Way back in 1980 I found myself in an enormous amount of pain. I couldn't turn my head in either direction (which made driving quite lethal), I had a constant low-grade headache that frequently grew to monumental proportions, my jaw was so out that my teeth weren't meeting in line, and my confidence and energy had sunk to a very low level. And I was still only 22. I was visiting the osteopath three times a week and taking up to eight pain-killers each day. The suggestion was that I needed my spine to be fused with ‘scar-inducing-injections’. Fortunately the AT came along in the nick of time.
Just five years earlier I had left school to ‘become a concert pianist’. I use the inverted commas because I don’t think it was ever really my idea; there was a certain vicarious intent going on in both my parents and my piano teacher. I loved music and I wanted to play as much as possible, but concert pianist..? However, 8 hours practice a day under the pressure I experienced at home didn’t help my already compromised posture, which I describe below. And, aged 17, after yet another emotional and distressing day, in one reactionary moment, I gave up on music altogether and ‘ran away from home’ to London (which looks archaic, but that was what it was termed as all those years ago!), I took up my first love of dancing again. I wasn't anywhere near the standard of dancing required to be a professional dancer, but my dream was to become a choreographer. However, doing class every evening of the week and 'spotting' during attempted pirouettes with a neck in the state it was in simply exacerbated my problems. I still remember standing at the barre in front of the mirror one evening and wondering at just how crooked I had become and how much everything hurt, and I stopped dancing altogether.
Shortly after this I married and had my first daughter. My neck got worse and worse and then, a short time after my marriage had come to a separation, I happened to have supper with my aunt who was visiting the UK from her home in Canada. We met in Zia Terese, a little Italian restaurant next to Harrods, London's huge department store where I had had my first job after ‘running away’. Inevitably we asked the question of each other as to how we were, and when I told Esme of my painful neck and headaches, she simply said, "You need the Alexander Technique." Baffled, I asked, "What's on earth is that?" And she replied, "Well, the osteopath can go on putting your bones back, but your habits are in your muscles and they will just go on pulling the bones out again until you learn not to do those habits. And an Alexander teacher will show you what those habits are and how to stop them. Then the bones will stay where they're meant to be."
Well, this meant total sense to me in that instant. So I went searching for more information. I must have visited Harrods again as I can still see this image so clearly in my mind's eye; that of Wilfred Barlow's book 'The Alexander Principle' on a display stand in the corridor leading to the book department. I bought it and it was the start of a very exciting journey. After my divorce - somewhat embarrassingly by the age of 22 - I became a medical secretary in the Oncology unit of the local hospital. I obviously began to make notes in a hospital notebook as I read Wilfred Barlow’s book (undoubtably whilst I was meant to be typing!) as I still have that notebook now, and it amazes me what sense the few notes make!
Maybe a month or two after my aunt’s visit, she sent me a cheque for my first Alexander lesson - the most unexpected, welcome, and fortuitous gift I could have received - so I set about finding a teacher. This, of course, was many years before the internet, and it took a while. I can’t even remember now how I did it - I guess STAT was in its infancy and maybe I found them in the telephone book, but I do remember that the then ‘UK teaching list’ was a foolscap (slightly bigger than A4) ‘Roneo-ed’ (early photocopying) double-spaced list of just one and a half sides! So I set off for the 90 minute journey to London from where I was then living. I was to see Wilfred Barlow in his rooms near the Royal Albert Hall in Kensington. When I got there he spoke with me briefly, and then took me into the room where he had his ‘famous light grid’ on one wall. I stood in my underclothes on the ‘turntable’ as he turned me this way and that and took photographs - just like the ones in his book. Then he told me how crooked I was, which I well understood. I don’t recall having an actual lesson with him; if my memory serves me, one could have just a consultation, or a consultation and a lesson. I had clearly not booked the latter and I vaguely remember some temporary disappointment at this discovery. I wonder if I am right in thinking that Barlow’s way of using the grid was very personal to him? I have never heard of another teacher using this rather ‘medical’ system.
