Saturday, February 9, 2008

a moment, with Marj

Marjorie Barstow had the ability to alter the experience of time -- through her teaching presence, the skill of her touch, and the timing and specificity of her use of language. Ultimately, she taught us through her living example. The experience of a moment where habitual response is completely suspended is not easy to describe, but I would like to try, because in that moment lives the essence of F.M. Alexander’s discovery.

The year after college, I moved out to Nebraska to absorb more of Marj’s teaching. Fortunately this time coincided with opening positions for an oboe/English horn player in both the Lincoln and Omaha orchestras, along with several chamber groups. So began a time of deep immersion in playing, practicing and performing. This further enhanced the great benefit of lessons with Marj with a small group of students who wanted to learn to teach the Technique.

Now that I am spending time around horses and horse people, I appreciate more fully some of the aspects of Marj’s personality and her approach teaching us. Marj was running the family business of raising cattle and quarter horses. We used to visit the ranch and picnic there, and although I never personally saw her ride or train a horse, I was aware that she did these things. Now it’s very clear that her sensitive and patient, yet down-to-earth, no-nonsense, non-coddling manner, with her constant emphasis on practical application and self-reliance are all qualities which would serve any horse trainer well!

Marj’s teaching gave us repeated exposure to the flavor of a process, refining our taste for these moments of possibility. More importantly it reinforced the experience of using what is known as our “constructive thinking” and carrying it right on through the initiation of an activity. But her greatest gift is that she empowered us to explore these options on our own, in any endeavor we might choose.

So what is the Alexander Technique and how do you begin to learn it? Of course, the benefit of working with a skilled teacher is not to be under-estimated. The best teachers balance their hands-on help with clarifying the thinking process -- helping each student understand how a simple thought applied at the right moment, and re-applied throughout an activity, is the key to using Alexander’s discovery. What I would most like my students to absorb is the confidence and clarity to apply the principle and experiment for themselves.

Begin with a book or begin with a lesson. Begin to observe your habits of movement and allow your awareness to expand -- but remember that the principle discovered by Alexander is accessible, applicable and inherent in us all. This universal applicability -- the possibility of invoking the principle at any given moment, in any activity, in any situation, and knowing that it will improve the quality of whatever I am doing -- this is what continues to fascinate me.

Favorite first books: Body Learning by Michael Gelb, Body Awareness in Action (re-published as Freedom to Change) by Frank Pierce Jones. See the sidebar link list for other resources.

The photograph above takes me back in time to one of many moments of suspension I was fortunate to experience through Marj’s teaching. This interaction reminds me of the photograph of Annelie and her horse, Sober -- Marj
has achieved the same kind of palpable connection to my thinking process. We often hear the phrase “capture the moment.” Alexander’s work gives us a method to instead release the moment, or possibly more accurately to renew the moment. At any rate, it gives us the power of choice in each moment.

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