Marj Barstow #2, Moving Up, London 1988

by John Hunter, an Alexander Technique teacher and trainer in London, England

(originally published in his blog UpwardThought and reprinted here with his kind permission)

The ‘Marj’ workshops took place in Rudolph Steiner House next to Regents Park in London. There were many things which were not so good about the organisation of the event, but in this series I want only to speak about my experiences of watching and working with Marjorie Barstow.

I learnt a great deal from observing the way she worked and interacted with people. Although she had a somewhat autocratic manner (Erika said that even at Ashley Place in the early 1930s, Marj had a touch of the ‘school ma’am’ about her), it was tempered by a good deal of humour – often at the expense of the pupil if he or she asked a stupid question, tried to ‘do’ it or let their attention wander. Her assistants were very evidently aware of her presence and of when they were in her field of attention; they visibly went ‘on the alert’ when she came into the room. It was amusing to watch one of them quickly uncrossing his legs and rearranging himself like a naughty schoolboy when Marj fixed her eye upon him.

Then what was her ‘method’? Bearing in mind that I can only speak of what I observed that week, here are some impressions.

She encouraged people to observe, with as much accuracy as they could muster, exactly what they were doing. This was always related to an activity. The group she was working with would usually be asked what they wanted to do. This in itself put the onus on the pupil of engaging; of making a decision; of having the courage to ‘speak up’ and say what they wanted. For some, this was already a ‘bridge too far’.

Someone might then say that he or she wished, for example, to recite a poem.  Marj would then invite the person to do so and she would watch. Afterwards, the person was invited to say what they were able to observe about themselves during the process. Other members of the group might be asked to say what they had observed. Marj would then use her hands to coordinate the person’s head, neck and back; then he or she was asked to repeat the poem.  There was, of course, a noticeable difference between before and after.  The moral was that in order to carry out any activity you need to put your head forward and up. That in itself was not new as an approach (for example Ethel Webb and Irene Tasker’s ‘application work’ in the Little School and Teacher Training Course). Marj used the ‘group dynamic’ to – as it were – reinforce the experience. This method of teaching can be a very powerful tool.  It encourages observation, attention to process, decision making and what Marj called ‘constructive thinking’.

I wanted to experience more directly the ‘energetic aspect’ of her work; the ‘inner content’, so to speak. Hoping that she would take my hands, I asked her to help me work on someone.  This ruse, however, did not work. I had expected that she would take my hands or my back and work with me on the pupil, but she just stepped back, fixed me with her eagle eyes and told me to get on with. I had not quite realised what I was letting myself in for.

Nevertheless, the experience gave me a helpful insight into what it was she was looking for. The pupil on whom I was working said that it ‘felt great’. Marj, however, was not interested in what the pupil did or didn’t feel. She was watching me. She said “I didn’t see you moving up as you put your hands on her”.

Afterwards one of the assistants came and gave me a reassuring ‘well done, brave try’ pat on the back, as though I had been through some kind of trial by fire. In a way I had, because, like trying to work on a pupil in front of Patrick MacDonald, you could feel her attention on you. She was ‘all there’. Nothing but the real counted, and you knew it.

Later in the week, however, I got my reward. While we were all working together Marj came over to me, placed one hand on my back and with her other hand placed my hand on a pupil’s neck. There it was! Crystal clear!  My back softly expanded, energy flowed along my arm and through my hand, the pupil’s neck softened, his head went forward and up, his back lengthened and widened and he went gliding across the room.  Then I could make the link. The actual experience of direction in the teacher, conveyed through the hands to the pupil, was essentially in no way at variance with what I had been learning for the past several years. Marj’s particular emphases – going into activity or movement, observation and ‘constructive thinking’ – were differences of form rather than content.

© 2013 John S Hunter


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