Back to Simplicity
by Frank Ottiwell
A talk delivered at the 2009 Annual General Meeting of the American Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique, San Francisco, 2009.
Periodically I discover for myself all over again what the Alexander Technique is really about – what the point is. I’m having one of those times again. Recently, Jean Clark sent me a copy of a booklet of transcriptions of interviews with a Welsh gentleman by the name of Cliff Lewis, who talks about his life with the Alexander Technique and F.M. Alexander. Towards the end of the transcription he talks about Alexander having seen him giving his “instructions” one day, and said “For God’s sake, will you stop that. Just go round and stop pulling your head back. Don’t worry about the other things quite so much.”
Mr. Lewis: “I don’t think he was regarding the instructions as valueless, but he was telling me ‘Look, that’s what your trouble is. Don’t pull your head back.’ In fact, I find the negative aspect of the instructions more valuable to me than the positive ones. For instance, I say to myself sometimes, ‘Don’t pull your head back.’ And immediately I get a reaction. Sometimes I don’t get that reaction if I say ‘Let the head go forward and up.’ But my teachers say I mustn’t do too much of that sort of thing. I don’t understand that, but I accept their word, of course.”
Reading this, I was reminded of the beautiful simplicity of the work. It has inspired me, as another new beginning, to spend more time not going wrong than in trying to go right. No big news, really - it was, after all, what Alexander kept saying – but Mr. Lewis’ example focused me anew.
I thought I would tell you a little about the four teachers who were the most influential to me to help explain that, though these fresh “discoveries” seem to come out of the blue, they are really the product of all that has gone before. They involve stopping, inhibiting too-quick responses, “letting the thing do itself,” and directing to support the result, in activity, of the stopping and inhibiting.
I spent from Jan 1– July 4, 1954 in London. I had just completed a two-year course at an acting school in New York and wanted to further my studies and perhaps work there. I found a singing teacher, who discovered that I had no idea about breathing. For physical development I tried weight lifting, but lets say I really didn’t take to it. Unfortunately, I didn’t come across anyone who knew about the Alexander Technique. However, practically the moment I stepped off the boat when I got back to New York a friend from acting school encouraged me to try the Alexander Technique. She really wasn’t able to explain anything much about it , but the quality of her interest hooked me and I took Judy Leibowitz’s phone number.
JUDY LEIBOWITZ I started lessons with Judy in September 1954: Lessons were $5 each - a not insubstantial sum then. Judy, I think, was a born teacher, and she was a woman of great compassion. She had the gift of being completely present with you while still observing clear and sensitive boundaries. The impression I had was that I was learning, more than she was teaching in any direct way. She never imposed. Judy introduced me to the idea of wholeness and the concept of non-doing, things I had never heard of, but that I took to like old friends. It was all really very exciting. At that point it all seemed like magic. I soon splurged and went from two lessons a week to three.
Practicing inhibition, learning to direct, chair work and table work, were at the heart of the lessons.
There were many interesting experiments and experiences. One, I remember, was the suggestion that I think of my mind being about four inches above my head and do my directing from there. That gave me an useful leg up on non-doing. I couldn’t muscularly manipulate a space that was outside of my physical body. When thinking in this way worked, I got a beginning sense of the value of directing with absolutely no doing – just an openness to the possibility of something happening.
Another vivid memory was something that happened a little later on. I was on the table and Judy was at my leg encouraging me to think knee forward to the ceiling when my left leg lifted itself up and placed my foot on the table. This was a very clear experience of “the thing doing itself” when conditions are right. I am reminded of it constantly. Something new got laid down in my nervous system that day, that showed me what was possible. As the years have gone by, I am taught over and over that setting up the conditions under which the thing does itself is the ultimate Alexander intention and experience. This process of getting out of the way, and staying out of the way, allows for what Judy called a total-pattern response. Do I succeed all the time? No. But my sensitivity to when I am not succeeding grows all the time, and that awareness leads me back to stopping.
It is interesting to have learned that when my computer appears to have gone haywire and I turn it off for a moment or two, when I turn it on again it has sorted itself out and is working just fine. The computer in my brain seems to responds to the same treatment -- as Alexander discovered many years before the age of technology.
