A Synopsis of “Evolution of a Technique”

By Catherine Kettrick, Ph.D.

F.M. Alexander was, of course, the first person to use the Alexander Technique. He did not use it when he began his lengthy investigation into the causes of his vocal problems however, because it was from the hypotheses he made, and the experiments he did to test his hypotheses that he gradually developed his technique. Indeed, his understanding of what his problem was and what he should do to solve it changed dramatically from the beginning to the end of his investigation. The following is a synopsis of his investigations as he describes them in the first chapter of The Use of the Self.

The Stages of His Investigation

Stage One (The Beginning of Primary Control)

Before he began his investigation, Alexander had made two observations: (1) He only lost his voice when he performed, not when he was speaking in everyday conversation, and (2) his voice improved when he rested it, and had medical attention.

Because he only lost his voice when he performed, he reasonably believed that he was doing something different during performance. He set up a mirror to observe himself while he spoke, and while he performed. At first, and although he observed himself many times, he couldn’t notice anything wrong or unnatural about his ordinary speaking. But when he observed himself performing, he very soon noticed three things he was doing. As soon as he started to recite, he “…tended to pull back the head, depress the larynx and suck in breath through the mouth in such a way as to produce a gasping sound.” (p. 9. All quotations are from The Use of the Self ).

When he then went back to observe himself in everyday speaking, he noticed the same three tendencies, though in a lesser degree. Thus his first hypothesis, that he was doing something different while reciting, was wrong. He was doing the same thing, only less of it. Nonetheless, he felt that this difference in degree might explain why he had vocal trouble only while reciting, and he was encouraged to go on.

At this point Alexander believed that his problem only involved misusing certain parts of himself, those parts associated with using his voice. In fact he thought he had found the “root of the trouble,” and attempted to prevent or change how he used these parts. However, he didn’t know where to begin. He couldn’t tell if sucking in breath caused him to pull back his head and depress his larynx, or if pulling back his head caused him to depress his larynx and suck in breadth, or if depressing his larynx caused him to suck in breath and pull back his head! However, after months of experimenting, he found that when he “…succeeded in preventing the pulling back of the head, this tended indirectly to check the sucking in of breath and the depressing of the larynx.” This discovery, he writes, “marked the first important stage of my investigation…for through it I was led on to the further discovery of the primary control of the working of all the mechanisms of the human organism….” (p. 11)

Stage Two (Use Affects Functioning)

He also discovered in Stage One “A further result…that with the prevention of the misuse of these parts, I tended to become less hoarse while reciting, and that as I gradually gained experience in this prevention, my liability to hoarseness tended to decrease.” (p. 11) This discovery led him to realize that “…the changes in use that I had been able to bring about by preventing the three harmful tendencies I had detected in myself had produced a marked effect upon the functioning of my vocal and respiratory mechanisms. This conclusion…marked the second important stage in my investigations, for the practical experience in this specific instance brought me to realize for the first time the close connection that exists between use and functioning.” (p. 12)

Stage Three (More Than Vocal Parts are Involved)

Since he found that preventing himself from putting his head back improved his vocal functioning, he attempted the next logical experiment, namely to “…put my head definitely forward, further forward, in fact, that I felt was the right thing to do.” Unfortunately he went too far and found that “…beyond a certain point I tended to pull [my head] down as well as forward, and…the effect of this upon my vocal and respiratory organs was much the same as when I pulled my head back and down.” (p. 12) In both cases he depressed his larynx the same way.

He was by now convinced that he must stop depressing his larynx if he wanted his voice to become normal, so he spent a long time doing various experiments to find a way to use his head and neck which did not depress his larynx. He finally “…came to notice that any use of my head and neck which was associated with a depressing of the larynx was also associated with a tendency to lift the chest and shorten the stature.” This discovery was one of “far-reaching implications” and “…it marked a turning-point in [his] investigations” because contrary to what he had first assumed, misusing his vocal organs was not “…merely a misuse of the specific parts concerned, but one that was inseparably bound up with a misuse of other mechanisms which involved the act of shortening the stature.” (p. 13)

Stage Four (Primary Control Revised)

