The Alexander Technique Story

The Problem

Frederick Matthias Alexander was born in the remote north-west of Tasmania in 1869. His education at the hands of an understanding and intelligent village schoolmaster who recognised Alexander's potential, left him with a passion for Shakespeare which fired his desire to become an actor. At seventeen he left home to work as book-keeper in a mining project, and after accumulating enough funds moved to Melbourne to study acting, elocution and the violin. Unfortunately, after a while he began to suffer from recurring hoarseness and loss of voice to the extent that it threatened what looked like being a very promising career. (From birth Alexander had suffered from respiratory and nasal difficulties). His doctors and advisers could find nothing organically wrong with him, but neither were they able to solve his problem. So he decided to find out for himself what was wrong.

The Solution

In his spare time, between earning a living and studying, he set out on an epic journey of self-observation that resulted in the discoveries that form the basis of what we now know as the Alexander Technique. With infinite patience he gradually got to the heart of the matter, realising that his difficulties were in fact the outcome of his overall patterns of behaviour. He solved his vocal problems, and his overall health, which had always been very delicate, improved at the same time. In about 1894 he started to take pupils, and for his mastery of vocal and breath control became known as “the breathing man”. After a while medical doctors became interested in his work and would send him their patients with asthma, bronchitis and other conditions. The most influential of these, W. J. Stewart McKay, of international reputation, finally convinced Alexander to go to London to disseminate his Technique. He arrived in London in 1904, aged thirty-five, armed with letters of introduction to many eminent medical men.

The Achievement

Alexander made an instant impression on these and other important people, including almost all of the most famous actors of the day. (Today, also, many of the household names in acting utilise the Technique). This was the start of a success story that went from strength to strength as the profound benefits of his Technique became more widely known. For fifty-one years after his arrival in England he worked tirelessly to spread his ideas and practice. He wrote four books on his work, and in 1931 started a teacher-training course to ensure the continuation of the Technique. He died in 1955. Up to within two weeks of his death, in his eighty-seventh year, he was still teaching eight lessons a day.

The Technique must be learned on a one-to-one basis, so Alexander knew there could never be a mass input into society as a whole. He did hope, however, that enlightened people might introduce his Technique into the schools, and that the medical profession would incorporate it into their training. In fact, nineteen eminent doctors wrote to the British Medical Journal advocating just that. His work had a profound influence on key figures of the twentieth century, as many of them have testified. George Bernard Shaw and Aldous Huxley took lessons with him. Sir Charles Sherrington, father of modern neurology, approved of Alexander's work, and paid tribute to him in one of his books. John Dewey, American philosopher and educationist, was his pupil, endorsed his ideas in his writings, and wrote introductions to two of Alexander's books. Professor George Coghill, pioneer of neurological research into the development of animal behaviour, recognised that Alexander had discovered the self-same things, but in the living human being, and also wrote a preface to Alexander's last book. Raymond Dart, anatomist, anthropologist, Nobel prize winner, likewise a student of the Technique, evolved his theories in the light of the insights he had gained, and wrote three seminal articles on the subject. Nikolaas Tinbergen, one of the founders of the science of ethology (the study of animal behaviour in the wild) chose to dedicate half his Nobel Prize acceptance speech to what he saw as the vital importance of Alexander's work for contemporary society.

It is of course Alexander's practical achievement that matters to us, not theoretical endorsements, and it is significant that the eminent scientists who have recognised and supported Alexander's Technique have done so because of their practical acquaintance with the work. It is nevertheless comforting to have the solid backing of science behind the Technique. Recently, in 1999, Professor T. D. M. Roberts, physiologist, specialist in balance, locomotion and movement in animals and humans, wrote in an introduction to a book on the Alexander Technique that he found there was nothing in the Technique out of line with contemporary neurophysiology. Not bad for the work of an amateur, a young man with no previous knowledge of his subject, simply observing himself with the aid of mirrors, well over a century ago!