We gathered the five members of the TVF faculty (Michael Hanko, Molly Kittle, Peter Jacobson, Darci Balkcom, and Eleni Vosniadou) together in one zoom room and asked just a few questions about teaching. Enjoy the conversations!
Karen: Here we go! I would love to know how you became a teacher.
Eleni: I can start. I wasn’t intending on becoming an Alexander teacher to start with. I went in the training course seeking to develop the skill that I was learning as an Alexander student. It was pain that brought me to the Alexander technique back when I was a percussionist and I couldn’t play because my forearms were inflamed every couple of weeks. As I think about it, it was actually frustration that led me to becoming an Alexander teacher! I was shocked with how much the Alexander technique was helping me, but I was so frustrated that I could not grasp it. I could not fully understand what it was and how it worked. During the training course I thought, all right, I can understand more by teaching this. I remember the moment I made the decision to become an Alexander teacher. I thought as a classical percussionist, I’m going to be spending most of my day working with my technique and precision and perfection in my room alone. I realized that I wanted to teach this work, by encountering my deep love for sharing and connecting with other people. So that is my story. And by the way, this sense of connectedness, but also that frustration is still what drives me in choosing to be a teacher everyday as I wake up in the morning.
Michael: I’ll say something now. My whole relationship to teaching began early on when I decided that under no circumstances would I ever teach. I knew that all I wanted to do was perform and that no one in their right mind would teach. But during my training as a musician, I encountered a number of people whose way of interacting with me was so fascinating that it made me curious about how I could learn how to take somebody from the unknown to the known. For me that happened both in voice lessons and in Alexander lessons and also in a number of bodywork formats. I had been injured and I had Craniosacral Therapy. That was one example of a kind of work that just fascinated me in the way that somebody could gather information with their hands and somehow interact with that information to give me something that I didn’t have before. And you could say the same thing in a voice lesson or an Alexander lesson. I always walked out more whole than I was when walked in. It seemed really great to have that power. It seemed like magic to me. It seemed like such a gift to be able to give somebody something that would make them feel better as a person. I think that’s one of the main things that continue to drive me to this day. I like helping people feel good. And this is just the way that’s presented itself to me to make that happen frequently. I get to do it a lot. Yeah, I think there’s more, but that’s what came out today.
Darci: Okay. I guess I’ll share next. I was in my final year of college and I had just done a yoga teacher training to be my job right after I got out of college. I’d struggled all through college with losing my voice pretty much as soon as I’d start performing. It’s that classic Alexander story of the voice struggles. In my yoga training there was someone who was an Alexander teacher and she encouraged me to look into Alexander Technique. I looked it up on wikipedia, which doesn’t do Alexander technique any justice, and then didn’t think about it again until this teacher reached out to my voice teacher. She ended up coming to one of our opera rehearsals to offer a workshop. When she asked for volunteers to sing in front of the cast, I volunteered. As soon as she put her hands on me, my voice came out like I hadn’t heard it since I was young. It felt like my authentic voice. I had been looking into going into music therapy for grad school because I thought it might be physical therapy for musicians, however once I researched it I discovered that while it is a lovely field, it is not therapy for musicians. And so when I found Alexander Technique, I thought it was exactly what I wanted. And little did I know, that idea didn’t even touch the surface of the depth of Alexander Technique. So the night after that first workshop, I looked up Alexander training courses in New Mexico. I went and visited this training center just for a day. While visiting the training the students were carving pumpkins. I thought, what are they doing? I want to sing and learn about my voice, not carve pumpkins. And so I was carving this pumpkin but I was super grumpy and frustrated because I visited the training because I wanted to get some tools for singing. I began noticing how hard carving a Pumpkin is, and then she put her hand on my elbow and it got so much easier. That caught my attention. Why was carving a Pumpkin so enjoyable and easy now? Because of those two experiences that peaked my curiosity, I joined the training and really had no idea what Alexander technique was. I vowed I only wanted to be a performer and never wanted to teach. However, during the Alexander Training, I started teaching voice lessons and Yoga and noticed that I actually enjoyed teaching even more than performing. I loved performing, but that teaching fed my soul in a different way. I became passionate about not just tools to make things easier, but how we can free up the ability to access a student’s innate, authentic expression.