So I was instructed to come back for lessons, and thinking about it now, I am grateful now for the fact that Dr. Barlow worked in a consultant kind of way; I am not sure I would have been here now if it had been left to me to choose whether to go back, and when... I was young and nervous, and needed that clear direction. Dr. Barlow expected pupils to take three lessons a week, but I was ‘allowed’ just two, bearing in mind the distance I was traveling. So I booked further lessons, but was offered another teacher working there, a Diana.... And I am sad to say that I cannot remember her surname for she started me on a wonderful journey, and eased the pain so very quickly and clearly.
Of course the early days weren’t that clear! I remember three things very clearly - one was her response to my first effort (!) at standing up from the chair... “Oh my! You could move mountains with that much effort!” she exclaimed. “I could?” I thought, wondering what on earth she was on about; surely I still wasn’t trying hard enough or I wouldn’t be in such pain? Then her reply to my question at the end of this first lesson, “What do I do now?” She said, “Basically my dear, go home and slump.” I couldn’t believe it! All this way and all this time, to go and slump?? But how right she was; I had come to the Alexander Technique with the dubious accolade of always getting ‘excellent’ for posture at school. In fact, it was the only thing I ever ‘did well at’ in school; art, music, and sport being my subjects, and those subjects were not considered ‘important’, despite my success in them. So having discovered I had gained ‘good’, and then ‘very good’ on the posture lists in a matter of a year or so, to get the teachers off my back for being considered ‘utterly useless’ at everything else, I worked and worked at my posture, and was delighted, relieved, and proud to be one of just six girls in the school to gain the longed-for ‘excellent’. And yet what a poisoned chalice that was; I was now desperately over-arched (the non-slump-slump) with a hugely lifted and hardened chest that went with my ‘I’m fine and confident’ physical pretence. However, on top of that lot was my dropped neck and pulled down head which were more faithful to my inner sense of futility and worthlessness. So as Diana worked with me and I let go of some of that massive effort, it indeed felt as if I was now a banana, so go ‘go home and slump’ began to make sense to me as time went on. The third little anecdote is that I also remember lying on the table as she had her hands on my head, and her confusing me mightily as I heard her say, “Oh dear, these monkeys* do make your skirt ride up!” But I decided to let this go; clearly this work had some hidden magic that just used strange words, but which I would gradually come to understand; my pain was disappearing rapidly, and the basic principle made such sense, aided by Esme’s first explanation of the work and Wilfred Barlow’s book.
A couple of maybe interesting points to finish this blog with: my aunt, Esme Crampton*, had come to the Alexander Technique when she trained at Central School of Speech and Drama, gaining her Teaching Certificate in the 1950's. She had been one of Wilfred Barlow’s ‘guinea pigs’ in his trial of students from Central School, the Bedford College of Physical Education, and the Royal School of Music. And she was, in the time of our supper, Speech Consultant at the Faculty of Education, University of Toronto - a great pioneer in the teaching of Voice. So she was passing on her wisdom to me, and I was so very grateful even then, but ever more so as the years go on. I also discovered a few years later that a cousin on the same side of the family was the daughter-in-law of Louise Morgan - a remarkable woman who, despite not taking Alexander lessons, worked it out on her own by reading his books and following in FM’s footsteps. Her fascinating book, ‘Inside Yourself’ - and her son touched me greatly by giving his copy to me - was one of the first books on the work other than FM’s own. Louise met FM at the end of his life and many of the pieces of information, letters and articles we have about FM came from my cousin’s family! I think, looking at it now, it is pretty unsurprising that my life became the Alexander Technique; come to think of it, it’s been a bit of a family business!
The next stage in my Alexander life will be posted, as we say in Cornwall, ‘d’rec’ly’ - directly/soon. Thank you for journeying with me.
- Esme Crampton wrote two books, ‘The Handbook of the Theatre’ (W J Gage Ltd), and ‘Good Words Well Spoken’ (The Norman Press)
- ‘Monkey’ is the nick-name given to the balanced shape seen in an Alexander teacher as they work, and in the Alexander student as we lower ourselves in space using the joints designed for the job in order to carry out an activity that requires us to, what we might have once called, ‘bend down’.