Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955)
Born and brought up in the countryside on the northwest coast of Tasmania, he had an unusual childhood as it was found that although bright he proved to be a difficult pupil in class as he repeatedly insisted on asking the teacher the question “How do you know that?” Fortunately the teacher recognised his intelligence and agreed to teach him privately.
Alexander left school at 16 and was successful at a number of jobs. His main interest, however, was acting. By the age of 20 he was in Melbourne and developing his acting skills. His attempts to succeed as an actor were hampered by a dismaying tendency to lose his voice when performing. Doctors were unable to help him so he resolved to find out what he was doing whilst reciting that might cause his trouble. By carefully observing the way he started to speak he discovered that we are rarely aware of exactly what we are doing when we initiate actions. By redirecting his thinking and his response to any stimulus to act he found that he eventually could master his tendency to overtense himself which had led to his voice loss. On his successful return to acting it was a short time before singers and actors (and clergymen!) were seeking instruction from him on how to modify and resolve their own body tensions, postural habits and voice problems.
Alexander continued to develop his technique throughout his lifetime. He became successful in helping people to learn how to redirect their own awareness and responses so that they could overcome a multitude of muskulo-skeletal and psychological problems by themselves. Back-pain, neck-ache, headache, breathing problems and all manner of debilitating health problems were able to be relieved by people learning his technique.
He emigrated to the U.K. in 1904 and lived the rest of his life in London and for some periods in America.
Doctors and other medical men were among Alexander’s most enthusiastic supporters. They realised that a course of lessons from Alexander could transform patients from being sick, “lifeless” and in pain to being well, full of positive energy and pain-free.
The doctors took lessons themselves and on a number of occasions they made attempts to get Alexander’s technique to be included in medical training. Unfortunately each time (e.g. the letter sent to the B.M.A. by 19 doctors in 1937) attempts to introduce this most common sense technique failed because national emergencies diverted attention.
In the world of the performing arts Alexander was more successful. Many famous actors, writers and musicians came for lessons… Irving, Tree, Shaw, Woolf were among the famous people of those days.
The trend continues with McCartney, Lulu, Sting, Paul Newman, Mary Steenbergen, Kenneth Branagh, John Cleese and a host of other well-known performers benefiting from lessons today. In the United Kingdom the Alexander Technique is now firmly established in all the main music Academies and is also taught in many top acting schools, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Globe Theatre both have their residential Alexander teachers. Similar developments have occurred in the United States and in Australia. In the philosophical and scientific world the technique has also found supporters. John Dewey, the American educationalist and philosopher wrote 3 introductions to Alexander’s books, Aldous Huxley was a long time pupil, friend and proselytiser, Archbishop Temple the archbishop of Canterbury had lessons; Professor Raymond Dart, anatomist and anthropologist and discoverer of “the missing link” wrote papers encouraging his colleagues and contemporaries to have lessons, Professor Nikolaas Tinbergen, Nobel prizewinner for physiology and medicine devoted half his Nobel oration to extolling the virtues of Alexander Technique. Not least Sir Charles Sherrington, “the father of Neurology”, met Alexander and wrote approvingly of Alexander’s discoveries.
In business Alexander also found support. Joseph Rowntree, J.B. Duke and other “captains of industry” both in the U.K. in the U.S.A. and in South Africa were supporters. And again in recent times the technique has been introduced into many business settings around the world. It is employed as a way of helping workers enjoy maximum health and prevent difficulties arising in the office from “slipped discs” to Repetition Strain Injuries, bad backs and general tension.
Alexander established a training school to train teachers of his method in 1931.
There are now training schools on every continent in the world and around 2500 teachers worldwide. Alexander wrote four books describing his discoveries. These books are still in print today and new books continue to arrive describing how the Alexander Technique can be applied to life – for example the “Art of..” series including the Alexander Technique and the “Art of Swimming”, or the “Art of Running”, then there are books on childbirth and the Technique, or the Alexander Technique for musicians – this, an excellent in-depth account for anyone interested to find out what this unique method is really all about*. Magazine articles and newspaper reports continue to be written wherever Alexander Teachers bring their work. As the Technique is very much a one-to-one experience, rather than a group experience, it takes time for the work to spread.
The Alexander teaching community, which is now worldwide, holds International Congresses every 4 years or so. In August 2004 the Congress was in Oxford, England and over 700 delegates attended from all over the world to hear experts in neurology and other sciences give credence and support for the beneficial work of F.M. Alexander. In 2015 the Congress was held in Limerick, Ireland where Robin was part of the Continuous Learning Programme. In 2018 at the Congress in Chicago, USA, Robin gave a very well received presentation in the Continuous Learning Programme on The Evolutionary Procedures of Professor Dart. The next Congress will be held in Berlin in 2021.
* “The Alexander Technique for Musicians” – Pedro de Alcantara
© Robin John Simmons, 2017