In part two of this interview, Franis Engel continues as we discuss her life in music and the Alexander technique.
“I was very lucky to be the last child of wise parents. My mom was out-spoken
and humorously honest. My dad was an inventor who believed that it was artists
who had the pulse of future culture, given how fast the world was changing.”
Engel was only three when she first started to learn the piano. That is very young by anyone’s standards, demonstrating that she was ahead of her age group. She showed talent at this young age and her enthusiasm and motivation was nurtured.
“My home as a kid was a gathering place for my siblings and their friends, most
were eight years older. Older kids used to play duets together on the piano, so
I was conscripted early into playing parts to “Heart & Soul” and “Devil’s
Walk,” and my brother was part of a Flamenco guitar group that practiced at our
Since childhood, Engel has played a number of different instruments. Today, she is playing the array mbira.
“This is a variation on an African thumb piano. It has metal tines arranged in
groups of octaves. These octaves are tuned and adjacent – similar to the strings
of a bass guitar – in a circle of fifths. This arrangement makes complex chords
easy to learn, and melodies tricky, opposite to how most instruments are
Engel swears that her next instrument is going to be the concertina, as they are convenient for self-accompaniment. The small size of a concertina means it is portable so great for the traveler. Can you think of any other advantages of a concertina? Well, a little known fact is that the concertina can be heard above drums. Surprising isn’t it? And yes a definite benefit. Especially if you feel like earning some extra cash during the recession through busking and are competing with other musicians down the street to be noticed. You never know, you might also pick up a gig for a function, club, or even a record label?
“I only play for my own enjoyment, but I have lived with many professional
musicians during the course of my life and have been a patron in the many ways I
have enjoyed contributing to their music.”
The Alexander Technique is what Engel does that is most notable and unique. It was her current significant other who took her along to a teacher training course class in the Alexander Technique. She had been attracted to him because of the beautiful, effortless way he moved.
“I regarded physical elegance to be an expression of self awareness and higher
consciousness. I was on this search because I’d experienced a “state of grace”
or “peak experience” state numerous times when I was a teen – without drugs.”
She was curious to find out how he sustained his effortlessness quality of movement. She was not disappointed.
At the time Engel was self conscious about knee problems. Since Engel had turned seventeen, she had walked with a limp as a result of mystery knee pain that surgery did not help. Everyone else around her assumed she was an Alexander student because they knew Alexander Technique could help her get back the ability to move effortlessly and gracefully.
“I continued studying Alexander’s work because it made me feel like a martial
Engel has indeed benefited physically from using the Alexander technique. Now that she is 55, she attributes Alexander Technique for avoiding knee and hip replacement that others have required to deal with similar problems. She also points out that her practice of Alexander’s work has kept her from shrinking in height as many do when aging. Many people take such difficulties for granted as inevitable to getting older, but not Engel.
In 1978 Engel attended a certified teacher training program at San Francisco ACT with Frank Ottiwell and Giora Pincas. Halfway through the three year course, she switched to studying with Marj Barstow. Ever since her time studying under Barstow, Engel has continued to write about
Barstow’s “Activity model” approach. Barstow herself was the first graduate of Alexander’s first teacher training course in the 1930s. Engel looked up to Barstow, describing her “being a Zen master without the religion attached”. Under Barstow’s guidance, Engel began teaching the Alexander Technique in 1985.
Currently, Engel travels to student’s homes and to companies’ places of business to teach classes and private lessons. An advantage of Alexander classes over Tai Chi, yoga and exercise classes is that the time required does not need to fill an entire hour to reap benefits. As education, the Technique merely takes remembering to use it. It’s benefits are “ignited by situation.”
“When I teach students in private lessons or classes, I focus on coaching the student to gain their own proficiency at observing themselves from the very beginning. The Alexander Technique has a very specialized hands-on element of teaching. It’s is a very efficient short-cut to showing first-hand what we Alexander teachers specifically mean by improving coordination. This hands-on instruction requires the teacher to practice what they are communicating to the student. Most teachers feel it’s essential – I do use hands-on. However, if you are a self-directed learner, there is quite a bit you can get without a teacher present. Alexander Technique takes practice because it is like learning your body as if it is an instrument. People learn faster if they understand what is going on from the beginning. Understanding and conducting your own body-mind experiments is something you can start learning right now. ”
Engel specializes in popularizing this little known discipline.
“I’ve contributed to a published manual about Alternative medical solutions
distributed to nurses and schools yearly. Quite often I’ve been the person a
reporter gets referred to (and quoted) when they’re researching an article after
contacting http://www.alexandertechnique.com I’ve been a regular reviewer and
contributor for Direction Journal, the profession’s publication. There have been
various long and short handbooks, web articles and list server contributions
over the years, all concerning Alexander’s work. I never seem to get tired of
She writes, gives talks and keeps a blog about the Alexander Technique to inform the public about its benefits and content. You can find a lot of this information on Engel’s website and blog at: http://www.franis.org/ Today, Engel is busy putting the pictures in and doing the layout of a new book she has finished writing on the Alexander Technique.
“It’s working title is Younger Than Yesterday, The Complete Alexander Technique
for Fast Learners.”
It will be available soon in electronic format so make sure you get your copy at her Alexander Technique blog, http://myhalfof.wordpress.com You can follow Fran Engel’s updates if you are on Twitter at @learncreativity.