I wrote back: I can’t think of any particular Frank quote right now, but I am remembering how he would arrive every morning at the Alexander school (we started at 8:30 am), with some exciting revelation. One morning, he came in bursting to tell us about how, as he had cooked his oatmeal, and brushed his hair, and tied his shoes, and done all the things one usually does, he had been astonished by his hands – that they knew exactly what to do on their own – and how he had watched them with wonder and appreciation. And the reaction from the gallery of Alexander trainees (missing the point of the story) was something like, “OH My God, Frank EATS Oatmeal!” (because he was so private about his life). Like now we had some powerful secret knowledge.
Rest in peace dearest Rome. I am so sad to learn of your passing and so grateful for my time with you.
Rome Roberts Earle was one of the last first generation Alexander Teachers, having initially trained at Ashley Place in London with FM Alexander. She was my trainer on Frank Ottiwell’s course and my teacher in my early 20’s.
Rome was so gentle, kind and beautiful. Her quiet hands removed the stress from my young body and taught me how to bring that ease and clarity into dance. I will forever treasure my time with her and all the gifts that she gave me.
At one point, she shared with me a biography that she had written. I hope that it can be found and published in the AT community. There was so much in it, her early life in London, training in Laban technique as a dancer, the time at Ashly place that contained a secret, her life in Ojai, raising four children, retraining in the 70’s with Patrick MacDonald, and on.
A poignant moment for me was the tale of her arrival at LAX. She flew into Los Angeles in the 1950’s with her young son, as a single woman permanently leaving an unwelcoming community for a new life. She was lost in the large American airport, and a kindly lady took her home for the night (would we ever trust strangers today?). Rome described her first American breakfast which included two, not one, but two very large boiled eggs on toast and the largest glass of orange juice she had ever seen. So much in comparison to a life in London full or rations and recovering from the war.
Rome, I love you. You will be missed.
I’m not sure why I thought it would be ok to teach after a dental extraction. Mind over matter only goes so far. Why do I think it’s a good idea to push my own body through pain and exhaustion when I am constantly counseling my Alexander Technique students to listen to the body, find the ease, and practice self-compassion? It it our cultural conditioning that we all need external permission to rest lest we be perceived as lazy? Right effort gets lost in the intoxication of brute force.
Pushing beyond self-perceived limits is part of the performing arts culture* that I have taught/participated in my entire life. Professional and aspiring artists are encouraged to work through extremes of exhaustion and pain to achieve a sought after catharsis – and sometimes that’s necessary – and there’s a cost – and that level of pushing becomes a habit and a cultural norm.
Or is that, locked as we are inside our own brains, imbibing our inner cocktail of giddy stress hormones, we can’t make sense of things? A recent Aeon article advised adopting an ancient Greek practice known as illeism (i.e. speaking about yourself in third person). Illeism supposedly delivers a scientifically validated uptick in well-being and decision making. I think of my Alexander Technique Teacher Frank Ottiwell saying, “Sometimes, I really wish there was an Alexander Technique teacher around, and then I realize I am that.”
I am that.
So today, I am listening to my inner Alexander Technique teacher, letting my neck be free and taking the afternoon off. We can all provide wise council to ourselves.
*and academic culture, and medical culture, and sports culture, and really any environment where “good enough,” is tantamount to failure, and only the exceptional win.
When students used to say to my teacher Frank Ottiwell, “I carry a lot of tension in my shoulders.” He would say, “Well, why don’t you put it down?”
With the Alexander Technique, we look at posture as a reflection of habits and behaviors, not as an inherent feature of genetics or identity.
Over time, Alexander Technique students learn to stop the habits that pull them off balance and out of alignment. The result is an easy feeling in the body and effortless uprightness.
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Do you find yourself sticking your neck forward and crunching your shoulders in concentration? These are common reading, texting, and speaking habits. Our need to focus to extract meaning, or to see, hear and speak drive us to push our faces forward. The urgency of social communication can undermine our natural capacity for ease. This is a common problem for my actor students who have the challenge of broadcasting emotion to the back row without sacrificing authenticity. Luckily, there is a simple solution that does not involve advanced postural cuing, hands on work from an Alexander Technique teacher, or expensive equipment. You can try it right now.
Expand your awareness to include the space behind you. Sometimes it’s helpful to actually turn around and look behind you, and then turn back and imagine you are seeing out through the back of your head, or the skin of your back. This requires a little imagination. Do you recall that feeling of knowing someone is looking at you even though they are behind you? How do we know? I don’t have the answer to this, but we can make use of our ability to extend perception to balance our use. “Use” is F.M. Alexander’s term for the way we habitually organize our movement in response to all the stimuli of life. What does it feel like to extend your awareness backwards?
Then, if you are an actor, take out some text, or a script you are learning. If your are not an actor, your phone is probably your biggest stimulus to focus forward and contract your attention. Do you feel an immediate impulse to push your neck forward? Are you holding your breath? Again, expand your attention to the space behind you. Rest a bit, and try your task again. Toggle between expanding awareness backwards, and focusing attention forward. Practice for only 2-minutes, and then let it go. Otherwise, you won’t be able to get anything done. Directing attention takes a lot of cognitive resources at first! See if this short amount of practice leaves you with the spontaneous ability to broaden your awareness and breathe throughout the day.
