Who Was Alexander?
by Robert Rickover
Who was Frederick Matthias Alexander and how did he discover the principles and develop the procedures which we now call the Alexander Technique?
The standard answer to this question paints a picture of a man working entirely on his own with a heroic determination to find a solution to his vocal problems. One can imagine him spending countless hours over a period of many years with his ever-growing collection of mirrors, seeking a way out of his dilemma. Then, when he achieves personal success, he finds he has gained both a new understanding of human functioning and the ability to help others.
As his teaching experience grows, he refines his skills and develops a number of procedures which he incorporates into his practice. Eventually, he is persuaded to train others to carry on his work.
During the past few years a great deal of new information has been uncovered about the development of Alexander's ideas and his teaching.(1) This material paints quite a different picture - one that looks something like this:
After two or three years during which Alexander spent part of his time engaged in self-examination and self-experimentation, he began to teach others. From the very start, he was alert to other methods of self-improvement in vogue at the time.
For a time, around the turn of the century, he taught the Delsarte system of speech, movement and gesture.(2) This system, named after its founder Francois Delsarte, taught the systematic use of the connection between mental attitudes and posture. Delsarte believed that his system was based upon natural laws which govern the use of the body.
In Alexander's promotional material at that time he alluded to other new methods which he had introduced to Australia. By 1900 - four years before going to England - he had already certified at least one teacher of his methods, Miss Lilian Twycross.(2)
Over time, he incorporated procedures taken from the work of others into his teaching practice. Among these are most of what we now think of as the standard Alexander Technique procedures: whispered ah, monkey, table work and hands on back of the chair.
"Is any of this relevant for us today?" you might ask. I believe the answer is yes.
Knowledge of this history can help us to release the separateness and aloofness which characterises the attitude of many in our profession. As a group, we tend to think and speak of the Alexander Technique as not only different, but somehow innately superior to other methods and procedures of self-improvement.
This has done us a great deal of harm. Rodney Mace, of the Sir Robert Menzies Centre for Australian Studies at the University of London, points to the failure of the Alexander teaching profession to consider the origins of Alexander's ideas and how they connect to and draw upon the work and ideas of his contemporaries. This, he comments, coupled with an insistence by some that Alexander's ideas are immutable, has inevitably led the Technique to be marginalised in mainstream health care and education.3 Alexander claimed his ideas were about change, yet resisted to the end any challenge by others to the supremacy of his ideas - a bad habit that has been inherited by many of his followers.
The truth is that many investigators other than Alexander have gained valuable insights into human functioning and have developed effective methods and procedures of their own. We would do well to investigate these with an open mind. We may even want to incorporate some of them into our own teaching - just as Alexander did.
Personally, I have made significant improvements in my use and functioning as a result of my experiences with the Feldenkrais Method, the Tomatis Method, acupuncture and acupressure. Cranial Sacral therapy has taught me more about freeing my neck than years of Alexander training. Others I know have benefited enormously from such widely diverse methods as chiropractic, massage, physical therapy, yoga, Tai Chi, Rolfing and Trager work.
There can be no doubt that Alexander was a creative genius. He made some very important discoveries on his own and he was smart enough to learn from the work of others. But as is the case with so many other geniuses, he had a number of serious character flaws, not the least of which was his unwillingness to acknowledge the debt he owed to others.
His discoveries will have a far greater impact when we finally have the courage to liberate ourselves from false ideas about what Alexander did and what he did not do.
1. See Alexander, FM, Articles and Lectures by F. Matthias Alexander; Mouritz: London (l995) and Staring, Jeroen, The First 43 Years of the Life of F. Matthias Alexander, Volumes I and II; available from author at Schoolstraat 126, 6512 JJ Nijmegen, The Netherlands
2. Information about Alexander's Delsarte teaching and his certification of Lilian Twycross can be found in Articles and Lectures. Information about the dates of Alexander's early teaching can be found in all three volumes.
3. Staring, J. Op. cit. Volume II., p.vii. Information about Alexander's appropriation of others' procedures can be found in Staring's books.
Click here to Return to Alexander Technique Student and Teacher Resources
Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique