Congress Articles

Alexander Technique Reflections

Richard Brennan:

‘Empowering Humanity, Inspiring Science’.

August 9th – 15th, 2015, Limerick, Ireland

Many Alexander teachers are not aware that Frederick Matthias Alexander’s grandmother, Mary Redden was Irish or that the ‘Redden’ in A R’s came from that Irish lineage. The Redden family were in fact from Limerick, which is the same location of the next Alexander Congress which in an interesting way completes a unique circle. Alexander’s love for the Arts including poetry music and theatre may well have come from his Irish genes. Also the Irish are generally thought as ‘free-thinkers’ with not too much respect for petty rules and regulations which might help to explain why he made the discoveries he did. By having the next Alexander Congress in Ireland we hope that it will be the most creative, exciting and enjoyable Alexander Congress so far. It fact it has even been suggested that we drop the ‘congress’ part of the title and rename it as the ‘Alexander Technique international Party 2015!’

A Little Congress History

In actual fact the seeds of the Alexander Technique congresses were sown at another party – a party for Alexander teacher trainees in London in 1975, for this was when Michael Frederick, the originator of the idea behind the Congresses, first became aware of a distinct separation of various ‘Alexander groups’. Up until then he had naively assumed that the Alexander Technique and its embodied principles would lead to a whole and cooperative Alexander community and thus avoiding the usual downward spirals and degeneration that occur in many other organizations.

During this ‘London party’ however, Michael noticed the ‘Macdonald’ group were standing in one corner of the room and the ‘Carrington’ people gathered in the opposite corner and very few ‘Barlow’ trainees even attended and there was not even a mention of Marj Barstow. There was little mixing or sharing ideas and it seemed to Michael that only thing everyone in the room could agree upon was the fact that UK trainings were far better than the ones in America!

Michael was concerned that since Alexander’s death in 1955, the Alexander community no longer had a focal point for the Work, but instead, there were many individuals who were finding their own ways of teaching the Alexander Technique. Michael thought that it was inevitable, that these individuals and their teachings would evolve in very different directions and that if nothing was done to find a unifying force in the Alexander world, the teachers of the Technique will become increasingly distant from one another, both in style and in substance.

Out of concern that the Technique would fragment into a thousand pieces Michael organized the first International Congress of Alexander Teachers, in Stony Brook, New York in August 1986 to bring the Alexander community together. He invited many teachers who had been trained by Alexander himself including Patrick MacDonald, Walter and Dilys Carrington, Marjory and Wilfred Barlow and Marjorie Barstow in the hope to preserve the essence of the Work. This first meeting was such a success that it was followed by an unbroken series of Congresses which took place every few years. These subsequent congresses included Brighton, England in 1988, Engelberg, Switzerland in 1991, Sydney, Australia in 1994, Jerusalem, Israel in 1996, Freiburg, Germany in 1999, Oxford, England in 2004 and Lugano, Switzerland in 2008 and 2011.

At each Congress the global Alexander community would come together for a week-long event where sharing ideas about the work and soon became an essential source of learning and growth for hundreds of Alexander teachers. Now for the very first time in its history the Alexander Congress will take place in Ireland – the land of music laughter and magic!

Location, Location, Location

Limerick City in the West of Ireland has been chosen as the venue for the next Congress. Steeped in history, Limerick is one of the oldest cities in Ireland. Its origins date back to 812AD. In this fascinating city you will find castles and historic building wherever you go and Limerick is within easy reach of the most breath-taking scenery of counties Clare and Kerry. You will find Irish music in many of the pubs and a friendliness that only Ireland can offer. At the same time The University of Limerick offers state of the art lecture theatres and workshop rooms which are comfortable and geared for learning. There will be plenty of on-campus accommodation, which is very modern and comfortable, and is only a few minutes walk from the workshops and talks. And as for getting to Limerick – it is well served by Shannon, Cork and Dublin airports with a great bus or train network connecting to the heart of Limerick.

The theme for the 2015 congress tries to build on the foundation of all the other the previous congresses and yet it is hoped that this event will take the Congress vision one step further on the path of connecting and supporting one another. Our aim is to bring all those people around the world interested in the Alexander Technique to come together in order to learn from each other as well as to share in the celebration of this wonderful work and to leave our fears, disagreements and prejudices behind so that we can progress in harmony with one another and present this work to the world. The theme for the 2015 Congress quite aptly is ‘Empowering Humanity, Inspiring Science’.

Like all other congresses there will be a wide variety of plenary lectures, this time focusing on anatomy in the morning sessions and a variety of subjects in the afternoon. There will also be the popular Continuous Learning sessions in the morning and as well as a wide variety of workshops in the afternoon which be sure to satisfy every taste. We have colour coded the workshops for easy selection; categories include: hands on workshops, activities based workshops such as sitting, walking, running, swiming, dance etc., workshops that focus on Alexander principles and procedures, workshops on breathing, voice or presentation skills and we will also have workshops that deal with communicating the Alexander Technique, improving your business or developing PR skills.

All the main stage speakers have been hand-picked for their excellence in public speaking and have a reputation of making their presentation lively and interesting. People such as Michael Gelb, Jack Stern, Glenna Batson, Galen Cranz and Bob Britton will all take the stage to present Alexander related topics of interest. Topics such as letting us into the secret of how to think like Leonardo di Vinci or what happens anatomically when we sit on badly designed chairs or even getting in touch with our inner predator! The current Congress team are determined that we will have a week of enjoyment, simply because that’s when we learn the most.

Unlike some past congresses, in Limerick many participants will be living and eating on campus giving you plenty of opportunity to interact, exchange work or have discussions about Alexander principles. On the other hand you can simply just enjoy an Irish music session with friends in the relaxed atmosphere of the various bars on campus. All participants will have access to all the sports facilities including an indoor running track and an Olympic 50 meters swimming pool.

The Irish are renowned for their ability to enjoy themselves and you will witness this first hand during the nightly entertainment line-up which includes the Mairtin O’Connor Band and even a Limerick (poem) competition. We have even thrown in a wonderful Gala dinner on the last night which will round off the week in a very special way. In a nutshell we have tried to make this the best-value-for money Congress there has ever been. There will be several options of registration including different payment plans which will suit everyone. Partners and family are also very welcome to this very special Congress. There is an Irish saying, ‘There are no strangers here – only friends that you have not met yet’, so come and meet old friends as well as new friends that you have not met yet! When you do arrive at the AT Congress in 2015 please be prepared to expect the unexpected in the nicest possible way and most important of all don’t forget your dancing shoes!

Published in STAT News and AMSAT News in 2013

Michael D. Frederick:

‘Reflections on Coordinating the International Congresses’

When beginning my teacher training in London in the mid-1970’s with Walter and Dilys Carrington, I was young and naive. I assumed that the Alexander Technique, and the principles embodied therein, would lead to a whole and cooperative Alexander Community, exempting it from the usual downward spirals and degeneration that occur in other organizations.

I was rudely awakened upon attending my first ‘London party’ for teacher trainees in the Spring of 1975. The Macdonald group stood in one corner of the room and the Carrington camp in the other – very few Barlow trainees even attended – the Peter Scott students seemed the most amiable, mingling about the room, but were on the ‘fringe of London acceptability.’ The only thing we could all seem to agree upon was a sense of being better than any Alexander teacher trained in America! (Especially by that woman in Nebraska.)

In those days, as far as direct communication among various factions was concerned, there was – at best – an acceptance of ‘agreeing to disagree.’ If a common ground was not found, it was easy to see the Alexander world atrophying into a quaint Edwardian approach to psychophysical re-education.

During his lifetime, F. M. was constantly striving to refine and improve his method of teaching. Even the underlying principles of the Technique were continually being reinterpreted as Alexander looked for better ways to communicate his discovery.

Since his death in 1955, we no longer have Alexander at the center of this natural process. Instead, we have many individuals who are finding their own ways of teaching the Alexander Technique. It is inevitable that these people and their teachings will evolve in different directions. It is also inevitable that if nothing is done to replace Alexander as a unifying force at the center of the Alexander world, the teachers of the Technique will become increasingly distant from one another, both in style and in substance.

