We gathered the five members of the TVF faculty (Michael Hanko, Molly Kittle, Peter Jacobson, Darcy 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. I went in the training course because I wanted to develop my skill that I was learning as an Alexander student. It was pain that brought me to the Alexander technique as I was a percussionist and I couldn’t play because my forearms were inflamed every couple of weeks. And now that I think about it, it was 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 grasp what it was and how it worked. So I thought, all right, I can learn more by teaching this. I remember the moment where I thought, okay, if I want to be good at something, I need to choose whether I’ll be a musician or an Alexander teacher. Then I thought, okay, 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, I realized how I encountered 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 cranial sacral 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 continues to drive me to this day. I like making 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. 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 Alexander story of the voice struggles. In my yoga training there was someone who was an Alexander teacher and she said, you should try Alexander Technique. I looked it up on wikipedia. I don’t know if anyone’s ever looked it up on wikipedia. It really doesn’t do it any justice. It’s like there was this guy, the early 19 hundreds who worked with people’s bodies and you can have like 100 sessions and you’ll notice a difference. It might have since changed because this was 8 or 10 years ago. But, I was like, yeah, I’m not going to try this. Anyway, she reached out to my voice teacher at the time and came to one of our opera rehearsals. When she asked for volunteers to sing in front of the cast, I volunteered since I knew her and she was a friend. 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. I didn’t really know anything about music therapy and I thought it was therapy for musicians and it’s not at all. And so when I found Alexander Technique, I was like this is physical therapy for musicians. This is exactly what I wanted. And little did I know, that didn’t even touch the surface of it. So, that night I looked up Alexander training courses in New Mexico. I went and visited this training center just for a day. Robin, our teacher said that I could sing and I’d get some work and blah, blah blah. I got there and they were carving pumpkins. I was like, what are they doing? I want to sing and learn about my voice. I got partnered with one of the Japanese students who couldn’t speak any English. And so I’m carving this pumpkin but I’m like super grumpy and frustrated because I came up here because I wanted to get some tools for singing and making things easier. I was noticing how hard carving a Pumpkin is, and then she put her hand on my elbow and it got so much easier. I was like, what just happened and why is carving a Pumpkin so enjoyable now? It caught my attention. Because of those two experiences, I joined the training. I really had no idea what Alexander technique was. Similar to you, Michael, I vowed that I only wanted to be a performer and never wanted to teach. 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 a little bit of an interesting relationship with my voice throughout my life. I’ve always been a singer since I was young. I grew up around it in my home. My dad is a singer and was a music director for many years. For me personally, I was really good at imitating 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 really, really noticed was something in me felt really different. It felt really expanded and it woke up something. 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. That meant maybe it wasn’t 100 percent true. I love performing, but I learned more about myself and I really actually wanted to serve others in some way. And I didn’t quite know how that would look. In my graduate program I discovered I had this experience of learning who I was. That’s sort of evolved from this identity of being a singer and what that should be. I had to come into who I was as a person and then realized that I could find my own unique voice and expression, which I think Darcy talked about. The Alexander Work linked me to myself 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 goes with that 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 that it was kind of terrifying because it’s sort of a terrifying process. 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 just have a lot of questions about which I think we could explore for hours. What does it mean to be a teacher? What is the teacher and what does the teacher do? Those are really hot questions for me right now. I grew up around teaching. My mom was a teacher. We always had books around. I loved teaching and I decided in my teens that I wanted to be a teacher. I got a degree in music education and have subsequent or several degrees in music and in conducting. I think the best conductors are teachers. They really teach people about how the music comes alive. At least that’s how I see it. And so in a way, my training as a conductor was also training as a teacher and as a student of the Alexander Technique, I have a very similar story to these colleagues here. I was in pain and suffering and it was really the only thing that helped me. I never thought I would teach it until one of my Alexander teachers planted that seed and said I know you’ll become a teacher someday. It never occurred to me that I would actually teach the work, but the more I learned about it and was a student of it, 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 a different form of just being a student. It’s the other side of being a student, but you’re still student. I think the best teachers are students and the best students are actually good teachers of themselves. In my experience, the thing that is life giving and infinite about being a teacher that will never get old. I could live for a thousand years and still do it. That’s my experience with it. Next question.
Eleni: Can I share something that came as you were speaking, Peter? For me, this jumping into becoming a teacher, I recognize now how making that decision, I made the decision that I want to be a student for a living. 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. I need to be creating the space for us to learn. I love the way that in the martial arts they describe getting the black belt as being a certified beginner and I feel it applies to the teaching and learning.
Peter: And I’m so glad you said that because I’ve had that thought too. Professional learner isn’t really an option although some people do it in Europe. That’s not really an option and actually I don’t want to do that. I don’t care to learn something just to learn something. I just had the thought recently 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: There’s also a part of teaching is to me also gathering stuff and bringing it back and sharing it with people, but part of the TVF culture definitely. And part of how I like to teach. 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 awhile 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 about, 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.
Darcy: Once you start to teach it, you get to play with understanding another person’s perspective. When I was just 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 whatever piece it is that we were playing with, whether that’s something spiritual or body mapping. I can learn so much from them. It just becomes this constant play in this constant share for the unknown.
