The Vault

Judith Leibowitz: Her Legacy

By Eleanor Rosenthal

 

This speech was delivered on Aug 14, ’91, at the 3rd International Congress of Teachers of the F. M. Alexander Technique in Engelberg, Switzerland. An earlier, slightly different version, was delivered on May 3l, 1991, at the Annual Meeting of the North American Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique in New York City. 

It’s a pleasure to be speaking to you tonight; and I’m particularly happy to be talking about Judy Liebowitz, who was not just a wonderful teacher and good friend, but also someone who has made a very special and distinctive contribution to the teaching of the Alexander Technique. I want to tell you about the legacy Judy left, both through her own teaching and also through the work of the nearly 150 teachers trained by Judy and the American Center for the Alexander Technique in New York. 

I was trained at ACAT New York and certified in 1975. At the time, Judy was the Director of the training program and sat on the ACAT Board. While she was not the only teacher in the training course, she had trained most of the others. Her influence on us, as a result, was massive. 

After my certification in 1975, I returned to San Francisco and began to teach. Judy and I stayed friends, by phone and on visits, and I twice brought her to San Francisco to present workshops. As you know, she died on December 28 of 1990. I went through her final illness at the other end of a 3000 mile long telephone line, and mourned her passing in California, sorry I couldn’t have been in New York during those last months. 

From the beginning of my training, I could see that Judy was an extraordinarily fine Alexander teacher. It was only later, however, after I’d had some experience working with other teachers and teacher trainers, that I began to see that Judy was also a pioneer and explorer whose contributions to the development of the Technique were both distinctive and important. 

Of course, the contributions that most of us first associate with Judy are the ones she made by teaching, training teachers, working to establish ACAT the organization and working to establish ACAT, the training program. However, it isn’t those contributions, important though they are, that I want to talk to you about tonight. Instead, I want to talk about Judy’s way of teaching and the underlying principles that characterized her work.

I think one reason it took me a while to appreciate the distinctiveness of Judy’s work, is that what sets it apart takes place on a level that is philosophical, rather than physical. In other words, in talking about Judy I won’t be talking about how high the books should be or whether the teacher’s feet should be close together or wide apart. While the answers to those questions are interesting, I don’t believe they are where Judy’s uniqueness lies. In my view it lies, instead, one level beyond that, where choices of concept and attitude are being made. And it’s on that level that I want to discuss Judy’s work tonight. 


Influences on Judy’s Teaching

A word, first, on the roots of Judy’s teaching. Judy initially had lessons with Alma Frank, and then was trained by Lulie Westfeld. After completing her training, she again worked with Alma and also paid two long visits to England to work intensively with FM. She began her private practice in 1952; one year later Alma, who had been a very important influence on her, died of cancer. Lulie Westfeld, who had trained her, was still alive, but she and Judy lost contact. The falling out was personal, and had nothing to do with the substance of the Technique. 

Circumstances, then, left Judy relatively isolated, without the support of more experienced teachers. As a result, she was forced to be independent. However her personal qualities, perhaps combined with her training and experience as a biologist and chemist, enabled her to explore on her own and develop a coherent, effective way of working within the framework of the Technique. Our colleague Debby Caplan, Alma Frank’s daughter, in talking about those difficult times, describes Judy’s use of the Technique as “…so real, so courageous and so intelligent…”

Judy had to work a lot of things out for herself, and her isolation undoubtedly contributed to the distinctiveness of her style. It also, I think, forced her to rely on Alexander’s writings far more than teachers who spent more time in his presence. As a result, her teaching style seems to be particularly consistent with Alexander’s books, and on one level she was very much of a purist. On another, of course, she was faithful to FM’s idea that teachers should not be a “lot of monkeys” imitating him, so that in adding her own elements to the Technique, she was being as much of a purist as ever. 

