The Vault

Keynote Address #1

By Frank Ottiwell


I am very honored though a little bit sad to be standing here. Judith Leibowitz, who was my teacher and trainer, was meant to be speaking to you today. To the deep regret of all of us who knew her, Judith died at the end of December last year. I am sorry that those of you who didn’t know her will not have had this chance to meet a very remarkable woman.

Some indication of Judith’s quality is that it is taking two of us to replace her today. I think I was asked because I was a graduate of her first training course in the late nineteen-fifties. Deborah Caplan, who will speak next, is an even older friend of Judith’s.

There be a memorial tribute to Judith and her work on Thursday, so I won’t attempt to do justice to her today. Instead, I will hope to honor her spirit with what I have to say.

The theme of the Congress this year is ‘Furthering the Profession,’ and I am going to speak to one aspect of professionalism.

We are each contributing to the furthering of our profession by choosing to be here, and we should all congratulate ourselves and each other for making the effort. As interesting and uplifting and inspiring, and even fun-filled, as this event has every prospect of being, it doubtless was not easy for many of us to come to it. Apart from having to take the time and spend the money, we had to leave our cosy private teaching spaces, where we feel relatively safe and sometimes even positively goddess or god-like. I had to decide to stand up here and risk that someone of you, would discover that, like the emperor in the story, I have no clothes. However, I have found in the past that this kind of coming together plays a valuable role for our profession. It provides a forum for a simple activity we don’t get very much of: it brings us into close contact with one another. Any hopes of furthering the profession depend on our willingness to engage in the kind of exchanges we are beginning here today. So in spite of potential challenges to the ego I really knew I wouldn’t be missing this chance to get together with you and see what I could learn.

One of the givens of our profession is that most of us work in relative isolation. We don’t often meet and interact as we might if we were doctors at a large hospital or teachers at a university. Occasions like this congress are among the few opportunities we have to mix it up a little and to be challenged and stimulated in way that with any luck will surprise us.

Meeting and creating a university of our own for a few days provides us with, among other things, an experience of community. And in doing that it can help us become aware of any touch of dogmatism that may have crept in during our time alone. There is nothing like being thrown into a group of 400 inquiring minds to wake us up to the fact that we may have unwittingly been verging on the dogmatic.

I know that my own dogmatism rears its head when I go unchallenged for a time and begin to feel that I am somehow divinely right.

(Recently I heard Peter Ustinov speaking of Mrs. Thatcher, whom he said he liked personally, as “one of those people who think the more unpopular they are, the righter they are.”)

My first disillusioning experience of rightness in an Alexander context came toward the end of my training in 1959 when for the first time we met a young teacher who had trained on another course. We all looked forward to his arrival with considerable excitement. Alas, things didn’t go very well, because it turned out that he knew the right way to teach. We soon parted ways, never to meet again. It was a shame really, because looking back I am sure we had valuable things we could have learned from each other.

I still see the moment come when each trainee grasps for the first time that there are differences between Alexander teachers. It is not the straightforward differences of style or interpretation that are a problem. They can be profitably discussed and explored. It is the differences of the rival-camp variety, with their accompanying airs of disdain and dismissal, that come as a shock to the mind of the innocent new trainee.

One can see them begin to understand that, contrary to their earlier expectation, we are not one big sister-and-brotherhood of high-minded individuals working for the common good. It is always a little heartbreaking to see that moment, as the struggle over who is right and who is wrong begins.

One of my favorite stories of F.M. comes from a woman called Olive Brown. She had had lessons with him for several summers in the early ’fifties. She said that on the last day of her lessons the summer before he died, as he was saying good-bye he had taken her hand, looked directly into her eyes, and said, “My dear Miss Brown, when you leave me and are on your own, do not I beg of you wonder whether you are right.”

Not, “Don’t try to be right, Miss Brown,” but don’t even wonder about it!

I am sure you know that I am not suggesting we give up critical observation nor weaken our standards in any way. I’m not even suggesting that we are wrong about the particular issues we may be hanging our rightness on. I am really only speaking about those attitudes that serve as distancing mechanisms to keep us apart and prevent healthy dialogue.

When I started my training in 1956 there were only six or seven Alexander teachers in the whole of the United States. It was a very young profession and a rather lonely one even then, twenty years after Alexander’s first training class had qualified.

As we look around now at all of us here together in one place at one time, and when we remember that there are twice again as many teachers who were not able to be here, and when we realize that in the training courses many more teachers are being prepared to join us; compared to what was happening the ’fifties and early ’sixties , this is a miracle—it is like a dream come true.

The profession is not young anymore. Now as it grows up I have a suggestion. It is that in order for it to continue to mature into a healthy body that will serve us and our descendants well, we give as much reasoned thoughtfulness to our dealing with one another as we do to getting out of a chair.

Today as we begin our five days of ‘congressing ’ we have an opportunity to begin to further this aspect of our professionalism by making a deliberate choice to extend ourselves towards each other. We can even go so far as to extend ourselves, for example, to someone with whom we think we are in hopeless disagreement, or to someone we think we are just not interested in, perhaps even to someone we are a little bit afraid of.

We can all get to know at first hand teachers and approaches to teaching we may only have second or third hand information of. I have always, without exception, learned something useful from other teachers, even from those I had to be dragged to kicking and screaming all the way.

Think of it as an investment or a gamble. The payoff may be greater than you expect. It will almost certainly be different.

As we get to know one another better, we will naturally begin to develop a concerned interest for each other. At best this can develop into a strength of the whole community standing behind each of us.

It is already an honor and a privilege to be a teacher of Alexander’s technique. If we heed his advice and look for the defect, as he called it, and then leave the defect out, what will be left is a group of high-minded individuals working for the common good in a profession that has built into its principles all of the integrity any of us can wish for.

I wish all of us a non-habitual five days, a very good time; and, as I believe F.M. often said at the start of a lesson, “Let’s hope something goes wrong.” 


Frank Ottiwell trained in New York with Judith Liebowitz. He is the retired Director of The Alexander Training Institute of San Francisco.

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