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Music Discipline Pack 2006

The Alexander Technique for Musicians


Compiled by Lucy Green

In the early 1890s, Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955) was an upcoming actor when his voice began to
give him trouble, failing unexpectedly while he was performing. Medical advice did not help. He tried complete
vocal rest before performing, but symptoms reappeared as soon as he began to recite. Faced with the loss of his
career, Alexander decided that a solution would have to come from his own observations and insight. He began
to use a mirror to analyze his behavior during reciting. In his observation, he found that he always did three
things just before reciting: He depressed his larynx, audibly sucked in air during his inhalation, and pulled his
head back and down by lifting his chin. Alexander found that the change in head position governed the other
two behaviors. When he could keep himself from pulling his head back and down, the depressed larynx and
gasping inhalation disappeared (Laux 2002).
We tend to pull our head down and back into our neck (each individual in his own characteristic way)
initiating a downward pressure, a collapsing influence on the rest of the spine and the whole body structure
connected to it. For most of us, this pulling down is so habitual that it does not feel wrong (Alexander 1932:
43). Further investigation revealed that the movements of his head were linked with a comprehensive pattern
of damaging preparatory activities which included lifting his chest, shortening his spine, and narrowing his
back. Having concluded that his head position was somehow the source of the whole problem, he began to
experiment with ways of controlling the movement of his head. Alexander realized that his bodys own sense of
what it was doing had been distorted: His kinesthetic sense was an unreliable guide for directing movement.
His strong habitual pattern of vocal use was not only overriding his best conscious attempts at change, but it
was feeding him false kinesthetic information about the movement (Laux 2002).
Alexander had seen that the head/neck relationship not only governed the efficiency of his vocal production but
influenced the overall pattern of muscular and postural use in his whole body (Laux 2002). He had logically
assumed that, with enough practice, he could train himself first to prevent his old habit from occurring and then
consciously to direct a new one to replace it. I found that a certain control of the use of my neck and head in
relation to my back brought about a more satisfactory working of the musculature, and not only relieved my
specific difficulty, but improved conditions generally. In working with my pupils, I have used this experience

and have found that as soon as you can establish this primary control, a satisfactory control of the rest of the
workings o f the organism can be expected to follow in due time (Alexander 1932: 48).
The key to this re-education process, according to Alexander, is the primary control (Laux 2002). Frank Pierce
Jones defined the primary control as "a dynamic relationship of the head and the neck which promotes maximal
lengthening of the body and facilitates movement throughout the body." It is the work of the Alexander teacher
to teach the student to stop interfering with their primary control. Freedom from interference of this kind in turn
produces improved coordination characterized by lighter, less effortful movements (Laux 2002).
Alexanders goals of reconditioning are achieved by inducing and sustaining specific mental directions. These
directions refer to his primary control as follows: a) relax the neck; b) head up and forward from the neck; c)
lengthen and widen the back. Each direction is maintained while the next is initiated in sequence, until all are
being sustained simultaneously. Alexander maintained that the pattern of primary control has always existed in
human beings, but through misuse has become largely inactive. According to Calder, with its proper
functioning, the neck is freed, releasing the head to move slightly forward and up from the neck, which in turn,
encourages a lengthening and widening of the back. In this way, accumulated tensions are gradually released,
and in their place, a surprising ease of movement is felt. (Calder: 20).
Goldberg (2002) explains that what one learns in Alexander Technique lessons is a unique and practical means
of stopping and changing habits. This learning process allows one's sense of coordination to regain its natural
"perspective." The goal is to arrive at a neutral resting position of balance for the various parts of the body, by
realigning the physical positions of the head, neck, shoulders, and back. (Barlow 1991: 172). The Alexander
teachers aim is to take the student through basic movements giving gentle hands-on guidance. Through this
guidance it is hoped that the student will experience more natural and easy coordination without the on-going
interference of habits. According to the Alexander technique, repeating these experiences of natural,
fundamental movement will stimulate the student's internal coordination mechanisms to become more accurate.
This develops his/her ability to choose better coordinated and non-stressful responses to stimuli and the
Alexander technique is alleged to enable students to make lasting habit changes. Freedom is a better word than
relaxation for the desired muscular condition, which helps to bring about the right mental state (attention
without effort); when mind and body are free from strain, habits perform with proficiency. (Barlow 1991:182).
The Alexander Technique has a long history of helping instrumentalists and singers to perform with less stress
and likelihood of injury. A number of prominent musicians have publicly endorsed the technique including Paul
McCartney, Sting, James Galway and the conductor Sir Adrian Boult, to name but a few. The Technique is

