LIBRARY - Reference(s)

Not to ‘Do’ : Review by Victoria Wass.

AT Focus: 
Alexander Technique
Article, essay
Article, citation and copright
Article Text: 
This diary account of a sensitive and articulate trainee teacher’s experience of a course of lessons in the Alexander Technique is interesting because the teacher is Margaret Goldie (1905-97), an early pupil and trainee of Alexander and subsequently a long-serving and much revered teacher. The result is an intelligent and practical account of the Alexander Technique. The diary form is used to good effect to communicate the essential theoretical elements of the Alexander Technique in a lively and endearing way.

Originally I had been discouraged from reading this book by a rather lukewarm review but it was later recommended to me by a colleague who had been a pupil of Margaret Goldie’s. I read his copy straight through, bought my own, and have since lent it out to many of my pupils. In sharp contrast to the glossy pictures, exaggerated claims and soundbite-style commentary so characteristic of much of the “alternative therapy” literature, the writing style is lucid, concise and modest and the content is simple, clear and uncompromising. The presentation is in keeping with the book’s style and message. It is a quiet book, beautifully produced with good paper, generous line-spaving and a ribbon bookmark. Margaret Goldie’s instructions and explanations to her pupil resonate so clearly with my own understanding of the Alexander Technique, and with how I try to teach it, that I was left wishing that I too had taken lessons with Margaret Goldie and kept a diary. In many ways this is the book that I wish I had written. It is certainly the book that I return to in furtherance of my own practice and teaching. Margaret Goldie died in 1997, and I am grateful that Fiona Robb had the resolution to record and publish her experience of lessons with this renowned teacher.

In the Introduction we learn of the author’s difficulties and her motivation for seeking lessons with Margaret Goldie. To her credit she avoids a confessional style in favour of an informative and restrained account. In preparation for “The Lessons” section, we learn a little of the character and history of Margaret Goldie. She had worked closely with Alexander and this, together with a lifetime of devotion to the man and his work, was the foundation of her confidence and authority as a teacher. She is described as a private and selfcontained lady who, at 91, remained perceptive, tenacious and resilient. In her teaching she was assured, insistent and unwavering.

The main focus of the book, “The Lessons”, makes up the middle section, which is a transcript, often in note form, of the author’s thoughts and questions, and her teacher’s instructions and answers, which took place over a course of 21 lessons. The author simply observes the effect of Margaret Goldie’s hands, her instructions and her observations, without offering explanations. It is this style, the focus on observation rather than interpretation, which evokes the lesson so clearly for the reader, particularly one who is familiar with the Alexander Technique. The simple instructions of deciding to stop, wishing for quiet and maintaining an attitude of non-doing having given consent to a response, the core elements of the Alexander Technique, are repeated endlessly as we accompany the author through her lessons.

While Miss Goldie’s language might seem old-fashioned and even quaint, the meaning is always clear and precise. In relation to stopping, for example, “That is the key – to stop and be quiet. The practice is in the stopping” (p.53). She offers some further advice that stopping is to be asked for and not made to happen “just register the decision that you want to be quiet and then let it go” (p. 68). “You just think that you would like to be quiet” (p. 80). In relation to direction, “give the head a chance to grow out of the body” (p. 35) and “just go on stopping and growing” (p. 114). She reminds us that the Alexander Technique is all about “brainwork” (p. 36) and that “brain activity should not involve muscle activity” (p.40).

The Afterword provides supplementary explanation, intended for readers unfamiliar with the Technique. This is the theory section and, in keeping with the rest of the book, the author’s description and explanation of the Alexander Technique are alive, efficient and effective. This section really speaks to me and, judging from the feedback from my pupils, to them also. The terms which are peculiar to the Alexander Technique – primary control, endgaining, monkey – and which are so difficult for teachers to convey to pupils, are clearly and practically explained.

I am not sure this is a book that those without experience of the Alexander Technique will understand. The verbatim reporting of instructions, so familiar and inspiring to those with knowledge of the Alexander Technique, may appear meaningless to the uninitiated. Take the following interchange: the author complains that her knees are hurting. The teacher responds, “Well you just send a few messages telling them to be quiet and they’ll begin to learn” (p. 129). One solution would have been to place the Afterword as a Foreword. The disadvantage of course is that it is the personal touches in the diary account which are likely to inspire the desire for lessons. Furthermore, for the prospective pupil, I am not sure that a lesson with Margaret Goldie is representative of Alexander lessons generally, or indeed that a prospective pupil would be encouraged to take lessons on this basis. While many teachers would like to be as clear-thinking and committed as Margaret Goldic, very few I expect would be quite as stern, to the point, we are told, of “terrorising” her pupils (p. 70).

For me, this was a source of disquiet. We read numerous examples of Margaret Goldie’s abrupt and unsympathetic teaching style, “Had a lesson with MG today. It was awful – she tore me to shreds” (p. 57). What did she say that was so awful? “If you are going to do the opposite of what I ask you, may as well just go home and not come back” (p. 63). “What’s the point of my teaching you. . . It’s a waste of my time and your money” (p. 67). Predictably, the effect on her pupil was that she was “afraid of Miss Goldie a lot of the time – afraid to move a muscle almost, for fear of the reaction I might provoke” (p. 8). By modern standards in the teaching profession, such an approach would attract disapproval. The author herself describes it as bullying (p. 65). Yet, in her gratitude for the message, she advocates the rudeness with which it is delivered, “I’d like her to shout at me because it might make me see something I’ve not seen before” (p. 107). Clearly, Margaret Goldie’s gift as a teacher was in getting to the heart of her pupils’ misuse, both in terms of observation and communication. I wonder whether her bluntness was necessary to her success or whether a kinder more encouraging approach would have achieved the same result – or even better?

© Victoria Wass. Reproduced with permission.

This edition © Mouritz 2005-2014. All rights reserved.