Two other things seem to me to have had important effects on Judy’s development in the Technique. As many of you know, Judy contracted polio when she was fifteen. She spent a year in a nursing home trying to recapture the use of her legs, not knowing that her doctors had predicted that she would never walk again. She emerged with a severe limp and a great deal of body tension — but she walked. Thus, before she ever got to the Technique she had learned resourcefulness and patience, two qualities that stood her in good stead when it became necessary for her to explore the Technique on her own. Also, through most of her life Judy was a sculptor, and some of the skills and insights she developed working in that medium became tools for her to use in her work with the human body.

 

Interactions with Students

For me, the most distinctive aspect of Judy’s teaching had to do with the quality of her interactions with students. While she was certainly capable of giving a powerful transformative experience, she was also very careful to help the student understand what was happening so that he could repeat the experience for himself. In fact, in transcripts of two introductory lectures she delivered at Juilliard in 1975, she says (I am quoting from one of the two lectures): 

The only way you can be successful is if you know what’s going on. Just being right and not knowing how you got there is of no value, because then you can’t do it again. 

Thus, Judy was trying to help the student understand, as well as experience, the Technique, from the moment he walked into her teaching room. Of course, the more the student understands, the more he can contribute to the learning process. And the more the student contributes, the faster he can progress, the more productively he can use the time between lessons, and the more autonomy he has when his lessons are over. Thus, making the student a full partner in the learning process can make for very effective teaching. 

In all probability, much of Judy’s emphasis on informing the student came from her own experience. Although somewhat isolated, as I explained, she was resourceful, she was patient, she was highly intelligent, and she was trained to think logically. It was perfectly natural, and in fact quite necessary, that she use these qualities to deepen her understanding of the Technique. Then, having seen how effective understanding had been in her own process, and presumably in the spirit of “You can do what I did if you do what I did,” she encouraged her students to use their skills of understanding as well. In that, of course, she had the backing of the highest authority, FM himself. As most of you will remember, FM said that the values of the Technique: 

…are not to be won in sleep, in trance, in submission, in paralysis, or in anaesthesia, but in a clear open-eyed, reasoning, deliberate consciousness and apprehension of the wonderful potentialities possessed by mankind… 

That passage was a favorite of Judy’s; it appeared in the ACAT brochure for years, and Judy, who quoted it often, used it to conclude her book. 

How, then, did Judy go about helping the student to understand, as well as experience, the Alexander Technique? In the first place, her approach was something of a multi-media experience, giving the student information on any level on which he was able to accept it. Thus, in the same introductory lecture I quoted above, Judy talks about the verbal directions and then goes on to say: 

…when you leave and say the words to yourself you tend to recreate the experience that you have had here. But insofar as you understand these words, because you have had a kinesthetic experience associated with these words, because somewhere along the way we have defined these words conceptually for you, because somewhere along the way you also begin to see it in the mirror, you have a visual image, and because you’re beginning to get a structural knowledge of the body, you can carry out these instructions to yourself and take yourself into experiences, perhaps, even beyond what I can give you

As you can see, Judy’s plan is to give the student as much information as possible from a variety of sources. That doesn’t mean, for a minute, that she isn’t giving a powerful kinesthetic experience at the same time; the important thing is that she is giving the student both. 

Also, Judy gave the student information as early as possible. Thus, the student was learning about his habits, how to inhibit them, and how to direct something new from the very first lesson. She gave the student as much information as she felt he could handle, probably erring on the side of generosity. She made it clear, however, that the student need only retain what was comfortable, and ignore the rest till another time. She also encouraged the student to ask questions; I remember her telling a first lesson student to ask questions as soon as they came up, rather that waiting till a more ‘convenient’ time when some of the immediacy would be gone. She felt the student’s questions indicated what they were ready to learn at that time; in fact, when a student came in with a question she often let that question determine the course of the lesson. 