It’s pleasant to practice expanding your field of attention outdoors while walking or exercising. It’s challenging but good to practice expanding awareness back during a conversation with someone. The heat of communicating, the need to be heard, liked, or to make your point, is often the biggest stimulus to push your head forward.
I learned this exercise from my teacher Frank Ottiwell. I had the privilege of assisting Frank’s Alexander Technique Classes for actors at American Conservatory Theater (where I still teach) for several years. As you know, actor’s frequently stick their necks out in the urgency of communication. I’m sure you’ve seen this on film. Two actors argue, and if you turned off the sound you would witness the argument progress as chins compete in forward motion. Frank would quip, “Half the world is behind you.” With this simple reminder the actors would find a way to speak while staying centered and free.
Interesting day teaching playing with the difference between direction as motor imagery (i.e. imaging yourself riding a bike) versus visual imagery (imaging a tree). Re-reading the very pop science, “The Body has a Mind of its Own,” and was reminded that it’s only motor imagery that seems to modify the brain’s body schema. It’s motor imagery that is the key to all those famous leaps in performance due to imaging plus practice, or even imaging alone. I don’t know how Ideokinesis fits (i.e. imagining an abstract image in motion, like an arrow moving out of your left shoulder to widen it). Does an image that is not ones body, but still an image in motion, remodel the brain’s map of “self”? Today it definitely seemed that motor imagery worked the best.
I got quite far off into that tangent when my last student of the day reminded me of the current of aliveness, below, or is it beyond, structure, trauma, injury, illness, imbalance, ego, language and body, and the healing that comes from tapping into that wordless, wild pulse of life. Methods melt and fall apart next to that kind of profound contact, and yet, having the sort of brain that I do, I mostly spend (or waste?) my time trying to figure out how to make things work better. I don’t tend to trust that just tapping into pure being is enough to solve the type of movement issues that I or my students have, even though I’ve certainly had plenty of that type of experience as a student myself.
My teacher Frank Ottiwell talked about being with the student as they were and also seeing the potential of where they might go. This was in answer to our incessant trainee questioning: “Frank, Frank! Frank??? What are you thinking when you put hands on us?” Why was his touch so exquisite? Perhaps he simultaneously tapped into being and projected motor imagery. Is that the answer? At the end of his life he talked about the importance of doing less. There’s something to be said for no directional projection, just being.
Endless experimentation. Barking up the wrong – or the right tree – or both at the same time.
I’ve suffered for years as a teacher trying and failing to teach a form (i.e. the FM Alexander Technique). After spending a week with my nose buried in a pile of books in the hopes of creating a Somatics course syllabus for a batch of unsuspecting SFSU students, the insight that I lacked for the previous 13 years suddenly arrived. It’s not about teaching people a technique, it’s about teaching people – moreover, the skills to notice and work with themselves. When this is done, there’s no need to entertain in the teaching room. Massive amounts of energy are saved.
This is so obvious that I’m sure you already knew it and are wondering at my density. If you had asked, I would have said that I knew it to be true, and was of course already working in this way, but it is only in this weeks of flu and fever dreams, reading page upon page of creative bursts from a pantheon of pioneering thinkers, that I have finally put my finger on the pulse of my own rigidity. I see you, my perfectionist self.
When I think back to lessons with Frank Ottiwell, every moment was fascinating. Intensely so. Time both sped up and slowed down. The light in his studio was special rendering the leaves on the potted tree extra sharp. Of course, we students were all trying desperately to learn something about Frank (He eats Oatmeal!!!!). But he kept your attention pinned to the subject at hand, the Use of the Self, or really yourself. (Let’s admit in this social media performance of life, that we are all self-fascinated). Somehow for those precious 40-minutes he managed to stay interested in us as well, or at least our mighty human struggle with habit, and the rare flashes of unfettered intelligence. Any artifice would be harshly (but not unkindly) brushed away. We worked incredibly hard to fall off the precipice of doing into non-doing. Frank taught the Alexander Technique, but he was really teaching us about the ourselves.
I might have finally learned this from him.
Please join in celebrating the life of our beloved Frank Ottiwell at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Stage on Nov 6, 2015 at 1pm.
I will post more about Frank soon. It’s been hard to write anything definitive. I am still saying goodbye. I have been reading through my 11-year journal of my time studying with Frank, and excerpting bits here and there. The notes begin half way through my 3-year training at the Alexander Technique Training Institute of San Francisco where Frank was the Director, cover the period when I was visiting and then assisting Frank’s classes at A.C.T., and end rather abruptly when Frank retired from A.C.T. due to illness. It’s slow going. As a diarist, I didn’t distinguish between the profound and the trivial. I was equally excited to report Frank’s dapper corduroy trousers as his sharp observations about the discipline of teaching, “It’s a kind of love, but not the sort where you want to have dinner with your students after the lesson.” Frank was my teacher and mentor, but Frank’s great gift was that so many people can make that claim. I feel his presence with me all the time, and miss him dearly.
In his own words: Back to Simplicity
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British Medical Journal report on the benefits of Alexander Technique