A 19th century Tasmanian actor pioneered a new way of thinking about the musculature of the body. What's involved in Frederick Matthias Alexander's technique, and who can benefit from it? Amanda Smith investigates.
From a young age, Frederick Matthias Alexander knew one thing: he wanted to be an actor.
Melbourne in the 1880s was a thriving theatrical hub, and Alexander had no trouble landing acting roles. Soon, though, he started to develop vocal problems while on stage.
'During stage work voice would become very hoarse, his breathing very noisy,' says Rosslyn McLeod, who has produced a documentary on the life of Alexander.
'Of course, no one wants to engage an actor who's going to break down, so it almost looked like the end of a career.'
Alexander tried various medical cures, but nothing helped. 'One thing puzzled him,' McLeod says. 'When he spoke to friends in a normal room he didn't get the voice problems, but up on stage he did.'
Alexander wasn't trained as a doctor, but he tried to solve the puzzle for himself. He set up mirrors and observed himself speaking—at first as though to friends, and then as if he was on up on stage, reciting lines.
After a while, Alexander noticed that when he spoke as if he was on stage, his muscles reacted in a different way.
'Not only how the head balanced on top of the spine, but tightening his legs—a whole lot of extra tension that would interfere with breathing and voice performance,' McLeod says.
What's more, Alexander realised these changes to his musculature were happening just at the thought of recitation, before the words even left his mouth. 'So,' McLeod says, 'he decided he would change his habit patterns.'
Alexander soon applied his ideas to other people. 'He started to look around at his fellow human beings and he noticed that a lot of them were also developing quite tight, stiff necks.'
Remember, this was the 1890s: there were no microphones for public speakers. Lawyers, politicians and clergymen began to seek out Alexander for lessons in voice training.
Eventually, doctors started sending patients with other muscular problems to Alexander.
'That was the big challenge for him, to explain to other people how they could change their harmful habits,' says McLeod.
From this, Alexander found his life's work—teaching took over from acting. 'By 1904 the leading doctors in Melbourne and Sydney were saying to Alexander, "You should go to London!" and that's what he did,' McLeod says.
Alexander worked for 50 years across England and America and never returned to Australia—he died in London in 1955.
Even today, many people around the world who know something of the Alexander Technique don't know that its creator was an Australian.
What happens in an Alexander Technique lesson?
'Generally we start by just having a look at your general pattern of use, basically how you use yourself in everyday activities,' says Robert Schubert, an Alexander Technique instructor.
'If you're hurting yourself in some even minimal way in those activities, you do that for years you could end up in trouble.'
One common problem that occurs with sitting, Schubert notes, is tightening of the neck and back muscles.
'You actually don't need to do that to sit down, that's just a habit you've developed.'
Alexander called these problems 'misuses of ourselves'.
'A lot of this back tightening goes on for years and years and years and then people get a sore back and they don't know why.'
In an example Alexander lesson, Schubert asks me to think about letting my neck release as I sit down—it's a simple instruction and it's not hard to do, but how readily does it become habitual?
'That depends on how much you practise,' says Schubert.
Musicians and performing artists, Schubert says, make for good Alexander practitioners—they're used to being aware of their body.
For the rest of us, it can be more challenging, says Schubert. 'It can feel a little laborious for some people. That's quite normal, while your body recalibrates along the lines of an improved movement.'
Schubert says that the difficulty with Alexander Technique is not the technique itself, it's remembering to employ it.
Who is the Alexander Technique for?
Instructors reckon almost everyone can benefit from the Alexander Technique, not just sportspeople and performing artists.
Lucia Walker, a senior instructor, says her clients include a knitting group and a convent. 'The sisters want help with how they look after themselves, both serving dinner and kneeling to pray and bowing.'
Another instructor, Kazimirs Krasovskis, has worked with belly dancers—which he says was lots of fun—but also people in the course of their everyday jobs. 'There was a lady who was a funeral director, she was having problems carrying coffins down the stairs.'
Krasovskis himself uses the technique for his own gym sessions, and sees many people exercising in potentially harmful ways.
'I was amazed at how much people misuse their bodies through straining to lift weights that are possibly too heavy for them.'
If he's doing shoulder exercises by lifting dumb-bells, Krasovskis has learnt what his bad habits are. 'I know that I can arch my back unnecessarily, so through knowing that that's my habit I can do that exercise more efficiently.'
Rosslyn McLeod summarises the basis of the Alexander Technique as 'use affects function'.
'How we use our bodies affects how they can function,' she says. 'It's never what we do, it's how we do it.'