Body use old and new

Making chainmailSummer holidays

Tense shoulders, strained eyesight and sore backs are not an invention of the modern world.  This became clear when I time-travelled back to the Middle Ages at a French village festival recently. Watching demonstrations of medieval crafts and pastimes I saw how easily these everyday activities could lead to poor body use.

The village was a stronghold for Knights Hospitaller from the 12th century onwards, so the first person to catch my eye was the maker of chain mail.  He let me feel the weight of a square he was constructing.  This really was heavy metal – ten to thirteen kilos per suit – and hot, absorbing the heat of the sun when outside.  Each suit took three months to make, working eight hours a day.  Foot soldiers were protected from head to hips, but the full metal jacket for knights on horseback weighed more heavily, extending as far as the knees.







In the history of metalworking, chainmail preceded full body armour. It was cheaper to make and allowed more flexibility. But with all that weight it would have been difficult to keep upright and breathe without restriction. Using a sword was hard, according to my knight in shining armour, as the padding under the mail restricted movement in the wrist.







I moved on, taking in the breezy walk of a man carrying a large leg of ham, while the signwriter patiently finished his work before the tavern opened. The blacksmith wielded her hammer with balanced ease in the heat of the portable forge, and I dodged down a side street to watch the patient skills of the lacemaker.

Carrying a leg of ham

Tavern signwriter







Blacksmith at work

Wearing glasses and working confidently in bright sunshine, she talked through the complex and colourful pattern she was following. The local buildings have thick stone walls and few window openings, and I saw that without daylight or electricity the process of lacemaking would take its toll on the eyes. I saw how easy it would be to peer ever closer, worrying about mistakes and increasing tension in the arms and hands.

Lacemaker at work






Of all the people I observed that day, the falconer seemed most at ease.  A professional rather than a villager dressed up, he seemed at one with the birds of prey, perhaps because he used his voice and body carefully to keep the hawks calm and show them what he wanted.

He moved quietly and quickly, ahead of the birds, ducking through the crowds to give excited spectators the experience of an owl swooping silently over their heads. He put on a show while keeping a watchful eye on the mood and hunger of each bird as he called them back to his comfortably outstretched arm.

Stallholder on phone






There were few phones, screens or laptops on display at the festival. But I saw plenty of opportunity for peering, straining, making excess effort and pulling down rather than standing tall, moving freely and looking up and out. I realised it’s not the activities we do that create tension, it’s us.





Breathing with colour

Textile detail 2

Summer holidays

This week I encountered the work of someone who deals with breathing, flexibility, movement and change.  Not an Alexander teacher, but Hella Jongerius, a Dutch industrial designer. Her mission is to allow colours to breathe.  In an exhibition at London’s Design Museum, she sets out her stall:

“The way we experience colour depends on the quality of light…. I miss colours that breathe with the changing of the light.  I miss the changeability, the options, that allow us to read and re-read an industrially-produced colour just as we reinterpret works of art… My research on colours, materials and textures is never complete.  All the questions are open-ended, and all answers provisional…”

Working mainly with textiles and furniture in a commercial context, she views the colours traditionally used in industry as too fixed. Manufacturers want guaranteed stability and uniformity for their products.  Her position is that colours change depending on the material, their surroundings, time of day and the way the colour itself has been produced.

She’s become interested in texture, layers, shadows, unexpected combinations – glorying in the flexibility of colour rather than trying to iron it out, and above all wanting to allow colours to come to life.  She has a particular issue with the colour black.  In the print industry it’s produced by using carbon:

“This is effective but it lacks intensity and depth.  It stops the colour from breathing and kills it.”

She mediates between users of her products and the makers, slowly breaking down commercial reluctance to take risks or to trust her judgement, and readily engaging with the tactile and emotional qualities of her designs.

“We live in an increasingly digital world, where our analogue and tactile experiences are becoming more important. The surface and colour of an object define how we interact with it, how we use it at first and over time.  A sense of touch and feeling strongly influence the relationship between object and user”.

The exhibition is not wholly successful in explaining her theories or showing them through the experimental work on display.  It’s located in a basement with no natural light, so it’s impossible to see for yourself the impact of changing daylight on colours.  But I found myself energised, engaged and curious about colour after visiting.  The Alexander training is opening up my senses and awareness.  By the time I left I was seeing new colour combinations everywhere. The tingling sense of visual excitement and tactile possibility remains.

Different shades of green
Folding reveals different layers of colour in each shade of green
Colour catchers
These ‘colour catchers’  are for research into colour, shadow and reflections
Colour catcher in textiles
One frame from Jongerius’ ‘woven movie’ in textiles
White colour catcher
White ‘colour catcher’ showing different shades and layers of colour
Colour wheel
Jongerius wants layered pigments to provide intense colours that breathe
Textile colour catcher
‘Colour catcher’ on experimental textile hanging
Textile detail
‘Textiles, just like colours, are multi-layered materials’
Pots showing different colours of pigment
Pots showing different pigments



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)