taught at the Juilliard School of Performing Arts in New York, The Royal College of Music in London, The
Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto and at many other schools of music, universities and colleges. By
helping musicians improve the quality of the physical movements involved in playing an instrument or singing,
the Alexander Technique also helps improve the quality of the music itself (Goldberg 2002): A singer's tight
neck or jaw will cause the voice to become less resonant. By helping musicians release undue tension in their
bodies, the Alexander Technique aims to make possible performances which are more fluid and lively, less
tense and rigid (alexandertechnique.com).
F.M. Alexander said that the way we think of a thing influences how we use it (quoted in Murdock 2005).
Murdock argues that when we come to the training of singers, we see that almost every singing teacher thinks
of the voice in a somewhat different way. These various ways of thinking result in just as many "techniques" or
"methods" as there are teachers, each one attempting to produce a good sound. Some approaches to singing are
clear and trouble free, resulting in a generally well-coordinated use of the body. Others could not be more
difficult, resulting in heavy muscular effort, gasping for breath, and unease (2005).
The only way to cut through so many different approaches is to understand what the voice is and how it works.
According to Murdock the most important first step to good use of the voice is a desire to communicate. The
communication level of anyone who wants to sing well needs to be both high, vast and overtly emotional.
Rodd-Marling (quoted in Murdock 2005) believes that the vocal and breathing mechanism is set in motion by
the desire to express oneself and to communicate Therefore including communication in vocal work is
absolutely essential to the functioning of the instrument as a whole. It is this exaggerated level of
communication of feeling that actually sets in motion and coordinates the vast, complex muscle structures of the
singing instrument. This puts a very great physical demand on a professional singer.
The Singing Instrument: Vocal Organ + Breathing Organ
The whole breathing organ joins with the whole vocal organ to form the singing instrument and produce sound.
The many parts of both organs need to be awakened and developed, and maintained in an optimum condition in
order to function efficiently for many years. The only way these two vast mechanisms can hope to coordinate
properly is via a strong desire to communicate emotion and express beauty. Murdock, a proponent of the
Alexander technique argues that there is no doubt whatsoever that the entire process is greatly aided, and kept
in good working order, by freeing the head and neck while allowing the back to lengthen and widen (2005).
The Vocal Organ (Murdock 2005)

The vocal organ is an instrument which goes from the crown of the head to the soles of the feet and specifically
involves the breathing organ and the larynx. It is made up of many smaller parts, all of which need to be fully
awake and active before the "whole" instrument can work together.
Murdock explains: In Alexander terms, freeing the head and neck prevents the collapse of the vocal suspensory
mechanism and ensures a healthy environment in which the tone can be produced. Thus the suspensory and
vocal muscles are allowed to reach their proper length thereby enabling them to work with maximum
efficiency. This is the state the vocal mechanism is in when it is not interfered with, the optimal state for
commencing work. When the singing mechanism is poised and balanced, free and ready to function properly,
the student is then well prepared for a good singing teacher who can hear how and where the instrument needs
training in order to balance the many parts to work as a whole. The instrument can only function properly when
the whole structure is in balance, especially the critical head-neck relationship (2005).
The larynx is situated at the front of the neck and is made up of three cartilages:
1) A large one which contains the vocal folds, called the shield or thyroid cartilage;
2) A smaller one below, and attached to it, called the ring cartilage;
and
3) Two pyramid (or arytenoid) cartilages which sit on top of the ring cartilage inside the shield cartilage. The
back ends of the vocal cords are attached to the pyramid cartilages. These cartilages are responsible for bringing
the vocal cords together.
This intricate relationship of muscles is affected positively when the head is allowed to be free on the neck.
Each muscle achieves its proper length and connection with the other in an optimum state for functioning well.
The muscles work together, each set meeting the opposing pull of the other which allows the larynx to become
poised, balanced and properly suspended. The vocal cords are actively lengthened and stretched by this action
and thus brought closer together. In these favourable conditions they can close properly to execute the sound
quickly and efficiently and thereby produce a clear, clean tone with a minimum of effort. The throat is properly
open and is, in Alexander terms, "lengthened and widened" (Murdock 2005).
Interference

