How the Alexander Technique Began

Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955) was a Shakespearean actor plagued by chronic hoarseness. While on stage before an audience, he sometimes lost his voice completely. Doctorsâ treatments failed to correct the problem, and he began to look at what he was doing to provoke his own vocal troubles. He set up a three-way mirror to observe himself, and noticed that every time he began to speak, he tightened the muscles of his neck, lifted his chin and tilted his head back and down. The resulting pressure on the spine restricted his breathing and shortened his stature.

Changing this habit proved surprisingly difficult. Many hours of experiment revealed that if he simply stopped tightening his neck, that was far more useful than trying to do what he thought was correct. His whole concept of rightness was unreliable, based as it was on years of faulty habits. Alexander discovered that deliberate muscular work was not as effective as envisioning an activity, what he called "directing."

Alexander also found that if he was too concerned with his goal, his over-anxiety to perform well interfered with his ability to do so. He was trying too hard. When he focused on the process rather than the goal, his over-activity lessened. His voice and body worked much more easily, becoming the expressive tool he yearned for. He found that he could do more by doing less.

Through a nine-year odyssey of self-observation and experimentation, Alexander discovered how to restore his voice and enrich his stage presence. He became known for his mellifluous voice. As he taught his method to those who sought him out, he found it also resolved a wide range of physical symptoms, such as back problems, breathing disorders, chronic pain and stage fright.

As Alexander's students learned to use his Technique, their overall health improved. He continued to teach in England and the United States until his death in l955 at the age of 86.

Among those who have studied the Alexander Technique are Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Paul McCartney, Robin Williams, Kevin Kline, James Earl Jones, Sting, Mary Steenburgen, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Today there are about 2500 Alexander Technique teachers throughout the world, with about 700 in the United States.

Alexander's great discovery was this: An easy relationship between the head and the spine gives us access to a kind of elegant power steering in the body. Rather than thinking of individual muscles or joints, we can capitalize on the body's capacity to work as a whole. Managing the head/neck relationship helps us to streamline movement and simplify coordination, bringing a new freedom and richness to everything we do.

© 1997 Joan Arnold (

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