Patrick MacDonald Vs The World

F.M. Alexander started his first training course for teachers in 1930 to replace the student income he lost to the Great Depression.

His first graduate was Marj Barstow who returned to the United States to teach.

There are many schools of Alexander Technique but I divide them principally into the Patrick MacDonald school and everyone else.

Many Alexander teachers want a unified Alexander world where the different camps support each other. I want Alexander disunity. I like the different camps challenging each other. I just want it done fairly and accurately (an area where I have often failed).

For instance, if somebody said, “Don’t study Alexander with Luke Ford because he smokes,” I believe that attack is unfair and inaccurate. I don’t smoke. Never have. I just took a photo with an unlit cigarette in my mouth and posted it on top of my site because it amuses me.

However, if somebody said, “Don’t study Alexander with Luke Ford because he writes needlessly provocative things on his blog and on Facebook,” then I think that is a totally fair and accurate critique.

So I’m all for the different camps fighting fair.

I’m also for full and honest reporting on the Technique and its history, warts and all, even if it does not always make us look good. I find critical anthropologist Jeroen Staring, for instance, interesting, even though he seems to loathe F.M. Alexander. Jeroen argues that F.M. stole everything important in his work, and that the Technique as fatally stained with F.M.’s racism. Even if Staring is wrong, I love his challenge to my profession.

I think I get a dopamine rush from provoking people and I’m just hooked on provocation. I have a weakness for rebels.

I enjoy it when different Alexander teachers criticize each other (as long as they strive for fairness and accuracy). I like a good fight. I find it invigorating. And the Technique’s history of internecine warfare strikes me as terribly amusing.

The major varieties of Alexander Technique developed out of the teaching methods of F.M.’s best early students such as Marj Barstow, Walter Carrington, Patrick MacDonald and his niece Marjorie Barlow.

At one point, Patrick and Walter were each engaged to Marjorie Barlow who ended up marrying a doctor named Wilfred Barlow. (More)

Why does this personal stuff matter? Because much of the historical enmity between the varying camps of the Technique — largely diminished now — probably originated in the romances above.

Compared to F.M.’s other students, Patrick MacDonald developed the most distinctive style, perhaps in reaction to his own back problems. Patrick’s way has lots of games and fancy moves like “the swinger!” It strikes me as a very masculine technique while other approaches are more nurturing.

Most Alexander teachers — by a ratio of two-to-one — are women and I suspect that most of the people who take lessons are women. In my view, women tend to get the Technique more quickly than men (though there are hundreds of individual exceptions and you’re going to have a hard time finding better Alexander teachers than John Nichols and Michael Frederick).

Each of the styles of Alexander Technique are profoundly affected by the personality of the founder. F.M. Alexander — for good and for ill — has infected many Alexander teachers. They still use his language even though it is off-putting to many people (“inhibition” and “stop and say no” and “don’t try to recreate the feeling, recreate the thinking”, etc).

Followers of the Barlow school or the Carrington school or the Marjorie Barstow school are similarly affected by the foibles of their founders.

What the heck am I talking about?

Well, watch the following interview with Patrick MacDonald and you can see his influence on MacDonald-style teachers today. They just have this assuredness about them.

Patrick took over F.M.’s old consulting rooms in 1956 to start his own teacher training program.

in the third video (these videos look to me like they were recorded around 1990), Patrick says five years should be a good length to learn to teach the Technique, two years longer than what is normal for Alexander teacher training.

Patrick says he’s made many mistakes. “I’ve trained a number of people who turned out to be no bloody good.”

In the fourth video, Patrick says Alexander teachers “could hardly get worse. The first lot who qualified were pretty bloody awful. Some of them have got better since then, myself included I hope. Most teachers starting out now, it rather depends on where they had their training. The training varies so much, it is no longer a unified training.”

How could you make Alexander training more unified? “I don’t know except by killing off all Alexander teachers and starting again.”

Later, Patrick says: “I don’t see any hope for the Technique developing properly from where it is presently.”

“There are too many bad teachers and too much bad training.”

“Alexander himself was very clear in what he wanted done. He wasn’t very good in teaching it. He was not a good teacher. He was a brilliant technician. He was brilliant with his hands but he was not good at getting his ideas into other people’s heads.”

“He was a pioneer and a discoverer but he wasn’t a teacher. That’s one of the reasons the thing has gone so bad since then.”

Patrick says: “There are some psychologists who are sane, but not very many.”

Here’s a 1986 interview with Marjory Barlow:

The MacDonald style of Alexander Technique has been the most difficult for me to get. It’s been the most challenging. Taking that wide stance in front of the chair has struck me as artificial as has the exercise of going up and down almost vertically. I now enjoy learning it as much as any other approach (sometimes more because it is particularly challenging and playful), but it took me years to appreciate it.

So which approach to Alexander Technique is best? I don’t know. I’m not qualified to judge. I believe that I have been most affected by the Frank Ottiwell approach (he learned from everybody and had a non-partisan approach to the Technique), even though I’ve never met the man.

Until recently, none of the major Alexander training schools encouraged scientific investigation of their claims. Controversial historian Jeroen Staring compares early Alexander Technique to a family business with the major teachers taking care to trace their lineage to the founder (F.M. Alexander).

I remember meeting a third-year student from a Patrick MacDonald style teacher training program and he said he was not allowed to take Alexander lessons from any teacher outside of the Patrick MacDonald style of teaching. He confessed he snuck lessons with various forbidden teachers of the Walter Carrington school.

I wonder if this is normal for Patrick MacDonald-style teacher training courses? In Patrick MacDonald’s school in England, it was generally taken for granted that you did not take lessons with other teachers and that if you did, you did not talk about it in front of Patrick.

If you go to Israel, most of the teachers there were educated in the Patrick MacDonald approach to the Technique. The Walter Carrington approach, by contrast, has not made much headway in the Holy Land.

In this conversation with Robert Rickover, veteran Alexander teacher Eileen Troberman says: “A wonderful cellist and student of mine for years, Peter Farrell, was a music professor at a university in Illinois or Indiana. He wanted to learn about the Alexander Technique. He had a sabbatical. He wrote to Patrick MacDonald in England, who was then teaching at 60 Ashley Place, where Alexander had been teaching, and he asked about a teacher in the United States he could study with. Patrick said there weren’t any good teachers in the United States. You should come to England.

“Peter did look up Marj Barstow. He came to Lincoln, Nebraska, and had lessons with Marj. He mentioned he had a good cello student whose use was bad — Bill Conable.

“He wanted Marj to come up and teach his class. Marj had never taught a group class. She figured out what to do.”

This started Marj’s career teaching group classes. Until this time, Alexander Technique was almost exclusively taught in private one-on-one lessons (though F.M. taught a group class in 1896).

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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