 

Judy was very perceptive and very adaptable. She was sensitive to where the student was at any point in time, and she was willing to go wherever was appropriate with him. It seems to me there was a problem solving element to her work; she looked at the student to see what he needed, and then, with a combination of reasoning and intuition, figured out how to give it to him. This was true in a general way, and also applied if the student arrived with a particular problem. For example, if the student came in with tendinitis of the elbow, Judy had no particular hesitation about working with it. She of course warned us against ‘fixing’ things, because she knew that working with a part of an organism is never enough. But within a context of teaching the Alexander Technique she would certainly work with the specific problem and the ways in which the student might be causing it. This aspect of her work seems to me to parallel something Marjory Barlow said about FM in her Master Class this morning. She said: “He never worked from theory. He always responded to a need.” 

Besides giving information, Judy, of course, also worked with her hands, and her hands were wonderful. What they were doing, as she expressed it, was defining, for the student, the directions or orders, that she was also presenting verbally. From the first lesson she would articulate directions and ask that the student silently order them while Judy’s hands defined them kinesthetically. The directions, then, became the tool the student used to activate his primary control when he was on his own. Apparently, this method of teaching is not as universal as I once thought. It does, however, have important implications. 

If you and the student are constantly sharing this process of defining and directing from moment to moment, the student is required to take a very active role in the learning process. It’s different from the approach preferred by some other teachers, who deliberately distract the student in order to get him to inhibit his habitual responses and allow the teacher to give him an experience. Judy’s teaching style, of course, would not have permitted that; she wanted the student’s attention, because she expected him to be consciously participating in the work. 

Judy, like the rest of us, recognized the very important role inhibition plays in applying the Technique. She taught her students to direct from the very first lesson; learning to inhibit, of course, began at that stage as well. She sometimes taught inhibition as a separate activity, and sometimes integrated it with direction. As she once pointed out to me, inhibition is implicit in direction, and if you are directing properly (and I emphasize the word properly) you must have already successfully inhibited your habitual response. 

As part of the process of helping the student to understand, Judy included a certain amount of anatomy in her lessons. As you know, there has historically been a bit of reverse snobbery in the Technique when it comes to anatomy. Well, unlike FM, Judy didn’t hold the academicians’ poor use of themselves against them; she felt that a structural knowledge of the body made it easier to direct and so, besides defining with her hands, she defined with words and pictures. 

She also placed a great deal of emphasis on the use of the mirror because she felt the visual information it gave the student was an invaluable learning tool. FM had, of course, discovered that owing to his debauched kinesthesia his mirror was a more reliable guide than his own perceptions. In a similar vein, Judy worked with mirrors, and encouraged her students to use them to check the kinesthetic information they were receiving. 

Judy’s respect for the student, and her insistence that the student be an active participant, applied to the trainees she taught as well. Judy helped us get an understanding of the Technique, a framework that made it possible for us to expand our knowledge after training. We may not have learned every possible way of getting a student in and out of the chair, or every possible way of getting the student’s back to widen; but we were given a solid intellectual framework and we were encouraged to be open and explore. There are things that Judy taught me that I still do, and there are others that I don’t, but the intellectual framework that she gave me has never left me, and that, to me, has been indispensable.

 

Commitment to Direction 

A second thing that characterizes Judy’s teaching, for me is her respect for the Alexandrian concept of direction, and the uncompromising purity of her commitment to it. That means, in the first place, that she had faith in the power of direction and the patience to wait as long as it took for directing to work. At the same time, of course, she didn’t allow the student to become stuck. She would tell students that directing was important because it could take them to a place that they had never been to before and could not get to as long as they continued using their old, familiar means. She would encourage them to direct instead, to allow her to give direction, and above all, to take a risk. To allow something they had never experienced before to happen. 

This may sound familiar, and not unlike the work of other teachers. To me, however, what distinguished Judy was the depth of her commitment to the use of direction. I remember, for example, having a lesson from Judy a few years ago. My lower back was a little narrow, and I can remember sitting there thinking that if Judy would only lean me back a little, my lower back would release. But Judy wanted me to learn to get the width I needed by directing, and she patiently waited and worked with me until I did. 

