Armstrong, Joe

First Name, Last Name: 
Joe Armstrong
AT connection: 
AT teacher

I was introduced to the Alexander Technique in the summer of 1965 at the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan by Joan Murray, with whose husband Alex (then first flute of the London Symphony) I was studying flute there before my senior year of undergraduate music school. I had a lesson with Joan nearly every day for eight weeks, while Alex also guided me in incorporating the Alexander principles into my flute playing. Studying with the Murrays that summer and the next (when I also had lessons there with Walter Carrington, who had been Alexander's main assistant) opened a door to a knowledge and experience of psychophysical unity I desperately needed for my development as a performer and for my growth as a person. I didn't realize it so clearly at the time, but I had just about come to a dead end in my progress as a musician, which had been very "instinctive" and haphazard, relying mainly on whatever "natural talent" I might have possessed. My study with my original teacher, Carl Petkoff, had been suddenly cut short because of his early, forced retirement for health reasons; so I was doubly frustrated because I didn't have the chance to receive all he had to offer from his particular natural brilliance as a player. (See my article: "Carl Petkoff and His Technique for Creating a Subtle and Expressive Flute Vibrato.") And, at the same time, I had also become extremely ill-at-ease in nearly every aspect of my social life. Looking back, I can see that I was probably very close to some kind of breakdown, but I feel certain that the lessons helped ward it off by showing me how to access the potential for integration and constructive control that most of us have buried beneath our long-standing subconscious habits of reacting, thinking, moving and carrying ourselves.

Then, suddenly faced with the Vietnam era draft at the end of that second summer of Alexander lessons in 1966, I found they had given me not only a new confidence in performing that won me an assignment to a top band, but also a new source of power and courage to endure the rigors of Army basic training. (See my article: "Reconsidering Forward and Up.") During those next three years in the Army my appreciation for the Technique continued to deepen, and I still traveled whenever I could to have more lessons with Joan and Alex Murray in East Lansing, Michigan and with Frank Jones and Rika Cohen in Boston. (It was particularly exciting to be with the Murrays during that time as they began to explore Raymond Dart's ideas and procedures.)

I also became friends then with Kitty Wielopolska, who had trained in Alexander's first teacher training course in the 1930's, and I was enormously inspired by visiting her in Philadelphia and talking endlessly about the Alexander work. Our friendship continued until her death in 1988, and during her last years we recorded many of our conversations about her battles with schizophrenia and the inspiration she found in the Alexander Technique to get herself well and eventually teach the Technique. We called the memoir Never Ask Why: The Alexander Work and Schizophrenia, and it is published by Novis, . Preface to Never Ask Why

I spent much of my time riding the bus on the Army Field Band's long concert tours studying Alexander's four books, and I was powerfully struck by the ramifications of his discoveries for improving every aspect of a person's life. This eventually made me realize that before going on to do anything else musically after leaving the military the most important thing would be for me to train to become an Alexander teacher. Luckily, Walter Carrington could accept me right away for a place in his course, and I spent the next three years training in London. While there I also worked with other fine teachers trained by Alexander himself: Peggy Williams, Edward Gellately, and Elizabeth Walker. All these teachers verified and exemplified the fact that training requires not only the development of attention and direction of our "manner of use" during every waking moment but also deep changes in one's "conditions of use" in order to be able to learn to teach in any adequate way at all. (See my article: "A Crucial Distinction: Conditions and Manner of Use.") And that's why it takes so long. During the course I got to know well Nina Haahr, Judah Kataloni, Pam Hartman, Don Burton, Vivien Mackie and Chariclia Gounaris; and these relationships enriched the training experience in countless ways. Later I developed rewarding teaching collaborations with most of them, as well as with other London-trained teachers, Jean Clark and Nelly Ben-Or.

After qualifying in 1972, I came to Boston to teach because I felt it would be the best place to work and develop musically and would provide students who would be open to learning what the Technique has to offer on its most profound levels. Frank Jones (professor at Tufts and author of Freedom to Change, who had also trained with Alexander and had done extensive research on the Technique) and his wife Helen were very welcoming to me and helped by steering students my way as I started teaching. Then Frank offered to sponsor me in doing a masters degree at Tufts through an inter-departmental program where I could both pursue my musical studies in the Music Department (and with Fernand Gillet of the Boston Symphony; see my article "Oboe Master Fernand Gillet's Remarkable Contributions to Woodwind Playing") and do research in the Technique under his supervision in the Psychology Department. (See my thesis Effects of the Alexander Principle in Dealing with Stress om Musical Performance.) My intensive contact with his unusual way of teaching and his ideas on research was invaluable in challenging me to look more objectively at the Technique and at the teaching of it that I had experienced up till then, and one day I hope to write an in-depth account of my years working with him. (See my article "Positive and Negative Primary Control and Research.")

