The final straw – Why have Alexander Technique lessons?

Last week I wrote about how we could all learn from FM Alexander’s childhood trait of being incorrigibly inquisitive. One thing I mentioned was that the trait that got him excused from school for being disruptive in class, was in adult life the key to him doing the work that led to his creation of what we now call the Alexander Technique.

But why did FM develop his work? What was it that caused him to use that questioning nature?

Most people, if they have heard of FM at all, will probably know that he was an actor, and that he suffered from vocal troubles so severe that they threatened his career. When conventional treatment didn’t work, he began exploring and experimenting to try to solve the problems for himself.

So far, so good. We have the facts. But there is something missing.


When FM wrote in 1932 about the creation of his work some 40 years previously, he began:


“From my early youth I took a delight in poetry and it was one of my chief pleasures to study the plays of Shakespeare, reading them aloud and endeavouring to interpret the characters.” *


For FM, acting and reciting wasn’t just a job. In fact, he gave up a well-paid and promising clerking career to tread the boards. Acting was his love.

And when his vocal troubles became severe, how did FM feel?

“My disappointment was greater than I can express, for it now seemed … that I should thus be forced to give up a career in which I had become deeply interested and believed I could be successful.” **

FM had a passion for acting, and his passion was threatened. That’s why he worked so hard, I think, to find a solution to his problems.

And it should strike a chord with us, because so often this is the reason why we become interested in Alexander’s work. I was prepared to put up with pain in my wrists, until I couldn’t knit or cook any more. One of my students put up with her difficulties – until it stopped her swimming.

Typically, we will put up with discomfort and things that block us from performing at our best, we will keep going in the face of limitation, we will soldier on… until our passion is threatened.

What is the one thing that you are not prepared to give up? At what point will you stop accepting limitations, and decide to begin the process of change and renewal?

* FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.411.
** ibid., p.412.
Image by dan from

Losing “I can’t” – the importance of mental attitude in performance


When I teach Alexander Technique, I typically encourage students to come in with a activity they’d like to work on. It could be anything from sitting, to running, to juggling, or to using the pedal on a sewing machine. When I ask them why they want to look at their activity in class, they typically use one of the phrases:

  • I’m having trouble with x.[insert activity here]
  • I can’t play this passage.
  • It could have been better.
  • I’m okay up to this point, but then it all goes wrong.
  • I don’t breathe properly.
  • I always run out of air before the end.
  • I can’t hit that note.
  • I’m not doing as well as I’d like.

And when my students say their variation on these phrases, a line or two by FM Alexander runs through my mind: “when…we are seeking to give a patient conscious control, the consideration of mental attitude must precede the performance of the act prescribed … He often finds an enormous difficulty in altering some trifling habit of thought that stands between him and the benefit he clearly expects.” *

FM is pointing us towards an important truth. So often, the way we think about a problem is not only a part of the problem, but actually stands between us and the change of attitude and perspective necessary to find a solution. Or, to quote Stephen Covey, the way we see the problem is the problem.”

So next time you find yourself saying a variant on the above statements, try to find a new and more positive way of articulating the same thing:

  • I want to achieve x, but haven’t yet worked out how to do it.
  • I don’t yet play this passage the way I envisage it.
  • It hasn’t reached my highest standard, but there was improvement.
  • I haven’t managed to continue my thinking into this part [of the piece/action] yet.
  • I’m not sure how the breathing mechanism works.
  • There’s a reason why I run out of air, but I haven’t worked it out yet.
  • I don’t know why that note doesn’t come out right yet.
  • My current standard of performance hasn’t yet achieved the high standard I’ve set myself.

Can you see how these are more open? They either acknowledge the progress already made, or provide openings that will help us to question why things aren’t working out yet.

And the key word is YET. Alter those trifling habits of thought, follow the process of questioning and exploring, and good things will happen.

Let me know how you are going to restate your difficulties in the comments. Or if you’re adept at doing this already, let me know what benefits you’ve experienced. The more evidence that it works, the more people will want to give it a go!

*FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat edition, p.52.
Photo by Gordon Plant. 



Belly breathing vs chest breathing: why it’s a fake battle


Today’s post talks about the belly breathing backlash, and why I think we fall into a trap when we want to compare it to other ‘forms of breathing’.

I think it is fair to say that I encountered some resistance to my article last week on belly breathing. A small number unsubscribed from my email list, and I had a number of people (none of them singing teachers, by the way) wish to take issue with me over my characterisation of belly breathing.

