Alexander Technique    Joan & Alex Murray



Muybridge: Horse and Rider

This remarkable shot of a galloping horse and rider, taken in the late 1800’s gives a wonderful view of a “position of mechanical advantage” in activity. The rider’s back is strong and stable, he moves with his mount, head leading, back lengthening, firm but not fixed hands with elbows out and down, (gently following the horses mouth). *

His hind limbs are “saltatory” hips back, knees forward and away leaping with the horse out of the stirrups (ankles).

Such equestrian qualities would have been well-known to the Alexander brothers. A.R. was a jockey and F.M. a keen horseman. They would have been less apparent in riders in London on the Horse Guards Parade, but such skills were still in the public domain in 1904 when Alexander came to London. (The editor of the Times would ride from his home in Kensington to Fleet St. every day until 1912).

When FM saw his shortened stature in the mirror in reciting, he would have been able at some point to compare it with a healthy, natural seat  of a rider on horseback. Sitting when mounted, is very different from sitting on a chair. Collapse on a horse and you’ll soon be on the ground.

Hands on the back of the chair 1910.  This accompanies the door exercise, in which the important comment ia:”…most pupils will stiffen the legs in order to put the hips back towards the door. This stiffening is incorrect. … “the pupil shall, as it were, cut off the energy which causes the firm position at the hip joints and other parts, and by ordering or desiring the relaxation of the parts concerned so that the hinge-like movements of the hips takes place, and the teacher with his hands placed upon the pupil causes his body to move in the right direction.

The chair exercise, with the hands on the back of the chair, …. Pull the top of the chair as if endeavoring to lift it at the same time allowing the right elbow to point out to the right and the left elbow to the left. (Later, gentle pull from wrist to elbow).

If attention is paid to the balance on the feet, it may be felt that the pull takes the weight over the balls of the feet from the heels. If so, release the knees forward and away, the hips back until the balance over the ankles is restored.

This constant readjustment to my eye, appears to be that of the rider in the Muybridge photos.

Of course, with FM, it was a preliminary to exercises in respiratory re-education – a position of mechanical advantage facilitating “full chest breathing”.

* A biography of Cecil Rhodes stated that he was a poor horseman, lacking good hands or a good seat. Considering the sensitivity of the horse’s mouth, the need for the former is obvious. This should be born in mind when “gripping the back of the chair, gently but firmly.” (CCCI: Illustration).

Alexander’s Technique Is For Those Wanting It, Not Only Those Needing It.

Learning a language must first be the experiencing of the language by the potential language user. Each language has particular conventions of sounds, words and  word order. The AT, similarly, has a sequence of verbal thinking from which it comes into being. This is: 1) Neck freeing ( allowing )

                  2) Head intending forward and up ( permitting)

                  3) Back lengthening (and simultaneously)

                        4) Widening.    

1-2-3-4 taken together constituting the “Primary Control”  underlying any subsequent movement. 

Permitting this to occur, STOPPING is a necessary prerequisite. A habitual activity already in process will continue unless  INHIBITING.

STOPPING, then DIRECTING the Primary Control becomes a possibility, continuing  as the basis for further activity. Step-wise analysing of the wished for activity, including the primary control, metamorphoses into the MEANS – WHEREBY of its accomplishment.

Communicating the experience of the Primary Control to a person ceasing unconscious habitual activity ( stopping), is the necessary role of the facilitating Alexander teacher who must also be fluent in the language to be communicated. In “facilitating” he/she will be inhibiting personal stereotypical processes, and activating his/her own Primary Control. 

In a normal childhood, learning a basic vocabulary and communicating simple thoughts and ideas is an accomplishment relatively quickly achieved. But  mastering a Shakespearean range of expression  requires a lifetime of experiencing. Similarly, progressing from  a rudimentary understanding of the AT to  the subtle skill achieved by its founder requires a similarly long lifetime.  Although Alexander said anyone could do what he did if they had the patience and persistence, “ time was of the essence” a proviso he wrote in his 76th year, by which time he could personally vouch for the Alexander Principle: “Use Affects Functioning”.

The elements of every complex skill can be communicated relatively simply. Learning to name and play the notes on a piano is no great accomplishment, but a virtuoso technique is achieved by  few, persisting patiently, growing in  personal skill and understanding. Virtuosity in the AT is rare but always a possibility for those  wishing to continue growing.