These are the ideas that led to the organization of the first International Congress of Alexander Teachers, held at Stony Brook University, New York in August 1986. This was followed by a second Congress in Brighton, England in 1988, and the third Congress in the summer of 1991 in Engelberg, Switzerland.

My experience as Director of each event was dramatically different. At Stony Brook University, the moment Marjory & Dr. Barlow, Marjorie Barstow, Walter & Dilys Carrington, and Patrick Macdonald walked on stage together in front of 250 Alexander Teachers and trainees, I was overwhelmed with emotion. A deep feeling of gratitude to these Master Teachers for agreeing to come together and travelling the great distance to Stony Brook was coexisting with my fear that old wounds might open up over the next six days. Fortunately my fears did not materialize, and the Congress was a success allowing a breath of fresh air to enter into our growing international community. A new but tentative spirit of cooperation developed which opened the way for a second Congress.

Over 500 Alexander teachers and trainees attended the second Congress at the University of Sussex in Brighton, creating an astounding event. Everything went smoothly, however, I became aware of the fact that we were depending very heavily on the first generation teachers. Their understanding and years of experience were vital, but perhaps depending on them was giving us a false sense of security. The primary focus of this event continued to be on classes led by these Master Teachers. Possibly a shift in focus could begin to occur.

Engelberg, Switzerland, three years later, was a significant turning point. The whole feeling and atmosphere of this third Congress was much lighter and easier. We were very fortunate to have Marjory & Dr. Barlow, Marjorie Barstow, Walter & Dilys; Carrington and Dick & Elisabeth Walker, all teaching Master Classes. However, there were also daily Master Classes taught by sixteen 2nd & 3rd Generation teachers*, representing a wide spectrum of the Alexander community. The response to these classes by the almost 500 teachers and trainees at this Congress was extremely positive and indicated to us that this had been a move in the right direction.

The reason these three International Congresses worked as well as they did was because they were open to all Alexander teachers and trainees worldwide, whether they chose to belong to a professional organization or not. The Congresses were opportunities for Alexander teachers from all over the world to gather, celebrate and strengthen their work, no matter their affiliation. These events allowed a common ground of understanding and exploration to begin to develop. Diversity and unity worked side by side.

This open policy continued on to 1994 at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia where the 4th International Congress was held. Professor David Garlick was the new Director. (Dr. Garlick trained in Sydney as an Alexander teacher.) As the decades unfolded, Alexander Technique Congresses in Israel, Germany, England, Switzerland, and Ireland continued this spirit of openness and inclusiveness.

On a closing note . . . One of my favorite memories of Engelberg was during the group photo session in a park in the center of the village, surrounded by the Swiss Alps. I watched Marjory & Dr. Barlow, Marjorie Barstow, Walter & Dilys Carrington, Dick & Elisabeth Walker, along with all the 2nd & 3rd Generation teachers laughing and enjoying being together. I will never forget the impression of this moment it was a long way from that ‘London party’ in 1975.

Doris Dietschy:

‘Background and Significance’

Why Have International Congresses?

We are now fast approaching our sixth international congress and have begun to expect these events as a familiar feature of the AT calendar. But are we simply following a trend? Helping to organise this latest congress has made me consider them not merely as a trend, but as something vital for the survival of the Alexander Technique.

In Latin, congress means ‘joining together’. In the physical coming together of hundreds of people, all sharing the same professional path, the feeling of belonging becomes reality. Whether at the beginning of our training or not, whether teaching a little or a lot, whether since only recently or over many years, we all belong to a group of people who work in a particular way. Working closely together is the very nature of the Technique, but a certain amount of friction is also to be expected.

The international congresses do not have any direct aims in the public domain. They serve the purpose of open exchange among experts eager for knowledge about the whole spectrum of the Alexander Technique. We see where and how the Alexander Technique is being used, yet the congress is also the arena of the untested and undeveloped.