The gist of many of the comments I have had rest on the creation of an either/or pair. Either we belly breathe, or we chest breathe. Either we do diaphragmatic breathing, or we do clavicular breathing. On rare occasions we may do both, but only in extreme circumstances, with the understanding that we are endangering our sound quality.


If there’s one thing I have learned from reading FM Alexander, it is to be wary of either/or thinking. Alexander describes this as going from one extreme to the other:

“They are, in fact, too constricted in their mental attitude to give play to their imagination. From one extreme they have flown to the other, and so have missed the way of the great middle course…” *

What if, in our human desire for either/or extremes, we have created concepts of breathing that are too rigid in conception, and lead us to make distinctions that limit our ability to be flexible? What if there really isn’t such a thing as ‘belly breathing’ or ‘chest breathing’?


The evidence.

I’ve been doing a lot of extra reading** on all the different types of breathing people have mentioned. From my research, it seems to be the case that:

  • The diaphragm contracts, pushing the abdominal contents down. They have to go somewhere, and can’t go back (because of the spine) or down (pelvis in the way), so they go frontways instead.
  • This creates a pressure change between the cavity occupied by the lungs and the outside atmosphere. Air rushes in to equalise the pressure. The lungs fill. This is breathing in.
  • Now things get more complicated. If you’re lounging around in front of the TV, you probably aren’t going to need much oxygen. So your diaphragm won’t move much, and your lungs won’t fill very far. Therefore, your ribs and chest probably won’t move much, certainly not enough to trouble your intercostal muscles (they live between your ribs).
  • However, if you’re singing long phrases from Handel or Bach, you’re going to need more air. So your brain tells your diaphragm to get moving, and organises the intercostals to move, too. Everything is on the move, like in this image kindly supplied by Bill Conable.

The point here? You don’t, generally speaking, directly control what is going on. Your brain takes care of that for you, depending on what the activity is that you’re engaged in. Alexander compares it to a king, or the controller of a well-run office. If the office is running well, the controller doesn’t need to micro-manage every bit of filing.*** Similarly, if our mind and body are running smoothly, we don’t need to tell our diaphragms how far to contract!

A take-away point, and a challenge:

  • Try not to indulge in either/or thinking. You might be missing a wonderful wide middle path.
  • What would happen if you didn’t focus on your breathing while singing or speaking? What if you focused on something else, then let your brain take care of the details for you? What else could you think about that would be helpful?



* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Edition, p.84. Or here: “The human creature continues to rush from one extreme to the other on the ‘end-gaining’ principle in his attempts at reform or ‘physical’ improvement…”, in Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, p.393.
** Contact me if you’d like a book list. For a good intro, go to this University of Leeds lecture transcript.
*** in Man’s Supreme Inheritance, p.60. 

Why belly breathing is bunkum: the Alexander Technique perspective

Breathing is one of the most talked-about areas of concern for my students. Half are convinced that they aren’t breating properly. The other half have been taught all sort of fascinating breathing ‘facts’ and systems, and are convinced that they are breathing extremely well.

It’s the last group that I worry about most.

If you’re a singer, instrumentalist, actor, or yoga practitioner, you’ll have come across almost as many theories of how to breathe ‘correctly’ as you’ll have come across teachers. Anyone and everyone has an opinion on it, and many will happily sell you any number of lessons/products/systems so that you can do it better.

But… I’m going to set myself up as a target for what I’m about to write. I believe that a lot of these systems (and, frankly, a lot of what is taught in acting and singing schools) is a load of bunkum based on poor anatomical knowledge and woolly metaphor. Here are a couple of classics, and the problems I have with them.

  1. Belly breathing.You can’t breathe into your belly  – your lungs are nowhere near there, and your diaphrgm is positioned between your abdominal cavity and your lungs and keeps them separate. Even if the teachers know the lungs aren’t in the belly, I’ve met enough students who think they are to know that there’s something going astray in the teaching here.
  2. Diaphragm breathing. I don’t understand what this is. I’ve looked at videos on YouTube, but they don’t help. Breathing in the everyday sense is the result of changes in pressure between the inside of your lungs and air outside your body. The diaphragm contracts and pushes the abdominal contents down and out of the way. I’ve seen no anatomical text that says that you can directly control your diaphragm muscle.
  3. Chest breathing is bad, and shoulders shouldn’t raise. This is a pernicious piece of falsehood. I have heard students say that movement in the chest region is an indication of poor breathing. But the lungs are in the chest – it has to move! And if the chest moves, it is likely that the shoulder region will move a little too, simply because it sits over the top of the chest region.

So what can you do to improve your breathing?