Molly: Okay. I’ll go next. I feel like I’ve had an interesting relationship with my voice throughout my life. I’ve always been a singer since I was young, as I grew up around it in my home. My dad is a singer and was a choral music director for many years. For me personally, I was really good at imitating sound or feeling like I could kind of show up and be what I needed to be in a certain way. In college, I was studying singing and took some private Alexander Technique lessons and I didn’t actually notice a big difference in my singing. But what I did notice was something in me felt really different. It felt very expanded and as if something familiar that I didn’t remember existed woke up within me. I was fascinated by that and I didn’t actually quite know what that was. And I continued along the singing path thinking that performing was what I wanted to do exclusively. And somewhere in my heart I knew that I wanted to do something more than just perform. I love performing, but I learned more about myself, I really actually wanted to serve others in some way beyond the stage. And I didn’t quite know how that would look. In my graduate program I began to learn more about myself, as my life perspective was expanding and changing. I began to sort of evolve out of this identity of being a singer and what that “should be”. As I made the choice to study the Alexander work, I was growing into who I am as a person and then realizing that I could find my own unique voice and expression, which I think Darci talked about. The Alexander Work linked me to my true self in a particular way. I felt it was important to offer that to other people as well. In the performance field, there’s so much pressure to be a certain way. To hone a skill is one thing, but to actually keep and hone your sense of self, I feel like they go hand in hand. To be able to help others around me do that and to help others step into that for themselves became really, really fulfilling for me. I think it took me a while, and this is ironic because I’ve been on stages and been performing, but it took me a while to feel comfortable actually being seen for who I am. I think, honestly it was kind of terrifying because embracing who you are can be a sort of a terrifying process, because it’s vulnerable. Being able to have the courage to step into myself and step into this path has been for me personally, a very, very big part of this process. Again, something that I’m passionate about passing on to other people.
Peter: I have a lot of questions about teaching which I think we could explore for hours. What does it mean to be a teacher? What is a teacher and what does a teacher do? Those are really hot questions for me right now. I grew up around teaching. My mom was a teacher. So I loved the idea of teaching and I decided in my teens that I wanted to be a teacher. I got a degree in music education and have several degrees in music and in conducting. I have a very similar story to these colleagues here. I was in pain and suffering and learning the Alexander Technique was really the only thing that helped me. I never thought I would teach it. One of my Alexander teachers planted the seed that I would become a teacher someday. It never occurred to me that I would actually teach the work, but I knew I wanted to go deeper. I knew that training to be a teacher would give me a depth in the work that I couldn’t get through weekly lessons. So, what drives me as a teacher is that it’s just a different form of being a student. I think the best teachers are students and the best students are effective teachers of themselves. There is always something more to learn. I could live for a thousand years and still teach/learn. That’s my experience with it.
Eleni: Can I share something that came as you were speaking, Peter? For me, this choosing to become a teacher is really choosing to become a lifelong student. I don’t have better words to describe it, but it feels like my main responsibility as a teacher is to be learning together with the student. To be creating the space for us to learn. I love how in Martial Arts they describe getting the black belt as becoming a certified beginner and this totally applies to becoming a teacher!
Peter: I’m so glad you said that because I’ve had that thought too. Professional learner isn’t really an affordable option and I’m not sure I want to do that. I don’t care to learn something just to learn something. I think of myself as a gatherer. I gather information and then bring it back to the tribe and share it. What drives me is to sharing what I’ve learned with other people.
Michael: Peter, that aspect of teaching is definitely part of the TVF culture. And how I like to teach in general, I actually gather the information with the students during the lesson and that’s something that I found surprises people. They’re not really expecting that and sometimes they actually are put off by that because they’ve been inculcated in an educational system which is about going someplace, getting information and then going back and stuffing it in your head. So they come expecting that I’m just going to be giving them something and I love when the student starts to realize he doesn’t know what he’s doing. I’m really excited by that. When they can see that I’m just trying to figure something out. And then it levels the playing field. Maybe that’s not the metaphor I’m looking for. It’s when two people come to the same level and they meet as equals. Those are the moments when I find the richness happens for both of us. I’m not talking at them or down to them, but when we’re searching together, it’s so exciting. I’ve had inklings of that in my teaching for a while now, but it seems like every time I have a TVF live event that part of the experience of teaching comes to the fore. All of us teachers support each other in that. It’s like we have to remember that it’s okay for us to not know everything. That’s not even our role here. Peter, I’m just going to go back to your question What is a teacher? Maybe it’s somebody who is good at giving the group permission to go out and figure stuff out and to make it okay to not yet know.
