The ‘application approach’ is a way of teaching the Alexander Technique by applying the Technique to an everyday activity, or an activity which is relevant to or common for the pupil. It is frequently used in group teaching. It was predominantly developed by Irene Tasker as an adjunct to private lessons, but only became firmly established as a teaching method with Marjorie Barstow, at which point it eschewed any traditional chair and table work.
F. M. Alexander
Although Alexander did not use the application approach in the sense of using everyday activities in his teaching approach, his teaching would sometimes be geared towards specific issues his pupil encountered. Some examples in MSI include ‘An attempt to hide a thin neck’, ‘An attempt to conceal his height when interviewing actor-managers of shorter stature’, ‘A fixed idea regarding a definite mode of procedure adopted after experiencing a week’s illness in bed’. In UoS he has two chapters on the application of the Technique to golf, and to dealing with stuttering: ‘The golfer who cannot keep his eyes on the ball’, ‘The stutterer’, and others.
Alexander made his first training course students perform two plays, The Merchant of Venice and Hamlet, in 1933 and 1934, which would have made the students apply the Technique to the activities involved in the plays. 
Irene Tasker application work
Irene Tasker writes that her first work in teaching the Alexander Technique was in Spring 1917:
It thus came about that my first work as an Alexander teacher was mostly in ‘application work’. . . . I did what I could in getting them to inhibit in the sense of stopping to think out ‘means’ in whatever they were doing – games, riding, swimming, canoeing, acting plays . . .
Irene Tasker carried on with application work in much of her teaching, using it for the Little School and in her later work in South Africa, where Joyce Roberts was most likely influenced by it. For example, the pupils of the school would write essays on how to apply the activity to a variety of activities (e.g. the ‘means-whereby of grooming a pony’, ‘How to mount a bicycle the Alexander way’, ‘Means-whereby for putting tickets into a ticket holder’, etc.) She also did application work with the students of the first training course. One of the students, Erika Whittaker, said years later:
Several of us had had valuable work with Irene Tasker in ‘application work’ as we called it . . .
She used to ask us to dinner in her tiny flat and one person would peel potatoes, another do the sprouts, another do something else, but it was all to do with keeping your length in a useful activity, some people sitting on the floor and some on the sofa. . . . It was all very alive and with the idea that you carry the Alexander work into the things you are doing.
Erika Whittaker quoted from a letter by Marjorie Barstow which testifies to the influence Irene Tasker had on Marjorie Barstow:
I think Irene Tasker was of more value that we could realise at the time we were in training. Now I appreciate what she did for me more and more.
The Barstow application approach
Marjorie Barstow became the main proponent of application work when she switched from teaching individual lessons to group classes around 1972. (For some time the term ‘group classes’ was used to describe Barstow’s approach. Don Weed: ‘Historically, ‘group teaching’ is the name that was given to a particular approach to teaching the Alexander Technique developed in the early seventies, primarily by Marjorie Barstow.’)
Marjorie Barstow’s application approach frequently consists of three steps: asking the pupil what activity they want to apply the Technique to, have the pupil performing the activity while the teacher (and perhaps others if taught in a group setting) observes, and then making suggestions for how to apply the Technique to the activity. It may also include asking the audience, where applicable, for what they observed, before and after. Working with an individual in this way is often shorter than a private lesson, especially in a group setting, and may only take 5–10 minutes.
Marjorie Barstow certified a number of teachers who were trained by her in application work only and consequently had no or next to no knowledge of how Alexander taught or of the classical procedures. Over the years the pros and cons of both approaches have been discussed and criticised.
Justifications for the Barstow application approach
The ‘Barstow application approach’ – a combination of application work and group work without prior classical teaching – has been described and justified mainly in Marjorie Barstow: Her Teaching and Training.
Justifications also includes Eckhart Richter’s ‘The application approach – Innovation or heresy?’, and Cathy Madden in Galvanizing Performance, where she writes:
Direct application is a practical, simple, related-to-life approach. Some people learn AT via a set of procedures that are limited in scope. . . . A case could be made that the procedures might become an end in themselves, perhaps impeding the integration of AT into daily and professional life.
There is no record of any criticisms of the application approach as an adjunct to classical teaching. For example, Walter Carrington:
As we also discussed previously, FM didn’t limit himself to the chair, nor did he consider that others should do so: it all depends on the pupil’s problems, what their interests are, how many lessons they’ve had, and so on. So, it’s entirely reasonable to give people lessons from the point of view of their practical interests. But one also has to remember that beginners who come for a basic course of thirty lessons have to be introduced to the basic principles of the Technique. . . . Then, of course, one can move on to other things.