  1. Think. FM Alexander would want you to bring the power of your reasoning intelligence to bear on the problem. In 1910 he wrote that the deep breathing exercises and physical training of his own time  “show an almost criminal neglect of rational method.” * I think FM would want us to look for what is rational in anything we are taught.
  2. Know what you’ve got. Learn a bit of anatomy. Find out where your lungs really are. Knowledge is power – if you have a little knowledge of where things are, you are less likely to be bewitched by fine-sounding nonsense.
  3. Work more generally. It is really tempting to want to concentrate on the one area that we believe is problematic. In FM’s time, a whole generation of children was taught a series of exercises that focussed on breathing in, but paid no attention to breathing out. But even more than that, because each part of us is connected to the other parts, it is highly likely that if there’s an imbalance in one area, it is likely to be related to an imbalance somewhere else. My students often experience their most dramatic improvements in breathing while working on something apparently unrelated, such as walking or lifting a tea cup.
  4. Let go of metaphors and images. They’re helpful for a little while, but then they can just hold you back. One of my students recently had a breakthrough when she realised she had been taking the term ‘ribcage’ too literally – the ribs aren’t like iron bars, and do in fact move a lot during respiration.

What are your major bugbears with breathing? Do you have any breakthroughs to report, or funny images you want to lay to rest?

* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.88.

Stage fright? Untwist your thinking!


Perhaps because the topic is in my mind, it seems as though every time I turn on the TV or listen to the radio I hear another instance of a performer whose career was blighted by panic and performance nerves.The most recent reference was on Radio 3 (the thinking person’s Radio 4!), during a programme about the Swiss-Romanian pianist Clara Haskil.

The prevalence of the condition is truly mind-boggling. And the most interesting thing about it is that it isn’t just us amateurs who struggle and suffer. Some truly great professionals have fought their panic every performance night. Laurence Olivier survived by asking his fellow actors not to look him in the eye while onstage. Ian Holm, according to the website IMDb, developed severe stage fright in 1976 while performing in The Iceman Cometh, and has barely returned to the stage since.

The most intriguing reference to stage fright in the past couple of weeks was, again, on Radio 3, this time on the excellent programme Composer of the Week. Last week’s composer was Enrique Granados who, in addition to being a fine composer, also a renowned pianist in his day. Indeed, it was his performing career that paid the bills, and this was a source of difficulty for him. For Granados, like Clara Haskil, like Laurence Olivier, like Ian Holm, was a sufferer of near crippling stage fright.

The reason why I found Granados’ plight so intriguing, however, was because of a short quote that was included in the radio programme. Apparently Granados said:

If, in an audience of 1000 spectators, I know that 999 like me but one does not, I will play poorly, because for me that one person will be the only one out there, and I know that nothing I do will please him.

Take a minute to read that quote and think about it. Granados has just admitted that if the audience contains just one person who is not guaranteed to love his performance unconditionally, he will play poorly. Hmm. The problem with this is that no audience is 100% guaranteed to love you, unless it is entirely composed of your family and friends, in which case you are unlikely to hear anything constructive afterwards that will help you to improve.

Not only that, but it sounds uncomfortably like Granados makes a decision to play poorly, based on his fear-filled assessment of the audience. He doesn’t say “I am likely to play poorly.” He uses the far stronger statement “I will play poorly.” That one person doesn’t like me, so I won’t bother to play well because I know that nothing I can do will change their mind. Those of you with any knowledge of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy will recognise this as a fully-fledged cognitive distortion – a type of twisted thinking. Granados is basing his whole performance on his opinion of an audience whose thoughts and feelings he cannot possibly know in any detail! From the sound of this, Granados’ life as a performer may well have been plagued by the tension created by his desire to play well fighting with his decision to play poorly.

Would you want to live in that particular universe? Does the logic of it sound reasonable to you? I suspect not! Yet, when it comes down to it, my hunch is that most performers, when questioned closely, would ‘fess up to a similar sort of twisted thinking around their performance practice. One of the most common, for example, is an actor looking out at the audience before the show, and expressing a strange combination of fear and hatred towards them as the actor wonders if the audience will be ‘good’ tonight.

Clearly this sort of twisted thinking is of no help to us whatsoever. But how do we get round it?

What we don’t do is to try to block out those twisted thoughts, or to just struggle on past them. This is just adding a whole new layer of tension on top of the stress created by the original twisty thinking.

