The Potentiality of Invisible Things: A Proposal for an Investigation into the Application of the Alexander Technique in the Work of a Performing Artist with Specific Reference to the use of Conscious Inhibition in the Critical Moment
‘You translate everything, whether physical, mental or spiritual, into muscular tension.’
~ ( F.M. Alexander, Aphorisms, n.d)
“ It is neither true nor possible to ‘get out of your head’ or only ‘get in your body’ We are whole. We are whole. WE ARE WHOLE. It is well past time to cooperate with human design in a way that insists on nourishing our integrative self.”
~ (Madden, 2014, 3)
The Alexander Technique is a mind/body discipline and a psycho physical re-education of the self. It can be used in many different fields by a wide variety of people. To help with Neuromuscular problems ranging from back pain, neck pain, upper limb disorder and tension problems. Respiratory disorders and stress management. Musicians, dancers, actors and sports men and women often use it to both enhance performance and prevent injury.
This is because the Alexander Technique deals with man’s fundamental relationship to gravity, and how he can learn to influence it for the better. For this relationship underpins every act, including things not normally considered ‘acts’ such as breathing, or blood circulation. This scope of application also makes the Alexander Technique difficult to define in terms of ‘where it fits’ in
Central to the Alexander Technique is the way an individual uses him or herself, both mentally and physically and how they respond to stimuli. We refer to the holistic integrated coordinated response patterns in an individual as their ‘Use’.
Alexander said, “it is impossible to separate 'mental' and 'physical' processes in any form of human activity” (Alexander 1932, 3).
There are several themes which inform this process. Consciousness, becoming conscious of oneself and the subconscious or unconscious. Sensory Appreciation, poor use can lead to being out of touch with feelings and mean that sensory appreciation or kinaesthetic sense can become unreliable, we refer to this as Faulty Sensory Appreciation or Debauched Kinaesthesia. Treating the body-mind as a unit and a desire for natural functioning or non-interference. The search for a centre to integrate the parts of the self, referred to as The Primary Control (of the Manner of the Use of the Self), the way in which our head, neck, back relationship is a primary influence and dynamic organiser, for the co-ordination of the whole-body mechanism and all our movements. The good functioning of this is probably indicative of a person’s state of being both physically and psychologically.
F.M Alexander referred to it as being, ‘a master reflex in co-ordinating the whole psychophysical organism.’ (Walker. E, Forward and Away).
Direction, which language often seems inadequate to describe for it is hard to get across, in words, the feeling of a kinaesthetic sensation, especially if the reader has no prior experience of it. The stumbling block is always the limitation of verbal or written communication. I know of many highly experienced master teachers who still struggle to communicate in words what it is we as Alexander Technique teachers do. We learn by doing and we share our knowledge, in the most part, also by doing.
We might say it feels as if energy is flowing from here to here without having to ascribe objective reality to it. We could usefully consider descriptions of vital energies as chi or prana, from Chinese sages who many centuries ago practised their Taoist meditations. They all experienced feelings of energy shifting through the channels in the body. Whether such things exist objectively as channels and energy does not change the fact that so many people experienced the same feelings as to pass it down as subjective phenomena.
The Alexander Technique can partly be described as a non-verbal humanity. You really do have to experience it, first hand, live, from a suitably qualified practitioner, to fully appreciate what is involved. As Alexander explained, “You can’t tell a person what to do because the thing you have to do is a sensation.” (Alexander, 2000 p.14)
The cornerstone of our work as teachers is inhibition. This comes from the Latin for restraint but in Alexander terms it has nothing to do with repression. In physiology, this term refers to the restraining of an organic process, or the prevention of its initiation by neurological or physiological means. In the Alexander technique the term conscious inhibition refers to a learned process, ‘Inhibition is a decision to withhold the habitual response to a stimulus.’ (Cacciatore, Horak, Henry, 2006:39,40)
The practical application of inhibition in the Alexander Technique teaches an individual that they do have a choice, they can choose here and now not to react in a certain way, the way in which they have become programmed and accustomed to responding.
In his acting career Alexander struggled with frequent vocal problems. His observations led him to discover that even before speech he would retract his head back and down, shortening his stature and depressing his larynx. His discovery was that habitual movement is triggered as early as the moment we start to think about performing an action, involving all unconscious involuntary movements, thus impeding psychophysical unity. "Habitual use of the self (bad posture) triggers automated movement patterns causing bad use of the self, in AT terminology, and this compromises performance." (Alexander, F.M, 1989)
Postural control is of primary importance in the work of a performing artist – it forms the basis for movement activity and the balanced use of muscles and effort. It appears that learning the skill of CI during lessons can help rid a pupil of the excesses in reactivity to stimulus and restore the PC, leading to better global coordination. (Tormis, M.M).
The Alexander Technique is “a means for changing stereotyped response patterns via the inhibition of the postural sets they lead to”or in other words, “a method for expanding consciousness to take in inhibition as well as excitation (“not doing” as well as “doing”)and thus obtaining a better integration of the reflex and voluntary aspects in a response pattern”. (Jones, 1999, 249).
I am particularly interested in how the use of conscious inhibition might affect an actor in their work. As an Alexander Technique teacher, myself, who is also a trained actor, I wish to explore how this skill of inhibition can directly affect performance.