Of course, such commitment to direction can be very trying to your average Alexander trainee. Trainees always want ‘a way to do’ things, and the concept of directing can be pretty confusing. Well, we were given some ‘ways to do things,’ and they were certainly very useful. But more valuable, I think, was the appreciation that we got of direction. FM defined ‘direction’ as direction of energy, and the appreciation of direction and of energy that I learned from Judy has provided me with a powerful tool and the basis for a great deal of fascinating exploration in my post-training years. 

One effect of Judy’s emphasis on direction is that you usually didn’t find trainees from Judy’s training classes trying to fake good use by sitting up straight. Our use was far from perfect, but the way we tried to improve it was by awareness, inhibition, and conscious control. There was a great deal of resistance in New York, in those years, to the rigidity that some Alexander teachers (and pupils) take on in order to demonstrate that they’ve ‘got it right.’ Because of Judy’s insistence on direction we trainees knew, in any event, that we couldn’t make points by becoming Alexandroids.

 

Varied Movement and Wholeness 

Judy’s emphasis on direction led her to teach the Technique using a wide variety of movements. It was important to Judy that the student realize that there is no such thing as a right position or movement, only a right direction. Thus, working in Judy’s style you might want to take the student in and out of the chair with his feet together, apart, and then maybe one in front of the other in order to make that point. While we certainly used traditional activities like monkey and lunge, we were also encouraged to be inventive and find other movements that would be effective teaching tools; I think there was an implicit understanding that novelty and variety will tend to keep the student’s energy and attention up. 

Yet another reason Judy encouraged variety in movement was because she was concerned about the degree to which some Alexander teachers restricted their work to what one teacher with a dance background had described as ‘folding and unfolding in the sagittal plane.’ She felt this artificially limited the student, and urged us to work with the spiral elements in movement. 

Although the term ‘applications approach’ had not yet become popular when we were training, Judy always encouraged us to work on real life applications with the student. Judiciousness is definitely required, since familiar ‘applications’ are more likely to elicit old patterns than unfamiliar activities like lunge or monkey. But it’s possible to work, in a very Alexandrian way, on an activity like lifting the arm, and then continue on to apply that work in picking up an object or writing with a pencil. Judy was always looking for ways to make her teaching more effective, and I’m sure she felt that working with a student on something that interested him was bound to be effective teaching, provided you dealt with the habits connected with the activity. 

A last thing I want to mention is Judy’s feeling for the whole of a human being. As a sculptor, she always looked at the body as a whole. In fact, it was her choice to substitute the phrase ‘let the torso lengthen and widen’ for’ let the back lengthen and widen,’ because she felt the latter didn’t sufficiently take into account the whole torso, which has both a front and a back. Beyond that, Judy also encouraged wholeness on a mental and emotional level, and in the opinion of many, it is what she taught about being a human being, both by precept and by example, that was her most profound gift to us. Not too long ago, in the course of writing an article on the Technique as it applied to acting, I began a correspondence with Betsy Parrish, the Artistic Director of the Stella Adler Conservatory, who had had lessons with Judy many years earlier. I asked Judy whether I should send her regards, and in her usual unassuming way, she said I should, although she wasn’t at all sure Betsy would remember her. Well, I didn’t get around to writing to Betsy until after Judy died, so I told her about Judy’s death in the letter. And Betsy, whom Judy thought might not remember her, responded: 

Reading your… article took me back so many years to the wondrous experience I had studying with Judy Liebowitz. I didn’t know that she was sick last year, nor that she had died. What a shock. What a shame. She certainly was an extra-ordinary soul. And those of us so privileged to have known her will certainly miss the comfort of her presence in this world.


BIOGRAPHY

Eleanor Rosenthal began teaching the Technique in 1975, after completing her training at the American Center for the Alexander Technique in New York under Judith Liebowitz. She lives in San Francisco, California, and is a former President and Director of ACAT, Western Region. She is the author of Alexander Technique: Notes on a Teaching Method, and other articles on the Technique which have appeared in such publications as “Medical Problems of Performing Artists” and “American Music Teacher.” She earned her J.D. at Harvard and Columbia, and practiced law for ten years before becoming an Alexander teacher.

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