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Portrait of FM Alexander in 1894

About Frederick Matthias Alexander

The Technique was devised over a hundred years ago by Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955), an Australian actor who kept on losing his voice while performing. Alexander was determined to find a solution to his curious problem and, after finding that doctors could not help him, he began a journey of self-discovery that not only gave him the solution to his voice problem, but also cured him of asthma, a condition from which he had suffered from birth. Alexander's research, arguably greatly underestimated, led to one of the greatest discoveries of the twentieth century.

Early Life

Frederick Matthias Alexander was born in Australia on 20th January 1869, the eldest of the eight children of John and Betsy Alexander. He grew up in a small town called Wynyard, situated on the north-west coast of the island of Tasmania. He was born prematurely, and without his mother's overwhelming love for her child, he would not have survived more than a few weeks (she was, in fact, the local nurse and midwife).

For much of his childhood Alexander was a very sickly child suffering from respiratory problems. Due to his frail health, he was taken away from school at an early age and was tutored in the evenings by the local school teacher. During the day he helped his father look after the horses, and this could have accounted for the sensitivity in his hands, which was later to play a crucial part in teaching his Technique to others.

His Career as an Actor

During his teens Alexander's health gradually improved and he decided to train to be an actor and reciter. It was not long before he gained a fine reputation at a first class reciter, and went on to form his own theatre company specialising in one man Shakespeare recitals.

Voice Problems

As he became increasingly successful Alexander began to accept more and more engagements, which put more and more strain onto his voice. Within a short time the stress began to show, as his voice regularly became hoarse in the middle of his performances. He approached various doctors and voice trainers who gave him medication and exercises, but nothing seemed to make any difference. In fact, the situation deteriorated still further, until on one occasion Alexander could barely finish his recital. He became more and more anxious as he realised that his entire career was in jeopardy.

He approached another doctor, who was convinced that the vocal cords had merely been over-strained and prescribed complete rest of his voice for two weeks, promising that this would give Alexander a solution to his problem. Determined to try anything, Alexander uttered hardly a word for the two week period preceding his next important engagement.

At the beginning of the performance he was delighted to find that his voice was crystal clear; in fact, it was better than it had been for months. This soon turned to dismay, however, when half-way through his performance the hoarseness in Alexander's voice returned, and the condition continued to deteriorate until by the end of the evening he could hardly speak. The next day, feeling very disappointed, he returned to his doctor and reported what had happened. The doctor felt that his treatment had had some effect and advised a longer period of rest for the vocal cords. What happened next proved to be at the very heart of the Alexander Technique.

Alexander refused any further treatment, stating that after two weeks of following the doctor's instructions implicitly his problem had returned within the hour. Alexander then reasoned with the doctor that if his voice was perfect when he started the recital, and yet was in a terrible state by the time he had finished, it must have been something that he was doing while performing that was causing the problem. The doctor thought carefully for a moment and then agreed that this must be the case. 'Can you tell me, then, what it was that caused the trouble?' Alexander asked. The doctor honestly admitted that he did not know.

Alexander's Discoveries

Alexander left the surgery determined to find a solution to his curious problem. This took him on a journey of discovery that not only gave him the answer to his question, but also revealed the mechanics of movement of the human being and the interference with these reflexes that contributes to much of mankind's suffering in modern civilisation.

Alexander had only two clues to follow up when he started his investigations:

Following simple, logical steps Alexander deduced that if ordinary speaking did not cause him to lose his voice, while reciting did, there must be something different about what he did in ordinary speaking and what he did when reciting. If he could find out what that difference was, he might be able to change the way in which he was using his voice when reciting which would then solve his problem. He used a mirror to observe himself both when speaking in his normal voice and again when reciting, in the hope that he could discern some differences between the two. He watched carefully, but could see nothing wrong or unnatural while speaking normally.

