When I first met Marj Barstow she was only 79 years old.
She had been invited to teach at the Alexander Teacher Training Program in San Francisco. The week that she spent there changed my life. Have you ever had the experience of seeing immediately and absolutely that your path lay before you? Then and there I decided that as soon as I finished my training I would move to Nebraska. Marj had such a practical, simple, and straight-forward style of teaching. I wanted to know more about it. I heard her comment, "I'm almost too practical to even be living."
With certification in hand, I packed up, drove half-way across the North American continent and started my training in how to be practical.
To understand how Marj became so practical it helps to know something of her background. Her mother and father moved to Ord, Nebraska in 1886. Nebraska is located in the center of the USA. It's a prairie state and mostly comprised of farms: hot in the summer and windy and cold during the winter. Marj's Father was in the grain and lumber business. On recalling her father's business she said, "...All the grain was delivered in wagons with horses pulling the wagons. No automobiles, no speed."
All four children were born in Ord with Marj being the baby of the family, born August 1899. In 1900 the family moved to Lincoln and built the very house Marj lives in today.
At an early age, Marj became interested in dance. She studied locally and also travelled to dance studios in many different places.
After graduating from the University of Nebraska in 1921, she taught ballet and ballroom dancing in Lincoln. One summer her dance teacher went to London to study with F. M. Alexander, who had made an interesting discovery concerning body movement. He had also written two books which explained his discovery. Marjorie had an opportunity to read them and became very intrigued with the contents. She recalls this experience by saying, "I was so fascinated with the books that I preferred to read them rather than anything else".
A short time later Marj decided to close her dance studio for the winter and go to New York to study dancing.
Having made the decision, she remarked to her mother, "If I am going to close my studio, instead of going to New York, I would rather go to London and study with Mr Alexander." With everyone in agreement, Marj and her sister set off to London for six months. They had lessons every weekday, alternating one day with 'F.M.' and the next day with his brother, 'A.R.'.
Upon their return to Lincoln, Marj started teaching dance again; but her teaching had a very different quality as a result of, or from the influence of the information she had gathered by studying with the Alexanders and reading F.M.'s books.
Dance was not to remain a major influence for long in Marj's life because in 1930 she received a letter from F.M. Alexander saying that he was going to start to train students to become teachers of his technique.
Marj discussed it with her parents and 1931 found a country girl from Nebraska once again in London, this time setting a new course in her life.
Outside F.M.'s rooms at 16 Ashley Place in Victoria, London - May, 1931.
Marjorie Barstow was given the first Alexander Teacher Certification in 1934. Teaching the Alexander Technique at that time in Nebraska, or anywhere in the USA for that matter, was an entirely new situation. For one thing, very few people had heard of the Technique. Marj worked as A.R. Alexander's assistant in Boston and New York for over six years. These were extremely valuable years because she gained teaching experience.
It was in Boston that she met Mr Frank Pierce Jones. When he came for lessons with 'A.R.', she would give lessons to his son, Tom.
A friendship developed that was to carry on to the end of Mr Jones' life. Marj would go to Boston once a year and she and Frank would talk about the Technique, share work, and give workshops. These years were the prelude for what was to come.
In the early 1950's, Marj was back home in Lincoln and an opportunity was offered for her to teach the Technique at the University of Nebraska. For one semester she had three different classes. This was a chance to teach with ongoing groups, and the beginning of a life-time of research into group work.
Marjorie then started holding summer and winter workshops in Lincoln. People came and still came from all over the world, and the range of their occupations is staggering.
Marjorie has successfully taught groups at many Universities, Theatre Centers, Music Camps, Martial Arts Schools and Alexander Teacher Train- ing Programmes in New York, San Francisco and Philadelphia. Every year she travels around the USA and Canada to teach and she has also travelled to places as far apart as Alaska and Australia. Recently she received an Honorary Doctorate degree in the Humanities from Doane College for her pioneering work in the Alexander Technique.
The efforts I have put in over the years to work with Marj have been rewarded a hundred times over. She taught me how to observe myself and my students in a way I would not have thought possible eight years ago. As questions came up for me I have gone to Marj and asked for help. Her answers were so enlightening I've decided to close this article by sharing a few of these with you.
Marj, how would you describe The Alexander Technique?
The Alexander Technique came into existence as the result of several discoveries which F.M. made about movements of the human body. From my own experience with the Technique I like to think of it as a unique study which opens up a vast amount of knowledge, showing us that we are not very sensitive to different qualities of movement and especially to the more delicate qualities.
Lessons in the Technique should acquaint individuals with the details for understanding the activities of the 'Primary Control', and also of observing habits of movement.
When unnecessary pressures are noticed the pupil learns to re-direct that energy to release those pressures.
To understand this simple procedure, it is necesssary to take a few lessons from an Alexander Teacher who understands F.M.'s discoveries.
Along with the concept of 'Primary Control', Alexander also considered 'Inhibition' of unnecessary pressures, 'Re-direction of Energy', and 'Re- education of the Sensory Mechanism'. The latter two are best demonstrated through a lesson with an Alexander Teacher, but it is possible along with 'Primary Control', to discuss 'Inhibition'.
F.M. said, "Inhibition is receiving a stimulus to gain a certain end and refusing to react to it, thereby inhibiting the unsatisfactory habits of use associated with habitual reaction." My experience has proved to me that inhibition is an activity.
During the process of making these discoveries, he would tell his friends about his work. They began saying, "If these new discoveries are so valuable, why don't you help us understand them so that we can have this experience?"
So, the growth and development of the Technique came about as F.M. began to explain this information to his friends and later to other people.
No theory was involved because the actual experience proved his discoveries to be valid.
From left to
right: Majorie Barstow, Erika Whittaker, George Trevelyan
People are often amazed when you work with them that through very little use of your hands, you can make major sensory changes--major changes which people can begin to recognize in themselves.
Yes, but the individual I am working with has the responsibility of knowing that he or she is moving in the direction of the guidance my hands are giving them. The use of my hands is a direction to be followed. Eventually, the individual takes full responsibility for the movement.
Marj, in your training program did F.M. or A.R. talk about how or where to put your hands when you are teaching?
No, they knew from their own past experiences that students would gain that knowledge as they improved in their own use, and they didn't start out to develop special procedures. In this day and age, I believe this is a most important aspect of the Technique for people to understand. F.M. didn't say, "This is what I ought to do now, I've got to do it." He said, "I recognize this condition and I must find out what is causing it, then I must find out how I can prevent it."
Marj, how will students know when they are using themselves 'right'?
There isn't anything either right or wrong when dealing with co-ordination. There are degrees of movement. Life is really moving from one position to another. We never stop and say, "This is right--this is my posture, this is the way I ought to be". If we do that, we're stiff trying to hold that posture. It isn't natural for our bodies to be held in positions.
It's very obvious to many people that you practise what you preach. You actually do what you're trying to get other people to understand.
I can't teach anything that I haven't done myself. I may not always do it, you know we don't always do what we should (life would be very dull if we did). But I know when I want to have more freedom, I know what I can do and what I must do, then I make the choice of whether or not to do it.
William Brenner trained as an Alexander teacher at the Alexander Teacher Training Program in San Francisco (director, Frank Ottiwell), then studied extensively with Marj Barstow before emigrating to Australia. He now runs a teacher training program in Sydney with his wife Rosemary.
Alexander Teaching Associates,
1st floor, 75 Archer Street, Chatswood, 2067 NSW, Australia
tel: +61 (0)2-411-7488 2508