Lelia Calder: The Alexander Work




 

Directing attention to the body as a psycho-physical unit and isolating patterns of physical misuse, the Alexander Technique (referred to by Alexander himself as the "work") seeks to provide a process of retraining which frees the body from distorting tensions and makes possible a change in fundamental muscular habits. For the singer this does not mean the replacement of natural talent nor the supplanting of technical training and practice, but increases ease of movement and conscious control. Performers, whose bodies are their instruments, require the free and flexible use of the entire organism to maintain, without undue fatigue or strain, the high degree of intensity and muscle discipline necessary to their art.

The principles which eventually have become known as the" Alexander Technique" are a direct result of vocal difficulties that F.M. Alexander (1869-1955) began to personally experience in 1892 during performances as a reciter. His doctor recommended voice rest and prescribed throat sprays, which were only temporarily effective. Whenever he began to recite he felt increasing vocal strain leading to hoarseness and, ultimately, to the complete loss of his voice. Clearly, the effort of vocal projection was producing in him certain muscular adjustments that resulted in severe dysphonia. He realized that unless he could discover for himself the causes of his difficulty and eliminate them, his career would be ruined. A detailed account of his efforts can be found in The Use of the Self(1932).

Alexander devoted his attention to exhaustive self­observation with the aid of mirrors. His first discovery, after many months of work, was that his breathing and the position of his larynx were affected by the way in which he moved his head (Alexander).

We tend to pull our head down and back into our neck (each individual in his own characteristic way) initiating a downward pressure, a collapsing influence on the rest of the spine and the whole body structure connected to it. For most of us this pulling down is so habitual that it does not feel wrong and usually becomes even stronger when we 'do' something. In other words, we misuse ourselves most of the time, but particularly badly during any activity.

Sometime later Alexander saw that it was not the head alone, but the whole relationship of the head, neck and back that was crucial to the free use of the voice. This became the central principle of his system. Referring to his early investigations he later said (1934):

After long experimentation on myself, when I was trying to overcome my own difficulties, I found that a certain control of the use of my neck and head in relation to my back brought about more satisfactory working of the musculature, and not only relieved my special difficulty, but improved conditions generally. In working with my pupils I have used this experience and have found that as soon as you can establish this 'primary control,' as we call it, a satisfactory control of the rest of the workings of the organism can be expected to follow indue time.

After years of observing, deducing, and proving his discoveries by experimentation, Alexander began to take pupils. He had already attracted wide attention in Aus­ tralia by the time he left for London in 1904 to continue his work. There he remained until his death in 1955. During those years he achieved considerable recognition, numbering among his many pupils such illustrious names as Bernard Shaw, Aldous Huxley, Sir Henry Irving and Archbishop William Temple. He wrote several books (some still out of print), conducted training classes that drew students from several countries and, despite the interruption of the two World Wars, made two visits to the United States to introduce his ideas and to give instruction.

Among his admirers was John Dewey, who wrote the introductions to three of his books. Enthusiastically Dewey proclaimed (1923),

Mr. Alexander has demonstrated a new scientific principle with respect to the control of human behavior, as important as any principle which has ever been discovered in the domain of external nature.

Alexander did not live to see the endorsement of his work by educational authorities. The American scientist Coghill and others later confirmed the importance of the head as the initiator of all movement. But it was through ethologist Nikolas Tinbergen's unqualified and enthusiastic endorsement of Alexander in his 1973 Nobel Prize Oration that recognition really came.

In a most informative book entitled F. Matthias Alexander, the Man and his Work (Westfeldt 1964), one of the twelve members of his first training class describes a lesson:

He used his hands on me a great deal and in the most subtle, delicate way, making what seemed to be minute, infinitesimal changes in my body in the region of my head, neck and back ... He worked on me while I was sitting in a chair and while I was standing up, and he also, with his hands on my head, took me in and out of a chair. At the end of a lesson he walked me around the room with his hands on my head ... Alexander's hands were amazing; sometimes they almost seemed to be doing nothing at all or something that was so imperceptible that it passed for nothing. Yet in reality they were always building up and strengthening a new head, neck and back pattern, thus producing fundamental changes in my body.