The lessons were all so fascinating - and felt so good - that I began to wonder about training to teach, and I sent a letter to Ashley Place to enquire. While my letter was on its way, Judy told me she was going to begin a training class and wondered if I might be interested. I said yes right away. I had spent what little money I had on my foray to London earlier in the year, but thought I could manage if I stayed in New York to train. When all of that was settled a letter came from Ashley Place with brochure called A New Profession. Tempting, of course, but it was settled and I began training in Judy’s first training class in September of 1956.
The class, including Judy, consisted of thirteen Jewish women and me. My cultural horizons widened vastly and immediately. Lots of YMHA concerts and lectures with Judy and Gladys Lee, who for several summers had gone with Judy to London for lessons with FM. Gladys was a singing teacher and a great supporter of the Technique. If you wanted to study with her you had to study the technique at the same time.
One of the things Gladys left me when she died was her desk, and in it I found a packet of letters to her from F.M. The letters were mostly about the weather and expressions of his thanks for the food packages she had periodically sent him after his returned to London from America towards the end of the war. He always arranged for Gladys to receive the costs of the hams, tins of butter etc., from Dutton, his American publisher. There were lots of letters. One of them was particularly interesting to me. Towards the end of it he wrote: “I am pleased to hear that Miss Judith’s teaching is continuing to improve.”
Judy had been partially trained by Lulie Westfeld and finished with Alma Frank, Debbie Caplan’s mother and trainer. This was while F.M. was still alive and before formal training courses other than his own had been established. What the scenario seems to have been was that Alexander knew about Judy’s work with Lulie and Alma, that she was teaching and that he had made no objection. Of course, that is not the same thing as having a certificate from F.M., but it connects the dots more than I realized at the time. It also helps to explain why the co-founders of ACAT and all other ACAT trained teachers were included, in spite of the objections of some STAT trained teachers living and working in the United States at the time, as NASTAT members and therefore members of what became known as the Affiliated Societies.
I qualified at the end of 1959, and became one of a total of six-to eight Alexander teachers in the country. Did I have regrets about not going to London to train? When Gladys got a telegram during the last months of my training telling her about F.M.’s death, I bitterly regretted that I had missed the opportunity of working with him. I vowed never to let opportunities to work with aging teachers of anything I was interested in slip away again.
By the time I got around to making another trip to London, Patrick Macdonald had taken over the teaching rooms at Ashley Place. It was the only address I knew, and it was there I went for lessons with my second Alexander teacher, and the first male person I had met who was involved in Alexander’s work.
I was absolutely bowled over by my first lesson with Macdonald. After the lesson I went for a cup of tea at the Army Navy Stores and wrote with amazement in a little booklet, “I’ve just experienced using myself well for a whole half hour.” It was like magic carpet ride – all I had to do was not help. Of course I had had a lot of practice at not helping by that time, and Patrick’s direction was so powerful, he made it all seem easy and effortless. I was smitten and immediately wanted to become Patrick Macdonald. It seemed reasonable at the time. But it was not to be.
I learned over and over from Patrick, that when the conditions are right the thing does itself. Of course, for the most part, with a certain amount of cooperation on my part, he was making sure that the conditions were right. I was benefiting from having experience after experience of the thing doing itself. I certainly wasn’t doing it, and Patrick’s hands were so light that it didn’t seem that he was doing it. Now, as I have to create the conditions myself, I have all those experiences reminding me that if I “stick to principle” I can not do it for myself. I soon discovered that there is no fooling the brain. As soon as I start however subtly to make the change with little tiny doings, everything grinds to a halt.
Patrick also said a couple of casual things that often cross my mind. One was “The first 50 years are the hardest” – and now I really know what he meant. The other was one day when I asked him, as one does, “How are you, Patrick?” and he said “Oh, I’m all right. My use is perfectly terrible, but apart from that I’m all right.” I was quite taken aback. It was the last thing I ever expected him to say, but it was very endearing and strangely supportive.
In 1974 at Judy Leibowitz’s suggestion and with Patrick Macdonald’s blessing Giora Pinkas and I started a training course in San Francisco. All of the teachers I am telling you about tonight visited the course over time, beginning with Judy.
Patrick visited the course annually for a number of years. The last year he visited was the first year that Marjorie Barstow began her visits. That started my work with my third Alexander teacher and major influence.
I think probably because she didn’t like to set things by labeling them, Marj didn’t speak of inhibition very often, though she was a mistress of it. If one asked her a question, for example, she would pause so completely that sometimes I thought she hadn’t heard. What she was doing, it gradually became clear, was inhibiting a too quick response so that the answer when it came tended to give you the answer you needed rather than the answer you wanted. It was as though the answer came by (“did”) itself!
