The Vault

The Work of Patrick Macdonald

By Yehuda Kuperman

 

Patrick Macdonald, 81 years old, lives today in the little village of Swamborough in Sussex, England. He has a class of four students. In the past four months, after I received upon myself to organize this presentation, I visited him a number of times. I returned to be at his side, between his hands, among the memories and visions, and associations of the past, from 27 years ago, at the historical 16 Ashley Place until today. 

27 years, in which my friends and myself, have tried to comprehend the meaning of the experience and sensations, that we know, from the hands of Patrick Macdonald. I believe that today, we are able to shed more light of understanding on the music played on our bodies at 16 Ashley Place. 

I don’t come to represent P.M., only Macdonald can represent himself. Along with this, Macdonald gave me his support and his blessing with the words: “I don’t mind.” 

Those who know Macdonald from close, know that “I don’t mind” is a personal expression of non-doing, that allows him to remain free, non-dependent, and without apprehension of the presentation that we are about to give here today, in his honour and in honour of his work. 

I presume that he is not a great supporter of congresses. After the period of Ashley Place, at the beginning of the 70’s, Macdonald closed himself off, in an underground apartment; far from noisy crowds, from publicity, workshops, associations and large social gatherings. 

He secluded himself with the neck of his students and concentrated on one subject only: Head, Neck and Back in relation to the movement of life. 

If people didn’t go looking in his drawers, the jotted-down ideas, he wrote down to himself, would not have been found and turned into a book that he did not himself initiate. 

There will be people who say that he wasted his life, and that he was unproductive: a Fred Astaire without films, or a Yasha Hefetz without concerts or records. But there will also be those, who will see here the greatest expression of the ‘let,’ the non-wanting as stimulus to happening, modesty in its glory. 

Thousands of questions were asked in his class. I am speaking of the period during the mid 60’s. To all of them Macdonald listened politely, although his answer was always the same: let the neck be free! to let the head go forward and up! to lengthen and widen the back! 

The answer is there and there the problem found its place. 

It is possible to see this attitude as superficial, but was it not the conclusion of Alexander himself, after many failures? Is there a clearer or better focused answer than that, which Macdonald constantly repeated? 

Macdonald is a graduate of Cambridge, a man of the book, a knowledgeable individual who was raised in the world of medicine (his father was a known physician). From this wide range of knowledge, he condensed his answer to one: “let your neck ...” and turned it into a foundation without any other alternative. The explanations of the ‘let’ Macdonald gave with his hands, showing one character of Alexander’s discovery, which is the purpose of the hands contact as communication between the teacher and the pupil; allowing the student to listen to the verbal instructions of the teacher, while his hands are preventing the habitual responses to interfere. 

 

The words give out the subject and the hands tell the story of inhibition, stop, direction, primary control, etc. In the end, they allow the student to realize that he is self made up. 

I want to attempt in our short time here, to express my understanding of the unique sensations created from the meeting with Macdonald; the secret of his touch, the joy of being in his hands, the willingness to flow in movement—while Macdonald is the wind and we are the sail. 

For this purpose, I would like to use two films that I took of Macdonald, and two professionals, made about him in the middle of the 80’s. Every one can place himself in the position of the student in the movie, in order to receive the touch and lesson from Macdonald personally, or take the opportunity to enter Macdonald himself and experience the contact from that side. 

In order to truly experience his hands and be able to recognize their meaning, allow me to give some explanations, as to the character of the teacher Macdonald is for me. 

One fact unites all of Macdonald’s students. Even those who are angry at him, don’t understand him or are afraid of him. This uniting factor is the strong feeling of love towards him. This seems strange because Macdonald never passed out compliments, never hugged us, never kissed us, never listened to our problems or made any effort to support us and make things easy. If he hadn’t touched us with his hands, we would consider his relationship to us as foreign or corrective. To our good fortune, Macdonald didn’t lecture us on mathematics: he touched us with his hands and they contained it all. 

