Yesterday I wrote about fallibility, and the tremendous impact that teachers can have upon their pupils, either for good or ill. Over the next three posts, I want to write about some areas that I think can help to make or break a teacher-student relationship. Get it right, and you have pedagogical alchemy. Get these wrong, and you are in line for difficulties! The first one is personality.
Separating teacher and subject
A teacher’s personality can make all the difference to the way a student hears a subject.
In my job as an Alexander Technique teacher trained by the Interactive Teaching Method, I use a pretty standardised introductory lecture who content and script is also used by many of my colleagues. But if you heard me give that lecture, then heard one of my colleagues, you may well experience that lecture very differently. The principles in the content would be the same, but the style, the emphasis, perhaps some of the detail, would be different.
You might prefer me. You might prefer my colleague. But without hearing both of us, it may be difficult for you to separate the subject matter from the style and personality of the individual teaching it.
Sometimes two people just don’t get on. As a teacher, I’ve had students whose personality just grates on me. And I have had one notable instance of a student who took an instant dislike to me. Teachers know they shouldn’t let personality clashes affect the way they teach, but the reality is that it’s hard for it not to.
As an ITM Alexander Technique teacher, part of the skillset required of me is that I am able to teach non-like minded people. And I can. But sometimes I do come across students whose particular personality and worldview just makes it that much harder for me to construct pathways that I think will be most effective to help them learn what I am trying to teach. And if I know that there is another teacher nearby who is more likely to be successful, then I think it is only fair if I suggest to my student that they give the other teacher a try. Just because you CAN teach anyone doesn’t mean that you SHOULD.
Of course, sometimes you find a teacher whose way of teaching just fits. My son’s guitar teacher Andy Warn is just such a case. My son loves him. Andy teaches with a combination of humour, technical finesse and insistence on discipline that is perfect for my son. I suspect that my younger self would have found him too lively - but I was a different child. My son likes humour and liveliness, so he loves the lessons and is prepared to practice outside of class.
If the teacher fits your particular psycho-physical make-up, you are more likely to want to work, and you will have greater success.
You never know…
Of course, sometimes a student that you think hasn’t fitted your teaching style at all can surprise you.
Two years ago I had a student in one of my classes at the acting school where I teach. We took an instant dislike to each other. He irritated me, and he gave every sign that my lessons bored him. We struggled through the term barely tolerating each other.
Last year, when I saw that he ws once again in one of my classes, my heart sank. Another troublesome term, I thought. But when the student walked in for the first lesson of the term, he came straight up to me. “I just wanted to tell you,” he said, “that I thought you were talking rubbish last year. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the stuff you’d said. And actually, when I tried it out, it really helped my acting. So I’m really looking forward to learning some more this year.”
Personality is important. In some circumstances it can make or break a student’s love for a subject. But it isn’t everything, and a teacher shouldn’t give up or despair - you never really know what impact you are making.
Do you have a story about teachers and personality? Tell me about it in the comments.
It’s a common thing for Alexander Technique students, whether novice or old hand, to have the experience that doing an activity in a new way feels better, but also somehow… wrong.
The old way of sitting wasn’t comfortable. The new way is. But it just doesn’t feel right, a student might say to me.
FM Alexander wrote about this in my all-time favourite chapter from his books, called ‘Incorrect Conception’. His example was a teacher asking a student to bend at the knees. The student does it in their old habitual way. The teacher helps them to bend their knees in a new, more mechanically efficient way. At this point, FM says, for the student bending the knees becomes
…to all intents and purposes, a new act, bringing with it a new feeling. This time the act is not what he is accustomed to, and so it feels wrong to him.*
In a lesson today I likened this to that moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy looks around at the technicolor world of Oz and says “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.” Dorothy was a bit unhappy in Kansas - it was grey, life was hard, and people were giving hera tough time. But at least it was familiar.
Our bodies are a bit like that. We move in certain ways, ways that are familiar and normal. We may not always be comfortable, but at least everything feels normal and where it should be and, well, somehow right.