There are some criticisms of the Barstow application approach. They include:
- asking people after they have performed an activity in a non-habitual way, what they felt or observed, and relying on the feeling feedback for guidance.
- that the method is too performance-oriented, and may be seen as skill-enhancement rather than a constant, universal change in daily use.
‘In Praise of the Chair – A critique of the application approach’ by Walton L. White argues that chair work provides the fundamentals, especially of inhibition and not relying on feelings, which has to be practised before trying to apply the Technique to an activity.
‘An appellation approach: On naming a trade or trading on a name’ by Walton L. White argues that the application approach is so different from how the Technique has been generally taught that it will confuse the public.
‘John Nicholls response to Eckhart Richter’s article’ by John Nicholls criticises assumptions made by application-approach proponents of ‘traditional teaching’.
Frank P. Jones criticised Barstow’s approach in his drafts and notes. The following was published posthumously in the new edition of his Freedom to Change:
On suggestion: The use of suggestion in teaching the Alexander Technique illustrates the adage ‘Nothing fails like success’. It is possible and really very easy to suggest a sensory experience and have a pupil or even an observer report that he experiences it, but once a person has convinced himself he has had a sensory experience, whatever this experience is, he will keep on having it whether it is appropriate or not – after this it may become almost impossible to give him an authentic experience.
The following sentence was not included: ‘Marjorie Barstow’s group demonstrations provide striking examples of this.’ The omission of this sentence was discussed in NASTAT News: ‘Freedom to Change review’ by Alexander Murray. And ‘Response to book review Freedom to Change’ by Robert Rickover.
Development of Barstow’s application approach
Barstow’s application approach has been further developed into a teaching style which shuns the use of hands altogether, and today there are teachers giving lessons by Skype and other internet video apps.
‘Teaching without touching, touching without teaching’ by Catherine Kettrick and Peter Ribeaux provides an example of teaching without touching.
‘Teaching technology’ by Jeremy Chance; on Alexander’s own teaching journey, on asking a pupil what they wish to work on, on the pedagogical approach of getting a pupil to understand at a thinking level first before any use of hands for guidance.
‘Styles of teaching’ by Jamie McDowell discusses styles of teaching according to rational, functional and phenomenological criteria.
Teaching the Alexander Technique – Active Pathways to Integrative Practice by Cathy Madden is a detailed account of the author’s development of Barstow’s approach, e.g. structure, planning, observational skills, and the reasoning for every aspect of this approach to teaching, individually as well as in groups (though mainly in groups).
Teaching by Hand, Learning by Heart by Bruce Fertman contains stories of teaching using the application approach.
The Interactive Teaching Method
The Barstow application approach has also been named as ‘The interactive teaching method’ by Don Weed, a method which also places less significance on hands-on work:
‘My own model, based on my reasoning and experience, suggests that the specific use of hands in teaching is relatively unimportant.’
‘The five secrets of the Alexander Technique’ by Veronica Pollard reports that in ITM the five mental disciplines are: 1. the three part process of protocol design; 2. inhibition, 3. giving directions without attempting to ‘do’ them; 4. additive thinking, 5. genuine trust. The author also reports on a practical demonstration of how these are used in teaching.
‘Interactive group teaching’ by Irma Hesz gives examples of the kind of questioning used to guide a pupil through an activity.
The terms ‘application approach’ and ‘classical teaching’ (e.g. chair work) are problematic, as there is no clear line of demarcation. Chair work can be seen as the application of the Technique to sitting and standing (although it is more than that). Lying-down work can be seen as the application of the Technique to lying-down. Directed activities (‘games’) is the application of the Technique to a range of activities. In addition some teachers specialise in applying the Technique to a specific activity, e.g. music, running, horse riding. Perhaps the most common distinguishing feature is that the application approach, as frequently practised, does not involve any classical teaching at all, whereas in classical teaching a certain amount of chair work and/or lying-down work is used as preparation, before applying the Technique to an activity. However, a number of classical trained teachers might not apply the Technique to any activity, except Alexander’s ‘classical procedures’, and so it is difficult to generalise.
See also Irene Tasker, Marjorie Barstow, Classical procedures, Directed activities, Hands-on work.