It was when he began to recite that he noticed that he was sucking in air in through his mouth while simultaneously pulling his head back on to his spine with a certain amount of force which depressed his larynx (where the vocal cords are situated). Up until this point Alexander had been completely unaware of these habits, and when he returned to his normal speaking voice he realised that the same tendencies were also present but to a lesser extent, which was why they had previously gone undetected. He returned to the mirror with new encouragement and recited over and over again to see if he could find any more clues, and soon noticed that the three tendencies became accentuated when he was reading passages in which unusual demands were made on his voice. This confirmed his earlier suspicion that there was definitely a connection between the way in which he recited and his loss of voice. He realised for the first time that he was unconsciously causing his own problem.

Alexander carried on with his experiments, and soon found that when he prevented himself from pulling his head back the hoarseness in his voice decreased. He returned to his doctor and after further examination it was found that there had been a considerable improvement in the general condition of his throat and vocal cords. He now had positive proof that the manner in which he was reciting was causing him to lose his voice, and changing the way in which he performed would eventually lead to an eradication of his problem.

Enthused with the idea that he was at last getting to the crux of the matter, Alexander experimented still further to see if he could achieve even more improvement in the state of his vocal cords. He did this by deliberately putting his head forward, but was surprised to find that this also had the effect of depressing the larynx. To have a closer look at how he was moving, he added two further mirrors on either side of the original one. When he observed himself again in the mirrors, he could see clearly that he was in fact still pulling his head down on to his spine as before. Alexander was very surprised at these findings, because for the first time he realised that he was doing the exact opposite of what he thought he was doing. He was suffering from a faulty sensory awareness: In other words, he could no longer rely on his sensory feeling to tell him what he was or was not doing. At first he thought that this was his own personal idiosyncrasy, but when he started to teach his technique he realised that faulty sensory perception was practically universal. Feeling disillusioned, yet unable to give up his quest, Alexander persevered and began to notice that his habit of pulling his head back was not only causing the depression of his larynx, but also various tensions and stresses throughout his entire body. He started to realise that he was also lifting his chest, arching his back, throwing his pelvis forward, over-tightening his leg muscles and even gripping the floor with his feet. This was affecting his entire posture and balance.

It dawned on Alexander that the tightening of all the muscles in his legs and feet was part of the same habit that was causing him to tighten his neck muscles. The action of 'taking hold of the floor' with his feet had over the years become such an ingrained habit that he was completely unaware that he was doing it. He found it almost impossible to recite without all his habits being present, and whatever he did to change the way he recited simply increased the tension, which made things worse.

Thinking in Activity

This led Alexander on to the whole question of how he consciously directed himself while reciting and he realised that he never gave any thought to how he moved, but simply moved in a way that was habitual because this felt 'right' to him. At first he directed himself by an activity, such as putting his head forward and up, but soon found that this once again increased the very muscular tension that he was trying to eliminate. At this point he gave up in exasperation and almost at once achieved the release of tension he had wanted. Alexander realised that he merely had to think of the directions in order to bring about a change without further tension and he began to experiment with being aware and consciously directing the way in which he moved.

After putting his discoveries into practice he was able not only to free himself from the habits which had jeopardised his career, but also to cure himself of the recurring asthma that had afflicted him from birth.

Alexander's Practice in London

When Alexander returned to the stage, many of his fellow actors who were suffering from similar problems sought his help, and he began teaching his Technique to others. News spread like wildfire about the actor who had cured himself of his vocal and respiratory difficulties and doctors began referring some of their patients to Alexander, who had enormous success in treating a variety of different ailments. He used the gentle guidance of his hands, as well as verbal instructions, to convey his Technique. He helped many people release the harmful habits which were at the root of their illnesses.

One of the doctors, Dr J. W. Stewart McKay, could see the great potential in his work and persuaded Alexander to go to London in order to bring the Technique to a wider audience. In the spring of 1904 Alexander set sail for London. He arrived later that year and set up a practice in Victoria Street and later at Ashley Place in Central London, and worked there until his death in October 1955.