Why does a “training course” require three years? This is a  purely arbitrary time frame. FM began studying his own use in his youth. He did not know where it would take him, and he never stopped his investigation. His skill developing, he thought he could communicate his personal findings to others, initially considering thirty lessons, almost daily, essential to implanting the rudimentary experience. After more than thirty years he thought he could convey the same necessary experiences in a few days, the pupil  becoming his own teacher, as had Alexander himself.

                                      Life is short, Art ……… long.

THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE: Pupils, students, teachers.

Thoughts on my own experience as a member of each category.

My motivation for visiting Lansdowne Rd. and Charles Neil, was the recommendation of a scientist (Ph.D in both Psychology and Physiology) with whom I was living at the time I was in the orchestra of the Royal Opera. I suffered from bronchitis each winter during three seasons and my friend said he thought Charles would help me with my breathing.

Charles was a convincing teacher – of his own technique which was more of a relaxation one. In fact, he had written a pamphlet for the BMA called “Poise and Relaxation.” I found regular lessons with him to be “relaxing” and benefited from the reduction in the stress of being a principal player with no former experience of my operatic duties.

When he died, and I became a pupil of Walter Carrington (1958) and his two colleagues at Staflex House, John Skinner and Peggy Williams, I began to understand that Alexander’s principles had not featured to the same extent in Charles’ work. I had persuaded Joan to join his training course, which she had reluctantly done, and when she joined Walter’s, I was happy to have her practice on me with “table work” which was very different from my earlier conception of relaxation.

From the time that Joan joined Walter’s course, I became an “auditor” in it as we were both involved in work that took us to the West End and did not have time to return home to Blackheath where we were then living between morning classes (or rehearsals in my case) and evening performances.

We had become very close friends of Peggy Williams and would frequently spend time with her after class (in 1960, it had moved from Staflex House to Lansdowne Rd). Joan and Peggy always worked on me during our visits, which was a great invigorator for the frequent evening concerts. By this time I was principal flute in the LSO, an orchestra which had an infusion of talent in 1955, when several of my distinguished colleagues and myself had joined. Gervase de Peyer was the nephew of Eric de Peyer, an Alexander graduate who had worked with Charles Neil for a while at Lansdowne Rd.

After several years of private lessons with Walter, serious application of what he was teaching me and my own reading of Alexander (which had started in 1955) I had improved my breath control and approached playing the flute in a constantly changing way. Every year, we did a cycle of Beethoven Symphonies and other works and I noticed from one year to the next that I was able to breath more rapidly in a shorter time – through the nose during a particularly demanding passage in the 7th Symphony.

In 1959, I went to Prague with a colleague, Bill Waterhouse (later married to Elizabeth) and was a prize-winner in an International Competition. At this time, we had been busily recording in London with Pierre Monteux. The following year, we recorded “L’apres-midi d’un Faune” which opens with an unaccompanied flute solo of about 30 seconds duration. The player is expected to achieve this with a single breath. Click here for the recording.

In order to practice this solo, I divided it into three sections and played each without problems. I then joined the first two, allowed the breath to return and continued until the end. Finally, I played the whole solo, after repeated exhalation and inhalation, pumping my thorax in the process. My practice room had double mirrors so that I could keep an eye on what I was doing and I was intrigued to see that when I had almost reached the end of the solo, I had shortened by a movement of the pelvis forward over the feet. This was obviously nothing to do with the flow of air, but was a movement of the whole body. I repeated the experiment and kept my hips back over the feet and the head forward and up. I didn’t use more air, but the following inspiration was both rapid and full.

I went to the Use of the Self and reread Alexander’s experiments. He said that when he recited a passage that made particular demands on his breath, he noticed the three tendencies he  had seen in reciting became specially marked. Prior to this experience, I had always practiced with the principle of limiting the length of a phrase to what I could play without difficulty. I would then allow the breath to return in its own time and continue with the next phrase. The unusual demands of the long solo made evident a shortening that was only slightly present under my usual experimental circumstances.

Since that time, I have used the solo as a test of my current respiratory condition, and have been delighted when I have made discoveries which have made it easier with the advance of years. In the last ten years, I have found three aspects of what I have come to think of as Alexander’s fundamental discovery, “Full Chest Breathing”, as he described it prior to his arrival in London in 1904.