Molly: Yeah. Michael, you said earlier, I’m bringing the unknown into the known and I think similarly if not the same, it’s bringing the known into the unknown. I feel the same way as a teacher, giving myself permission, to take what I know, then step into the unknown and feel like I don’t have to know.
Darci: Once you start to teach, you get to play with understanding another person’s perspective. When I am in the role of learning, I was taking it all in through my filter. But, then seeing someone else taking it in through their filter and how they incorporate it, I can learn. I can learn so much from what they do with the ideas we are playing with, whether that’s something spiritual, body mapping, or an Alexander principle. It just becomes this constant play in this constant share for the unknown.
Michael: I love what you just said Darci, and I’ve never heard it before. The wonderfulness of seeing some information through somebody else’s eyes and how that can help us to assimilate it in our system better. Wow. Karen, I would propose that we shift to another question which is coming up for me now, which is the one about how I prepare to teach. More and more, I’m doing nothing. That’s a little glib because more and more everything I do in my life is my preparation for teaching. When I can bring this – the spirit of curiosity and open awareness – to whatever I’m doing, I’m just practicing being in that state. And then when I show up at the lesson, I usually have no idea what we’re going to do or what we’re going to talk about. That moment of coming face to face with it, having no idea what we’re doing, and letting it evolve is so cool. It’s so rich. I’m noticing that students really need support because they’re not used to going into the unknown without a plan. We’ve been taught that we have to gird ourselves with knowledge and plans and financing anytime we go into anything. To go in naked as it were, but with our mind, with our universal mind open, wow. Then anything can come out of it. What I’ve been noticing that is that when I can approach teaching from that perspective, it becomes about so much more than vocal technique or body awareness or whatever the ostensible topic is. It becomes about everything, so it reminds me of something that Michael Neill often talks about: that everything from nothing. And it requires coming in with nothing in order to have everything be available. If you come in with something, then you’ve got to narrow tube through which to see and not see most of what is, but when you come in with nothing, then the universe is your playground.
Darci: I’ll share because this has been up for me lately and it’s come up at different points in my life whenever I’ve tried to plan to teach, I’ll arrive at the environment that I’m teaching in and I have to throw the plan out the window because it doesn’t fit with that particular group of individuals that has shown up that day. Then we launch into a completely different and cool exploration. It’s just becoming more and more of not preparing. I discovered it as a yoga instructor. I’d write out this whole plan and then a student would ask for hip stretches. With voice I never planned because it was based on the student and what they bring in to work on that day. And then, recently, at the school I teach at, I was put in a role that I’d never had any experience in before. In reaction to that, i thought I needed to plan more, but the more I show up and trust the more the content would appear through where the students’ curiosity lies. In some of the TFV classes, an idea that I thought would be like a passing statement becomes fuel for the class. So really that space of unknowing creates so much potential and possibility.
Michael: I want to bring your attention to a bit of your own brilliance I think you missed, Darci. It’s one of those little passing statements when you said because it’s a voice lesson, you know, it just becomes about what the student shows up with, that’s not how all voice teachers teach. So give yourself credit there too.
Darci: Great. Thanks Michael.
Eleni: Sharing some of my experience being back in school nowadays, I’m surprised to see that most of my teachers come to class with their powerpoint presentation and it’s all about stuffing our brains with knowledge! Within TVF, we have been exploring a completely different model of teaching. This space, this playground has no plan and no fixed agenda. I deeply appreciate that. I’m very aware that as I go in to teach a class, I’m deliberately not knowing what’s going to happen. A certain kind of vulnerability comes up. It kind of opens a space for thoughts of insecurity. I appreciate the fact that I get to apply for myself th same process which I happen to teach, as those thoughts come up. Quoting F.M. Alexander, He said, “You are not here to do exercises, or to learn to do something right, but to get able to meet a stimulus that always puts you wrong and to learn to deal with it.” Like, Michael, I don’t prepare in one way. I don’t have the lesson plan because I found that this just added stress to my life, trying to foresee what was going to happen in the future. At the same time, I’m aware that I’m preparing the moment I wake up. If a stimulus comes that doesn’t enrich my life, I live in a way so that it does enrich my life. So it’s nice to know that the preparation happens moment to moment before and after I show up in the class.
