Observing, listening, following

Silverton (left), singing with Laurence Corns on guitar and Brian Edwards on sax
Silverton (left), singing “It’s a Wonderful World” with Laurence Corns (guitar) and Brian Edwards (sax)

Summer holidays

The other evening I was watching a small group of musicians and noticed how well they were observing, listening to and following each other.  I was at the Spitz Charitable Trust Summer Party.  The charity brings musicians into nursing homes and day centres, playing live music for and with older people or residents, many but not all with dementia.   I first came across them when they played for my mother, who had dementia and spent the final six months of her life in a nursing home they visited.

At the party, the Spitz had invited three of the older people they had previously worked with – Henrietta, Silverton and Victor – to play or sing with them during the evening.  All are in their nineties. On each occasion a member of the Spitz team escorted them to the microphone, ensured they and the other musicians were comfortable with the chosen tune, and gave them a rousing and affectionate introduction.

Victor (guitar), Ben Hazleton (double bass), Laurence (holding the mic) and Brian (sax)
Victor (guitar), Ben Hazleton (double bass), Laurence (holding the mic) and Brian (sax)

Whatever the tempo, the musicians were highly attuned to the pace, needs and personality of their older companion.  There was a gentle attentiveness that continued throughout each piece, as they responded easily to pauses or changes.  Sensitively they were able to follow or guide the tune to its natural ending, allowing the soloist to take their well-earned applause from families and guests.

Henrietta takes to the microphone for one of several musical slots, Laurence on guitar
Henrietta takes to the microphone for one of several musical slots, Laurence on guitar

I was particularly aware of this for several reasons.  It reminded me of the musical overtones in the hands-on sessions in our Alexander training. Under the eye of an experienced teacher, we practise with fellow students, observing ourselves but also responsive to others.  Becoming a trio or quartet, the teacher leading, we work in the moment or from memory. We follow the verbal instructions by ear, while fine-tuning our capacity to listen with hands as we work on colleagues.  Each of us takes a turn in the spotlight, the dynamic of the group changing subtly as we perform. As with musicians, we have to pay attention – if we don’t, or over-concentrate, the rhythm is lost.   And we can’t hurry the pace or work too slowly either.  Nonetheless, somehow we all reach the end together.

The evening also brought to mind that musicians from the Spitz had visited my mother in her nursing home just three weeks before she died.  I wasn’t present, but they captured her reactions on a short film, and I’ve seen the difference their singing made as her capacity dwindled – she is alert and able to speak, rising to the occasion, and brought to life one last time by the power of music.  Watching the group playing live at the party with their older soloists, I recognised the attention musicians working in care settings must demonstrate in their playing – a desire to connect or bring people out rather than showcase their own talent, a delicate sensitivity to the needs and forgotten skills of older people or those with dementia, coupled with flexibility, humour, tact and attentiveness.

Finally, I remembered with sadness the slow and subtle duet I played with my mother as she approached death in those last six months.  We both knew she was dying, but didn’t need to speak of it.  I observed and listened to her, and knew her part was coming to an end.  She was often unable to talk, or kept her eyes closed, but listened to my voice as I chatted or read to her.  There were long pauses or silence where only our hands made contact, and I tried to still or stay with her tremor.

In the days before she died, she kept her eyes and lips tight shut, unable to see or say anything, but still listening for her cues, the insistent melody unfamiliar but not unwelcome. I followed her as far as I could, the music stopped, and she was gone.

One of the violinists from the Spitz playing for my mother in her nursing home a few weeks before she died (illustrator Joanna Layla)
One of the violinists from the Spitz playing for my mother in her nursing home a few weeks before she died (illustrator Joanna Layla)

Spiral learning

course curriculum is an example of spiral learning
A spiral curriculum allows you to approach topics again and again – each time with new insights

Term 4

One of the most stimulating elements of our training is the way we learn through a ‘spiral curriculum’.  We revisit the same topics or activities, but approach them from a subtly different angle as our skills and capacities develop.