In addition to using his hands to realign the body of a pupil on a table, and guiding the processes of standing, sitting and walking, Alexander taught his pupils to give their own directions. Directing or ordering is critical to the Alexander system. It is the method of influencing the
primary control.

Alexander maintained that the pattern he discovered, which he also called the primary control, has always existed in human beings, but through misuse has become largely inactive. With its proper functioning the neck is freed, releasing the head to move slightly forward and up from the neck, which, in turn, encourages a lengthening and widening of the back. In this way, accumulated tensions are gradually released, and in their place a surprising ease of movement is felt. At first, of course, these new relationships are unstable and easily disturbed by any movement, but, in time and with continued directing, the body learns to "do" in a new way with freedom and flexibility instead of tension and rigidity.

Alexander used the terms directing or ordering to suggest the distinction between the giving of an order and the performing of it by the muscles. For the pupil, the responsibility is to put the desire clearly but silently into words: to think but not to do. This allows the organism to respond as a whole, whereas any effort to consciously control a specific motion would tend to fragment the psycho-physical unit.

The direction in each case includes a noun and a verb. The noun tells the pupil where the action is and the verb sets in motion the natural and necessary connections. The body's intelligence picks up the direction and interprets it as it wishes, as long as there is no interference by doing or even by imagining an action. In both table and chair work there is no movement on the part of the student.

Today neuro-physiologists tell us that thought creates changes in the body, both biochemical and muscular.

Alexander, by the end of the last century, had come to the same conclusion. His experience taught him that in order for the pattern to work, it is necessary to think in activity, because civilization has reached a level of complexity whereby instinctive responses are no longer adequate. Even simple acts, such as standing, sitting and walking cannot be done mechanically; they must be done consciously.

The idea of "non-doing" or "non end-gaining" issues from yet another important principle which he called faulty sensory appreciation. He discovered, with the use of mirrors, that his own perception of what he was doing was not at all what was happening. Because we are conditioned by habit to accept the familiar as correct, we are unable to judge an action accurately.

Singers are well acquainted with perceptual distortion of one's own sound. Similar misperceptions occur in every area as a consequence of years of body misuse; thus we feel comfortable sitting with our legs crossed, or feel uncomfortable sitting up straight.

Having discovered the primary control and developed the technique of influencing it by directing, and having learned that our sensory appreciation is unreliable, Alexander then faced what was perhaps the most difficult question of all: the problem of how to stop old patterns of usage in order to make room for something new to be established in the body's mechanism. How many of us have found that, despite our best efforts, or perhaps because of them, we are often unable to change an ingrained habit in ourselves or in our students. Alexander's answer to this dilemma is described by the word inhibition.

His meaning of the word "inhibit" is to say "no" to an impulse to move, so that one is able to take control of the process consciously. It is not so much "doing" as it is "refraining from doing," and "allowing" something to happen; or, put another way, it is restraining the habitual interference with the primary control. Without that restraint or inhibition, the idea to sit down, for example, would activate the old, familiar movements automatically.

There are several parts to the practice of inhibiting. Simply to say "no" is not enough. Something must replace the old pattern. It is, of course, the primary control activated by the head, neck and back orders. In this way the activity in questi"on can be broken up into small units so that a new program may be learned by the muscles, and balance can be restored to the whole organism. Only such a process will successfully prevent the mechanical repetition of long-standing habits of wrong usage.

Focus is on elemental movements. In the early stages of the training, the primary control is reestablished with the help of the teacher's hands. Westfeldt says:

A student might be in various positions at the beginning of a lesson: sitting, standing or lying. After the head, neck and back pattern had been well established, simple everyday movements would be attempted such as walking, sitting down, getting up.

 

These movements are so basic to all our activity that they influence our general well being, both physical and mental. The use of the primary control encourages the free and spontaneous action of the reflexes that control the entire coordination, most particularly for our purposes the breathing mechanism and the vocal organs themselves.

Alexander was a pioneer. His personality was well suited to exploration, original thinking, and tireless experimentation. He had less patience with preparing others to carryon his work, and it was largely the perseverance of the students themselves that bore fruit.

