What would you say if I told you there was no such thing as tension and that practice was not important? Well, whether your response is outrage or hysterical laughter I’ve probably got your attention, and that’s just the way Don Weed likes to do things. Welcome to the annual Interactive Teaching Method Association summer workshop; welcome to the weird and wonderful world of the Alexander Technique.
I guess most people think of the Alexander Technique as something that can help you when you’ve got a bad back or are feeling stressed. Speaking as a professional drummer, this already sounds like a really good idea and it was certainly a recurring back problem that got me involved a little over two years ago. But I soon learned that Alexander’s work is much, much more than the most effective way to sit on a drum stool. So what is it exactly? Ah…well…um that’s the problem you see, I’m not exactly sure I can say exactly what it is. I’m not sure anyone can. The ITM (Interactive Teaching Method) definition is “the study of thinking in relation to movement”. Hmmm, not much help there then. What I can tell you is what it’s like to be on the receiving end of this stuff, particularly in the heady atmosphere of this exciting and highly entertaining summer school, and most particularly from the man who invented the ITM, the aforementioned Don Weed.
Donald L. Weed, D.C. is a big, loud American with a big, loud American approach to teaching and big, loud Hawaiian shirts. He has a highly developed (some would say over-developed) sense of humour and is something of a showman. Now I know I’ve made him sound like just the kind of in-your-face character that many English people take an instant dislike to, but let’s not be hasty. Dr. Weed has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Alexander’s writings and anything written about Alexander or the Technique, some profound insights of his own into the way we function, (developed over many years of Chiropractic work as well as Alexander teaching), and although the teaching method is often challenging, frustrating or just downright confusing there’s no denying the results. Challenges come in phrases like “there’s no such thing as tension” (If your neck is tense it’s because you made it tense), or “practice is far less important than people think”. Frustration comes with repeated demonstration, (you just stopped the tension; you just got better without practising).
The summer workshop takes place at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester. No previous experience of Alexander’s work is necessary and people from all walks of life attend. I’ve met actors, civil servants, osteopaths, lawyers, builders, teachers from the different schools of Alexander Technique and, of course, musicians. The participants are divided into smaller groups and during lesson time these groups alternate between working with Don Weed and with teachers trained by Don, then sharing experiences in the big group. In this way we work with many different teachers with their own personalities and approaches and gain as wide an experience as possible in four days.
So how does it work? Most lessons go something like this: The students pick an activity - sitting, standing, walking, singing, giving a massage, …er… banging a drum. The teacher will usually start asking questions about the activity: “what do you need to do to stand, sing, walk” etc. (This is a question you hear a lot. It’s a dumb question. But some of the answers you hear – including some of your own – are extraordinary and very enlightening). The student will then usually go ahead and perform the activity and then talk about how it went and how it could be better. The whole group is invited to make observations or ask questions throughout the process. Sooner or later the teacher will start to work with the student more directly using a kind of gentle manipulation, or perhaps “suggestive touch” would be nearer the mark. It’s not easy to describe the experience of being worked with in this way. You might feel lighter and somehow easier in yourself, or you might get very odd sensations of being in the wrong body and not quite knowing where the controls are, or you might feel nothing at all. Sometimes the changes in the student are quite subtle, a change in breathing or just a general sense of calm. Then again, sometimes you get something more spectacular, six inches in height or an extra octave in the voice. What you almost always see is an improved performance.
The highlight of the week is the “scheduled performance night”. This is not just for any professional performers present to strut their stuff in front of the whole group. Anybody is welcome to get up and recite a poem, swing a golf club or put on a rucksack for our entertainment – whilst getting a nice Alexander lesson. But when we see a seasoned performer having a lesson we have a glimpse of the real power and potential of this work. As a musician the experience of hearing a very good performance of a Bach fugue and then hearing the same organist give a breathtaking rendition after a couple of minutes work leaves little room for doubt. Funny thing is, though, when you’re the one having the lesson you can’t always see what all the fuss is about. The experiences are so different – especially for a performing musician – that you honestly have no idea how the performance is going. A case in point was my first big drum lesson with Don Weed which went something like this.
I played a couple of minutes worth of drum solo, I went for an ostinato study – soloing over a 3/2 clave – which went pretty well for a “cold” performance in front of a class. Then along came Don, fiddled with my neck for a bit and suggested I start again with this subtly different head/neck relationship. My arms felt a little weird but I decided to go for it anyway. Then the really weird shit started. I had been given lots of indications over the preceding days about how flexible the spine really is but I was pretty damn sure that I should not be seeing the ceiling from that angle whilst playing the drums. So I shut my eyes and kept playing while my back –in Don’s capable hands – did a passable impression of a sidewinder on acid. At this point I noticed that, far from being put off my stroke, I had a crystal clear communication with my instrument, even if I seemed to be communicating from the next room. I thought up a completely new combination and just played it without hesitation. To this day I have no idea how it sounded but everyone else in the room was sufficiently gobsmacked to still be talking about it two years later.
That experience convinced the people watching about the value of Alexander’s work. I, on the other hand, was persuaded by seeing other musicians improve their playing in a matter of minutes; by seeing a severe attack of nerves cease to be a problem; by hearing the sound of instruments improve – a deeper, more resonant tone coming from the same cello/horn/guitar/you name it. I was persuaded by the young singer/song writer, unable to play the piano for more than a few minutes because of “R S I”, playing and singing one of her compositions to an enthralled and slightly tearful crowd.
That’s why I go back year after year. For the price of a long weekend in Paris you can have four and a half days in Cirencester, freedom and ease of motion, oh and perhaps I forgot to mention that this is the most fun I’ve ever had with a bunch of complete strangers.
First published 2002 in Musician (the magazine of the Musician's Union in the UK)