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).
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Published in The Nats Journal (January/February 1986)
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.