Alexander Technique (idea)
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|What is the Alexander Technique?
How was it invented?
The Alexander Technique was invented during the latter part of the nineteenth century by an Australian actor, F. Matthias Alexander. Alexander specialized in reciting Shakespearean monologues. As time went by, he had more and more trouble with his voice. He suffered from chronic hoarseness, sometimes losing his voice altogether. This, needless to say, put a halt to his career. Alexander sought help from doctors and from voice coaches for his condition, but they could neither explain it nor recommend a cure.
At his wits' end, Alexander hypothesized that perhaps he was losing his voice because of something he was doing while reciting. To see whether this was true, Alexander watched himself closely in a mirror as he recited. Over a period of several months, he became skilled at observing his own speaking habits. He noticed that when he recited, he would contract the back of his neck slightly when he inhaled. This would tilt his nose upwards, thrust his chin forwards, tense his throat, cause him to gasp, and ultimately put undue stress on his vocal cords.
The more Alexander watched himself, the more he discovered that he had bad habits throughout his body, not just in his head and neck. All of these bad habits centered around tension.
Through trial and error, Alexander discovered techniques that changed these habits for the better. Not only did these techniques cure his voice problems, his posture also improved and he was freer in his body as a result of being able to relax muscles that he had been holding habitually and unconsciously tense.
Alexander eventually taught these habit-changing techniques to others. Collectively, they became known as the "Alexander Technique."
Who practices the Alexander Technique?
Actors are often taught the Alexander Technique in their formal training. The Juilliard School has made the Technique part of their standard curriculum. Kevin Kline, John Cleese, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Sir Henry Irving, and many others have all studied the Alexander Technique.
Singers and musicians benefit from the Alexander Technique as well. The Royal College of Music in London teaches it. Famous musicians that have studied the Alexander Technique include Yehudi Menuhin, James Galway, Sting, and Paul McCartney.
Those who suffer from tension or poor posture in their neck, shoulders, or back will find the Alexander Technique beneficial. Also, many people with back injuries find that the Alexander Technique can reduce or eliminate the suffering caused by muscle spasms.
What is it like?
My Alexander sessions lasted for thirty minutes apiece. In each session, I spent fifteen minutes lying on my back on a firm surface (like a carpeted floor) with my knees up, my hands on my belly, and my head resting comfortably on a book. As I laid there, I would give myself the following silent directions:
Let my neck be free
"Forward and up" is Alexander-speak for a particular orientation of the head that is difficult to describe. If you take a course in the Alexander Technique, your instructor will show you what this means. Briefly, think of a rod entering one ear, going all the way through your head, and exiting out the other ear. Now imagine the muscles at the back of your neck releasing their tension. Your head rotates around this rod, your forehead comes forwards, and the crown of your head comes up. That's approximately what "forward and up" means here.
I didn't do anything while lying there, other than thinking the above directions to myself. In fact, you don't "do" anything at all with the Alexander Technique. The point is to release tension, so anything you "do" is counterproductive. Instead, you sharpen your awareness of your habitual tension, you consciously inhibit these habits and you affirm better behavior instead. My instructor used her hands to locate tension in my body and gave me feedback on what was going on in my body below my level of perception. One of the goals of the Alexander Technique is to sharpen your perceptivity to the point where you yourself can know where you are tense without having to depend on an instructor to tell you.
If you like, you can try the above exercise yourself without an instructor. Memorize the directions, find a book of the right thickness to be comfortable under your head, and lie down on a carpeted floor with your knees bent. Set a timer for fifteen or twenty minutes, then repeat the directions to yourself while lying there. Notice how your body feels, what parts of your back are touching the floor, where tension is, and so on.
I find that while I am lying on the floor, my body undergoes surprising changes during the fifteen minutes. As my back slowly relaxes itself, different parts of my back end up touching the floor. The arch of my back slowly lowers itself until my whole back touches the floor. When I finally rise, I look and feel taller and more graceful.
The other fifteen minutes of my sessions with my Alexander teacher had me doing activities I do every day, like standing, sitting, walking, carrying a bag in one hand, and so on. My teacher gave me feedback on what was going on in my body, and gave me directions on how to reduce unnecessary tension.
My fiancee took lessons in the Alexander Technique along with me. She sings opera and lieder. I have never heard anything that improved her voice as much as the Alexander Technique did. At the end of our Alexander sessions, her singing would be rich, vibrant, relaxed, controlled, and penetrating. She also would be standing about an inch taller than she usually does, with every trace of slump gone, but perfectly relaxed, not rigid at all.
Leibowitz, Judith & Connington, Bill, The Alexander Technique. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.