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Dare To Be Wrong

The Teaching of Judith Leibowitz

Ed. Kathryn Miranda, Publ. Mornum Time Press, Berkeley CA, June 2007, hbk, 146pp, ISBN 0-9644352-8-4, £15.50 from Mouritz, www.mouritz.co.uk

Review by Ruth Diamond (first published in AmSAT News, Issue No. 74, Summer 2007, adapted for Statnews September 2007).

Judith Leibowitz was one of America’s most important and influential Alexander teachers. She was instrumental in founding the American Center for the Alexander Technique (ACAT) in Manhattan in 1964, was Training Program Director until 1981 and continued on the faculty until her death in 1991. In 1968 John Houseman invited her to join the Drama Division of Juilliard, where she pioneered the tradition of teaching the Technique as part of the curriculum of conservatories and performance divisions of universities across the United States. She later introduced the Technique at other schools, including the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and the Arena Stage in Washington.

If you count the number of American teachers who were trained by Leibowitz or were taught by people who were trained by her, you will find that she directly or indirectly influenced the teaching methods of a significant proportion of American teachers. She was a beloved figure who is remembered for her courage, her humanity, and her talent for making the Technique accessible to students at every level of experience.

In 1991 she co-authored The Alexander Technique: The World Famous Method for Enhancing Posture, Stamina, Health and Well-being, and For Relieving Tension and Pain with Bill Connington (now out of print) to introduce the Alexander Technique to the general public. Many teachers still recommend this classic to their students as an adjunct to regular lessons. She wanted to write another book for people who knew and understood the Technique to explore the subtleties of deep learning. Although she never had a chance to write that book, she left behind a rich collection of tapes recording her work as an individual and group teacher at Juilliard as well as Training Program Director of ACAT.

For many years, these tapes were housed in the ACAT library where they were available for loan. Several years ago, ACAT initiated a project to transcribe and publish them. The resulting book, Dare to Be Wrong, edited by Kathryn Miranda, allows us to hear Leibowitz as she teaches, reminisces, and philosophises. The transcripts span several decades, but the bulk of the book comes from Leibowitz’ final years, after she had distilled her thinking and methods into a fine art.

As Miranda explains in her preface, editing transcripts of taped lessons and workshops is a challenge. Visual cues are lacking, sentences are fragmented, and there are periods of silence. Miranda has met the challenge beautifully. Using her intimate knowledge of Leibowitz’ teaching style and a delicate editor’s hand, she fills in gaps, inserts meaningful words and sometimes combines more than one tape into a single essay. Miranda has chosen her material wisely.

The book opens with Leibowitz describing her journey from young polio victim to master teacher, studying first with Alma Frank, then Lulie Westfeldt and F.M. Alexander. She describes her process of connecting new thinking with new kinaesthetic experience. As she talks we get a sense of the different teaching styles she encountered: Alma Frank engaged her thinking, Lulie Westfeldt’s hands were amazing; Alexander’s teaching was simple and straightforward.

As I read the later transcripts of Leibowitz teaching trainees, individual students, and classes at Juilliard, I was struck by the subtlety of her teaching; her characteristic pattern of combining words, visual cues, and kinaesthetic experience. Over and over she demonstrates the power of connecting the kinaesthetic experience of the teacher’s hands with verbal concepts. Whether she was teaching a new student, a class at Juilliard, or experienced teachers, the words she used were similar, and because of the clarity of her thinking, they sounded new. Each lesson begins with simple concepts and grows organically based on the students’ responses.

Leibowitz had a degree in biology and worked as a chemist before studying the Technique, and her specific use of language was matched by her respect for empirical evidence. Frequently she moved between precise anatomical descriptions and creative imagery, always distinguishing which was which. Her students used their own hands in guided explorations and were frequently looking in the mirror to observe their own reactions.

The spirit of her teaching is captured in the title of the book. She offers her students the opportunity to "Dare to let it feel wrong." She says, "What I want is for my students to feel secure, to feel they can take a chance. Life is full of making mistakes; it’s no grave thing to make a wrong choice. It’s important to recognize that the choice didn’t work and be able to say, ‘Fine, that didn’t work, let me try something else.’"

Dare To Be Wrong stands as a record of Judith Leibowitz’ unique heritage; it records her style of teaching, the methods she used, and the clarity of her thinking. It provides a means-whereby for Leibowitz to take her proper place in the written history of the Alexander Technique. It is a small, beautifully bound book that can be carried around in a purse or a large pocket, allowing readers to pick out a favourite chapter for reading over and over. And, as we read, those of us who knew her will remember how she taught, and those of us who didn’t know her will understand something about the depth and breadth of her contribution to the development of the Alexander Technique in the United States.

© Ruth Diamond 2007

 

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