Today when I find myself in Macdonald’s hands and watch his work on film, the first thing I focus on, is: where is Macdonald and where is the student. When Macdonald approaches the student, nothing is changed in his attitude. The relationship of the two remains ‘one and one’: teacher and pupil. The sense of independence and security of each individual in his own territory, is being passed through his hands. 

Independence is the non-intervention of the immediate surroundings. 

If you look closely at Macdonald’s arms and hands that are sent towards the pupil, you will be able to notice their gentle landing, the open soft touch, like that of a small child or animal. And if we see Macdonald’s lesson in slow motion and attend to the details before the movement, we would see the consideration in the hands during the act of contact, containing the basic knowledge: one man cannot change another. 

This message from the teacher says: I accept you as you are, I do not suffer from this, on the contrary, you are pleasant to me as you are, you have turned to me with a need, but really there is so much in you to give. It’s good to be with you at this moment. I’m opening not just for you, but from you. 

When a teacher is able to touch with such respect and belief in the potential of a pupil, he loses the remnants of the desire to do. With this, the hands of the teacher allow the pupil to contact his own potential and accept himself as he is. This is the turning point in the direction of opening and change. 

This is the touch we felt through the years that caused us the special sensation of lightness and growth, and an unconscious echo in various parts of our lives.

Today we are able to understand the humanistic, moral and social meanings expressed by his hands and this is why we feel such love towards him. 

The message that touched us through his hands also reached our lives outside the lessons. His non-involvement in our lives permitted him to influence us on much deeper levels. The result of touching us from his independence from us, is always present, always there.

When we look at the films, we see that the same character of touch continues, not only with the first contact, but along the journey of movement. Macdonald is touching the present of the pupil. This is a very optimistic sensation. There is no suffering of the past, or fear of the unknown future. This is not directing toward the future, but the present moving everywhere. 

Based on this, we can understand how the letting Macdonald’s just placed his hands and things start to happen. The word ‘let,’ the expression of non-doing, is not only a technical medium. It is the understanding, belief and admiration, of the revelation of nature: that the head doesn’t need support under it to be carried into the forward and up. The head will never take this direction if we also try to pull it.

But it will gladly take that direction, if the rest of the body understands that the relationship between teacher and pupil, is also the relationship between all the different parts of the body. Each part is its own independent world, and has its own direction and responsibility not to invade the territory of its neighbours. And then when peace is present, energy flows and unites the independent parts to one family body. 

With this we can explain the Alexander marvel—that a huge head, weighing so much, and usually much more than its physical weight, because of the worries and ideas it carries, with its many functions such as sight, hearing, speech, which draws it in so many and different directions—that such a head loses all its physical support, and is carried up as a balloon while the system below changes its character of contact: instead of moving upward in order to support it, it moves downward assuring the head will not escape and disappear into unending energy. What a miracle, what a reality, what a discovery! 

Macdonald found that to aid himself in communication of his message, he needed also technical elements. He created the Macdonald chords of the Alexander Technique. His way of working when he was young, and less today because of his age and health, is the contact of the hands with the primary control. He developed a special importance to the front hand under the chin, and the rear hand at the junction of the head, neck and back. Likewise, he developed the technical means which helped him not only to give the pupil the direction of forward and up, but allowed him to sense the separation between the head and the rest of the body. 

And from this separation to see clearly that ‘forward and up’ is a message to the head only! and that the rest of the body is employed in the process, only as a receiver of the freedom from not carrying the head anymore. The result of this freedom is ‘lengthen and widen.’ 

Thanks to his ability to combine the contact, with the technical elements, he was able to activate and to move the pupil without interfering or losing the relationship between the parts of the body. Macdonald actually is directly contacting and working with and through the primary control. This is a state in which the primary control is not carried on the body, but leads the body. 

Macdonald is an artist, a person who loves aesthetics. He looks for the wholeness in creation. For him the Alexander Technique is an art in which the outer beauty has to be seen if the inner contact is pure. According to Macdonald it is important that things should not just be said and done. They should also appear beautiful, and that the coordination and rhythm and harmony should appear not just in the performance of the pupil or the teacher, but in both of them as a group, a duet. For Macdonald the important thing was not what I succeed to do to you, but what has happened to you and me from us being together. This is the Alexander Art of being with somebody else towards being together with our our own self. 