Michael: I love what you just said Darcy, 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 sort of 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, I have 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 university is your playground.
Darcy: 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 get to whatever 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 thing. 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 have it right under me and then someone would come in and be like, I’d like to do hip stretches today. And I’d say, all right, we’ll work one or two in and then we’d do something completely different. So I just stopped planning there. With voice I never planned because it was based on the student. And then, recently, at the school I teach at, I was put in a role that I’d never had any experience in before. And so I thought, oh, I’ve really got to plan this, and every time I came in with a plan, it was something else was up in the room that day that needed to be addressed and was so much more organic for the group. Then in some of the TFV classes as well, an idea that I thought would be like a passing statement has become fuel for the class. So really that space of nothingness just creates so much potential and possibility.
Michael: I want to bring your attention. I think you’ve missed a bit of your own brilliance. 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.
Darcy: I’m like, how can I plan for what they need? Great. Thanks Michael.
Eleni: I was sharing my experience being back in school nowadays, I’m surprised to realize that most of my teachers come to class with their powerpoint presentation and it’s all about just stuffing our brains with knowledge. I was surprised because especially within TVF, we’ve just been exploring a completely different model in 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 gives a space for thoughts of insecurity. I appreciate the fact that I get to apply my field of interest, my field of study, which I happen to teach as those thoughts come up. And I am going to quote Fm 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 that it doesn’t reach my life. So it’s nice to know that the preparation is like moment to moment t live show up in the class.
Peter: In order to 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 versus the student has the answers and it’s our job as teachers or guides to help them. That inside out learning is going to create a very different kind of planning. And more and more I’m seeing that learning happens from the inside out. The student has the answer, but I’m not there to give the student the answer. I think that’s a really important piece of it. I think that speaks to the philosophy of education. I think there’s a couple other important things: 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 think I’m probably going to want to have a little bit of a plan for that. If I would just show up and be like, well, what do you guys want to explore? I mean, that’s a little different, you know, versus going into a TVF masterclass or a workshop where there are 10 people and who want to explore. So I think also context is really important. I think there’s also experience. When I was first starting, I read that like that lesson plan was my security blanket and the more experience I get and the more I teach something, I’m very comfortable just kind of shooting from the hip and, and riffing on certain topics. So I think the more experience you get the easier it is to not have a plan. I think the last thing is; what is your agenda as a teacher? Do you have an agenda and what is on that agenda? How does that relate to the students agenda and what’s more important? I had a student say to me once, you really have no agenda. And 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 like they need to do this and this and this. One of the things that I believe so 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 all of those things are really important in 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 that I see myself as a teacher as a profession and that holds me accountable to my day to day way of living. So, I’m teaching in the evening and I go into a stress response. Then I remember that it is my responsibility to my class that evening 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 basically. 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, like 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. Like that was such a relief. It was liberating to then be able to show up and have all these things appear without me having to spend all this time fretting about getting all this information. There’s a time and place for bullet points. But for me, it’s really 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 is my personal experience now. Tonight I’m going to a very central part of Sao Paolo. I’m going to sing with my choir as peaceful manifestation of 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 and where I feel support from this environment that we’ve created in TVF. So I think this is a very important aspect of this program. How just being in the company of the faculty and having space. Whatever I feel or what whatever is happening right now is okay and 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 go to that situation or to be with my self alone before 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’m very used to this way that we all work. I had an experience this summer at a different workshop where the learning and the teaching was not this way. And it literally felt violent to me. I had to leave the room. There was a woman out there and I said, oh, how you doing? She’s like, I just can’t be in there, do you want to go for a walk? Yeah. So we just went for a walk and just talked about it. And not to shame or blame the person that was doing the teaching because that was the best teaching that they knew how to do so. And 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 just 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 it’s like 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. I think that when I learned that I didn’t have to know anything and I remember my teachers saying, you don’t have to know. The student is perfect just as they are. Their system knows. I remember that just being something I could barely comprehend. I was learning that I didn’t have to know everything. I thought I had to learn every little thing. I look back on that and I still have that little voice in my head that wonders if I know enough. What you’re saying Peter, everything is already there. That takes a bit of trust, I think.
Darcy: 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 I’m in a semi traditional music education system and watching 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 and sometimes letting the students go, was a big thing for me. I let the students go off and do their own thing and out of that some brilliant, awesome something would happen. Whether that was an exploration with their voice or they wrote a song or had an epiphany or 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. It creates space for curiosity and play.
Molly: When I was in college, I had a coach that was really hard on me and one day just blew up at me. I was so scarred by that experience. I thought, I shouldn’t use my voice. Instead of meeting me and helping me to find a better opportunity to shine. They weren’t able to meet me where I was. I’ve seen that happen to other people or 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? That’s definitely not the way to do it. Skill honing is a piece of this. Learning a certain skill. Curiosity is working to create a safe space where people can feel like they can step out of those labels and free their voices. I mean that’s literally what we’re teaching. Really for me there is a permission and a freedom that comes.
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!