We are able now to look back on five congresses. They are characterised by the desire to bring together Alexander teachers from all over the world to work with the generation of teachers trained by Alexander himself, so they can directly pass on their knowledge of the Technique to others. The older, more experienced members pass on their skills with their charisma, their words and their hands. Hands-on is an experience of continuity: linking back and linking forward.

And it is our privilege that the Alexander Technique hardly ever takes the form of a lecture, but instead consists of application, experimentation and practice; of interchange, participation and movement. In other words, the congresses are active opportunities to get to grips with the Alexander Technique.

The international congresses are not supposed to compete with the Alexander Societies, but to complement their work. Without the enterprise of these organizations the Alexander Technique would not be as widely accepted as it is today. It is in the light of what they have achieved that the concept of an international congress was born.

A Little Background History

It was Michael D. Frederick who successfully managed to bring together the people who had shaped the Alexander Technique since the death of F. M. Alexander. Following his invitation, Dr Wilfred and Marjory Barlow, Marjorie Barstow, Walter and Dilys Carrington and Patrick Macdonald came to Stony Brook near New York in August 1986 and along with them 230 Alexander Technique teachers and students from all over the world. The theme of this first congress was ‘The Alexander Technique, a Worldwide Perspective’.

Two years later in 1988, he was able to welcome as many as 450 participants to Brighton, England. This second congress was dedicated to ‘Research, Training and Stagecraft’.

In 1991 the snow-covered mountains of Engelberg, Switzerland, provided the backdrop for the third conference. This time about 500 Alexander experts came together to take part in ‘The Development of a Profession’. This congress, too, was, initiated by Michael D. Frederick and was marked by his talent for bringing people together. Marjory Barlow, Marjorie Barstow, Walter and Dilys Carrington, Richard and Elisabeth Walker and Dr Wilfred Barlow, who was suffering from a severe heart condition, could once again be convinced that their Senior Master Classes were vital for the continuity of the F. M. Alexander Technique. Master Classes of the second and third teaching generation and the numerous lectures were grouped around their teaching, as had been the case in Stony Brook and Brighton.

This third congress was also confirmation for Michael D. Frederick himself that the international feeling of belonging experienced by Alexander teachers had become reality and was no longer dependent on one single person.

In 1994 Australia applied to host the congress, for it was there almost exactly a hundred years before that F. M. Alexander had developed the Technique. Dr David Garlick, already well-known for his physiology lectures at previous conferences and for his book, The Lost Sixth Sense, took over as director. This time our colleagues in Australia were able to attend a congress without having to travel to the other side of the globe. Many people came from the U.S.A, a whole group came from Japan and together with a few Europeans about 250 guests were accommodated at the University of Sydney. This time the theme was ‘The Meaning of Change’. The Senior Master Classes were very different. Dr Barlow had passed away on October 21st, 1991, as had Patrick Macdonald on November 23rd the same year, and also Richard Walker on January 16th, 1992. For health reasons, Marjorie Barstow and Walter and Dilys Carrington could not make the journey. Teaching demonstrations and recollections from their training period given by Marjory Barlow, Elisabeth Walker and Erika Whittaker were all the more appreciated. Thanks to Dr Garlick and his colleagues with their scientific lectures, which included a visit to the dissecting room, the congress took on a new look.

For a long time it had been widely accepted that the fifth congress should take place in Israel, the country with the most Alexander teachers per capita. Congress directors, Shmuel Nelken, Ora Nelken and Rika Cohen gave their concept the title ‘Back to Basics’. The previous congresses had created a basis of trust which now made it possible to focus on our practical work together, because it is this practical work which helps us to understand the foundations of the Technique: Alexander’s principles. The Senior Master Classes, the Special Interest Classes and the Open Forum were all grouped around daily exchanges of practical work – everyone together. A special event was dedicated to the memory of Marjorie Barstow, who had passed away on July 31st, 1995.

By the end of the congress it had become clear that working with the Technique was the best way to break down language barriers and inflexible differences of opinion.

Copyright Doris Dietschy

*This article was first published in STATNews, Vol. 5, no. 3, January 1999, p. 16. Reproduced with permission by the author.