He now had to prevent the misuse of his head and neck, and “…also prevent those other associated wrong uses which brought about the shortening of the stature.” Once again he began experimenting. He would try to “prevent the shortening of the stature” or try “actually to lengthen it, noting the results in each case….” observing what effect each had upon his voice. He discovered that the best results were associated with a lengthening of the stature. Unfortunately, he shortened far more than he lengthened, “due to my tendency to pull my head down as I tried to put it forward in order to lengthen.” He continued to experiment, and found that to “..maintain a lengthening of the stature I must put my head forward and up.” He writes that “…this proved to be the primary control of my use in all my activities. (p. 14)

Stage Five (The Beginnings of Means-Whereby)

He next attempted to put his “…head forward and up while reciting…[but] noticed [his] old tendency to lift the chest increased, and that with this went a tendency to increase the arch of the spine and thus bring about what…[he later called]…a narrowing of the back.” Because, he writes, this narrowing had “…an adverse effect on the shape and functioning of the torso…I therefore concluded that to maintain a lengthening it was not sufficient to put my head forward and up, but that I must put it forward and up in such a way that I prevented the lifting of the chest and simultaneously brought about a widening of the back.” ( pp. 14-15)

Stage Six (The First Universal Delusion)

His next step in his vocal work was to try to prevent himself from pulling his head back and down and lifting his chest, while at the same time trying to put his head forward and up and widen his back. He was confident he could do so, but he found that “…although I was now able to put the head forward and up and widen the back as acts in themselves, I could not maintain these conditions in speaking or reciting.” (p. 15)

When he began his investigations, he had used a mirror to observe himself. At some point he stopped using the mirror, but because he was now “suspicious that I was not doing what I thought I was doing” he began to use the mirror again, and later “…took into use two additional mirrors, one on each side of the central one….” With the aid of the mirrors, he saw “…startling proof that I was doing the opposite of what I believed I was doing and of what I had decided I ought to do….[because]…at the critical moment when I tried to combine the prevention of shortening with a positive attempt to maintain a lengthening and speak at the same time, I did not put my head forward and up as I intended, but actually put it back.”
(p. 15)

Alexander had not realized that in this new experiment “…which brought into play a new use of certain parts and involved sensory experiences that were totally unfamiliar,…[he]…should need the help of the mirror more than ever.” He believed that he “…should be able to put into practice any idea [he] thought desirable.” He initially thought that only he suffered from this fault, but later in his teaching career realized he was not alone, that he “…was indeed suffering from a delusion that is practically universal, the delusion that because we are able to do what we “will to do” in acts that are habitual and involve familiar sensory experiences, we shall be equally successful in doing what we “will to do” in acts which are contrary to our habit and therefore involve sensory experiences that are unfamiliar.” (p. 16)

Stage Seven (Even More Parts)

At this point, Alexander realized that he would have to reconsider his situation. He had found what he thought was causing his trouble, and thought he knew what he should do instead, but when he tried to do it, he failed. His next step he writes was “..to find out at what point in my “doing” I had gone wrong.” (p. 17)

He “…practiced patiently month after month…with varying experiences of success and failure…” In time he came to see that “…any attempt to maintain my lengthening when reciting…involved…” 1) preventing the wrong use of specific parts; 2) substituting a better use of those parts and 3) “…bringing into play the use of all those parts of the organism required for the activities incident to the act of reciting, such as standing, walking, using the arms or hands for gesture, interpretation, etc.” (p. 17)

Stage Eight (The Second Universal Delusion)

Alexander observed in the mirror that he was using “..these other parts in certain wrong ways which synchronized with my wrong way of using my head and neck, larynx, vocal and breathing organs, and which involved a condition of undue muscle tension throughout my organism.” He noted that this tension “…affected particularly the use of my legs, feet and toes….” (p. 17) When he sought to discover the reasons for this, he realized that he had been instructed, as a way of improving his dramatic expression, to take hold of the floor with his feet. His teacher had demonstrated what he meant, and Alexander had done his best to copy him, believing, he writes, “…that if I was told what to do to correct something that was wrong, I should be able to do it and all would be well.” He calls this belief a delusion, writing, “The belief is very generally held that if only we are told what to do in order to correct a wrong way of doing something, we can do it, and that if we feel we are doing it, all is well. All my experience, however, goes to show that this belief is a delusion.” (p. 18)

