Conference Interpreter, Alexander Technique Teacher, Mother

I first encountered the Alexander Technique in 1972. Training to be a conference interpreter in London, I was nervous of microphones and the prospect of speaking to hundreds of people. And I was not confident with my unsophisticated, lower-middle-class accent - it needed to be improved, more middle class. A fellow trainee was seeing Michael McCallion, a voice coach from RADA, and thought he might be able to help.

 

`you'll have to work on your accent by yourself, darling,` said Michael. `As to feeling confident on mike, have you heard of the Alexander Technique?`

 

Several years and many Alexander lessons later I'd become rather entranced by the changes the Technique had made. I was more confident, had been working all over the continent for the EU, had met the man I would marry and was living in Britain again. During a lesson, my teacher mentioned she had seen my name on the waiting list (seven years long!) to train as an Alexander teacher. I was startled. I had not applied, and had no idea how my name had got onto the list. It seemed unfair to keep it there and I asked for it to be removed. That set me thinking. Wouldn't this be a fascinating new departure and a way of not having to travel in order to work? Miraculously, my name was reinstated. I began to train in 1978.

 

With an address in London, I was awarded a study grant from the Inner London Education Authority - now, sadly, a faded piece of history - and spent three and a half years training in the Alexander Technique. I embarked on the training with uncertain expectations and a concealed dose of scepticism. This was fuelled on my first morning when a senior teacher lying in semi-supine on a nearby table startled me by releasing tension in a disturbing series of menacing growls. I forbore to 'work on myself', deciding I would challenge the Alexander Technique to prove itself first. It took two years before I realised it had.

 

By the time this insight crystallised, I was about to give birth to my first child - pregnancy being an ideal 'app', in contemporary terms, of the Alexander Technique. I had no back pain during this, or my second, pregnancy. Because of motherhood, though, I had to take a term off after my seventh term, then continue part-time for a three further terms.

 

During the early part of the training course I took up running, taught by Paul Collins iin line with Alexander's principles. I ran a few weekend workshops following Paul's recommendations to run towards the front of my feet, a principle I have applied ever since. Did we need Daniel Lieberman, a Harvard professor of Human Evolutionary Biology, to tell us that humans were designed to do this? Modern running shes make it difficult, and commercial gimmickry has given us gel, air, bubbles and so on to cushion the impact of the heel. But who needs them if the shoes are flexible enough for us to land towards the front of the foot as we lengthen the torso and free the neck (when we remember)?

 

With a young family, I did little teaching and had little contact with colleagues for several years, suppressing and uneasy feeling that my work, both on my pupils and on myself, was inferior. During this time I did manage to take lessons from Peggy Williams, Marjorie Barlow, Margret Goldie, Eric de Payer and - my favourite - John Skinner, all of whom had worked with Alexander. I found that each had a 'hallmark'. With Marjorie I learned to be realistic with language and concepts; with Margaret I felt I understood more about freeing the neck and not doing; with Eric I learned to be experimental and unafraid; and John Skinner taught me to laugh at the Alexander Technique while taking it very seriously. I always felt I was levitating as I left him, and used it to float up a nearby footbridge. We shared distaste for idolatry, and felt that one can learn useful tools from many teachers.

 

Once I could expand my work I found that these years, in fact, enriched my teaching. I was thrilled when I found myself asking a pupil whether she had ever worn a surgical corset around the lower half of her back and being told my supposition was correct. It has also been deeply satisfying to be able to help sufferers from chronic disorders such as Parkinson's, Charcot-Marie-Tooth disorder or osteogenesis imperfecta to manage their condition.

 

Some years ago I trained as a mediator in community disputes. Now there's an opportunity to inhibit! Distaste, irritation, horror, judgementalism are inhibited then processed constructively for the benefit of the participants in the mediation process. A brilliant training for, life too!

 

I did not give up on occasional interpreting in Brussels, Luxembourg, Strasbourg an so on, but interpreting had to fit around teaching the Alexander Technique, not the other way round. It's a huge privilege to work where you ant, when you want and for what you think you are worth. And also to do work you enjoy, and for which your clients regularly express appreciation. It does, though, imply that you have another source of income to pay the bills. It is up to each one of us to spread the word, so that this will gradually change. For over thirty years I have never missed an opportunity of explaining what I do and spreading understanding - no mean challenge!

 

A perk of the job is the things you learn from the people you teach. Teaching the AT has given me insights into shooting, playing the cello, writing novels, accident and emergency departments, financial planning, silk printing, educational publishing, opera singing, rugby football, garden maintenance, television production, getting old and being a teenager (teenagers are often very receptive to the Alexander Technique).

 

In my own life, using the Technique in the high-pressure environment of conference interpreting was invaluable to me but is is just as useful in dealing with one's child's headmistress, walking the Surrey hills, catching a ball (which I could never do before) or coping with a tax return. I have even learned  to enjoy public speaking, which used to terrify me. These days, when so many of us spend hours at computers, the Technique i a front-line resource in applied ergonomics. In fact, to judge by  comments from my clients, this is an area where we teachers have a critical contribution to make.

 

Speaking several languages, I have brought the Technique to people in France, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland and Germany, mainly friends. it is rewarding when you see people after some years and they report how helpful the semi-supine has been: '... some corner of a foreign field ... shaped, made aware ...' (with apologies to Rupert Brooke)!

 

Is there such a thing as the Alexander Technique? Apart from the core principles, teachers evolve their own tricks creatively and empirically. It has been said that teachers are teaching there own system, based on the Alexander Technique. I believe Alexander would be pleased with  this. In The Use of the Self he stresses that the results 'can be safely left to take there own form', and science, quoting Dewey, 'is not something finished, absolute in itself'.

 

The Alexander Technique still has a long way to go in order to reach the wider public and medics. It is gratifying to receive occasional referrals from osteopaths, chiropractors, neurosurgeons or rheumatologists, yet GPs mostly seem to have neither the time nor the motivation to find out about it. Hopefully further research studies will change all that. But the situation today is a far cry from when I started, innocently placing an advertisement for the Technique in a local paper. I was deluged for the next few weeks with telephone calls from gentlemen requiring services which I did not provide!

 

As my bones get older and my components regularly remind me of the passing years, I am becoming incentivised to apply the Technique more often to avoid pointless visits to doctors's surgeries. No one else is responsible for my biomechanics, though it would sometimes be good to blame someone! 

 

As a professional communicator, when teaching the Technique I have always striven to use plain English to impart the Alexander principles. Language must move with the times; the challenge is to say and do whatever it takes to get the ideas across to each individual learner or organisation. I've always disliked the term 'pupil', sharing John Skinner's view that it sound patronising. I don't mind being regarded as a therapist. Clients will quickly find that part of the job is theirs, even as I relieve them of their money. Teaching is wonderful when people enjoy learning.