If the cords do not close properly, then the tone sounds breathy, husky, limited, uncomfortable and powerless to
both performer and listener. If the lower jaw is pulled back and/or stiff, then the tongue and the laryngeal
suspensory muscles attached to the tongue bone will also be stiff. This resulting stiffness is passed on from the
jaw through the tongue to the larynx and thus to the vocal cords, and renders them less powerful.
Murdock believes that there are many singers that mistakenly believe that an open throat (which all agree is
necessary for singing) involves lifting the soft palate upward while pushing downward with the back of the
tongue. A quick look at the anatomy will tell us what happens if the tongue is pushed downward. The shield
cartilage is attached to the underside of the tongue bone (hyoid) while the tongue is attached to the top side. If
the tongue is then pulled backward and down onto the hyoid bone the entire structure is forced downward onto
the top of the shield cartilage and this destroys the balancing upward pull of the attached suspensory muscles.
All the other suspensory muscles are thrown out of balance, the back of the throat is completely blocked by the
tongue and the vocal cords are quite literally crushed by the action. Their function is greatly impaired and the
result is a loss of tone quality, range and power. The sound is throaty and lacking in resonance. This is one of
the most common problems found in singing and is referred to as depression of the larynx.
A throat is truly open when all the suspensory muscles are working freely in balance, the vocal cords are
lengthened and approximating well, the tongue and palate muscles are released and all this is fully coordinated
with the organ of breathing. In fact, the organ of breathing contributes greatly to the ability of the laryngeal
muscles to release properly. A throat is fully open when we allow the head to be free on the neck, providing
there are no other subtle interferences from the surrounding muscles.
What effect does poise and direction of the head balancing on the top of the spine (and therefore poise and
direction in the larynx) have on the tone? Murdock argues that first and foremost it helps focus the tone
because it aids the lengthening and approximation of the vocal folds. This helps the voice project, sound
forward and high, round, full, and more colourful, all of which are qualities held as "ideal" in the singing world
(2005).
The breathing organ
The breathing organ makes up the other half of the singing instrument. Murdock laments it is an unfortunate
fact that many common ideas about breathing have a devastating impact on the organ of breathing, rather than
achieving increased freedom of it (2005). Like the vocal organ, the breathing organ has a suspensory
mechanism which needs attention to ensure its poise, balance and direction. It too has to be erected, ready to

work, because in most people it is usually collapsed. In comparison to the vocal mechanism, the musculature of
the breathing organ is larger and more powerful, capable of doing a lot of good if in proper condition, and
equally capable of doing a lot of mischief if not.
The sacrospinalis is a muscle group which extends from the back of the skull all the way down to the base of the
spine in a series of connecting muscles. It is these long series of muscles in the back which, when encouraged to
lengthen by freeing the head, are most responsible for the erection and stability of the spine. When these
muscles are encouraged to reach their proper length, the entire torso is suspended, the student lengthens in
stature, the intercostal arch opens and widens allowing the diaphragm to come into position and move freely
without unnecessary effort which then permits the breath to enter the lungs easily.
As the head goes forward and up, the tail bone (and with it the pelvis) needs to release in the opposite direction
in order for sacrospinalis to lengthen. This movement is only possible when the hip joints, knee and ankle joints
are free. These joints can only be free when the weight of the body is being carried by the bones of the legs,
pelvis and the inside edges of the spine. The weight of the head and pelvis pulling in opposite directions is what
encourages the sacrospinalis muscle groups to lengthen. The tonus of these muscles is extremely important
because they are responsible for maintaining the position and release of the diaphragm. It is also paramount that
one avoid pumping oneself full of air. Too great an air pressure or volume of air will completely destroy the
vital connection between these breathing out muscles and the vocal chords. This inward and upward movement
in turn frees up the rib cage and allows the full flexibility of movement of it. In that condition the diaphragm is
truly released and free.
It is considered advantageous to work rhythmically in order to activate this mechanism without "doing,"
(meaning direct interference) as the muscles respond easily to such movement (Laux 2002; Murdock 2005). If
the out-breath is accomplished fully and rhythmically, using all the muscle groups outlined here, and there is no
stiffening of the neck, shortening in stature, or pulling down in front, then the in-breath can happen as a reflex
action to fill the vacuum created by the out-breath. Murdock concludes you are then working fully with nature
and what is more, you are strengthening it. Treated this way the breathing organ responds favourably,
cooperates, and gives the singer the impression he has to do less and less to get more and more (2005).
The in-breath then encourages and stimulates even more lengthening in the torso and the whole thing becomes
self-generating. If there is enough lengthening and widening in the body then it is possible to breathe out this
last bit of air in the lungs. This exercise stimulates the deep lying muscles to work and it is therefore possible to
train them to a high degree. At the end of the out-breath, maximum attention needs to be paid to the direction of