Jean M. O. Fischer:

‘The International Congress in Oxford’

England was chosen for the 7th International Congress of the Alexander Technique in order to commemorate the centenary of Alexander’s move to England in 1904. This was a turning point in the history of the Technique: without London, and a handsome income here from his teaching (which paid for the publication of his first book) and without the famous pupils he was able to attract, the Technique may not have been successful – or even have survived. Alexander was able to launch himself in the then capital of the world. In addition, he survived world wars and won the South African Libel Case which threatened the future of the Technique. Today there are some 3,500 teachers world-wide, and the Technique is growing steadily. To celebrate the centenary of Alexander’s arrival in England is also to celebrate the fact that his 1904 gamble paid off – not the simple fact of his coming to England but everything which this symbolizes : the advancement of the Technique as a profession and a vocation.

The International Congresses provide the most successful fora for experiencing the many traditions and developments of the Technique. At the Congress in Oxford, significant time will be allowed for exchanging work; for sharing and learning from each other. Words may divide us from time to time, but hands-on work, the experience of “going up” (as Alexander put it) unites us. This is not to suggest that diversity is mere appearance, a matter of words only. But the exchange of work demonstrates the meaning behind the words, and this allows us to transcend linguistic problems and address any real differences in experience and interpretation.

The format of a Congress tends to limit opportunities for individual work. Large classes and big lecture rooms favor those who can command a large group. Alexander Congresses offers individual exchange of work as a balance to traditional lecture-style presentations. The present team of Congress Directors is offering an additional opportunity: Workshop leaders have the option of working with small groups—so practice need not be subordinate to theory. This will mean more workshops and presentations on offer, which should allow all traditions and styles of teaching to be better represented. With some 125 different workshops choosing between them may the most difficult part of the Congress.

“Exploring the Principles” is the theme for this Congress. To teach Alexander’s technique is to teach according to the principles of the Technique. Yet, the principles have not been defined concisely or clearly articulated (or even counted) and only a few teachers have attempted to do either. The Congress Directors hope that this Congress will help to advance the debate as to what the principles are and how best to express them.

The interest in this Congress has been overwhelming; to date, some 550 people have enrolled. There are only a further 200 available places, so please enroll as soon as possible in order to avoid disappointment. We hope you can join us!

Jean M. O. Fischer

Yehuda Kuperman:

‘Encounters’

Just before the Engelberg Conference, I visited Patrick Macdonald at his country home. I came to ask for his approval to talk about him in front of the many conference participants who were arriving from all over the world. Everyone was familiar with his name and knew that Alexander chose him to continue the work at 16 Ashley Place. Macdonald represented the technique faithfully, but also developed his own artistic virtuosity to unparalleled levels.

Macdonald was at the twilight of his life, resting almost horizontally in his red arm chair, contemplating his final resting place. It took him a few moments to fully remember me. Remembering seemed to be an effort despite our long and close association. I sat beside him, the man who could return a person to Eden with the lightest touch. I told him about the congress and how honored I felt to have been invited to address the assembly. I planned to praise Macdonald’s approach and to offer my own insight to his work but I was not sure that he would approve. I expected comments or instructions, but he surprised me; ‘I’ve no objection, nor do I care’ – meaning nothing I could say would matter to his legacy. I sat by him all that day as he lay back in his chair, his gaze blank, focusing perhaps on the past. Only his hands and fingers, almost imperceptibly, seemed to be directing virtual ‘heads’ with slight pulsing movements.

In the weeks leading up to the conference, I filled many pages with words and ideas that I had extracted from Macdonald’s ‘talking’ hands’. I tried to explain how his touch differed from the other first generation teachers. I know it is the progressive thing to say – that each teacher should have his own style and freedom of expression, yet Macdonald’s touch – so freeing and enjoyable, seemed to be completely in Alexander’s spirit. Externally, Macdonald’s lessons appeared to involve a lot of flowing, graceful movement – almost like dancing. A duet which Macdonald would lead, invite, drive, and then halt. His manner led others to conclude that Macdonald’s approach was mainly physical, falling short of the psychophysical principals.