To explain, I’ll describe my experience with the lunge.  This is both a classic Alexander procedure, and a way of placing ourselves to move flexibly and easily.  When I first started, it seemed the lunge was a mysterious position that everyone else but me knew how to do. (On the course, new trainees can start in any term, so there is an ever-changing mix of experience in the room). This was the spiral curriculum at work, and I had entered at the bottom.

As I now realise, I needn’t have worried.  Before long the lunge came round again, and one of our teachers instructed me in the procedure.  This didn’t mean I could do it – I found it difficult and uncomfortable, I could get into it with instruction, but couldn’t spring back out of it and felt frustrated with myself. But I did have a sense of its possibilities, and could let it lie fallow until I was ready to take it further.

A few months later, my own body use had become freer and more flexible. When we next practised it, I could do it with more ease and minded less if it went wrong. I began to see my difficulties as something to work with, not a cause for frustration.  Now trying it again, I’m able to differentiate between the formal ‘procedure’ with specific steps, and the more dynamic position I can take up when working with someone on the table or in the chair.

I’m making links with similar movements in our weekly tai chi sessions, and I’m experimenting with it in daily life. I’m more able to play with it, and see what it has to offer me, rather than being determined to get it right.  Over time my body has changed and I have greater physical capacity. But I also perceive it differently at each turn of the spiral. What was difficult and frustrating to begin with has now become a puzzle that I’m looking forward to solving.  I’m less worried than before about how long it might take to get there.

With spiral learning I have to actively engage in the process for things to make sense.  But I can also let go of the need to grasp everything at once – it will come round again, and by then, I’ll be more aware of what it means.

Spirals and other shapes from the community Skip Garden in London’s Kings Cross

Snail in skip garden

Pine cone in skip garden

Honeycomb in skip garden

Sculpture 1 in skip garden

Sculpture 3 in skip garden

Sculpture 4 from skip garden

A new way to hold a ladder

Wisteria in bloom
Wisteria in bloom and bees buzzing as I held the ladder

Beginning of Term 4

I’ve returned from the Easter break, refreshed and ready to embark on a new term.  The holidays feel less like time away and more like an integral part of the course, just without active teaching.  For me it’s where the learning settles and takes hold of the body, and somehow changes and insights have time to quietly make themselves known.

Over Easter this happened unexpectedly while I was standing at the bottom of a ladder. I was outside on a slippery, uneven wet surface, while someone else went up the ladder to clear a gutter of autumn leaves.  Ladder-holding is not part of the curriculum. No-one has shown me directly how to do it in an Alexander way, and it’s not something I’ve done for a while, so it was a good place to notice the subtle but significant changes in how I approached it.

What surprised me was how naturally my body and mind started to work together to put me in the best place to support the bottom of the ladder.  I barely had to think about the placing of my feet.  They seemed to find a position that took into account the slope of the ground, the angle of the ladder and the opposing angles of my body.  Without effort, I had secure but flexible footing, where I could move easily if the ladder started to wobble unexpectedly.

I noticed my hands working together with my arms and back, so that I wasn’t gripping the sides of the ladder but was well balanced. I had a firm, comfortable hold, something similar to the ‘hands on the back of the chair’ procedure we practise in the training.  In the past I would have used maximum effort in my hands and arms to keep the ladder steady, probably locking my knees, clenching my jaw, holding my breath and keeping my feet too wide or too close for easy balance.  With my new stance and hold I felt much more in control, and more confident to handle an emergency.

All the while I was conscious of what was going on with a heightened awareness.  I saw my hands on the sides of the ladder, I was aware of my head, neck and back, and I felt the ground beneath my feet.  I heard the bees moving in and out of the sweet-smelling wisteria above my head and felt the dry leaves from the gutter above drifting down onto me.  But I wasn’t distracted, and knew my job was to hold the ladder firm for the person working above me.

Reflecting on my ladder-holding afterwards, I was encouraged that the training is beginning to take root within me and I’m starting to be able to use it in a dynamic multi-dimensional way.  If it can happen when I’m standing at the bottom of a ladder made of solid wood, then over time it’ll work when I have a person in front of me, and I’ll know where to put my feet and hands without worrying about it. But I’m sure it was partly the fact that I was on holiday, away from the activity of the training setting, that enabled me to bring together elements of what I’ve learned over the past year and apply it in a new way.