It is only when the joy of the feeling right becomes outweighed by the discomfort that people typically come to an Alexander teacher. They are taught how to conceive of and carry out activities in new ways. But no matter how comfortable the new way is, it isn’t going to have the same sense of familiarity as the old way. It isn’t going to feel right. Not at first, anyway.
The challenge for any Alexander Technique student is to recognise that they’re not in Kansas any more. There’s a new world, and it’s brightly coloured. There’s no map, and sometimes it might not seem the safest or most enjoyable place in the world. But it isn’t the same old same old. It has the thrill of adventure.
Are you willing to step out into the new? Are you ready to risk feeling wrong?
* FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.297.
Image by Matthew Mackerras
In his second book, FM Alexander quoted a student who said “I am always coming up against things that I know I can do, and yet when it comes to the point, I can’t do them.” And dismissing it as an attack of ‘nerves’ doesn’t really do the problem justice, because it doesn’t help us discover the root cause of the stress, and therefore an effective solution.
Uncomfortably for teachers and students, Alexander firmly lays the blame at the way we learn. He says that we “practise on the wrong lines, so that our successful experiences are few and our unsuccessful experiences many.” *
Reading this passage put me in mind of a recent blog post that mirrored my own experience as a musician and performer.
Piano teacher Dan Severino wrote a blog post about his experience of evaluating his success in trying to teach students how to practice. He asked some of his students to practice just as if they were at home, so he could give them tips and pointers on how to improve.
They didn’t use any of his tips or practice drills. Severino says: “To my surprise most students practiced the same way. They would play one piece and then go on to the next piece until they played all their pieces. A couple of the students would play through the piece a couple times; but always the same way — from beginning to end.”
That could be a description of me as a kid. When I was a young recorder player, I didn’t know how to practice. I would play a piece either until the end or until I got to a tricky bit and made a mistake. I would possibly repeat the tricky bit a few times - rarely more slowly, rarely improving - and then just play the whole piece again.
It was bad practice. It didn’t help me to build up confidence from successful experiences. It taught me instead where the scary bits were in the pieces I played, so that I would spend all my performance time dreading their approach. Small wonder I failed to get them right!
So how can we avoid ‘choking’? Well, according to Alexander, one key element is practice. By changing the way we practice, we can build up for ourselves a succession of small successes that give us confidence. But to do that, we can’t just play the piece through and feel like we’re done. Here are some ideas I’ve been trying recently:
How many more different ideas or tips do you have that have helped you change the way you practice? Has it helped you feel more confident on stage? Tell me about it in the comments!
* FM Alexnder, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the Irdeat edition, p.340.
A couple of weeks ago in my post on why belly breathing is bunkum, I suggested that students often misinterpret their teachers. The teacher says something apparently innocent, like “breathe down into your belly” and the student comes away from the lesson convinced that their lungs are down near their navel!
Today, using the wisdom of Stephen Sondheim and FM Alexander, I want to explain why we need to watch what we say to our students, and to offer some advice on how to get around the difficulty.
Be careful what you say
Children will listen…
What can you say that no matter how slight
Won’t be misunderstood?
FM Alexander talks about this, too. He says that “in every case, the pupil’s conception of what his teacher is trying to convey to him by words will be in accordance with his (the pupil’s) psycho-physical make-up… these fixed ideas must inevitably limit his capacity for… receiving the new ideas as the teacher is trying to convey them to him.”*
In other words, the big problem with students is that they aren’t the same as us. They don’t know the same stuff.they don’t think the same way. They have different backgrounds from us. And they have different ideas and beliefs from us, and their view of the world is filtered through those ideas. Not ours.
And that means that when I give a recorder pupil an instruction, for example, they don’t hear me. They hear their version of me. Which may bear no relation to me or what I actually said at all.
Sounds pretty grim, doesn’t it? So how do we teach and make ourselves understood?
If you are a teacher, whether of music or acting or languages - or even of the Alexander Technique - what is your experience of working with students? And if you are a student, how do you navigate your way through your teacher’s attempts to teach you?
*FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the Irdeat Edition, p.293.
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