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A Brief History of The Alexander Technique

F.M. Alexander

Frederick Matthias Alexander was a stage performer in Australia in the 1890's whose specialty was reciting Shakespeare. While still in his early twenties, however, he developed serious vocal trouble, sometimes losing his voice near the end of a recital. Doctors prescribed rest, but the problem recurred. After a particularly frustrating performance, Alexander took the first step in the development of his Technique. He decided he was doing something to himself when he recited which caused him to lose his voice.

Alexander used mirrors to observe himself recite. He noticed that he pulled back his head, depressed his larynx, and sucked in breath through his mouth, making a gasping sound. When he released his neck muscles to allow his head to rotate forward and up, the other two faults tended to disappear. The new relationship between the head and neck seemed also to bring about an overall lengthening of his stature and a general improvement in function. Later in his career, Alexander called this new head neck relationship the "primary control".

After this important discovery, Alexander thought he had solved his voice problem, but when he tried to keep his head forward and up when he recited, habit took over and he invariably pulled his head back. Consequently, he again depressed his larynx and began to breathe with a gasp.

He reasoned that the automatic, habitual pulling back of his head in response to the stimulus to recite was his instinctive direction; that is, his instinctive projection of messages from his brain to his muscles. If he were to stop the habitual response, he decided, he would have to replace the instinctive direction with a conscious one. After making many attempts to learn how to do this, Alexander adopted the following procedure;

A) Inhibit any immediate response to the stimulus to recite.

B) Consciously project the directions for the "primary control".

C) While continuing to project these directions, make a fresh decision whether or not to respond to the stimulus to recite.

D) Recite, continuing to project the directions.

By following this procedure, the instinctive response to the stimulus to recite was not only inhibited at the start, but remained inhibited throughout the process of reciting. Alexander had solved his voice problem. Of much broader significance, he had solved a basic human problem: how to move and act with awareness.

Alexander's impressive comeback on stage attracted many pupils. At first, these were principally fellow stage performers, but soon people from a wide variety of backgrounds began coming to Alexander. Doctors referred patients. The implications of Alexander's discoveries were fast becoming apparent. By inhibiting habitual responses, Alexander's pupils also minimized habitual tension and strain, and their harmful results.

In 1904, Alexander emigrated to London to gain wider exposure for his work. He subsequently taught his Technique in England and the United States for more than 50 years, until his death in 1955 at the age of 86. Among his pupils were stage performers, industrialists, musicians, educators, English nobility, and such notables as George Bernard Shaw, Aldous Huxley, and John Dewey.

Although The Alexander Technique is a method of instruction, not a therapy, people often experience relief from such unpleasant results of habitual tension as backaches and headaches after only few lessons. Professor Nicholas Tinbergen, who devoted half of his Nobel Prize oration to the Alexander Technique, reported the effects of lessons on himself, his wife, and one of his daughters: "Between the three of us, we already notice, with growing amazement, very striking improvements in such diverse things as high blood pressure, breathing, depth of sleep, overall cheerfulness and mental alertness, resilience against outside pressures, and also in such a refined skill as playing a stringed instrument.".

The Alexander Technique is now taught extensively at performing arts schools in Europe and around the world, as well as US institutions such as the Juilliard School and UCLA. It has been studied by numerous actors, musicians and athletes for over 100 years to enhance performance and stage presence.


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