During those weeks, I came to realize that the dynamics of Macdonald’s work were so special because the quality of his touch stayed constant with the movement. For him – devotion did not require a church or a temple so to speak – it could take place anywhere and everywhere. The principals did not need to be practiced with a chair or a table; they flowed within the body and within life. And in order for the touch to resonate with the internal flow and the externalmovement, it is vital that the connection between teacher and pupil support mutual, shared growth – the kind that enables voyages of discovery beyond the chair and the body.

Accompanied by a short film I made of Macdonald working, my lecture ran overtime. At its end, I felt compelled to escape the crowd. I wasn’t sure if my words would be interpreted as heresy, hallucinations or ramblings into territory that wasn’t quite Alexander Technique. For my part, I felt content with my lecture. I think that if Macdonald had been there, he would only have stopped me on account of his own humility or out of a reverence for this sacred subject matter – where words fall short of the hands-on experience. I left the large lecture hall and wandered into town. From there I took a path into the woods. The distant cliffs still had remnants of last year’s snow that had yet to surrender to July’s oppressive heat. I was thinking about Macdonald’s quiet ways, about Ashley Place in the mid 1960s, and the students who would arrive an hour early to wait for ‘teacher’. To his face we called him Mr. Macdonald, and only years later, when I visited him at his home I addressed him as ‘Patrick’. On those occasions he always seemed to have a slight, forgiving kind of smile.

I walked deeper into the forest, towards the fog-shrouded cliffs. Much as I had eagerly anticipated giving my lecture, it felt good to put it behind me. I needed to rebalance, to reclaim my own private Macdonald after having put him on display – exposing him to the mercy of others interpretations. Yet it had felt good, to bring my own Macdonald to this Alexandrian audience, the Macdonald I discovered through my own work with students in Switzerland and Germany, and painted with my own colors.

I continued walking through the fog, when suddenly a being flickered in the distance. It was only when she drew closer that I saw that she was not an angel. She wore a full length dress and was engulfed in long, dark hair. She walked slowly as if reluctant to leave the place she had come from. When she was close enough to see clearly, she seemed as beautiful as a vision, and not just because on that day ‘my’ Macdonald was making everything beautiful. I too slowed down; I didn’t want to pass her too quickly. Suddenly, this loveliest of ladies turned towards me. I was still not sure if she was flesh and blood even as she approached. I had never seen her before and I certainly had never been approached by such a beautiful woman before. In that magical place, away from all the others – it felt like a lovers’ secret meeting, sneaking away to a most beautiful spot. In my lecture, I spoke of the Technique as a means of meeting and connecting – but I never imagined such an expression or manifestation if you will, of Macdonald’s work.

As I tried to take in her presence and the presence, she broke the spell and spoke: ‘I am from Sweden, a newly certified teacher. I studied in England but I did not meet your teacher. I’m glad I met him today! Just getting to know him as you presented him made the trip to Engelberg worthwhile’ and with that, she turned and left – and I continued on my way, albeit with blurred vision.

Years later, I attended the congress in Oxford. Between the workshops that I presented, I would meet with Elizabeth Walker in the ‘exchange room’ in the mornings. I had a friendly working relationship with Elizabeth, and we would exchange hands-on work and ideas while other teachers observed. On one of those mornings, a teacher that I had not yet met asked me if I would be a guest of the Swedish Alexander Technique Association, and teach a workshop there.

A few months later, I arrived in Sweden. Teachers from Scandinavia came to the workshop. I was hosted by a family in which the wife was an Alexander Technique teacher and the husband taught martial arts, and the two young sons were still waiting to discover their future. The workshop lasted a number of days, and each evening we all chatted together over a shared meal. On the last evening, before leaving the group, I told them about the Engelerg congress, the beautiful woman I had met and her kind words. I told them that this was one of my favorite memories and how I would love to meet that Swedish teacher again. My story moved the listeners – they were all hearing it for the first time, except for one; my hostess put down the dishes she was collecting and ‘stepped over’ the years, shook off the load mountain. This time we were also hugging, while the complete presentation came to its final stage.

Yehuda Kuperman