Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955), often known as F.M. Alexander, was an actor, educator, and philosopher whose discovery and Technique are still relevant today. Born on a farm in Tasmania in 1869, he was the first of ten children. He was a bit frail and suffered from respiratory health issues throughout childhood. Growing up, he was able to attend school and learned to love the performing arts, especially poetry, Shakespeare, speaking, and acting. At 17, he left the farm for an office job, and several years later moved to Melbourne. He continued working clerical jobs, immersed himself in culture, and began performing as a solo actor who specialized in Shakespeare recitations. Unfortunately for him (but fortunately for us, as you’ll see in a moment!), he began to have debilitating voice problems.
During performances, he grew hoarse and his friends told him he was gasping audibly for air, a habit he usually prided himself in not doing. Medical treatment consisted mostly of vocal rest, which helped his voice return to normal. However, when he returned to performing, the problems recurred more and more rapidly. When he was unable to finish a major performance without hoarseness, he was devastated. His doctor noticed that his vocal cords were inflamed, but had no further ideas. So, Alexander hypothesized that the problems stemmed from something he was doing while speaking and set out to discover the solution himself. He engaged in an experimental, persistent scientific process during the 1890s, which he chronicled in “Evolution of a Technique,” the first chapter of his book The Use of the Self, published in 1932 and again in 1941.
He began by standing in front of a mirror and observing. He noticed that, before he began to recite, he tended to “pull back the head, depress the larynx, and suck in breath through the mouth in such a way as to produce a gasping sound” (p. 26). Upon closer inspection, he saw that he did the same things on a smaller scale during ordinary speaking. He also saw that his whole stature compressed when he pulled his head back. When he moved his head forward and up in relation to the top of his spine, his spine and whole body lengthened and widened. The strain on his vocal cords diminished. Naming this quality of movement use, he deducted that the head-spine relationship determined his quality of movement, which affected his overall functioning.
The crux of Alexander’s experiment came when he tried to apply his new use to his desired activity: performing. He found that the pull to familiarity and ingrained patterns was too strong: just at the moment when he went to recite, he instantly reverted to his old familiar way, despite his best intentions. He continued experimenting for “days, weeks, and months,” and eventually made his breakthrough discovery: he found that if he paused before speaking, inhibited the desire to speak, and then directed his “head to go forward and up and his back to lengthen and widen,” rather than trying to go straight to the activity, he had space to make a fresh choice about whether to proceed. If he chose to proceed, he could continue projecting the directions for the new use while carrying out his activity. Finally, he could override the old pattern and carry forth the new use into his activity!
Soon, Alexander’s voice returned to normal, and the course of his life changed. He was able to quit his office job and perform professionally. Colleagues began asking him for help and, at first, he primarily taught clergymen and actors. He was known as the “breathing man.” Doctors noticed the improvements in F.M’s students and began sending him referrals. As demand for his teaching grew, he asked his brother, A.R. Alexander, to become his business partner. When F.M. moved from Melbourne to Sydney, A.R. stayed behind and continued to teach the work there. F.M. moved to London in 1904, where his teaching practice took off and he and began publishing pamphlets and articles about his Technique. He and A.R. visited the United States for the first time in 1914, and A.R. moved there permanently in 1933 after his wife died. F.M. settled in London but traveled to the US regularly. He continued to teach and publicize his Technique, and began a three-year teacher training course in 1931. He died in 1955. Notable students of F.M. Alexander include John Dewey, Aldous Huxley, Sir Charles Sherrington, Moshe Feldenkrais, and George Bernard Shaw. Today, the Technique is widely used by performing artists and everyday people seeking greater ease and clarity in their work and life.
Alexander wrote many letters, informational pamphlets, and four books: (1) Man’s Supreme Inheritance, published in 1910 and 1918 (2) Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual,1923 and 1955, (3) The Use of the Self, published in 1932 and 1946, considered to be the shortest and easiest to read and (4) The Universal Constant in Living in 1941. Alexander’s writing can be challenging to read, especially at first. The language is old-fashioned, contains very long sentences, and his tone can come across as judgmental or negative to a modern reader. However, it’s important to remember that his writing was situated in a different cultural context and place—he lived through World War II and was a contemporary of Freud, Jung, and Dewey. Further, Alexander’s discovery is a bit challenging to put into words due to its kinesthetic and cognitive components. I’ve found that it’s helpful to bring a sense of lightness and fun to reading Alexander’s work. I enjoy imagining his strong personality, persistence, and the dramatic flair with which he would have spoken of “Evolution of a Technique”—after all, he was an actor. With a bit of imagination and patience, his words come to life.