Stage Nine (Habitual Use–It’s More Than Misused Parts)

He next “…continued with the aid of mirrors to observe the use of myself more carefully than ever….” and made several important discoveries. First, he realized that what he was doing with his legs, feet and toes when reciting exerted “a most harmful general influence upon the use of myself throughout my organism….” Second, this harmful general influence “involved an abnormal amount of muscle tension and was indirectly associated with my throat trouble.” Third, the wrong way he was using his legs, feet and toes was the same wrong way he was using himself when he pulled his head back, sucked in air, and depressed his larynx to recite. Fourth, and very importantly, “…this wrong way of using myself constituted a combined wrong use of the whole of my physical-mental mechanisms.” Finally, and most importantly, he “…realized that this was the use which I habitually brought into play for all my activities, that it was…the “habitual use” of myself, and…any …stimulus to activity would inevitably cause this habitual wrong use to come into play and dominate any attempt I might be making to employ a better use of myself ….” (p. 19)

Stage Ten (Cultivated Habitual Use)

Alexander knew that the influence of this wrong use was strong because it was habitual, but he also now realized it was “greatly strengthened” because of all his attempts to do what his teacher had instructed him to do in taking hold of the floor with his feet. He writes, “The influence of this cultivated habitual use…acted as an almost irresistible stimulus to me to use myself in the wrong way I was accustomed to….” And because “…this stimulus to general wrong use was far stronger than the stimulus of my desire to employ the new use of my head and neck…” Alexander believed that “…it was this influence which led me, as soon as I stood up to recite, to put my head in the opposite direction to that which I desired.” He concludes that he “…now had proof of one thing at least, that all my efforts up till now to improve the use of myself in reciting had been misdirected.” (p. 19)

Stage Eleven (Beginning to Explore Direction)

Alexander had started out thinking he only had something wrong with particular parts of him; through much experimentation he discovered that these ‘wrong parts’ included his entire body down to his toes. He then realized that what he was doing was not just a matter of all his physical parts, but was a wrong way of using “the whole of my physical-mental mechanisms.” Furthermore, this wrong way of using himself was habitual, and because he had actually cultivated this wrong use, it was an even stronger influence than it might have been. It was, to him, “an almost irresistible stimulus” to use himself in the wrong way he was used to. What was he to do now? How could he resist an “almost irresistible stimulus?”

What he did next was consider how it was that he actually directed himself. He had never thought about it before, and he realized that he “…used myself habitually in the way that felt natural to me….like everyone else [I] depended upon “feeling” for the direction of my use.” Unfortunately, he had shown with his experiments that when he felt he was doing what he intended to to, he was actually doing the opposite, “…proving that the “feeling” associated with this direction of my use was untrustworthy.” (p. 21)

Stage Twelve (Trustworthy Feeling?)

Alexander was now at an impasse. At this point he believed that his feeling was “…the only guide I had to depend upon for the direction of my use…” and he had shown beyond a doubt that that feeling was “untrustworthy.” Although discouraged, he realized that what he had learned so far “…implied the possibility of the opening up of an entirely new field of enquiry…” for he argued that “if it is possible for feeling to become untrustworthy as a means of direction, it should also be possible to make it trustworthy again.” (p. 21)

Stage Thirteen (Unreasoned, Instinctive Direction)

Alexander initially thought that the problem of untrustworthy feeling was unique to him, because of his history of ill health. However, when he tested other people to see if they were doing what they thought they were doing, he realized that “…the feeling by which they directed the use of themselves was also untrustworthy….” (p. 21) Indeed he realized that how people directed their use “…through being based on feeling, was as unreasoned and instinctive as that of the animal.” (p. 22)

Stage Fourteen (The Menace of Civilization)