The first training class was an experiment in itself. No one knew whether the technique was, in fact, teachable. Was it a special gift that Alexander himself possessed in his remarkable hands, or could others learn to teach the technique?


The class of twelve students which started in 1932 was scheduled to meet for three years, five days each week for nine months of the year. At the end of that period it was the students who chose to continue their training for an additional year, feeling that they had more to learn.

Among that group were several Americans, including Lulie Westfeldt, who later became the first Alexander teacher in New York City. Her book carries a dedication, "with love and gratitude," to another member of that class, Catharine Wielopolska, who first introduced Westfeldt to the technique. A native Philadelphian, Wielopolska, after many years of teaching, opened a training school of her own in Philadelphia in 1976. Today, at eighty-five, she still gives private lessons.

Her memories of the class and of F.M. are vivid:

He was lively, amusing, always interesting and very compassionate. There was never any partiality. He would repeat an instruction tirelessly and with unfailing good humor in various ways until the student understood.

Wielopolska prefers to use the word direction instead of order because, in her words, "the body is like a child, and whenever possible we seek its cooperation." She stresses not following the directions with the mind.

The words can be quite without meaning for our purposes. Trust the body to follow them in its own way and time. It is necessary, however, to direct with the eyes open and not to doze off. This was a point that F.M. was always very particular about.

Alexander insisted that it was his fundamental intention to improve breathing, yet he never mentioned it directly. Wielopolska explains that the freeing of the breath happens gradually by allowing the system to free itself. She teaches her students to inhibit by giving the direction to keep breathing while carrying out an action, thus counteracting the tendency to hold the breath during movement.

We do not want to raise the breathing process from its place as part of the autonomic nervous system and we do not try consciously to control the breathing beyond instructing the pupil not to hold his or her breath.

 

It is precisely this point of the importance of breathing in the Alexander Method that is of greatest interest to singers. But the relationship between breathing for singing and the Alexander technique itself needs clarification.

Singers are certainly acutely aware of the influence of posture upon breathing. A sunken chest inhibits the action of the intercostal muscles. A sway back restricts the descent of the diaphragm, because the abdominal muscles which would normally be flexible are employed in lieu of the spine to support the whole skeleton. In addition, singers know first hand about the insidious spread of tension from any part of the anatomy to the vocal mechanism itself. This is particularly true when­ ever there is interference with the breathing process, which is communicated directly to the larynx.

 

Yet, because of the interrelatedness of body, mind and emotions, the release of tension involves much more than the relief of its symptoms. Most of us experience a lack of freedom due to habitual patterns of misuse, and these inhibit natural breathing so that it cannot function properly if simply left to itself. On the other hand, adding new and conscious instructions on top of old habits may simply increase effort and create needless muscular antagonisms.

With the technique of directing, the proper alignment of the body is gradually restored, and in that process the excess strain is removed from various parts of the anatomy. As this happens, the breathing changes. It becomes less dependent on the use of the large external muscles, reintegrated with the central nervous system and hence more responsive to the greater psycho-physical demands that the art of singing makes upon the whole person.


Lelia Calder
Published in The Nats Journal (January/February 1986)



REFERENCES

Alexander, F.M. (1934). Report of a Lecture by F.M. Alexander,
August 3, /934. Private printing, p. 3.
Alexander, F.M. (1932). The Use ofthe Self. New York: Dutton. 1955
reprint: 1984 reprint, Calif.: Centerline Press.
Dewey, John. Introduction to Alexander, F.M. (1923). Constructive
Conscious Control of the Individual. New York, Dutton; 1984
reprint, Calif.: Centerline Press.
Westfeldt, Lulie. (1964). F. Matthias Alexander, the Man and His
Work. Associated Booksellers, 39-40, 48.

 

Lelia Calder holds the BA (Harvard University) and the MM (Temple University) degrees. She was a student of Klara Meyers. Soprano Calder has specialized in Lieder, oratorio and early music. Her coaches include Pierre Bernac and Gerard Souzay. She teaches voice at Swarthmore, Haverford, and at Temple University. Calder maintains a private studio in Swarthmore, Pa., and teaches English diction and vocal pedagogy at the Philadelphia College of the Performing Arts. She holds a teaching certificate from the Wielopolska School of the Alexander Work.