.pdf


Marj Barstow Website:

www.marjoriebarstow.com


Books:

Marj Barstow: Her Teaching and Training (Mouritz Shop)


Marjorie Barstow and the Alexander Technique: Critical Thinking in Performing Arts Pedagogy (Amazon)






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