Instead of this, FM Alexander suggests that we approach the problem indirectly by inhibiting our habitual manner of use in reacting to the old stimulus. We then give ourselves the opportunity of making a new decision.* In other words, when we’re approaching the performance date, or when we’re waiting in the wings ready to come onstage, we feel a strong stimulus to think about the audience. Our instinctive reaction is to be drawn away from ourselves and into a nightmarish fantasy where we leap to conclusions about what the audience will like or want. Alexander is asking us to notice the stimulus, but not to be drawn in. Instead of thinking about the things we can’t control (the audience and their reaction to us), we could think about things that WILL be useful to us. We need to make a decision to think about ourselves, about our role or our music, about the care with which we have prepared ourselves to perform.

And we need to stick to that decision. Alexander said:

We are by nature creatures of impulse … and will remain so, more or less, so long as we are content to struggle on … in the last analysis, success will depend upon the individual’s capacity to carry out a decision.**

So make a decision not to be ruled by the twisted thinking that leads us out of ourselves. Think instead of those things that are useful to you: your preparation, a sense of perspective about performance and audience, sticking with the process of just saying the words or playing the notes, and knowing what you want to achieve with your performance.

And enjoy it!


*Paraphrase of Universal Constant in Living, Iredeat Combined Edition, p.601.
** ibid., p.602.

Four words to conquer stage fright

As I write this, I have less than a day before I take to the stage area of a local church and perform a lunchtime recital with my recorder quartet. If I were counting (which I’m not), I’d tell you that I’m to be walking out and playing my first notes in 22 hours’ time. And once upon a time, just the act of typing that sentence would have caused within me a paroxysm of cold fear.

I’ve always loved playing music, but I never enjoyed performing. I hated – no, loathed – the act of walking out onto the stage. As the years went by, it became harder and harder to function as a musical performer. This fear, combined with the debilitating pain I suffered in my arms, put a stop to any desire I had to share music with others.

But not any more. I am a recovering stage-fright sufferer.And the Alexander Technique has been the most powerful tool I have possessed in advancing that recovery.

For me, part of the process of studying and teaching the Alexander Technique has been a methodical re-examination of the rules I have made for myself around issues such as performance. So often I see articles in the press and online that stress the physical aspect of this work, as if it was limited only to physical movements such as sitting or standing. But the scope of the Alexander Technique is so much broader than this. My colleagues and I often say to students that it is a physiologic fact that we can’t have a movement without some sort of thinking preceding it. If this is true – and it appears to be so – then we must draw the conclusion that what we think is of vital importance.

This means that the ideas and beliefs that we have about certain activities may be the very things that are holding us back from performing those activities as well as we would like. This is certainly true in my own case, and from the experiences I have teaching, seems to be true for my students too.

Based on my own experience of stage fright and that of my students, these are the major issues that I believe cause the problem:

Lack of preparation.

This is possibly the biggest issue amongst my acting students. This is how it works: I know that I have not practised enough and do not have the music/speech/whatever completely under my belt. So I worry about messing it up. Then I worry about messing it up – in public. ‘What will they think of me?’ My head is now spinning so much that I have little or no chance of remembering my music/speech/whatever.


I place pressure on myself by expecting myself to be perfect and to give a flawless performance. I also know that this is pretty much impossible. So I also berate myself first for expecting perfectionism, and second for the mistakes I am certain to make. Now we are back to ‘What will they think of me?’


People expect performers, especially amateur performers, to display nervousness prior to going on stage. It becomes good manners to oblige. By extension, it is bad manners to appear calm and confident!

Misunderstanding the physical.

Most people experience certain physical sensations pre-performance:  ‘butterflies’, shaky knees, etc. We are conditioned to think that these are bad and will disrupt our performance. What if these are simply side-effects of pre-performance adrenalin – the same adrenalin that sharpens our instincts, our senses, and speeds up our thinking processes…

So, how do we get around these issues? With four simple words! And to help you remember them, they mostly begin with P!

Here are the three Ps and one G:


There is only one way to know something really well, and that is to do the preparation. We all hope and dream that there is some kind of shortcut, and that talented people don’t need to do the long hours of study. Actually, they do. That’s why they are so talented.


Does it really matter if we make a mistake? Realistically, who is going to notice? And even if they do, will one or two little mistakes really outweigh all the good things about your performance? Of course not!


As soon as we start thinking about the audience and wondering what they are thinking/feeling, we have lost our train of thought. We are no longer doing the process of performing, but wondering about the after-effects of it. In traditional Alexander Technique language, we are end-gaining rather than sticking with the means we have chosen in order to achieve our goals. In my experience, when I am staying within the process of singing or playing a piece of music, note by note, phrase by phrase, I don’t have the time to worry about the audience. And my performance, I am told, improves radically as a result!