So a lesson should not look as a manipulation, or a fight for change, and inhibition is not a must, but the most open and smiling discovery of the freedom of choice—as a back to every step and decision. We can say that the character of Macdonald’s work is working ‘from the back’ and not ‘with the back.’ If the teacher is open, the contact of his hands and his movements have the quality of remote control. His back remains in place and the arms are sent in its name and carry the message of the opening. The other way which is the more widely used work ‘with the back’ is less aesthetic for him, non-economical, and relates more to protecting the contact, rather than letting the contact be. 

This ability allowed Macdonald to take the pupil with him on his journeys. He does not give directions and send the pupil on a lonely journey, but takes the pupil with him in the fields of freedom and gives him the experience of the elements of communication—letting, listening—trusting— sharing the art of being with. 

While I try to explain Macdonald and his work it is impossible not to mention the late Peter Scott. Peter Scott was a teacher of the Alexander Technique qualified by F.M.Alexander. For a period of time he worked as an assistant in Alexander’s class. After Alexander’s death he continued to work at 16 Ashley Place at the side of Macdonald. He was not an official assistant of Macdonald, but would always take his place when Macdonald was absent. 

He entered the classes almost every day for a visit. At the beginning of the 70’s Peter Scott opened a class of his own. 

Peter Scott was important to the students because of his way of working that was so different from the way of Macdonald’s, but was connected to it as roots in the most modest and invisible way, like roots are. During this period most of us were drunk with the work of Macdonald, and could not recognize the value of Scott’s work: many of us related to it as a mystery. 

In 1975 I returned to Macdonald’s class for a year. During that year I spent mornings in Macdonald’s class and afternoons in the class of Scott. At this time I discovered Scott. If Macdonald was all the seasons of the year, the quiet and the storms, the dance in life, the fun and the adventures, Scott was the teacher to whom the importance of the lesson was not in the visible movement but in the inner one. And in order to produce that inner movement the will to move an expression to do, must be far more than secondary. 

His students would sit in the class for three hours while he only would work on them. Not until the third year did the students begin to use hands, and even then not often. As an experienced teacher of nine years at that time, I had to join the sitting and was not allowed to put hands on. With him I had to learn to inhibit before and not during. In private lessons that I took at that time he once said to me: “The greatest understanding I have of the A.T. came from Macdonald, more than Alexander himself.” 

This amazed me because the character of his work was so different from that of Macdonald’s. Scott, the man who was to me the greatest representative of the inhibition declared that Macdonald, the dancer, the adventurer, the improviser and the great romantic of the technique, was for him his teacher! 

Perhaps it is possible to explain this by saying that the response to Macdonald’s touch is immediate: an expression of altogether. The moving of the pupil didn’t disturb but actually added. Scott was more the interpreter of the ‘one after one’: the principles that are built one after the other and change their place and time. The absence of movement allows the pupil to follow and observe the process. 

The importance that Scott gave to this stage of preparation became a subject in itself, or even the only subject in the class. Life became a preparation and preparation, life. This work of Scott made it more easy to recognize the principles behind Macdonald’s hands. Therefore we can say that Scott was the interpreter of Macdonald. We can also described the difference in the character of their work, in that Macdonald showed that the movement doesn’t have to get in the way, but can be a challenge, while Scott pointed at what is prior to the movement but without entering it’s territory. He didn’t see in this the fear of failure, but an extra ability to overcome the need to achieve— even when the goal is in reach.

I believe that the secret of Macdonald’s virtuosity is that together with his talent and genius in the subject, he started his experience with the A.T. as a child and grew at the side of Alexander. Through the years he discovered more and more the importance of working on himself. He realized that he was not working with the technique because of his problems, but that it had become an act of life. From here on, Macdonald didn’t separate between the technique and life. 

I have been with Macdonald during many different periods over the past 27 years and I don’t remember a moment spent with him when he didn’t look as if he was working on himself. Once I asked him if he thinks, that one day, I could reach his level. He answered: “Of course,” and immediately added: “if you lay on your back for four hours a day and the rest of the time sit looking in the mirror.” 

