Necessity is the mother of all invention
Frederick Matthias Alexander was born in Wynyard, Tasmania in 1869. He was not a robust child but suffered from chronic respiratory problems. Though he had a passion for horses and became an excellent equestrian, he rejected the usual bush pursuits. He preferred reading and reciting Shakespeare in the quiet of his bedroom. Over time, he grew so accomplished at dramatic recitation that he decided to make a career of it. He first took on a clerical job in a tin mining company on Tasmania’s west coast to earn sufficient funds to travel to Melbourne to become a professional recitationist. Once there, he acquired a fine reputation and before long was performing on stage in the prominent theatres of the day.
Alexander's success was clouded by the onset of hoarseness which intensified with the demands which performing in large theatres (before the advent of the microphone) made on his throat. He decided to consult a specialist and his problem was diagnosed as ‘clergyman’s throat’. The doctor advised him to gargle frequently with saline solution and rest his voice before major performances. This treatment failed. Determined not to abandon acting, he decided that if the doctors could not help him, he would help himself.
The evolution of the Technique
He had an idea that something he was doing in the act of reciting was causing his voice to fail so he decided to observe himself in action to see if there was anything obviously wrong. He bought a mirror and watched himself reciting. To his amazement, he discovered that what he saw happening in the mirror was altogether different from what he thought and felt he was doing. In the effort to project and control his voice, he was contorting his body and his breathing. Each time he tried to speak, he pulled his head backwards, pushed his larynx towards his chest and sucked in air with a loud gasp. Until he saw these distortions in the mirror, he had been unaware of them but he readily saw that they amounted to misuse of his natural equipment. He soon drew a connection between this ‘misuse’ of himself and the failure of his voice which led to his assertion that the way we use ourselves, directly affects our functioning.
Next, he bought two more mirrors, placing them so he could watch himself from all angles. It was then that he realised that what he was seeing was a pattern, a total bodily response which was triggered the instant he acted on the desire to speak. He knew he would have to free himself of this habitual response if he was going to restore the full function of his voice. So he set about trying to eliminate the faults he observed.
Unreliable sensory appreciation
This proved unexpectedly difficult. He became confused when he tried to change what had become a strong habit, one to which he was attached, a way of using himself that felt right. He discovered that his way of judging the success of what he was doing was based on the way it felt and he was shocked to discover that this ‘feeling’ sense was unreliable.
Through his observations, Alexander began to understand that the faults in his use were being locked in by his unreliable sensory appreciation. He realised that all his attempts to carry out movements of any kind were prejudiced by this ‘debauched kinaesthesia’, as he called it, and that his unreliable kinaesthetic sense was misleading him. This perception raised a new demand. He would need to develop a reliable means of monitoring what was happening in his body: a raised consciousness.
It took him ten years to learn, step by step, how to dismantle the way he was using himself and to rebuild it from scratch. He left speaking alone at first and began by maintaining a broadened field of attention while he carried out the simplest acts (such as raising an arm.) He found that paying attention in this way liberated him from the dictates of his habit, giving him choice. It also enabled him to map out and formulate the process which led to the discovery of two vital principles which became the cornerstones of his technique.
He discovered that our ideas about action are a constant influence on the way we perform those actions – that there is a circular relationship between thought, feeling and action: the thought of an action constellates a particular muscular response which is set or programmed in by repetition. The set manifested as the pulling back of his head, the depressing of his larynx and a gasping for breath whenever he attempted to speak. By experimenting, he found that if he could succeed in preventing the tightening that pulled his head out of alignment, he could also prevent the other two features of the set. This alerted him to the primacy of the head-neck-trunk relationship in organizing the body as a whole - the primary control, as he called it. He realised that to improve his use, he would have to find a way to stop his habit of interfering with this primary relationship.
The key to this essential prevention lay not in trying to control his physical parts directly, but in exercising choice. He perceived that he needed to change his idea of the action in order to make changes to his habitual postural response to it. The only way to break the cycle between thought and action was to exercise conscious control over it. So he experimented with thinking about speaking while not allowing himself to do so. This broke the cycle. Once he had learned to suspend the action, he could stop relying on instinctive feeling for guidance. He could then experiment step by step with allowing appropriate muscular responses to take place. He called this act of deliberate stopping, inhibition. *
At first the new sensory experience of stopping his habitual response was confusing. He was accustomed to being guided by feeling. He persisted – against his habit – with his new method of using conscious choices to make changes. He learned how to prevent the habituaL interference with his natural head-neck relationship and to take conscious control of his movements to improve his use.