Alexander also believed that “…the present state of civilization…calls for continuous and rapid adaptation to a quickly changing environment…[and that]…the unreasoned, instinctive direction of use such as meets the needs of the cat or dog was no longer sufficient to meet human needs.” Somehow, in the process of civilization, “…instinctive control and direction of use had become so unsatisfactory, and the associated feeling so untrustworthy as a guide, that it could lead us to do the very opposite of what we wished to do or thought we were doing.” Clearly if we continue on this path, “…this untrustworthiness of feeling…[would] become more and more a universal menace…[thus making]…a knowledge of the means whereby trustworthiness could be restored to feeling…invaluable.” (pp. 23-24)

Stage Fifteen (A Reconsideration)

Alexander now believed that searching for the “knowledge of the means whereby trustworthiness could be restored to feeling” would “open out an entirely new field of exploration….” He decided to reconsider his own difficulties with this new idea in mind. He began by reviewing three particularly important points:

(1) that the pulling of my head back and down, when I felt that I was putting it forward and up, was proof that the use of the specific parts concerned was being misdirected, and that this misdirection was associated with untrustworthy feeling;
(2) that this misdirection was instinctive, and, together with the associated untrustworthy feeling, was part and parcel of my habitual use of myself;
(3) that this instinctive misdirection leading to wrong habitual use of myself, including most noticeably the wrong use of my head and neck, came into play as the result of a decision to use my voice; this misdirection, in other words, was my instinctive response (reaction) to the stimulus to use my voice. (p. 24)

Stage Sixteen (The Beginnings of Inhibition)

Considering the last point gave Alexander the idea that if “…when the stimulus came to me to use my voice, I could inhibit the misdirection associated with the wrong habitual use of my head and neck, I should be stopping off at its source my unsatisfactory reaction to the idea of reciting…” He decided to inhibit the misdirection, then discover what direction he could “…put into practice [that] would ensure a satisfactory instead of an unsatisfactory reaction to the stimulus to use my voice.” (p. 24-25)

Stage Seventeen (Conscious, (Reasoned) Direction)

In this next stage of his work, Alexander realized that if he ever wanted to “…react satisfactorily to the stimulus to use my voice, I must replace my old instinctive (unreasoned) direction of myself by a new conscious (reasoned) direction.” He must “cease to rely upon…feeling…and in its place employ my reasoning processes…

(1) to analyse the conditions of use present;
(2) to select (reason out) the means whereby a more satisfactory use could be brought about;
(3) to project consciously the directions required for putting these means into effect.” (p. 25)

Stage Eighteen (Superior Minds and Feeling Right)

Alexander now knew that he could not rely on ‘instinctive’ direction. He knew he had to carefully think out how to perform a given act before he attempted to do it. But he assumed that if he did so, he “…should be guided by my reasoning rather than by my feeling when it came to putting this thought into action, and that my “mind” was the superior and more effective directing agent.” However, he was attempting “…to employ conscious direction for the purpose of correcting some wrong use of myself which was habitual and therefore felt right to me.” What he discovered (and he could observe it happening in the mirror) was that “…at the critical moment when I attempted to gain my end by means which were contrary to those associated with my old habits of use, my instinctive direction dominated my reasoning direction.” It didn’t matter that he knew what the right thing to do was, and it didn’t matter how often he tried. As soon as the “…stimulus to speak came to me, I invariably responded by doing something according to my old habitual use associated with the act of speaking.” For Alexander “…there was no clear dividing line between my unreasoned and my reasoned direction of myself and I was quite unable to prevent the two from overlapping.” (pp. 26-27)

Stage Nineteen (Endgaining and More Inhibition)

After trying so often to do the right thing, and failing, Alexander was understandably disappointed. Perhaps because he could not think of anything else to do, he “…decided to give up any attempt for the present to “do” anything to gain my end….” This procedure allowed him to “…see at last that if I was ever to be able to change my habitual use and dominate my instinctive directions, it would be necessary for me to make the experience of receiving the stimulus to speak and of refusing to do anything immediately in response.” He realized that when he responded immediately, it was because he had decided to “…do something at once, to go directly for a certain end….” Responding at once did not give him “..the opportunity to project as many times as was necessary the new directions which I had reasoned out were the best means whereby I could gain that end.” His old instinctive direction had built up his wrong habitual use in the first place, and if he did not project his new directions enough times, that old instinctive direction and its associated untrustworthy feeling “…still controlled the manner of my response, with the inevitable result that my old wrong habitual use was again and again brought into play.” (p. 27)

