Leaving the Feet Behind

I am eighty. One afternoon nearly thirty years ago I was working at home and, by chance, saw most of a long television interview with Wilfred Barlow about the Technique; as a result I bought and read his book, The Alexander Principle. But it all seemed very complicated a common reaction to new ideas and I did nothing about it until 1995, when I found that singing hymns in church gave me a catch in the throat that brought tears to my eyes. Understanding that Alexander had started with a voice problem, I accepted a local offer of a trial lesson. 


At the end of half an hour I had discovered that I habitually stood with my knees locked, and that this was quite unnecessary. From then on, with the exception of ‘hands on the chair back’, which I never made my peace with, the Technique seemed not complicated, but simple and entirely sensible. In the course of six years of lessons, the catch in the throat was never addressed directly, but within a few weeks two things in particular happened. Firstly, the recurrent headaches I had had for fifty years ceased, through changes in head and neck use. Secondly, one day in church, as the organist introduced a hymn I said to myself, ‘I am not going to sing’ -and sang the hymn without any trouble. I had not solved the problem, and it remained with me. But it now had two distinct components: firstly, whatever I was doing (but could not identify) that caught my throat, and secondly, the fact that actually singing while telling myself not to sing is rather a tall order. But I learned many things from my teacher, and became an Associate Member of an organisation for Alexander Technique teachers. And I began to learn things on my own. 


I have always been interested in the way the body and the mind work, both generally and particularly in respect of our perception of the outside world and its pictures. I made some discoveries that were very small steps for mankind, but great leaps for me. In public I had never known what to do with my hands since the day I was told as a small child to take them out of my pockets. The answer was, of course, nothing. If there is no work for them to do such as holding or carrying, using tools, shaking hands with someone, or gesturing, let them hang loose at the ends of relaxed arms until wanted. Watching people in art galleries, I noticed that most of them, like me, adopted an attitude to look at the works on show. Now I found that by giving directions I could avoid that peculiar malaise known as ‘museum feet’. I believe, in addition, that the thoughtful inhibition -I am not going to strike an attitude removed a half-conscious-but-distracting sense of confrontation, and left me more comfortably aware both of my self and of the objects I had come to look at. 


As an art historian, I am used to looking up at painted or elaborately plastered ceilings, hammerbeam roofs, or the tops of towers. One day it struck me that there are two ways of doing this: the thoughtless way and the thoughtful way. The thoughtless way involves lifting the head upwards and backwards, pulling all the cervical vertebrae into a backward arc that is possible but not congenial literally craning the neck. This is very quickly tiring. The thoughtful way begins with the head at the very top of the spine: letting the spine be, all the way up, and moving the cranium only. If you still can’t see high enough, moving the eyes up in their sockets will give another forty degrees or so of elevation, and no competent ceiling painter requires you to look above seventy degrees in all. 


I also changed my driving style. Armchair travel has always seemed to me inappropriate for anyone in charge of a vehicle, and in fact the seats in coaches, buses and trains usually oblige the passenger to sit erect rather than lounge as so many car drivers do ‘although the reason has more to do with saving space than supporting spines. After a car service, I usually find that the mechanic has inclined the seat to drive it around the block. However, for many years I had put my hands on the wheel at the ten-to-two position, as this was said to give ‘the best control’, or at least the feeling of control. But I had thought about my back and my hands, not about my shoulders and arms. If for no other reason than reducing the distance I had to lift my arms, I found that hands at a quarter-to and quarter-past three meant less work for equal control and security. 


Further discoveries occurred after I had stopped having lessons. A bug that once circulated in my system and lodged in my ear canals did some permanent damage to my balance, but we oldies are proverbially in danger of falling anyway. Out of doors a walking-stick (at the ready, not as a prop or an extra leg) may be helpful, but experience has shown that the only real defence against tripping, or slipping on ice, is constant vigilance: not only body awareness but also ground awareness. Loss of balance, however, is more insidious. The rolling heave of the old sailor is, inelegant and laborious, a natural response to the fact that, with our feet together or proceeding along a narrow line, our top-heavy design becomes precarious as soon as the very delicate coordination of limbs, reflexes, eyes and inner cars is disturbed. One cannot roll splay legged between the cabbage plants or the boxes in the utility room, or when crossing and turning in the kitchen while preparing a meal. A lot of domestic falls result from turning the head and torso suddenly and leaving the feet behind. Once you start to totter, a stiffening reflex operates in a supreme effort not to fall. Indeed, an expert wrote a few years ago in Statnews that this reflex was necessary and inevitable. 


It is neither. In that precise moment of imbalance it is possible to say ‘No’: to go into ‘monkey’, letting the knees bend and the hips bend. Everything softens, but you are still on your feet, having allowed your centre of gravity to right itself. 


And so, lastly, back to the throat problem. One Sunday as I stood up to sing I recalled a lesson on the ‘Whispered Ah’ in which the instruction was to think of that almost silent sound as being heard not by the teacher in front of me but by an imaginary person some way behind me. As the ‘Ah’ was not physically projected backwards but only thought of, no work was involved. What would happen if I thought of my singing voice reaching someone three rows behind me? It was a revelation. And then for the first time I understood the nature of my problem. It was rather like the attitude in the art gallery. In order to sing, I had thought of producing the voice (a cliché among singing teachers), of making a sound and projecting it out and forwards, instead of letting the sound come out. In Other words, a lot of ‘doing’ with the throat muscles and also with the upper spine, which is very close indeed to the larynx. The tension was literally choking me. 


It worked, and it still works. Moreover, it has worked long and well enough for me to beam thinking once more, safely, about the quality of the sound. 


I have not finished learning yet.