As a young man, Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869—1955) was busy establishing a career as a professional reciter in the theatres of Australia. However, during the period in which he began to receive critical acclaim, he developed a vocal problem that left him with recurrent hoarseness. Doctors were unable to help him and could find no underlying cause. Realising that he only lost his voice after being on stage, Alexander deduced that the problem must stem from something he was doing himself. He then embarked on what turned out to be a lifetime’s experiment, in which he developed a unique educational Technique, with profound implications for the health and well-being of those who have subsequently chosen to take it up for themselves.
The story of the development of the Technique is quite extraordinary. Having decided that the root of the voice problem lay in what he was doing, Alexander then spent many years using mirrors to observe himself when speaking normally and reciting. He discovered certain set patterns, particularly in the way he used his head and neck, which came into play as soon as he started to recite. In fact, this characteristic way of speaking was actually compressing his vocal chords, hence the hoarseness and loss of voice. Since he now knew that what he was doing was wrong, he then decided that doing opposite might solve the problem but soon found that this met with equal failure. Rather than giving up at this stage he persevered and eventually discovered that what he was thinking was crucial and that what was really needed was to stop doing what was wrong. Indeed it was the idea of speaking that sent him immediately into his habits so he learnt to not respond to this stimulus. By preventing the wrong thing from happening, and thinking (not doing) thoughts that would create the best conditions for balance and coordinated activity, he was able to allow the right thing to ‘do itself’. He had discovered that, together, the subconscious mind and the body are perfectly capable of carrying out activities in the most effective way — if only we can prevent the usual habits that interfere with the efficient working of ourselves.
Having solved his own voice problems, Alexander began to help others with similar difficulties. He discovered that the principles he had worked out for himself applied universally and the benefits of his method extended to the whole self and not just to the voice. In 1904 Alexander moved to Britain, where he was to spend the rest of his life, with the exception of some periods in the USA. His reputation soon spread and many notable public figures featured among his clients and his advocates. Prof. John Dewey (American educationalist), Sir Stafford Cripps (Chancellor of the Exchequer), Sir Charles Sherrington (Nobel prize winner in medicine), Sir Joseph Rowntree (Industrialist and philanthropist), and the authors George Bernard Shaw and Aldous Huxley were among his keenest supporters.
In the 1930s Alexander began training others to carry on his teaching and continued to do so, as well as giving private lessons, until his death in 1955. In 1958 a professional association was set up to govern and regulate teachers in the UK, to ensure the continued high standard of training and teaching that FM Alexander would have expected.
Photographs of FM Alexander © 2005, The Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique, London.