While he was experimenting with inhibition, Alexander discovered a second basic principle of good use. He saw that an action, like a story, has a beginning, a middle and an end. His instinctive tendency had always been to put the most energy into the beginning of an action in order to achieve the end, regardless of what he was doing to himself in order to achieve it. In his words, habit had led him to end-gain, to mis-direct his energy in pursuit of the result. Once he learned to inhibit his initial habitual response and delay the desire to achieve a result, he could set about directing his energy consciously by keeping the whole of the action in mind. He learned that he had been trying to get to the end of the story (the result he thought he wanted) and failing to pay attention to the middle section (the means by which he gained it).
Alexander realised that if he paid attention to the means, rather than focusing on the end, the result would come by itself. His goal was to speak without depressing his larynx which he could only do if he could speak without arousing his old pattern. He had to maintain awareness of several things at the same time. He had to suspend his automatic response to the intention to speak and he had to keep his neck free while deciding whether to proceed to speaking, or not to speak, or to do something else. He called this process direction. **
He found that directing his actions in this way enabled him to change his use for the better in everything he did. When he transposed this procedure to other activities such as standing up from a chair, he found that if he inhibited trying to stand up but maintained poise and allowed his head to lead the movement, he could rise effortlessly. This brought an unprecedented ease and sheer delight to movements which he had previously experienced as laborious and stiff.
It took time for him to learn to apply Inhibition and Direction all the time and to get used to the unfamiliarity of his new conscious use, but he relished the liberation it brought him and continued to apply his new method to all his activities. His voice was restored and the respiratory complaints that had plagued him all his life left him for good. He found himself enjoying increased vitality, well-being and an invigorating new sense of purpose.
The Breathing Man
His colleagues in the theatre noticed the changes in him and many of them began to consult him about performance problems such as stage-fright and gasping for air to project the voice. He became known in Australia as ‘The Breathing Man’.
Several doctors persuaded him to go to London to introduce his discoveries to the medical establishment there. He gained considerable support from some of the leading medical men of the day. It was his earnest hope that his Technique would one day be incorporated in medical training, especially after he had come to the conclusion that: “The so-called ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ are not separate entities and for this reason, human ills and shortcomings cannot be classified as ‘mental’ or ‘physical’ and dealt with specifically as such. All training – whether it be educative or otherwise or whether its object be the prevention or elimination of defect, error or disease – must be based upon the indivisible unity of the human organism.”
Alexander published his first book, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, in 1910. Within a short time, leading actors, musicians, writers and public figures were flocking to his door and he soon had a flourishing practice. Among the luminaries who consulted and learned from him were the playwright, George Bernard Shaw, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Stafford Cripps, the author, Aldous Huxley and the American philosopher of education, Professor John Dewey. Huxley introduced Alexander as a thinly disguised redemptive character in his novel Eyeless in Gaza and enthusiastically endorsed Alexander’s theory in his philosophical essay Ends and Means. John Dewey considered Alexander’s work of great significance for education.
A second book, Conscious Constructive Control of the Individual was published in 1923.
In 1931 Alexander established a three-year training course in London to train others to carry on the work after him. (During that decade Wilfred Barlow, Marjorie Barstow, Walter Carrington, Margaret Goldie, Patrick Macdonald, Peter Scott, Irene Tasker, Sir George Trevelyan, Dick and Elizabeth Walker and Erika Whittaker all graduated from the training course.)
A third book, The Use of the Self was published in 1932. During the Second World War, the 1940 blitz on London forced Alexander to leave for the United States where his brother, Albert Redden Alexander, taught the Technique in Boston. The finishing touches were put to a fourth book, The Universal Constant in Living in 1941.
At the end of the war Alexander returned to London to resume both his teaching practice and training course. Though he never returned to these shores, Alexander remained a staunch Australian, an enthusiastic race-goer, liberally quoting from Banjo Paterson and negotiating life with his own brand of pioneer spirit, dash and genius. He continued teaching ‘the Work’, as he called it, until the end of his life when he died chatting to his nurse in his 87th year in 1955.
* A practical example of inhibition can be seen in the ability of exceptional tennis players to think on their feet and to change the course of the ball in a nanosecond, at will, rather than being compelled to slam it back defensively.
**The sport of archery demands this same faculty of direction. The archer does not have to push the arrow to the target. He must compose himself and maintain a certain field of attention which includes both his drawing of the arrow in the bowstring, his steadying of the bow and his aim on the distant target - all at the same time. At a certain moment there is a fusion of the archer’s awareness with the distant target whose bullseye effectively draws the arrow to itself. The archer remains poised and, when ready, commands the tips of just two fingers to move a fraction of an inch to release the bowstring and the energy release sends the arrow effortlessly to the waiting bullseye. Should the archer strain or tense, he will break the connection and miss the target.