Stage Twenty (Practice, Practice, Practice)

At this point he decided that he must only “…give myself the directions for the new “means-whereby,” instead of actually trying to “do” them or relate them to the “end” of speaking.” He continued this practice “…for long periods together, for successive days and weeks and sometimes even months…” He describes “means-whereby” to include “the inhibition of the habitual use of the mechanisms of the organism, and the conscious projection of new directions necessary to the performance of the different acts involved in a new a more satisfactory use of these mechanisms.” The experience of this practice taught him that each of the conscious directions involved in his new “means-whereby” must be projected many times, and must be continued to be projected when he added the directions for the next part of the new “means-whereby.” He also found that when he had “..become familiar with the combined process of giving the directions for the new “means-whereby” in their sequence and of employing the various corresponding mechanisms in order to bring about he new use, I must continue this process in my practice for a considerable time before actually attempting to employ the new “means-whereby” for the purpose of speaking.” (pp. 27-28)

Stage Twenty-one (Thinking in Activity)

Alexander borrows a term from John Dewey (“thinking in activity”) to describe the process of projecting a sequenced series of reasoned directions in order to gain an end. His teaching experience showed him that continuing to keep all three directions going “all together, one after the other” “as we proceed to gain the end, has proved to be the pons asinorum of every pupil I have so far known.” (p. 29)

Stage Twenty-two (Another Reconsideration)

Alexander eventually decided that he had practiced long enough, and should be able to employ his new directions for the purpose of speaking. Unfortunately he “failed more often than I succeeded.” This situation was perplexing, because he knew he was trying to “…inhibit my habitual response to the stimulus to speak” and he knew he had “…given the new directions over and over again.” At least, that had been his intention, and what he thought he had done. When he reconsidered his premises, however, he realized “..more clearly than ever that the occasions when I failed were those on which I was unable to prevent the dominance of my wrong habitual use, as I attempted to employ the new “means-whereby” with the idea of gaining my end and speaking….in spite of all my preliminary work, the instinctive direction associated with my habitual use still dominated my conscious reasoning direction.” (pp. 29-30)

Stage Twenty-three (Concrete Proof)

Despite these seeming setbacks, Alexander was confident that his new “means-whereby” were right for his purpose. For a time he wondered if it was a personal shortcoming that prevented him from succeeding, thinking that someone else might have been successful. He investigated for a long time, seeking “any other possible causes of failure” and realized that he must “…seek some concrete proof whether, at the critical moment when I attempted to gain my end and speak, I was really continuing to project the directions in their proper sequence…or whether I was reverting to the instinctive misdirection of my old habitual use….” Through careful experimentation he discovered that “…at the critical moment when persistence in giving the new directions would have brought success, I reverted instead to the misdirection associated with my wrong habitual use.” He had found his concrete proof and he concludes that “clearly to “feel” or think I had inhibited the old instinctive reaction was no proof that I had really done so, and I must find some way of “knowing.” ” (pp. 30-31)

Stage Twenty-four (Racial Inheritances)

Alexander noticed that when he failed “…the instinctive misdirection associated with my old habitual use always dominated my reasoning direction for the new use.” On pondering this problem he gradually realized that the only experience people had of directing themselves was instinctive direction, which Alexander called a “racial inheritance.” He was “…therefore combating in myself not only that racial tendency which causes us all at critical moments to revert to instinctive direction and so to the familiar use of ourselves that feels right, but also a racial inexperience in projecting conscious directions at all, and particularly conscious directions in sequence.” (p. 31)

Stage Twenty-five (More on Sensory Appreciation)