Qualitative research methods such as ethnography allow for and respect the researcher as offering a subjective view of the research undertaken. As a practitioner/researcher I will demonstrate the perspective from which I will gather and disseminate my data. Sherrard (1997) in discussing subjectivity in qualitative research, suggests ways of ‘keeping track’ of all the steps along the way to producing a research enquiry can be taken, so that field notes, reflective diaries, video tapes, tape-recorded interviews are referenced as being available.
Although this takes away the ‘live’ or ‘time-based’ aspect, which is given the highest value in the field of research as a performance practitioner. What lies between emphemerality and materiality may make them the most elusive binary in theatre and performance research.
It is interesting to view the Alexander Technique’s effect through the vehicle of performance as the transience of a lesson will presumably materially manifest itself in the performing artist’s insight and skills gained and then be showcased in live performance.
Trustworthiness in a qualitive research enquiry is important to evaluating it’s worth. According to Lincoln & Guba (1985) this should involve establishing credibility, transferability, dependability and confirmability.
I will set parameters for my research enquiry. These will be discussed with my supervisor as to what would posit a valid and thorough research investigation.
I would suggest giving regular lessons to an actor or group of actors and filming these along with recording my own observations. I may also ask them to choose a monologue to work with and work together in lessons to see how improved ‘use’ and ability to inhibit affects their delivery of the piece. Alongside this I will ask my pupils to record how they find each Alexander Technique lesson and to reflect upon them and particularly this learned skill of inhibition and how it changes as their understanding increases.
I will also document and reflect upon my own process of taking part as a performer, in the final show for the Collaborative Theatre MA, playing a character of a different gender.
According to my information there has only been one academic study into this topic of conscious inhibition (CI) in the moment of performance, although many books have been written on the subject of the Alexander Technique in the performing arts. This research paper was written by Maret Mursa Tormis in Estonia in 2015 in conjunction with Mati Paaske, PHD, professor of Kinesiology and Biomechanics, and his team, therefore both qualitive and quantitive measures were used. Maret’s observations noted that working with students made her realise that the most precise instructions for her teaching were provided by the pupil’s themselves. She focused on how a performer experiences and makes sense of CI and how they described their experience. The research also examined how strong the performers motivation was to renounce their triggered habitual reaction when they caught themselves ‘red-handed’ and also how important CI is in the professional training of a performer.
As I only have qualitive measures available to me at this stage this will be the focus of my study. My findings will be subjective and rely upon testimonial because I don’t have a research body with which to collaborate. I will be reliant on the feedback of my pupil and my own observations as both teacher and performer.
I would hope for a performing artist that this technique of applying CI learnt through a series of weekly AT lessons would have an effect on the mental processes and habitual responses. Allowing them a fine-tuned or heightened awareness that may afford them the ability to respond differently in the critical moment and to decide if the initial psychophysical response is in fact the desired outcome. If not I would hope that they feel that they have a choice and are able to exert greater freedom over the opportunity to do something different. I am aware of time restrictions and the importance of assimilating this learning over time and with due reflection.
I am also aware that I view everything from the point of view of someone who has undertaken ten years of Alexander Technique lessons, three years in full time Alexander Technique teacher training, and three years of teaching the technique myself. Therefore it is impossible for me to unlearn the things that this revealed to me which has impacted on every aspect of my being. Yet I am also aware of my own limitations as a relatively new teacher and expect that my own skills of applying CI and Directing to increase in the subsequent years to come as my experience of teaching increases. It is a model of spiral learning where the same principles are revisited and my understanding of them increases each time.
I also realise that every person experiences the technique differently and I am aware of actor’s who don’t hold much credence for the Alexander Technique, perhaps because they have had an underwhelming experience of it. This raises another question of the parameters of training standards at different training schools as the Alexander Technique, although regulated by STAT (Society of Teachers of the Alexander Techniques) in the UK, is not a registered profession or a regulated discipline so membership is on a voluntary basis having subsequently completed a sufficient three-year full-time training course. Having sat on the STAT Training Course Committee for two years as a student member I am aware of the frustrations this creates in our field.
A recent study at Manchester University reveals findings that seem to add some scientific basis for understanding the PC and the work of Alexander Technique teachers. (Mechanisms of Sensorimotor Control Relevant to the Alexander Technique, STAT News, January 2018, volume 9, Issue 9). In order for the AT to become respected in the mainstream there will need to be more research enquiries and scientific discoveries to substantiate its efficacy.
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Alexander Technique (AT) Terminology
Alexander Technique (The) A technique promoting psycho-physical integration, improving breathing, balance and co-ordination by means of manual guidance and verbal instruction from a specialist.
Direction or directions. A process of mentally projecting orders or directions from the mind to the body. A thought process that elicits a physical response.
Inhibition. A process of withholding consent to respond habitually to a given stimulus. A way of stopping (inhibiting).
Monkey A body attitude in which the ankles, knees and hips are flexed, usually with the upper body inclined forward. Because of the external appearance of this position it earned the nickname of monkey in Alexander circles. When done well, it encourages elasticity of muscle tone throughout the body. It is used by Alexander Teachers as a basic working attitude.
Primary Control Alexander’s observation that there exists a certain relationship of the head to the neck, and of the head and neck to the back. This relationship of parts can work well or not. When working well, it acts as a controlling influence on the whole body. It is why, in order to improve, for example, the use of an arm, one would first pay attention to the state of the neck, head and back.