I said to her once, after a particular morning session: “Marj, doesn’t it drive you crazy to get the same questions over and over?” She paused, looked at me and said, “Oh, I never give myself up”. I wish I could say the same --- and I will keep wishing it.
Another time, when she was in her very late seventies, we were talking about her trips to Australia, I said: ”Marj you should really stop in Hawaii overnight at a hotel, and go on to Australia the next day”. “I did that once,” she said, “it was a complete waste of time.” “But, I said, “it is such a long flight, don’t you find it tiring?” A pause, and then she said, “Oh, I just watch myself.” Simple, as she would often point out -- but not easy.
Her work was transforming, and for many, and certainly for me, the transformation happened in a couple of moments. I found it
exhilarating and deeply satisfying as time after time she helped me to feel like the person I always wanted to be.
I gradually learned not to judge or second-guess the amount of time stopping should take. My brain/nervous system knows when the time is enough. The solution starts to do itself and a total-pattern movement begins – a movement which is not looked for, a movement which is a surprise every time, but that on reflection is the most natural and appropriate thing to have happen.
I was smitten again, and now I wanted to become Marj. But that didn’t happen either.
WALTER CARRINGTON I had my first lesson with Walter in New York in the mid-sixties. He and Dilys came to a just-formed ACAT to, as he told me in later years, “bring religion to the heathens”. He said that he was very pleasantly surprised to find that the heathens weren’t so bad after all.
I remember my first lesson with him because I remember how agitated I was as the precious half-hour ticked away while Walter spend the time making sure that we meant the same things when we used certain words and phrases. In the end, he probably saved me years of confusing others by taking those fifteen minutes to be clear.
I think the next time we met was after I moved to California and Michael and Lena Frederick brought the Carringtons, Ruth Murray and Danny Pevsner to Ojai to give a workshop. They invited Pamela Blanc and me to teach along with the British contingent. I think the only thing that kept Pamela and me from thinking we were in over our heads was that Ruth Murrary had just qualified, virtually moments before they left England. It was a jolly time.
I experienced Walter’s work differently from anything else I had known. The added value of his work for me is that it made me
experience my own strength and presence in space in a way that felt reassuringly opaque and more or less invincible. Apart from his work in lessons, Walter soon became my hero of the spoken and written word. Without his efforts to clarify the work by setting it down in a variety of ways, many of us would be less clear ourselves than we are.
I will just say, here that 15 years ago I had a bout with cancer. I hoped it was all taken care of, but about three years ago it came
raging back. Once more, I did the necessary treatment and took the wretched medications, but after the treatment was over, I never really felt the same again It seemed as though, as I approached eighty, I was indeed a very, somewhat doddering, senior citizen. Through all of this time the Technique had been more helpful than I can properly express, but still I would stagger sometimes on the street and tire suddenly in a way I hope most you never experience. Then, for the past few months, seemingly out of nowhere, I began to think of Walter. Almost as if I was channeling him, I would come into the present, in full time and space, and begin to feel and move in what I would consider a normal, full-bodied and substantial way – at least for an old guy who really is about to crack eighty.
As much as I always admired and liked Walter, I had never had the passionate response of wanting to be him. But, in a way that I didn’t realize I must have taken him in in a deeper way, and it is now Walter who is getting me through the day. I know God works in mysterious ways, but without Walter’s methodical patience, dignity and inspired clarity, I’m not quite sure that I would have found that mysterious way.
Besides those four teachers, Dilys Carrington, Marjory Barlow and Elizabeth Walker are other teachers who have helped me along the way, and to whom I am grateful. In addition, my close association with the training teachers on the staff of ATI-SF – Rome Earle, Simone Biase, Larry Ball and Bob Britton – has been invaluable.
Frank Ottiwell began his Alexander Technique studies with Judith Leibowitz in 1954. He attended her first teacher-training course, qualifying as a teacher in 1959. In the early 1960s, Frank was one of the five co-founders of the American Center for the Alexander Technique (ACAT). After moving to California in 1967, he and Judith Stransky founded ACAT West. In 1974, Frank and Giora Pinkas established a teacher-training program in San Francisco under the umbrella of ACAT West. Frank's move to San Francisco came through an invitation from the American Conservatory Theater to teach the Alexander Technique to the company. He is still at it.
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