Although Alexander had realized much earlier that he could not trust to feeling to direct his use, he had not yet fully understood that the “…sensory experience associated with the new use would be so unfamiliar and therefore “feel” so unnatural and wrong that I…with my ingrained habit of judging whether experiences of use were “right” or not by the way they felt, would almost inevitably balk at employing the new use.” He found himself in something of a vicious circle: “…trying to employ a new use of myself which was bound to feel wrong, at the same time trusting to my feeling of what was right to tell me whether I was employing it or not.” In other words, he was trying to employ his new reasoning direction of use, while employing his instinctive misdirection and thus old habitual use to judge whether or not he had succeeded in employing the new use. “Small wonder,” he writes, “that this attempt had proved futile!” (p. 32)

Stage Twenty-six (Genuine Trust)

Alexander now realized that he must “…subject the processes directing my use to a new experience…of being dominated by reasoning instead of by feeling, particularly at the critical moment when the giving of directions merged into “doing” for the gaining of the end I had decided upon.” It didn’t matter how wrong the procedure he had reasoned out might feel, he still must continue it. He writes that “…my trust in my reasoning processes to bring me safely to my “end” must be a genuine trust, not a half-trust needing the assurance of feeling right as well.” Once again he needed a plan “…by which to obtain concrete proof that my instinctive reaction to the stimulus to gain my end remained inhibited, while I projected in their sequence the directions for he employment of the new use at the critical moment of gaining that end.” (pp. 32-33)

Stage Twenty-seven (The Plan)

Alexander made many attempts to devise such a plan. What he finally adopted was the following:

Supposing that the “end” I decided to work for was to speak a certain sentence, I would start in the same way as before and

(1) inhibit any immediate response to the stimulus to speak the sentence,
(2) project in their sequence the directions for the primary control which I had reasoned out as being best for the purpose of bringing about the new and improved use of myself in speaking, and
(3) continue to project these directions until I believed I was sufficiently au fait with them to employ them for the purpose of gaining my end and speaking the sentence.

At this moment, the moment that had always proved critical for me because it was then that I tended to revert to my wrong habitual use, I would change my usual procedure and

(4) while still continuing to project the directions for the new use I would stop and consciously reconsider my first decision, and ask myself “Shall I after all go on to gain the end I have decided upon and speak the sentence? Or shall I not? Or shall I go on to gain some other end altogether?”–and then and there make a fresh decision

(5) either
not to gain my original end, in which case I would continue to project the directions for maintaining the new use and not go on to speak the sentence;
to change my end and do something different, say, lift my hand instead of speaking the sentence, in which case I would continue to project the directions for maintaining the new use to carry out this last decision and lift my hand;
to go on after all and gain my original end, in which case I would continue to project the directions for maintaining the new use to speak the sentence.” (p. 33-34)

Under his new plan, Alexander stopped at that critical moment of passing from projecting his directions for the new use, and going on to gain his end. Before that he had employed his habitual use to gain that end, which involved the projection of the instinctive directions for that use. “By this new procedure,” he writes, “as long as the reasoned directions for the bringing about of new conditions of use were consciously maintained, the stimulus of a decision to gain a certain end would result in an activity differing from the old habitual activity, in that the old activity could not be controlled outside the gaining of a given end, whereas the new activity could be controlled for the gaining of any end that was consciously desired.” (p. 35)

Stage Twenty-eight (Success At Last)

When working on his new plan, most of the time Alexander decided not to gain his original end, but to either do something different, or simply continue to project his directions. This experience, Alexander believed, gave him that “…concrete proof I was looking for, namely that my instinctive response to the stimulus to gain my original end was not only inhibited at the start, but remained inhibited right through, whilst my directions for the new use were being projected.” And the experience of not going on to gain his original end helped him “…to maintain the new use on those occasions when I decided at the critical moment to go on after all and…speak the sentence.” By this plan, he became able to “…defeat any influence of that habitual wrong use in speaking…” and knew that “…my conscious, reasoning direction was at last dominating the unreasoning, instinctive direction associated with my unsatisfactory habitual use of myself.” (pp. 35-36)

Stage Twenty Nine (Free From Habitual Tendencies)

Alexander writes that after working on this plan “for a considerable time” he became free of his habitual tendency to use himself wrongly in reciting and that this new way of using himself had a “marked effect” on his functioning, as he was finally free from the difficulties that had “…beset…[him]…from birth.” (p. 36)

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