the body and to the fact that the weight of the body is being taken by the heavy leg and pelvis bones, and the
spine. If this mechanism is working it will be very easy to release the breathing out muscles of the trunk and
chest. The action of releasing the breathing out muscles is all that is needed to take more air in. All you should
feel is the release of the muscles. When this happens, and only when this happens, the movements in the organ
of breathing and the vocal organ coordinate and it can then (and only then) be said that the tone, the voice, is
"supported." However if you stiffen the neck, legs, or rib cage or over-breathe, the coordination is interrupted,
resulting in diminished support. Support results from all the necessary muscle actions working together rather
than from a direct action of any one set of muscles: (Murdock 2005).
That the diaphragm plays a critical role in the act of singing is not challenged whatsoever by the Alexander
technique. However, the Alexander perspective believes it is far better to learn to leave it alone and concentrate
on the means whereby a singer can get the most effect from it. This means that the common focus of a singing
teacher on working directly with the diaphragm is both unnecessary and detrimental to achieving the correct
technique, qualifying as interference with the diaphragms natural actions, as achieved when it is free in the
manner achieved using the Alexander technique. Murdock qualifies this, if the structure in which the
diaphragm is housed is properly maintained, then the diaphragm will do what it should do by itself in response
to the emotional and physical demand placed on it. There is absolutely no need for "diaphragm strengthening
exercises" indeed, there is no need for so-called "diaphragmatic breathing" (2005). It is important that the
diaphragm is thought of by the singer not only as a pump but also as the muscle of emotional expression which
it is. As Alexander argued, thinking of the diaphragm just as a pump will greatly diminish its function and limit
its invaluable contribution to singing. The singer, indeed, then will have to develop a breathing technique to
compensate for the lack of spontaneous and reflex action in the diaphragm (Murdock 2005).
The Alexander Technique is designed to teach a singer to use his body rationally and economically instead of
unconsciously and inappropriately (Laux 2002). It teaches the basic principle that there is a particular state in
which the parts of the body are so related and muscular tension is so distributed that each part and whole is
enabled to be and to function at its best. The Alexander Technique opens a window onto the little-known area
between stimulus and response, and gives you the self-knowledge you need in order to change the pattern of
your personal response (Laux 2002). To apply the Alexander Technique seems to be an endless task of
meeting and disarming many different attitudes to free oneself... In the end, Alexanders standard for the
balanced regulation of the body, to be and work at its best, is the standard of a whole, sound person. (Barlow
1978: 41). York states that, when voice teachers realise the great facts discovered by F. M. Alexander and
become acquainted with the means of their application, they will know that the best training for singing is also

training for good living, in the sense of being well-adjusted to ones self and ones environment, and hence a
happier and healthier person, as well as a vastly more capable artist. (York: 29 quoted in Laux 2002).

Heres a quick exercise called Sitting bones.


Place your hands under your buttocks and find two bony knobbles: these are your sitting bones. What happens
to your sitting bones:
a) When you slump? (How does this affect your head, neck and body relationship?)
b) When you pull your shoulders back and chest up, military-style?
With your head leading, rock back and forth on your sitting bones until you find the point where they are
pointing down directly into the chair. Think of directing your knees away from your sitting bones and slightly
away from each other. How does this affect your body as a whole? Now sing!
References
ALEXANDER, F.M. 1932. The Use of the Self. London.
BARLOW, Wilfred. 1991. The Alexander Technique: How10 to use your body without stress. Inner traditions.
BARLOW, Wilfred. 1978. More Talk of Alexander. Gollancz; London.
GOLDBERG, Marion. 2002. The F.M. Alexander Technique in Natural Awakenings. March/April.
LAUX, Lori Lovell. 2002. The Alexander Technique: Its Purpose and Validity in Singing and in the Teaching
of Singing an exert from a thesis.
MARS, Alan. 1996. Some talk of Alexander at http://www.ati-net.com/a_mars.htm. Downloaded April 2005.
MURDOCK, Ron. Born to sing at http://www.alexandercenter.com/pa/voice.html. Downloaded April 2005.
Musicians and the Alexander technique at http://www.alexandertechnique.com/musicians2/ Downloaded
April 2005.