For many years I have been a pupil of my wife, whose teaching skills have developed apace with my respiratory ones. From 1958 – 1966 I was a pupil of Walter’s (and Peggy) and a student (from 1960) at Lansdowne Rd. In 1967, I began to wear the hat of “teacher” although I was principally involved in trying to communicate the Alexander principles in the course of teaching the flute. My problem students were always directed to Joan for regular lessons. An enthusiastic nucleus of students from MSU still give thought to them when they play. Three years in Holland sowed a seed among flutists which is still present. We were the first to teach the AT there. There are now 2  flourishing training courses. When we came to Illinois, we were asked if we would train by two students of Joe Armstrong, who had his first lessons from Joan in the 60’s at Interlochen.

We were given the blessing of Walter, Sidney Holland (then chair of STAT) and the committee and began our course in 1977.  We were happy with the students who joined us and ran our course in the way in which we had proposed. 1200 hrs. with a class time of 2hrs daily, the additional time being the responsibility of the students who were all active in various ways and disciplines in which they applied what we were doing in class.

During the past thirty-two years of teaching, training potential teachers of the AT, my own contribution has been limited by teaching would-be flutists until I retired in 2002. Since then, I have had the good fortune to be working on a daily basis with a number of students and realize how limited my skills are in communicating what I have come to consider the essence of Alexander’s teaching. Daily practice of the flute has continued to give me a reference point for my own progress and some of the events of the past few years have opened my eyes to simple matters that I had not previously noticed.

The visit of Steven Shaw, who spends most of his time applying the AT to swimming, which includes many hours daily in the relatively weightless environment of the pool, triggered a reconsideration of my own swimming, but most notably, of an examination of “mouth breathing”, something I had studiously avoided since my first lessons (and earlier, due to the advice of an experienced flute playing friend). I tried the experiment of doing a whispered ah on the inhale and was astonished at the result. My upper chest moved upwards and I had taken in a bigger volume of air than usual. I then realized that this was the indirect result of the breath and that for all my Alexander life, I had deliberately refrained from allowing the upper chest to move. The increased mobility in my thorax was partially due to Joan’s adaptation of the fetal posture (Dart)  in the seated position. Full Chest Breathing includes all twelve ribs.

My next respiratory discovery was when I realized that, in playing a phrase of moderate length, I was inhaling while I still had quite a reasonable amount of air in my lungs. I then tried letting out the remaining air without playing. The returning breath and movement of the thorax was instantaneous and full. I realized I had always “controlled” the replenishment of my breath when playing. I now understood what happens when the interference is removed. The right thing does itself.

The most recent, and I hope not the final discovery came when I thought of the activity of the soft palate in the whispered ah and ensuing “allowing” the return of the breath with the lips closed. This was after a student had commented on finding it difficult in swimming to exhale through the nostrils before diving to turn at the end of a lap. I experimented, finger on upper lip, breathing out through the nostrils. This was easy, but the interesting result was that the breath returned instantly – through the nose. I remembered Dart writing about Yoga breathing – closing alternate nostrils, facilitating breath due to a reflex, probably of trigeminal origin.

Of course, when a baby suckles, it is breathing continuously through the nostrils. The rooting reflex is also of trigeminal origin. But when, at the end of a whispered ah, the lips are closed, the vestiges of the air is expelled throught the nose, the soft palate, raised during the ah will have released to free the nasal passage. Ron Murdoch, quoted by Walter in the talk on Breathing in “Thinking Aloud” encourages breathing in through the nose with the mouth still open. This can easily be achieved by ending the ah with a brief nasal expiration.

These discoveries continually send me back to Alexander’s earliest writings, on breathing, and his method as plagiarized by Scanes-Spicer. Antagonistic action (1906) was maintaining the extended spine  during both phases of the respiratory cycle (not fully understood by S-S).

The importance of “Full Chest Breathing” to the success of Alexander in his long teaching career, can not be exaggerated. This was his “Cure for Consumption” in 1903, and sponsored by his friend and mentor, Stewart McKay brought him to a successful practice in London in 1904. The next important event in his career was his meeting with John Dewey in New York, when, as he told Frank Pierce Jones, he was developing a new way of using his hands. Irene Tasker’s founding of the little school was undoubtedly the stimulus to renewing his vision of Alexandering the youth of the world, and bringing to them what Dewey considered the discovery ‘ that bears the same relation to education that education bears to every activity.’

