Lately in my lessons, both as teacher and as student, I’ve been thinking about the relationship in learning between 1) fostering the particular skills under development and 2) fostering the overall state of coordination in the student. I’ve been wondering what the most beneficial ratio in focus on these two factors might be.
In most teaching, #1 gets virtually all of the attention. I’m recalling my childhood swimming lessons, in which I was taught how to kick my legs, how to move my arms, how to blow out the air under the water, and so on. Nobody ever suggested that all these functions were part of an overall pattern of whole-body coordination, or that it could be helpful to consider that coordination in learning to swim. In any case, I learned how to (barely) remain afloat while struggling mightily.
I also recall some unfortunate early voice lessons I took with marvelous singers who had no clue how to teach. I learned how to move my ribs and how to position my palate, tongue, throat, and even cheekbones, with not even a nod to the idea that somehow all these parts were subject to an overall coordination in my body, which could be well or poorly adjusted while I was singing. Of course, the more I tried to correctly align all the involved pieces of my anatomy, the more I interfered with my overall coordination. Since nobody was paying any attention in the learning process to this coordination, it escaped all of us—me and my teachers—that something radically detrimental was happening. Yes, I learned to sing, but only through a huge amount of straining.
Eventually, I was fortunate enough to come into contact with the Alexander Technique, a method for learning that does take the overall coordinative state of the body into account. In fact, it makes attention to this state the PRIMARY focus of all learning.
Since then, I have relearned how to swim and how to sing from teachers who are also Alexander teachers. Now I no longer struggle in the water or in my favorite songs, because I have learned to frequently check in with how the activity I’m undertaking is affecting my whole-body coordination, or, in Alexander’s words, my primary control.
Since my Alexander training began, I have strived to uphold in all my teaching Alexander’s principle of attending first and foremost to the primary control. Even so, I am coming to believe that I have underestimated the relative importance of this principle in the teaching process. In short, it seems to be much less crucial than I ever thought to teach someone how to do something (to sing or swim, for example) and much more crucial to teach someone how not to interfere with the primary control. This is not just healthier, it paradoxically seems to instill a higher level of skill in the students.
Two recent experiences, one in swimming and one in singing, have caused me to reconsider my teaching philosophy and to form the following hypothesis, which I plan to test throughout the coming months:
Hypothesis: that the less the teacher (me, in this case) concerns himself with the details of the activity and the more he focuses on the non-interference of his students with their primary control, the better the students learn the skill at hand.
My recent experiences, which led to the formulation of this hypothesis:
1. Swimming. During my recent course in Neural Manipulation in Boston, I stayed at a hotel with a pool. After nearly half a year of not swimming at all, it felt great to get back in the water and practice some drills and swim some laps. I started by considering the individual motions of all my parts and was pleased to notice that I seemed to be swimming quite well, despite my hiatus. Then, however, it occurred to me to put my focus on my primary control by paying attention nearly to the exclusion of all other factors to the state of ease of my neck. Surprisingly (perhaps this should not have come as such a surprise!), with this indirect approach, my body coordinated even better in the water. I found myself able to swim lap after lap with nearly no effort and with superb balance in the water. By focusing on my primary control, I was able to get out of my own way, letting my body discover the most efficient way to move.
2. Singing. One of my newest Alexander students came last week for her first lesson. Only after we’d worked together a bit did we discover with delight that we were both singers. It seemed to make sense to bring singing into the lesson at that point, so I used that activity to explore some Alexander principles. To our even greater delight, we observed her singing getting freer and freer and sounding better and better. (This was not a voice lesson; all we were working on was her noticing what she was doing with her neck muscles while singing.) She remarked that in two minutes of working in this way she had learned more about singing that she had during the whole time she was studying with her last voice teacher.
I am excited to explore the tweaking of my focus in teaching. I already consider the primary control in my voice teaching, but perhaps I haven’t made it primary enough! F.M. Alexander wrote that if we make sure that we are not interfering with our primary control, the right thing will do itself. Cornelius Reid wrote that by choosing the correct exercise, a teacher could spontaneously stimulate a healthy vocal response in the student. When I consider these two principles together, they seem to add up to this truth: I don’t have to tell my students how to sing.
This truth scares me a little! It has earth-shaking ramifications for singing, if not for all of human endeavor. I’ll report back on how my experiments are progressing. . . .