Alexander Technique: Frederick Matthias Alexander. Born Jan 20th 1869 in Wynyard NW Tasmania. Premature birth, eldest of 8 children, mother a midwife.
A sickly child in need of home education. Visited by a Scottish tutor for lessons when too ill to go to school.
Developed a love of Shakespeare and interest in all matters relating to the stage: elocution, dramatic gesture, recitation etc.
He was encouraged to take the art of reciting prose, poetry, humorous verse to a professional level.
After some time he noticed that his voice had became hoarse, especially in passages demanding more vocal effort.
Complete loss of voice
This later culminated in almost complete loss of voice during a recital he (reluctantly) gave, because the problem was becoming ever more severe.
Visits to the doctor showed him the limitations of medical expertise, as really the only advice given was to rest the voice in the hope that sore throats and hoarseeness would recover.
After the bad experience of his recital, he decided that his only hope was to abandon conventional medical advice and take personal responsibility for his condition.
The Alexander Technique.
He hit upon the idea that, as spoken passages requiring vocal effort were notoriously damaging and light voice use was not, he might be able to spot the difference by looking at himself in a mirror whilst speaking at both extremes of the dramatic range.
If he could see a difference between the two, then it might provide a clue as to what he was doing wrong.
He therefore set up 3 mirrors, facing and to each side.
He noticed little to remark upon when speaking at a conversational ordinary level, but was struck by 3 observations during more dramatic recitation :
1) He pulled back the head
2) He tightened in the throat (“Depressed the larynx”)
3) His intake of breath sounded like someone sucking and gasping.
This third observation was particularly galling because he had up to then prided himself on being free from the habit of audibly taking breaths.
Early experimentation featured a decision to act on the first observation and “put” the head in a different position from the one which was pulled back by the neck muscles, but this led to a later and more sophisticated process by which he prevented unwanted displacement of the head, rather than positional alterations.
The idea of not allowing the head to be pulled habitually in a wrong direction and creating intolerable pressures on the vocal chords developed into an important feature of Alexander’s Technique or Principle or Method: that of “Inhibition”
The widespread problem
Alexander had recognised the widespread problem among those of us trying to learn a skill of any kind- that of developing it along the lines of what feels right or by copying the example of the teacher, which may or may not be a good one.
The idea of sensitively and accurately generating the right amount of muscular effort for any given task is not generally appreciated by teachers.
This process can too easily be overlooked in favour of achieving results, often at the expense of muscular strain, as was most emphatically the case with Alexander himself.
Alexander soon realised that the over-tension created in the neck musculature was not confined to that area alone, but generally and throughout the whole “organism” (a term he used to describe the whole person as a living being)
His attention was focused on prevention of excessive tension by long and deeply self-searching practice in achievement of Inhibition. By becoming aware of the areas likely to be tensed and “thinking” them to be free, in fact “ordering” them to be free, by a process which he termed “Direction” he was able to gain an ability to “Inhibit” not only as a means in itself in stillness, but also in a chosen activity, in his case recitation.
One could say that the Alexander Technique seeks to impart to the pupil (Alexander called his work “teaching“) a consciously maintained awareness and regulation of required effort in the carrying out of any activity, whether it be comparatively light, such as walking, or strenuous, such as operatic singing. Alexander actually called his 2nd book “Constructive Conscious control of the Individual” highlighting the need for awareness as opposed to slavery to habit.
His 3rd book has the title “The Use of the Self“
He was one of the earliest, if not the earliest, truly holistic teachers, one who rooted his instruction in a practical form that he called a Technique, and could therefore be taught in a way that perhaps any technique can, and made to serve its owner reliably and for ever.
Not only did Alexander restore his voice to its full resonance and power, thus enabling a resumption of a possible acting career, he also ( and perhaps more importantly) restored himself to full health, going on to live into his 87th year.
He recognised the importance of good “Use” at the earliest age of a child’s life and even opened and ran a school where young children were educated in the principles of his Technique alongside traditional subjects. There survive pupils from Alexander’s “Little School” who assert that his work benefited them throughout their life.
In 1931 Alexander was persuaded to open a training course for those wanting to learn the art of teaching the Technique. In this way its continuity was assured and there exist several hundred teachers to this day teaching throughout the world.
And finally, Alexander wrote 4 books ( I have mentioned 2 of them) between 1910 and 1941.
He devoted his life to his Technique in all these ways and it produced a very good living. Yet he could probably have gone on to become a professional actor like his hero Sir Henry Irving, had he wanted this.
Alexander professed himself to be the happiest of people and it is no accident that the Technique seems to promote health and well-being to those who study and practise it.
Though born in Tasmania, Alexander came to London aged 35 in 1904, never to return to his native country. He did visit America on an annual basis during the summers of 1914 to 1924 and taught extensively there.
He died in London on October 10th 1955 after a short illness, following a chill developed at the horse races ( a passion of his) at Alexandra Palace.