F.M. Alexander and the History of the Alexander Technique

The Early Years

Frederick Mathias Alexander (known as F.M. Alexander) was born January 20, 1869, in Alexandria, Australia.  The eldest of 10 siblings, Alexander was his mother’s favorite because he was born prematurely and had to be nursed back to health for a very long time. Due to his premature birth, Alexander was physically weaker than other boys his age and was less interested in playing traditional sports or doing manual labor, though he did have a fondness for horseback riding. Instead, he was devoted to studies and a very precocious student. His teacher offered him private evening instruction to ensure his interests were being pursued. It was during these evening lessons that F.M. first became introduced to the poetry and plays of Shakespeare, works of art that inspired his later passion for theater and acting.

In 1889, Alexander moved to Melbourne to live with an aunt and uncle. After frequenting the Melbourne theater scene, he decided to pursue a career as an elocutionist and actor of Shakespeare. He worked regular jobs while taking lessons and by 1891 was beginning to give amateur recitals and public performances.  For several years he worked as a professional actor before he developed problems with his vocal chords, resulting in bouts of hoarseness and eventually periods of complete loss of voice. He went to all the doctors, therapists, specialists he could try, however, their solutions of vocal rest (meaning not to speak for weeks at a time) did not remedy his problem. By the time he was half way through a performance, he would be hoarse again.

Dismayed that he would have to “ give up a career in which [he] had become deeply interested and believed [he] could be successful” (Use of the Self, 25) and that no one in the medical profession was capable of helping him, he made an amazing deduction. Alexander concluded that something he “was doing…in using his voice…was the cause of the troubles” (US, 25) and that if he did not have these troubles while speaking normally,  but only when performing, it must be something he was doing while reciting. Since no medical professionals could tell him what exactly he was doing to cause the problem, he decided to investigate himself.

Discovering the Alexander Technique

Over the course of almost a decade, F.M. Alexander worked persistently and patiently on  his investigation into the reason his voice was going hoarse.  His work led him not only to finding a successful cure for his voice, but to the discovery of the Primary Control and the 5 Principles of the Alexander Technique.

 Alexander used mirrors and objective self-observation as the tools to of his amazing discovery.  He began to see that when he recited, he tended to pull his head back and down, gasped for air, and shortened the whole body in stature in order to speak. He began to recognize that taking his head  back and down initiated a response of collapse in the whole body, the result of which was the improper functioning of the parts of the vocal mechanism. When the head was taken back and down, the chest woud raise up, the vocal chords would tighten, the hips would be thrown forward and down, the legs and arms would become unnecessarily tense, and the feet would contract and grip at the floor, all of which made it impossible to speak freedom and ease. In short, he made the connection that the way the head is used on the body impacts the use of the whole body. He discovered that when he took the head forward-and-up in relation to the spine, instead of back and down, the vocal chords were more relaxed, the torso would lengthen and widen, the limbs would be free, and the feet could send to the floor. The overall positive response in the body gave him a feeling of “up” and lightness in opposition to gravity.

 (This dynamic relationship of the head-neck-back- feet in opposition to gravity is the Primary Control and it is Alexander’s most important discovery. The PC is the innate master reflex within the body that allows the entire body to be in a state of lightness, freedom, expansion, and upward direction, instead of the heavy collapse and downward direction of giving in to gravity. The PC is the most efficient and natural relationship between the parts of the body (head-neck-back-feet) that effects the functioning of the body as one integrated whole. When the PC is functioning well, as it does when we are very young children, this relationship is fluid, alive, and maintains the structural integrity of the forces of opposition within the body. When the PC is not functioning well, we get heaviness, fatigue, pain,  tension, and collapse in the body. Only a select few adults are able to maintain a high-functioning PC into adulthood (Muhammad Ali and Picasso are examples), but the wonderful journey that we embark upon taking lessons in the Alexander Technique allows us to learn a means-whereby to bring about a better use of  Primary Control. We get to dive in and explore our particular psycho-physical habits and through learning the technique, are empowered with the most amazing gift of conscious control, mind-body awareness, and the freedom to become the masters of ourselves once again.)

