‘Hands-on work’ here refers to that part of teaching the Alexander Technique which involves the teacher using hands touching the pupil for the purpose of feedback and guidance.
F. M. Alexander made several references to the use of hands by the teacher in his writings. The first reference appears in 1908:
I append a simple example of what is meant by mechanical advantage. Let the pupil sit as far back in a chair as possible. The teacher, having decided upon the orders necessary for securing the elongation of the spine, the freedom of the neck (i.e. requisite natural laxness) and other conditions desirable to the particular case in hand, will then ask the pupil to rehearse them mentally, at the same time that he himself renders assistance by the skillful use of his hands.
It is not known when Alexander started to use his hands for teaching, but it would appear to be early in his teaching career. Marjory Barlow in an interview with Seán Carey reports:
Have I ever told you how FM came to use his hands in teaching? No? Well, after FM recovered his voice, he earned part of his living teaching drama students. I remember him telling me: ‘It never occurred to me that they wouldn’t be able to do what I told them. But they just couldn’t understand what I was talking about. So when they pulled their heads back, I just put my hands on and made an adjustment.’
She relates the same story in an interview with Trevor Allen Davies:
F.M told me how he came to use his hands in the first place . . . after he got his voice right he went back . . .[ to] training young healthy Australians to go on the stage. . . . So he tried to tell them what not to do . . . And nobody understood a word of it! So he said instinctively, ‘No, not that! That’s what I mean!’ and put his hands on.
Walter Carrington relates much the same story on the origin of hands-on work in Personally Speaking.
Alexander referring to hands-on work
In MSI and especially in CCC Alexander several times uses the term ‘manipulation’ in referring to hands-on work, e.g. in MSI:
I do not therefore, in teaching him, actually order him to lengthen his spine by performing any explicit action, but I cause him to rehearse the correct guiding orders, and after placing him in a position of mechanical advantage I am able by my manipulation to bring about, directly or indirectly as the case may be, the desired ﬂexibility and extension.
And in CCC:
The teacher will therefore advise the pupil to stop relying on his own judgement in these matters, and, instead, to listen to the new instructions, and to allow the teacher to give him by means of manipulation the new correct sensory experiences.
In UoS he refers to the ‘the hands of the teacher’, ‘the teacher with the hands’ and similar (and not to manipulation), and only a few times. In UCL there is only two references to the practice of the teacher giving the pupil the experience with the hands. In UCL ‘manipulation’ is used to described the work of an osteopath.)
Descriptions of F. M. Alexander’s hands-on work
Alexander became increasingly skilled in the use of his hands over the years according to several reports. Jones wrote:
F. M. told me that in 1914 he was just beginning to find a new way of using his hands in teaching. By applying the inhibitory control (which had proved so effective in breathing and speaking) to the use of his hands he was learning to make changes in a pupil that were different from ordinary manipulation or postural adjustment.
And that as Alexander became more skilled in the use of his hands he became less dependent on words.
F. P. Jones describes the purpose of the hands-on work:
Alexander and his brother, A. R. Alexander (1874–1947), developed a way of using their hands to convey information directly through the kinaesthetic sense. They gave their pupils an immediate ‘aha’ experience of performing a habitual act—walking, talking, breathing, handling objects, and the like—in a non-habitual way. The technique changed the underlying feeling tone of a movement, producing a kinaesthetic effect of lightness that was pleasurable and rewarding and served as the distinguishing hallmark of non-habitual responses. It was then up to the pupil to learn the technique for himself. The learning process was greatly facilitated, however, because in the ﬁrst lesson the pupil had a foretaste of the experiences he would have, once he had learned it.
Walter Carrington reports that Alexander’s use of his hands changed after his stroke in late 1947:
He very definitely gave the impression he was making much less physical effort and exerting much less strength but, at the same time, was achieving much more impressive results with his pupils. Previously, he’d work on big, heavy people and he could pretty much man-handle them out of the chair without giving the impression there was any strain or effort involved. It was all performed very skillfully but, nonetheless, he came across as quite a strong man. In the latter years, he no longer gave you the same impression of physical strength – he was more frail, in other words – but his hands managed to communicate a very powerful stimulus. The power of his direction was very, very strong. I always remember that when he had his hands on you, you felt he had very large hands. They enfolded you, as it were. In actual fact, though, his hands were not very large. But they had an extraordinary power, sensitivity and consistency.
For more descriptions of Alexander’s hands-on work, see Descriptions of F. M. Alexander.
Alexander teaching hands-on work
There are no records of how Alexander taught hands-on work in his training course except that both Erika Whittaker and Marjory Barlow describe how Alexander would place his hands over a student’s hands (which in turn were placed on another student) while doing table work or chair work. Erika Whittaker further states: ‘he [Alexander] was very insistent that you put your hands to feel what the person was doing, but not with the preconceived intention of taking the person’s head forward and up. The procedure was to watch your own use in order to give the direction with your hands.’
Writings on the use of the hands for teaching
Walter and Dilys Carrington paid particular attention to the use of the hands in teaching on their training course, Constructive Teaching Centre. They did not write on it substantially themselves, but there are references to the importance of the use of hands in their writings. Dilys Carrington wrote a short paper for circulation among their students, ‘Using your hands’ (1984). There are several reports on their teachings:
The diary of directed activities at the Constructive Teaching Centre (CTC) contains some reports of how the use of hands were taught.
Carolyn Nicholls reports on the training of hands-on work at CTC in her Notes Towards a Method for Training Alexander Teachers.
Ted Dimon also covers the training of hands-on in his The Use of the Hands in Teaching.
‘Teaching hands-on in training Alexander teachers’ by Robin Simmons makes some observations regarding the teaching of hands-on work.
Developing hands-on work
‘A classical use of the front hand’ by Mervyn Waldman; on the use of the front hand when placed under the jaw with one or more fingers on the clavicle and/or other parts of the chest; with illustrations showing the vectors of the hand and fingers.
‘The formulation of an Alexander lesson – An illustrated guide for the perplexed – Part one’, ‘Part two’,  ‘Part three’ by Mervyn Waldman contains instructions on placement and direction of hands while working with some classical procedures.
‘Feeling hands’ by Paolo Frigoli; on developing sensitivity in hands-on work for the purposing of enhancing inhibition and direction.
‘A subtle use of the hands’ by Carolyn Nicholls considers the thumb and the little finger, and suggests some work on your own and work in pairs for developing quality of the hands.
‘Thinking hands and thinking hands listening and talking’ by Brita Forsstrom discusses the importance of touch, on hands being part of our whole selves, the different parts of the hands, and HOBC and ulnar deviation.
‘The sensitive touch’ by Paulo Frigoli describes a workshop with practices for increasing a sensitive touch when using the hands in teaching.
‘Hands-on basics’ by Simon Fitzgibbon argues for the importance of hands-on and considers the development of hands-on skills.
‘Using our hands’ by Max Rutherford reflects on what is going on when a teacher places hands on a pupil and what part they play in the learning process.
‘Between stimulus and response there is a space’ by Diana Devitt-Dawson argues of the importance of the use of hands with reference to Alexander and several first-generation teachers.
‘Handing the experience to the pupil’ by Ruth Rootberg is a detailed study of the history, development and purpose of hands-on teaching, with extensive quotes from the Alexander Technique literature; and also asking whether there is a realistic substitute for hands-on work.
Science related to hands-on work
‘Graviception’ by Glenna Batson considers scientific evidence on how light touch affects our balance and its possible implications for the primary control.
‘The brain, body, and touch’ by Sarah Barker; on new research which can inform teachers’ hands-on work (touch) and describing three experiments in the use of touch.