Dewey and his conception of the scientific method helped Alexander in the writing of his most widely read book, the Use of the Self. Dewey, in a letter to Frank commenting on his paper “A New Field for Inquiry” complimented him on the way he had written it. First he told of his own experience and then applied what he had discovered to other relevant information. This is the form of Alexander’s book. His own discovery, followed by its application to the problems of others, golf, speech and medicine.

My own continuing interest in John Dewey was inspired by Frank and Irene Tasker, in spite of Walter’s initial dismissal of his influence as that of a second rate philosopher (the judgment of Walter’s Jesuit advisor, before Walter gave up the idea of joining the Society).

It is fascinating to see how much of the unknown Dewey is emerging after philosophical interest in him had practically disappeared, even in the US.

My intellectual pursuit of the meaning of the AT has been kept alive by the connections made by Raymond Dart and John Dewey. Without their stimulating thoughts on Alexander’s remarkable genius, I think I would have lost interest in it, except as a pleasant way of being “taken up” when I had been deflated or pulled myself down in my daily activities.

The yardstick, provided by these two seminal figures, and the chance reading of  “The Tree of Knowledge” by Maturana and Varela, attracted me to a paper in the report of the Oxford Centenary gathering of 1904. Rachel Zahn’s “Francisco Varela and the ‘Gesture of Awareness’ caught my attention, as did the request from the author for feed-back.

There is much for consideration in her paper, but the most striking part of it from my point of view was her opening section on “Psycho-physical basic practice”. Five minutes of quiet breathing and counting the cycle of 1-2-3-4 when confronted with intellectually demanding material seemed to me to be an intellectual application of the principal of “full chest breathing” in an unaccustomed sphere. Not that it was removed from Alexander’s work with John Dewey, who was suffering, among other problems, from “writers block” when he had his first lessons.

Rachel Zahn’s friendship and interest in both of my intellectual mentors has directed me in neurological channels, and the thought of a possible connection between “thinking-in-activity” and brain activity as made manifest in many new ways by developing technology. Much reading on contemporary “consciousness studies” has led me to my most recent spontaneous epistolary outburst which I sent to both Rachel and Kevin, who had recommended a book by a thinker who has himself arrived at some of the conclusions (or part of the process of change) where John Dewey was in his later writing.

Hi conscious friends,

Thinking I was ordering a Susan Hurley book, in a moment of semi-consciousness I clicked on one by Susan Blackmore – “Consciousness: an Introduction.” Instead of returning it, I thumbed through it to find it full of all the curious problems devised by those wishing to reduce it to the axioms of Euclid. Many problems now appear to me as non-problems, including the problem of consciousness.

Alexander tried to keep things simple, but intellectual friends  complicated matters. In my judgment (considered, accepting Dewey’s crucial problem of education: “The postponement of action on impulse until observation and judgment have intervened”) the experience of “mind-body” embedded unity is as fundamental to the Alexander transaction as is sound to the musician. Learned music discussions are irrelevant unless the music (sound) being discussed is part of the experience of the participants.

After many years accepting Alexander’s terminology “Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual,” and “The Use of the Self,” I came across discussions of “What is consciousness?” and “What is the self?” (The latter, like Caesar’s Gaul, divided in three parts). The people discussing the subject at a Colorado conference early this century, interviewed by Susan Blackmore in a record of the event were presumably conscious at the time, but talked like the blind men asked to define an elephant. Emerson’s comment comes to mind: “A pop-gun remains a pop-gun even if the wise and learned of the earth pronounce it the crack of doom.”

In an Alexander “lesson,” when an arm is lifted by the teacher to place the consenting pupil’s hand on the back of a chair  and the teacher says “I am going to take my hand away, leave your arm where it is,” should it stay motionless, it exemplifies “Conscious Control,” (Inhibition and Direction) an “embedded action” of a conscious individual,  a psycho-physical unity, how FM paid lip service to the wise and learned. Dewey wrote about mind-body and “thinking-in-activity.” Experience, for those who wish to discuss “consciousness” is simple in the context of Alexander, but complex,  even in Varela’s work. Buddhist meditation-based consciousness is “thinking-in-inactivity.”

Many interesting sources on the subject of consciousness have been recommended to me. I have chased them endlessly. At present Blackmore has made what appears to be a very good summing up of consciousness studies up to the end of the twentieth century. It poses the question to me: “Is it worth the trouble?”

The simple solution to the “hard problem of consciousness” seems to be, accept that you are conscious and encourage others to appreciate that it is a divine spark that lights us all.

Good luck in your search, it is hidden in yourselves,