Peter: When we talk about planning and preparing there’s a whole big discussion that happens before that. For example, how do you believe learning happens? If you have the belief that the student is a vessel waiting to be filled with outside information in learning, I would call that outside in learning. But what if the student has the answers and it’s our job as teachers or guides to help them? That inside out learning creates a very different kind of planning. More and more I’m seeing that learning happens from the inside out. The student has the answer. I’m not there to give the student the answer but to help them discover it within themselves. It speaks to the philosophy of education. There are a couple other important things when it comes to planning: the context in which you’re teaching. For example, in a couple of weeks I’m going to teach a workshop for 200 musicians. I’m going to want to have a plan for that. If I would just show up and be like, well, what do you guys want to explore? It’s a little different going into a TVF masterclass where there are 10 people who want to explore or even a private lesson with one student. There’s also experience. When I first started teaching, that lesson plan was my security blanket. The more I teach, the more comfortable I am with not having a plan. The last thing is; what is your agenda as a teacher? How does that relate to the student’s agenda and what’s more important? I had a student say to me once, you really have no agenda. I realized I did have one agenda item and that’s just to help the student be free in what they’re doing. That’s my agenda item, but it’s not that I have a list of things they need to do. One of the things that I believe strongly is that when the student’s desires are what is driving the learning, not the teacher’s agenda, that the learning is so much more deep and meaningful. That was kind of an indirect answer to your question, but I think these things are really important when talking about planning and preparing.
Karen: Can I add something and then see if this resonates with what you’re saying. As your student, I feel honored in the way that you show up. All of you show up to teach not planning in a lesson plan sort of sense, but you’re thinking about this topic and this is a part of the way you live and the questions that you bring. You’re not necessarily planning for the lesson, but you’re showing up vulnerable. You’re showing up ready and open for whatever happens. And that is preparation for a class, right? You don’t show up, thinking about all these other things and whatever. It’s like a chef showing up with all the ingredients available for me as a student. It’s showing up in a prepared way that you have the apron on and you have the ingredients there. Does that make sense? I feel honored that you’re done the preparation. The tools are there.
Eleni: Thank you for bringing this up, Karen. And as you were talking, I realized as a teaching I am accountable to my students about the way I choose to live my day to day. So, if I’m teaching in the evening and I go into a stress response during the day, then I remember that it is my responsibility to my class to work on myself or work with this in a way that reminds me of my natural easy coordination and reminds me also of my priorities and clarity of choice in whatever I am engaging with. This is the stuff that I want to teach in essence. So I feel very blessed to be in a profession where if I don’t embody what I teach, then it has no value. Basically, it will not be communicated through just words. And to go back to the first question, I think that is exactly what unconsciously planted the seed for me to become a teacher. After my first lesson, I looked at my teacher and I thought, “I need what this person has! I have no idea what it is, but I need this. I need to BE this!”
Michael: I don’t know if this is what you just said, but I’ll say it in my own words anyway; it’s related at least. One thing I’ve noticed about the faculty here is that we are all the kind of people who don’t turn our passion on and off. We go through life with our curiosity turned on. We’re just about always thinking about stuff. It’s not like, oh, I’m going to think about something now. I’m always thinking about something. I see what we’re doing in our lives is then what we come in and teach from. It might not be directly that we teach that, but our lives are feeding our work. In fact, it doesn’t really feel to me much different anymore. Like I have my professional life and my other life. It’s just all kind of blending together. Maybe that’s what a teacher is, when you can’t tell anymore when you’re teaching and when you’re not.
Molly: I totally agree. Michael, I discovered that often the content that’s coming up in a lesson is this reflection of something that I am either working on or that’s present for me. I find that to be such an amazing thing. I’ll hear myself say something I’m not even thinking about. It just happens. I say something and then I realize I need to listen to that too, you know? It’s kind of funny thing. When I think about preparing, I think about how to create a condition for learning. That’s for yourself or with a group. How do you create a condition for inside out learning? That is the preparation that I think about. If it’s for a student, what’s the condition that I want to be in to meet that person? It’s very different than writing a lesson plan, bullet point by bullet point. For me, one of the draws to teaching Alexander work was not having to do bullet points. That was such a relief. It was liberating to then be able to show up and have all these things appear in a lesson without me having to spend all this time fretting about getting or sharing all this information. There’s a time and place for bullet points. But for me, it’s really the question: “What are the ingredients I’m offering to my students?” Often I’m harvesting those ingredients alongside my students, which is pretty amazing.
