Dare to Be Wrong
Voyage of Discovery
I came to this technique because I had polio. I was stricken just before my 15th birthday. We thought it was just a cold or the flu. I felt achy and then suddenly there I was—paralyzed from the waist down.
I was in the hospital about three months and then went to a nursing home. I was flat on my back almost six months. It took two people to turn me. The nursing home was out in Rockaway, Long Island, and I was there from around Christmas until August. I missed a whole year of school.
In the nursing home, I started to improve gradually. They had physical therapy and I got up on my feet and started to walk. Initially, I had braces and crutches, then I got rid of those and used a cane. I really wanted to go back to high school in September. At that time they were measuring muscle strength from 0-5. On that scale, 5 was normal strength. Some of my muscles were at a level 4 and some muscles were at 3, but in my feet they were at 1 or 0. Some muscles came back a little. This took about a year and then nothing more came back. I had a very bad limp and my body was distorted because of the imbalance in the musculature and it was getting more and more distorted.
I reached a plateau, which I maintained for about five years. I went to Brooklyn College and majored in biology. After graduation I was working as a chemist.
My cousin Phyllis was studying the Technique with Lulie Westfeldt because her piano teacher, Henrietta Michaelson, had all of her students study the Technique. This is how I heard about the Alexander Technique. Initially, it went against my scientific background. I didn’t think the Technique was worth anything and I said no, no, no, but my mother nagged. I saw the mind and the body as separate entities. I didn’t see the connection. There was no way of proving this in black and white, writing it down and saying A + B = C. I said, “No, it can’t work, I don’t believe this. It’s a lot of nonsense.” I finally started to study just to keep my mother from nagging me. I was about 23 or 24 years old when I began taking lessons once a week with Alma Frank. (Editor’s note: Alma Frank trained with F. Matthias Alexander in the 1930s in London. In 1938, she published a study on infants and the gradual diminution of well-coordinated movement. She taught the Technique in New York City throughout the 1940s and early 50s. She trained her daughter Deborah Caplan, certifying her to teach the Technique in 1953.)
I remember that I started thinking, let my neck be free to let my head go forward and up to let my torso lengthen and widen, so something must have convinced me of the Technique’s validity from the beginning. I started saying those words while riding in the subway or the bus, walking down the street, sitting somewhere. I didn’t really feel anything for a year, but something must have been happening. On some level I must have felt something, but my body was really bound. The muscles that I was using were like iron. It had to do, I think, with the orthodox treatment I had been getting earlier, the physical therapy that worked specifically on individual muscles; I’d tense my whole body trying to get my weak muscles to work. Alma wasn’t doing therapy with me, she was having me change the way I was thinking about myself and connecting the mind and the body. She knew that my thinking was going to affect what was going on in my body, and on some level I must have appreciated that idea even then, because I accepted it right from the beginning. I think I was hiding behind my disability. I didn’t want to meet people, go out and talk and do things.
The Alexander Technique helped me feel better about myself. There are many things I can’t do, but with the Alexander Technique, I was able to center myself and to move more easily and freely. Using the Technique I was able to do things that I couldn’t do before. For instance, if I was walking down the street and happened to drop my glove, in the past I couldn’t bend to pick it up because I didn’t have anything to lean on, but with the Alexander Technique, I was able to bend without needing any extra support.
I took lessons with Alma for about a year. When she took ill and went to England, she sent me to Lulie for lessons. Lulie had incredible hands. She didn’t explain very much, so I didn’t really have a verbal concept, other than what I had from my work with Alma. At Lulie’s suggestion, I took a month off from work and took a lesson every day instead of once a week. In that month, the major part of my limp disappeared. What I have now is really minor compared to what it was.
It was those daily lessons that convinced me to train. My reason was not that I wanted to teach the Technique. I simply wanted a lesson every day. It had profoundly affected my own use and I wanted to see how far I could go with it. I needed an excuse to take a lesson every day, so I went to train to be an Alexander teacher. Both Lulie and Alma suggested that I train, perhaps because when I worked with the Technique, my progress was fast, maybe even phenomenal, I don’t know. They just felt that my body understood it. They felt I was good material.
I never really wanted to teach; that was the furthest from my mind. I didn’t think I would like to teach until I started to teach. As I got to know more about the Technique, as I taught more, it became engrossing. It’s fascinating because dealing with the way a person moves is dealing with the way a person thinks.
I trained with Lulie Westfeldt, who started the training program in New York, and I worked with her for two years. There were three other people in that class. I don’t remember their names. They finished but they never taught, so I’m the only one who continued to teach. I finished the training in 1949.
After I finished training, I worked again with Alma. It was marvelous, as she put into words, defining anatomically, what was going on. With Alma’s encouragement I went over to London and worked with Mr. Alexander. I was so determined to have him think of me as a marvelous Alexander student. I was maybe the worst end-gainer he ever worked with at the time. I learned an enormous amount. I had a lesson every day for six weeks, sometimes twice a day, and then I went back two years later for another six weeks, so I had more than 60 lessons with him. It was special working with him. He called me “Little Lady” and was charming. He had had a stroke and even though he had cured himself of the effects of the stroke, he wasn’t that vigorous any more. His teaching was very simple. As far as I could see he was completely accepting of my teaching. It was through working with him that I really felt I could teach the Technique. It’s not that he was a great teacher; he’d talk about everything under the sun except the Alexander Technique but he gave me that marvelous experience. His hands were incredible. My whole body changed with that experience. He gave me a purer sensory definition for my body.
When I first started to teach, I worked with Gladys Lea, a voice teacher who sent me some of my first students. They were 15, 16 years old, and they couldn’t afford much, so I think they had ten lessons.
Several years later, one of them came back and said that the most important thing that she got out of those ten lessons was that I told her, take a chance on making a mistake. Dare to be wrong.
What I want is for my students to feel secure, to feel they can take a chance. Life is full of making mistakes; it’s no grave thing to make a wrong choice. It’s important to recognize that the choice didn’t work and be able to say, “Fine, so that didn’t work, let me try something else.” It’s not important to get a right answer, if you don’t know how you got it. But, if you know how you get somewhere, if you know your process, if you know what you’re thinking, if you know what you are working with, then you have a tool that you can use. That’s all the Alexander Technique is—a tool. It’s no great miracle.
My teaching has evolved over the years and I find there are certain aspects I am stressing more and more. Change is a constant occurrence, yet not completely outside our realm of control. The excitement of the Alexander Technique is that one is offered a way to take over and control change to some extent. One is given a means whereby one can deliberately and consciously make some choices. One doesn’t have to be always conscious and aware and studying oneself—how boring! Let me point out here that we don’t know where we are going; we only know where we have been. And while much is learned or experienced on an unconscious and subliminal level, true control comes from conscious choice. Practicing what Alexander called “constructive conscious control” brings into sharper focus all sorts of awareness—kinesthetic, visual, intellectual, conceptual, sensory, tactile, and philosophical, etc. One is dealing with the whole psychophysical entity, and let us not forget the soul!
The Alexander Technique has taken me much further than just learning to walk more efficiently. It has become a way of life, a philosophy. I am eternally fascinated with the means offered by the Alexander Technique for exploring and developing the human potential. With each student I go on a never-ending and thrilling voyage of discovery.
Hardback, 146 pages, ISBN 0-9644352-8-4