 In trying to correct this misuse of the body, he began to see that by taking his head forward-and-up in relation to the spine instead of back-and-down he had some control in seeing that the body elongated instead of collapsed and that this alleviated some problems with the vocal mechanism. However, when he would try to apply his new forward-and-up action to the act of speaking, he began to recognize  that when he encountered  the stimulus to speak,  he would habitually pull the head back-and-down and shorten the stature even against his will in trying to do the exact opposite! What was to be done?  His very own habitual sensory perception was guiding him to do one thing, while the objective mirror was telling him quite another.

 He delved deeper into the meaning of this head-neck-back relationship. He began to see that before beginning the act of speaking, he had to make the conscious choice of not-doing the activity of pulling of the head back and down, and instead  choosing to consciously direct the head forward-and-up in relation to the spine, which caused the body  to elongate and widen. He then had to continue to consciously direct these new orders for a better use of the head-neck-back to replace his old, habitual way of using the head  while speaking. Only then, was he successfully able to consciously direct the means-whereby for the Primary Control of the use of the self in activity.  The process of his discovery (Recognizing the Force of Habit, Inhibiting and Not-Doing the Habit, Recognizing Faulty Sensory Perception, Sending Direction, and The Primary Control) are the 5 principles of the Alexander Technique, which taken together make it possible to restore the good use of the self.

Teaching the Technique and Later Years

In Melbourne 1896, F.M. Alexander rented teaching rooms, advertising his cure for voice, speech problems, and throat issues in local newspapers and pamphlets. His brother, A.R. Alexander came to join him as an assistant and became proficient in the technique. He continued to perform acting recitals. He had a small clientele, mainly of clergymen and other actors with vocal problems, but many were pleased with the results of his work. At the recommendation of friend and advocate for the technique Dr. W.J. Stewart McKay, Alexander moved to London to make introductions with the leading doctors there, in the hope to get the technique widely acknowledged in the medical field. He left Melbourne in 1904.

 With letters of support from Dr. McKay and other important doctors of the Australian medical community, Alexander gained important supporters in the London medical community. After two years of referrals and positive results in the community, his practice at 16 Ashley Place was booming. He was able to support an elegant life-style and loved to ride horses and go fox-hunting. During this time, Alexander also circulated many pamphlets and papers trying to explain his technique in written word. He worked to improve his writing to make clear the difficult and revolutionary conceptions that lay beneath his work. In 1910, he finished his first book Man’s Supreme Inheritance and his second major work Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in 1912.

 On August 10, 1914, F.M. Alexander  married Edith Young, a long time friend and lover, before  embarking on a journey to the United States in the hopes of spreading his technique there. With the help of Margaret Naumberg, founder of the Walden School and Alexander’s student, he gained several influential pupils, including Arthur M. Reis, Waldo Frank, and famous American philosopher and educational pioneer John Dewey.  In 1918, they published version of Alexander’s aforementioned books in the United States with an introduction by Dewey. The books received enthusiastic reviews.

 Both F.M. Alexander and A.R. Alexander divided their time teaching in the United States and London. However,  their regular visits to the United Sates ended in 1924. From this point onward, they continued to teach from 16 Ashley Place in London and started the first training course in 1930. In 1925, F.M. purchased Penhill Estate in Beaxleyheath, Kent. He and Edith adopted a daughter Peggy, and F.M. would visit on the weekends and tend to the gardens. However, Edith’s jealousy and rumors of F.M.’s infidelity led to increasing troubles in their marriage. In 1931, F.M. had a son, John Vicary, with his mistress. Edith moved into separate apartments, became an alcoholic, and died in 1938. During this time of difficulty in his personal life, Alexander published his third and most approachable work, The Use of the Self, in 1932.

 From 1940-1943, during the Second World War, Alexander returned to the United States to teach. While there, he published his final major work: The Universal Constant in Living. He returned to London in 1943, and restarted the training course. Some notable names of these first generation training courses, include: A.R. Alexander, Miss Goldie, Patrick Macdonald, Walter Carrington, Dr. Bill and Marjory Barlow, Frank Pierce Jones, Irene Tasker, and many more who were luck enough to learn the technique at the hands of its founder.  In 1947, F.M. Alexander suffered a serious stroke that left the entire left side of his body paralyzed. Doctors told him the paralysis was permanent. However, in one month he made a remarkable complete recovery by applying his own technique! F.M. Alexander continued to teach the training course until his death in 1955. For those devoted to continuing his work, his discovery and pioneering work has revolutionized the way that we look at the body and approaches to modern healthcare.