Eleni: This is such a juicy conversation. I love it! This comes from my personal experience right now. Tonight I’m going to be singing with my choir at a very central part of São Paolo, as a peaceful manifestation for the political situation here in pre-election Brazil. It’s been days that I’ve been kind of worrying about it. Being in an environment where I’m encouraged to just see myself where I am, I feel supported. I think this is a very important aspect of this program. How just being in the company of TVFers right now I have space to be with whatever is happening in me and it is okay, I don’t need to “fix me”. I can just see it and experiment with it. And the support that I experience in just being with this group is allowing me to feel safe, to face that situation and also to be with myself on my own before meeting the stimulus of that situation. And I don’t have words to describe the sense of happiness and bliss and wonderfulness that I experience in TVF where community and learning is as important as each individual. Now I got emotional. Thank you guys.
Peter: I had an experience this summer. I become very used to this way that we all work. I went to a workshop where the learning and the teaching was not this way. And it literally felt violent to me. I had to leave the room. I don’t mean to shame or blame the person that was doing the teaching because that was the best teaching that they knew how to do. When I learned who that person’s mentor was and what kind of teacher that person was, it made total sense to me. There’s something so life giving and wonderful when you honor the students innate wisdom and allow a spaciousness. Something deeper and more meaningful can come through. Parker Palmer writes about this so beautifully. He describes the soul as a wild animal and when you’re constantly throwing things at a wild animal, it’s not going to come out. You have to be patient and just wait and then the soul comes out. That’s where the richness and the juice and learning is. When the soul is present, it’s incredible. When that doesn’t happen, we might call that violent music education. I’m very excited to work in a way that’s nonviolent and that honors the student’s own wisdom and own beauty.
Molly: Yes. Speaking of honoring the student’s own wisdom, I think when I first learned that I didn’t have to “know anything,” I didn’t quite understand what that meant or how to translate that into teaching. I remember my Alexander teachers saying, “you don’t have to know. The student is perfect just as they are. Their system knows.” I remember that being something I could barely comprehend. I was learning that I didn’t have to know everything to be effective at what I do, and that my mere curiosity and interest in the student could actually be the compass for the lesson. Knowledge in and of itself is a tool – not the actual teaching. What you’re saying Peter – everything is already there within the student. That takes a bit of trust to embrace, and I learn from it every time I teach. It’s an amazing truth to discover.
Darci: Without the space, there can’t be that possibility for our authentic selves and spirit. I’ve been playing with that idea a lot because in the traditional music education system I watch the students trying to just keep up, it’s just survival instead of blossoming. To change my construct around my own way of teaching and watch some other teachers change too was a big change for me. When I offer the students more space to process there is more self discovery. Whether that was an exploration with their voice, they wrote a song, or had an epiphany, they just had some space for creativity. We need the space in order to create and that is something I really, really admire and am grateful for in the TVF community. The community creates space and inspiration for curiosity, play, and the student’s innate wisdom.
Molly: When I was in college, I had a coach that one day was really hard on me and blew up at me for struggling to provide a desired result. Maybe the intent was to fire me up and motivate me, but instead I was scarred by that experience. In retrospect, the expressed anger was probably not super personal to me. But from that incident, a significant part of me thought that I shouldn’t use my voice. That my voice would never be good enough. In a weird way I can be grateful for this, as it gave me the opportunity to learn how to distinguish the difference between constructive and destructive feedback, and how to meet somewhere where they are. And I’ve seen these incidents happen to other people or know people who have a similar story. They were shut down. The voice is such a personal expression and we all have such unique instruments. How do we cultivate this ability for it to shine? Shaming is definitely not the way to do it. Honing a skill does require attention and work on the student’s end, and, aiming to create a safe space where people can feel like they can step out of labels into vulnerability and open their voices is so key. I mean that’s literally what we’re teaching – vocal freedom. For me, freedom comes with a bit of curiosity and a permission to be perfectly imperfect.
Peter: I love what you said about creating the safe space. It reminded me of this story about this specialist in human movement. He was explaining how he taught his daughter how to walk. He just put her in the living room and created a safe space for her. She just needed a safe space so that she could figure out how to walk and maybe that’s what teaching is, just creating a safe space where they can learn to walk or sing or whatever it is.
Karen Archbold is TVF Director of Operations (fancy title for the person who keeps everything running smoothly and Peter sane!) and a member of the TVF Pro Certification Program. She is based in the Chicago area and spends her time being a mom to three beautiful girls, making music, teaching her fabulous students and drinking expensive Australian tea!