Creating Dynamic Learning Communities for Performing Artists
By Ariel Weiss
My motivation to present at the 11th International Congress for the Alexander Technique was driven by my desire to share my experiences as a performer, a teacher and long-time member of the global Alexander community. Following the extraordinary model of watching Marj Barstow teach in the 80’s, I have been interested in how this work is taught to groups and in activity and have developed my expertise in teaching the Technique to groups of performers since 1988.
My aim was to present the benefits of teaching performing artists in groups and to outline strategies for creating dynamic learning communities for Group Class, Master Class, Workshop and Conference formats. The workshop was organized in three sections:
– Setting the scene: why groups work and how to create safe learning environments to build a constructive culture within a learning community.
– Teaching a process of discovery: supporting self-learners and modeling experiential learning.
– Teaching in activity: dynamically integrating Alexander’s discoveries into the actual process of acting, singing, or dancing, etc. and preparing for an audience.
I Setting the Scene for Group Learning
There are many advantages to teaching performing artists in groups. For performers, the group becomes an audience, both as a stimulus that calls forth their habits surrounding performance, and also as a resource for valuable feedback. Learning in groups helps promote observational skills, which can aid in the Recognition of Habit and can promote independent self-study. Group learning situations can also lower the risk of kinesthetic overstimulation and allow more time for processing. If a teacher address group teaching merely as a sequence of private lessons, the perception can be that the group solely takes away personal one-on-one time for each individual participant and an opportunity is missed to make good use of these potential advantages.
Alexander students often feel both nervous and exposed when they work in a group setting in a similar way that they experience onstage. This can be seen as a problem, yet learning to coordinate their Primary Control in response to the very stimulus that causes the dis-coordination bridges the gap between theory and practice for a performer and prepares them for the task at hand. Learning in groups allows for interaction between peers as well as between teacher and students. Because our own feedback system is unreliable and inaccurately calibrated to Habit, what Mr. Alexander refers to “ debauched kinesthetic systems” (Alexander, 1910, p. 15), the external feedback from a wider constituency becomes an invaluable asset. When participants are asked to observe not only their own manner of use, but to attend to the group as a whole, group learning provides an opportunity to balance internal and external information through aural, visual and kinesthetic senses, what Frank Pierce Jones referred to as an “expanded field of attention in which the interactions of the self and the environment is perceived as an ongoing process” (Pierce Jones, 1995, 159).
II Teaching a Process of Discovery
Experience is knowledge. Group teaching at its best encourages self-directed learning, highlighting the Constructive Thinking of the student, and can minimize dependence on a teacher’s skill and quality of coordination. When we ask students to engage in a process of self-discovery, we are engaging the same process Mr. Alexander employed: self-observation and experimentation.
When I recount the story of how F.M. Alexander made his discoveries about psychophysical coordination, I look for opportunities to engage my students in experiential investigation. When I retell the story of how F.M. observed his habit of tightening his neck, pulling his head in towards his body and gasping before he began to recite, I ask my students to watch me demonstrate that action and ask if it looks familiar, transforming that story into a shared experience. When I then ask them to try it themselves, I have now laid the groundwork for experiential learning that promotes Recognition of Habit, supports self-learners and teaches my students to replicate a thought process instead of trying to replicate a feeling.
The following teaching activity is an example of an experiential learning model:
When introducing the Technique I describe and demonstrate the movement a tortoise makes when it is startled - pulling its head and limbs simultaneously into its shell. I then ask everyone to gently join me in replicating their own startle pattern and to feel what that movement does to their breathing and overall level of comfort. I then ask everyone to attempt to isolate the movement of their heads emerging “out of their shell” to see what happens. We then repeat the experiment attempting to isolate the movement of our arms emerging “out of the shell of our torso”. I then mimic the hand and arm shaking that actors and musicians do the “relax the tension in their arms” and explain why that won’t work - because tortoises emerge from their shell simultaneously in all directions - and we do too. We then all explore this possibility, allowing our heads, tails, arms and legs to all simultaneously emerge from our torsos - paying attention to our own movement and breath as well as seeing how the experiment impacts others in the room. This dynamically demonstrates the directionality of lengthening and widening, limbs freeing away with the element of time “All Together”.
Next I add a layer to address F.M.’s direction “allow my neck to be free” and what we refer to as “non-doing” by asking everyone to grasp their fists tightly and then observe what happens when they let go. Everyone observes that when they let go, expansive movement happens simultaneously in all directions in their hands. We then move directly from a tight fist to an open hand and then notice what happens when we slow it down so that we move from a tightly held fist, then release our fists, and then open our hands. I name that added step “releasing into movement”. We then repeat our Tortoise experiment, pausing before we emerge from our torsos to choose to release our neck muscles to free ourselves simultaneously in all directions.
III Teaching In Activity
Considering Use within the whole, often complex context of an activity engages and empowers performers. I first encountered the Technique as a young dancer and was instantly engaged when a teacher helped guide me to balance on one leg without Downward Pull - both because balance was of paramount interest to me, and because reducing strain improved my balance markedly. It worked better and I wanted to know why. Activity-centered learning can help demystify the work, helping ground students’ learning and helping to motivate them when their work becomes more effective. At its best, teaching in activity directs the focus of our work from the whatto the how- that is, helping our students consider the manner of their coordination within a given context as opposed to teaching them a specific form. If we always default to teaching coordination isolated from the context of an activity, we risk turning the manner of our Use into an end unto itself. Separating the concept of Use from an activity can make a performer feel they need to be “neutral” in order to avoid straining themselves or dis-coordinate independently without a teacher’s guidance. Teaching within the context of an activity helps bridge the gap of applying what they’ve discovered within the complexities of their performance and can demonstrate the actual, practical “use-full-ness” of integrating one’s coordination.
When Use is addressed as a concept for performers that is integral, not separate, to artistic expression they will find the Technique to be an essentially practical and useful and effective tool. An interesting dilemma emerged recently while I was demonstrating teaching in activity, helping a teacher trainee play a very difficult and expressive piano piece. We worked with the idea of Inhibiting her impulse to pull her head into her torso for the especially fast and powerful chords. She played again and coordinated beautifully – freeing her head on the top of her spine, allowing her back to lengthen and widen and her arm movements became supple and fluid. Everyone smiled until I said “no”. The trainees were dismayed – hadn’t she improved her coordination, Inhibiting Habit and using her Directions to access her Primary Control? Yes – but she had entirely let go of her musical intention. Her playing was fluid and free and bore no relation to either the composer’s or her own musical intention. She had replaced musical thought with coordination thought instead of adding it. I asked her to play it again using the coordination ideas as a way to access her musical ideas. When she stopped turning the manner of her coordination into the whatand allowed it to serve as the how she approached the music (the what), her coordination improved greatly and of more importance to her, the music became far more dynamically expressive, and her musical thought more fully realized.
IV Group Dynamics
Considering the heightened vulnerability of our students in a group setting, creating safety within the group is key to the success of learning. It is the leader’s responsibility to set the parameters and to create a culture that is inviting and inclusive for all. Inviting feedback regularly and creating activities that structure interaction between participants, and between the instructor and students builds a dynamic environment for shared experience and exploration. At the Congress workshop, I asked everyone to partner with someone and then introduce their partner to the group - an activity that quickly creates a bond with your partner and simultaneously sets the scene for stimulating performance nerves for performers. Explaining the plan for the class or workshop and inviting interruptions, questions and requests are key elements to my opening remarks. Taking time to both address questions specifically to the needs of the asker, as well as weaving that information back into the context of the whole group helps maintain a healthy discourse where everyone can feel there is space and time for them.