During these early years, my Alexander teaching practice built up quickly among performers in the New England area, and I've been grateful to get to work with some very exciting ones - including actor Brian Bedford who invited me to introduce the Technique at the Stratford Ontario Shakespeare Festival in 1976, which also resulted in my teaching actresses Maggie Smith and Jessica Tandy. And around that same time I worked extensively with a number of fine actors involved in the experimental theater movement in Boston, and that added even more to my conviction of the Technique's value to artistic creativity at its deepest levels.

Then in 1978 I decided to start a teacher training course because I had several students who were eager to train and who I thought would be excellent to work with in that intensive, daily way - including Don Mixon, who was chairman of the Psychology Department at the University of Massachusetts. For the ten years that I ran the course, I only worked with five or six trainees at a time so that I could be sure to give them the most thorough experience I was capable of. It was also very satisfying on my part to work with this size of class because it allowed us the chance to examine Alexander's ideas together in more of an equal, collaborative way than I had experienced in my own training; and much of the time it felt like we were all discovering together from day to day as a group, instead of me just being the "leader" and everyone else following along.

Over the years since I began teaching, the Alexander Technique has become vastly more widespread due to a great increase in the number of people teaching it. However, like most of the senior teachers I have known and worked with, and like many colleagues with my same training background, I am deeply concerned about the quality and type of teaching and training being offered in some quarters - particularly by people with non-standard training and by some with no training at all. Much of the writing I have done on the Alexander Technique - particularly "A Crucial Distinction: Manner and Condtions of Use" - has been with this situation in mind, and I hope that presenting some of my perspectives in the articles on this website will help to reinforce the high standard of teaching and training that Alexander himself established in the 1930's with the opening of the first formal teacher training course. (See Taking Time, a collection of interviews with first generation teachers on the essence of training standards, published by Novis, .)

My main interest in the Alexander Technique lies, though, in the constructive vision it offers the world through its great potential to help people be as genuine, positive, and compassionate as possible in every aspect of life. And as part of that larger vision I've also been deeply interested in helping musicians to be in touch with their fullest expressiveness. So, understanding the vital components of musicality is an ongoing concern, and as time went by I think I began to develop the skills needed to pass them on. I hope one day to write something on this subject too, particularly with reference to some recent work I did with a professional musician who was diagnosed with "incurable" focal dystonia, who has now resumed full performing capacity, albeit completely revised from top to bottom! The book-length interview 'Just Play Naturally' that I recently completed with cellist/Alexander teacher Vivien Mackie about her experience studying with Pablo Casals goes a long way in the direction of presenting the potential of the Alexander Technique for musicians. And my more recent article "Musical Vision: Suggestions for Students of the Alexander Technique for Dealing with Stress and Enhancing Expressiveness in Musical Performance" adds substantially to the subject, drawing heavily on the views of my favorite philospher on aesthetics, Susanne K. Langer.

I'd like to conclude with one of Alexander's most powerful statements about what his Technique must ultimately challenge in each of us if we are to take it in at its fullest. It's from his second book, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual (published in 1923), and appears in the section called "Need for Unity and Simplicity." He's discussing the lack of reasoning that allowed people to make a false division in themselves and the way they develop, instead of discovering a way of thinking and behaving that would keep them functioning as an indivisible psycho-physical unity:

In the midst of a world-wide tragedy such as we are witnessing at the present time, a tragedy which seems to have been increasing instead of decreasing in its intensity since the declaration of the Armistice and the work of the peacemakers, surely it behoves every individual to stop - and I mean this in its fullest sense - and reconsider every particle of supposed knowledge, particularly "psychological" knowledge, derived from his general education, from his religious, political, moral, ethical, social, legal, and economic training, and ask himself the plain, straightforward question, "Why do I believe these things?" By what process of reasoning did I arrive at these conclusions?

If we are even and direct with ourselves in regard to our cherished ideas and ideals, the answer may at first prove a shock to us, to some of us, indeed, almost a knockdown blow. For the truth with be borne in upon us that much of our supposed knowledge has not been real knowledge, and too often the boasted truth a delusion. Many of us may awaken to the fact that the majority of our cherished ideas and ideals are the product, not of any process of reasoning, but of that unreasoning process called impulse, of unbalanced emotion and prejudice - that is, of ideas and ideals associated with a psycho-physical condition in the development of which unreliable sensory appreciation has played the leading part.