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Book Review: How To Learn the Alexander Technique, by Barbara Conable

by Ellen on January 31st, 2020

For this month’s book review, we’re diving into How To Learn the Alexander Technique, by Barbara and William Conable. One of my students started with me in the midst of reading this book, and lent me his copy to read while we worked together. I enjoyed it enough that I’ve since bought my own copy to use for this review.

How To Learn… takes the form of a manual for students of the Alexander Technique. Alexander’s work is presented in a workbook style, with space to write in your own observations and periodic prompts to write or sketch as a way of deepening your understanding on a concept. The specific focus of this manual is on connecting the Alexander Technique to the technique of Body Mapping that William Conable developed during his work with musicians at Ohio State University. The book is written informally in first person, giving a conversational feel to the discussions presented. Just as a side note: while the cover says it is by both Barbara and William Conable, both the preface and the text’s use of ‘I’ rather than ‘we’ give the impression that Barbara is the main author, so I will be referring to her in the singular here, for simplicity’s sake.

The discussion of Body Mapping is one of the many strengths of this manual – it’s a powerful tool to add to one’s experience with AT. The workbook style provides copious illustrations and anatomical drawings to aid understanding, and allows for plenty of written and sketched explorations of the concepts discussed. Conable has some great insights into Alexander’s work, and some great ways of phrasing ideas that really resonated with me. While the writing does come off as a bit biased towards AT at times, one could argue that that’s to be expected from a book written by teachers of the work. The book is intended to be used by students who are already taking lessons from a teacher, as a supplement to their work in their lessons. Conable stresses the idea of re-reading and ‘playing’ in this book as the student learns, returning to concepts as their understanding develops. “My students who really live with the book…seem secure in their learning.” (p. xi) She mentions that it would also be useful for music students who have AT-literate teachers, or for AT teachers themselves.

How To Learn… focuses on an introduction to the Alexander Technique and its connection to the idea of body mapping – essentially a technique for visualizing your own sense of your physical self and what inaccuracies may be present within that mental map. The manual begins with an overview of the Technique itself, continues through a discussion of the kinesthetic sense, and from there into body mapping. It then connects body mapping to all kinds of other applications and uses for the Technique, from things like exercise and sleep to stage-fright and survivors of abuse. It makes liberal use of standard anatomical drawings as well as more free-form examples of body maps and other visual representations of the concepts discussed. The manual also gives examples of common body mapping errors – with large warnings in the margins stating “COMMON ERRORS,” presumably so that if you’re flipping through the book you won’t hit upon one of those pages and mistakenly assume the statements made on it are truthful.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that How To Learn… discusses several aspects of the Alexander Technique that tend to get glossed over or forgotten in other works. These include things like why we pull down, the rotational aspect of the phrase ‘Forward and Up,’ and a discussion of energy. Conable also has a wonderful way with language; my notes are full of direct quotes, and she often gave me terms for things I do naturally in a lesson – like body mapping, in fact! She spends ample time highlighting the beautiful contradictions of AT – the self is full of paradoxes, and I appreciate that she names them and gives permission for two disparate things to exist simultaneously in one self. The discussion of body mapping also makes for some really unique insights, like the distinction between a muscle map and a skeletal map. I greatly appreciated the acknowledgement that our body maps need not be internally consistent – different activities can dictate different types of maps to come into play. We can think of the bones to enhance the sense of support, or the spaces between them to emphasize freedom, and which version we choose can change depending on what is needed most at that moment.

I had to reach pretty far to find weaknesses in How To Learn…, but I suppose her discussion of somatics does come off as a bit biased in spots. At one point she describes AT’s relationship to other somatic practices as “one of the really important ones” – comparing it to a corner piece of the body puzzle, a practice that helps to orient all the others. While I might personally agree with her, it does show a bit of bias. We could expect as much from an AT teacher, though – we’ve chosen to dedicate our lives to the practice; we have reason to be a little biased! It doesn’t affect my enjoyment of the manual or its usefulness as a whole, and given that its intended audience is current students you can forgive Conable for preaching to the choir a bit. What is less forgivable is the rather truncated overview of Alexander’s core principles. Conable talks about downward pull and primary control, but then transitions almost immediately into her Laws of Human Movement, her own work based on Alexander’s ideas. She articulates two of Alexander’s principles – other authors I’ve reviewed on this blog have discussed up to seven! She does acknowledge the importance of reading F. M.’s books to hear the work in his own words, though, so that tempers my disappointment a bit.

Overall, How To Learn… is a good introduction to the Technique, but probably more useful after a student has had a few lessons. It would be useful to pretty much all students, but there is a definite focus on physicality, so those students who tend towards a physical worldview (dancers, athletes, etc.) might benefit more strongly. Then again, those unused to physicality might find they have more grievously-inaccurate body maps, and thus see dramatic results from correcting those maps. In general, I would recommend this manual to my own students as a supplement to our lessons, and I think anyone currently in lessons would benefit from working through it as well.

The Nitty-Gritty
Title: How To Learn the Alexander Technique: A Manual For Students
Author: Barbara Conable & William Conable
(c) 1991 by Barbara H. Conable and William Conable
ISBN: 0-9622595-4-3
Status: available on Amazon
Aliases: none

Forward and Up! is a Pittsburgh-based private practice offering quality instruction in the Alexander Technique in a positive and supportive environment.

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