I travelled once with him on one of his visits to Israel, and as he didn’t feel so well, I stayed with him in the same hotel room in Jerusalem. In the middle of the night he woke up with unbearable pains that didn’t stop. In the morning I told him that he must go for a check up at the hospital, but he insisted that we continue with our plans to go to the Dead Sea. The hour long ride there was full of pain. I tried to ease it with jokes that Macdonald always loved. He was so polite that he answered me with smiles full of suffering… When we reached the seashore, he crawled with difficulty into the water, and I saw then the connection between the name of the sea and the condition of Macdonald. When he came out of the water crawling, I told him that we quickly had to rush to the hospital, but he cursed, laid on his back and said: “I’ll work on myself first.” I saw how with all his pain he tried to open like an animal, stretched and sculpted himself with directions. In the end he surrendered and said: “Yehuda, now we can go to the hospital.” He had suffered a stroke. I saw Macdonald attached to the A.T. in a life and death situation. 

Since then Macdonald has been ill. He became weaker and weaker from another attack. In the past few months I have visited him a number of times and he has, as I have already mentioned, four students who understand that they are not learning from who he was, but with a teacher in whom the subject of Alexander stands out powerful and clear. 

Macdonald doesn’t hold, he hardly touches, his hands pat softly. His voice is hardly heard and his body is nourished by the momentum of his life and work. 

I always saw Macdonald playing on his pupils as if they were musical instruments. This time I saw him writing music. He has now taken out from the holy of hollies of his knowledge all the material written by him in secret. Not in congresses, not in workshops, not in books, not in lectures, but in personal encounters between him and himself. 

This time I saw him not playing on instruments but opening the books, and the music came straight out of the notes, singing, praising and hugging the Alexander discovery. 

He looked so modest, almost nothing in front of the power of nature. So much a visitor in this world, not its owner. His body appears as a station for the power of freedom and creation, that while passing through him, took on the human dimension, for the meeting with the other—the pupil. 

On the same day I saw the meaning of love of mankind. Not a specific person, but man as a part of nature. This time my vision had changed and I didn't see Macdonald going up, I saw the up coming down towards him. 

If I would want to state Macdonald’s tribute to the A.T. I would compare it with what Fred Astaire gave to dance, Cassius Clay gave to boxing (who Macdonald loved very much), Yasha Hefetz to the violin and other world famous virtuosos that dedication was common to all of them, and they had their subject as the subject of their lives. 

Macdonald’s ability to show, what we can reach, and what we can allow to come to us, is the meeting between modesty and glory, between shyness and daring, up and down, between teacher and pupil, the A.T. and life. Macdonald gave to the Alexander study points of reference and instructions, directing to the infinite possibilities, and giving the encouragement to experience them, while inhibition is not only an element of stopping, but is oil to the motor of life. 

I want to thank Macdonald who allowed me with his smile and “I don’t mind” to bring him to you as I know him. I know that if Macdonald was here he wouldn’t be polite like you and would surely say: “Yehuda, enough talk, take them to work and stop wasting their time.” 

Allow me to end with personal thanks taken from silent films you are watching now and which I have sent to Macdonald seven years ago for his 74th birthday: 

To Patrick Macdonald 

For the beautiful and important thing in my life,

I got from you, and specially for teaching me

how to continue to learn from you,

to see you and to feel your direction,

with all its physical and human meaning—

even from a distance of time and place—

for all this have my modest thanks through these

films of you.

Even though they are silent—

all those who had the privilege of being near you

and learning from you faithfully

— they can hear also the sound,

the music you put to the Alexander poetry.

 

Being with you not only through lessons and films,

always.

Yehuda


BIOGRAPHY 

Yehuda Kuperman qualified in May 1967—he was trained by Patrick Macdonald. He went on to found the first teacher training course both in Germany (Freiburg) and Switzerland (Basel) in August 1979.

EDITOR’S NOTE: 

Patrick Macdonald died shortly after the end of the Congress in late 1991.

Bookmark and Share