Created by F. Matthias Alexander, this is a method of increasing self awareness in order to alleviate pain caused by everyday tendencies.

Alexander Technique in a Nutshell:

Observe your own movement and the movements of others. Notice how some people tend to hold their bodies in uncomfortable positions as they move and work. Seek to eliminate any tendencies to compress your spine, neck, or limbs. If you apply force for any reason, use the least amount necessary to do the job.

Think about your fingers as you type. Do you really need to press the keys as hard as you do? Sit up straight in your chair, and when standing, allow your head to float up to it's natural position at the top of your spine. Always stand and move with a regal posture, as a child does who is first learning to walk.

If you are interested in the Alexandar Technique, there are many books and teachers who could guide you.

What is the Alexander Technique?

The Alexander Technique is a method for improving your posture and voice. It does this by helping you detect and remove unnecessary habitual muscular tension in your body.

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.

Anyone who dances, engages in a sport, martial art, or other physical activity will find that the Alexander Technique is a useful tool for improving their performance.

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
To let my head come forward and up
To let my shoulders expand
To let my back lengthen and widen
And let my legs release away from my body

"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.

Alexander Technique for Musicians (& All Performers):

The primary focus of the Alexander Technique seems to be, quite simply, the practice of separating your mind from your actions, examining the sub-conscious patterns of movement and behavior one has developed, and striving to re-engineer the body’s actions accordingly, to achieve minimal effort and maximum efficiency. Essentially, one is encouraged to focus on doing nothing. The further you can distance yourself from your body’s habitual movements and responses, the more streamlined your re-designed actions will be, and the less they will tax your energy and health. It is stressed that everything in the body is interdependent—that the form of your hand is in part due to the positioning of your shoulders, or that the way in which you rest your head has a direct effect on your breathing. This concept is fundamental to the Alexander Technique—fundamental to everyone regardless if they practice the technique—because it is undeniably true. As humans, we tend to overcomplicate our actions – give them more importance and meaning than they warrant. The technique stresses that our movement is simpler than we allow it to be, and if one would only ‘do nothing’, they would reap the benefits of a more relaxed, more natural body and mind.

In practicing and performing music, we have just as many, if not more habitual movements and responses than in our everyday lives. We have tension and movement that is a reflection of our stress; tension that is a result of bad practicing at a younger age, and the bad habits that resulted from it; our bodies programmed movements often serve to hinder the process of music-making, leaving us tired, even more stressed, and ultimately unaware. The Alexander Technique can be used to analyze one's playing, and extract the unnecessary movements from one's musical technique, to allow room for more relaxed, natural, and efficient movement and thought. The technique can also help with pre-performance anxiety, where the player could simply relax, and focus on his internal ‘rhythm’ – another concept of the technique—and by detaching his body from its preconceptions of performance, allow his fingers to move naturally in time, not to mention allowing his lungs to more completely fill with air and support the instrument’s tone, as well as all the other interdependent components of his body engaged in the performance. This technique has universal application to all aspects of life, but its effect could seemingly be much more perceivable to the musician and his/her performance.

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