It’s often overlooked, but… What are you trying to achieve with your performance? Do you have a goal? Having a goal in mind for your performance can make a big difference to the way you approach things. For example, my recorder quartet recently performed at a local music festival. Our aim was to test one of our pieces in a hall acoustic, to check whether all the notes could be heard clearly on the instruments we had chosen to play. Because we had a specific goal in mind, nerves weren’t an issue.

So there you have it – three Ps and 1 G towards conquering stage fright, based on my experience. I hope they’re of help. And if you catch up with me on Facebook, I’ll let you know how the concert goes!


Can’t they see I’ve changed?

For my article this week I am again shamelessly pillaging from Chris Guillebeau, superb blogger and traveller and speaker of many truths. Specifically, I’m going to bounce my ideas off his excellent article Homecoming and the Adventure Detox.

In the article Chris talks about the strange decompression effect that can happen when you come home from a trip. You’ve seen and heard new things, and these things have changed you. You want to share them with friends and family. But friends and family may not be interested in what you have seen or heard. They’ll listen politely, but actually they’re keen for you to engage back in your home world – “Have you seen what’s happening with American Idol?”. Anyone who has travelled and had deep or memorable experiences can testify to the disconcerting and deflating nature of this ‘decompression’ experience.

The reason why I’m talking about this article by Chris, apart from the fact that it’s excellent, is that it so neatly describes what is happening in the lives of a number of my Alexander Technique students just now. One student in particular has undergone a lot of changes as a result of working with the principles and tools that I’m priveleged to share with them. In the 18 months or so that this person has had lessons with me, they have changed radically, both physically and in the way that they relate to the world around them. But it is only now that friends and family are starting to notice that they are different. Why?

Why is it that even those who are nearest and dearest to us are not able to see when we have changed? I think there are two issues that contribute to the problem.

Knowing how to look

From working with young actors, I’ve learned one basic fact. Observing is a skill, and most people don’t have it. They’ve never been taught how to look, to really look, at anything.

This problem is compounded when we are asked to look at people. In Western culture we are taught that it is rude to look at others. “Don’t stare!” we are told as children. So we begin to look away, to keep to ourselves. We sneak glances at others, on the pavement or on the train, but we don’t look for long, and we certainly don’t make eye contact! In effect, far from encouraging observation skills, in effect we are taught from childhood NOT to look.

If we don’t, can’t or won’t look, how will we ever see what is different? In fact, how will we ever truly see anything at all?

Analysing conditions past

When FM Alexander talked about his strategy for planning the protocol of a movement, he talked about “analysing the conditions present.”* In other words, looking at what is in front of us at that particular moment, and creating a plan of action based on what we see. Sadly, familiarity can breed contempt: why bother checking out that chair again when it looks the same as the one yesterday? The same thing happens with families and friends.

When we meet someone for the first time, we have no choice but to respond to whatever cues the person gives us regarding their character, personality and appearance. It’s completely different with families and friends. Because they’ve known us a long time, our friends and family tend to respond to us based on their experience of us in the past. They don’t need to observe us afresh, because we’re just the same as we were before, right?! Well, no, actually!

This is why those of us who live a long way from our parents can find it really difficult to visit home. We struggle to hold onto our adult identity as our parents continue to interact with us in the same way that they did all those years ago before we flew the nest and created our own lives.

Our friends and family see us as they used to see us, and as they want to see us. They love us, but sometimes the version of us they love may not fit us as neatly as we all hope and assume. So when they notice that we’ve changed, the odds are that we’ve metamorphosed so radically that their cherished but out-dated impression of us can no longer tally with the person in front of them. The degree of change forces them to reassess.

But they haven’t noticed I’ve changed – what should I do?

When you make changes in your life, and your nearest and dearest continue to interact with the person you used to be, you have a very simple choice. You can relinquish the changes that you have made and conform to their impression of who you are, or you can hold on to the decisions that you have made.

For a time this may be uncomfortable: there may be a disjunction between how your loved ones expect you to respond to them compared to your actual response. But which would you rather be – true to others’ expectations of you, or true to yourself?

And, just as a final thought… If you know you are changing and growing and improving, does it matter if that change isn’t recognised by others? Is the improvement any the less real for not having external approval?

Let’s commit to the process of change. Approval may come, or it may not. Discomfort may come, or it may not. But the process, if it is considered and appropriate, will lead us towards improvement. And what more can you ask than that?


*The full phrase used in the Evolution of a Technique is “analyse the conditions of use present.” But why stop at your body? Why not analyse anything around that is relevant?