The importance of knowing what you’ve got

Do you know where your lungs are?

Seems like a simple question, doesn’t it? So take a moment. Put your hands on where you think your lungs are. I’ll wait for you.


I asked my acting students in Cardiff recently to show me where their lungs are. I have a class of fourteen teenagers. Thirteen of them put their hands halfway down their torso, just below their ribs. I asked them if they were sure, and they all agreed that they were.

Then I showed them a picture of where the lungs really are. It caused some consternation.

lungs lungs2

You see, they’d been trying to breathe down into their abdominal cavity. They’d been told by various drama and voice teachers that breathing down there was good, so they assumed that was where their lungs were located. They also assumed that any movement that happened in the chest must be bad, and some even admitted trying to stop it happening. Sadly, all they were doing was stopping the free movement of their body to allow their lungs to fill!

FM Alexander said that we all think and act according to the peculiarities of our psycho-physical make-up.* In other words, what we believe about our bodies and the world at large determines how we move and interact. If we don’t know the basics of what we’ve got bodywise and how it works, then we’re a bit like a runner starting a race off a handicap. We’ll be struggling from the very start.

So if you’re involved in a specialised activity like singing or playing tennis or skiing (or anything else), or if you’re finding a particular activity difficult, please do spend a bit of research time. Find out what muscles and joints you’ve got. Find out where your lungs are. Get some knowledge. Because once you know what you’ve got, you can begin to plan effectively how you’re going to use it.

* FM Alexander Consctructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat edition, p.293.
Image of the lungs taken from Grant’s Atlas of Anatomy, 10th ed., Lippincott, Williams, and Wilkins, p.30.

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.

Alexander’s Three Steps to Success in Anything


Is there something that you love to do, that you’d like to do better? Maybe it’s your Alexander Technique. Or maybe writing, or singing (my two current obsessions), or running… Maybe you’d like some advice on how to do these things better? Well…

Over the past week I’ve read three separate blogs by three thoroughly different writers, and all three have had the same theme: the importance of doing the work.

The first was by Seth Godin, and was called Talker’s Block. He wrote about the fact that people don’t eveer complain about not being able to talk – they just get on with it, because they don’t necessarily care about the quality of every word they speak. Yet writers can fall into the trap of caring about every word they write, to the point where they can stop writing altogether. What would happen if they just wrote a certain amount every day, and worried about the quality later?

The second article was by Chris Guillebeau. He wrote about the fact that writing a very large number of words, and more importantly, writing them regularly, was the key to his ability to write effective prose fairly quickly. The quality didn’t come first; the word count did.

Finally, author Sarah Duncan told a story about artist JMW Turner, who while out sketching was accosted by an admirer who wished to buy his sketch. When Turner asked for sixty guineas for a sketch that took 10 minutes to produce, the admirer was astonished. ‘Ah yes,’ JMW Turner is supposed to have replied.  ’10 minutes, and 40 years of experience.’ In other words,if you do something often enough for long enough, you are going to achieve a level of proficiency. Maybe even mastery.

This is something my singing teacher has been trying to tell me for… well, I am embarrassed to tell you how long. He doesn’t emphasise quantity of practice. He emphasises consistency and regularity.

You need to do the work.

This is something that FM Alexander also emphasised, and was the key to the creation of the work we call the Alexander Technique. If you read the chapter called Evolution of a Technique that describes the process of creation, you will notice all the references to time or consistent practice and experimentation. For example:

“I repeated the act many times…”
“I recited again and again in front of the mirror…”
“…all I could do was to go on patiently experimenting before the mirror. After some months…”
“It is difficult to describe here in detail my various experiences during this long period…” *

And all these references occur within three pages. There are plenty more in the rest of the chapter.

Doing the work

Okay, you say to me. We get it. If we want to be good at this Alexander stuff, or anything else for that matter, we need to work. But how do we do that?

Helpfully, Alexander told us that, too. He is quoted by a number of writers, including his niece Marjory Barlow, as saying this:

You can do what I do, if you do what I did.

So we need to:

  • Experiment. Try stuff out. Play. Have fun.
  • Do it a lot. By which I mean, do a bit every day.
  • Give ourselves the luxury of time. We live in a culture that expects instant results. This is far too great a burden to place on ourselves. If we give ourselves time, we take away a layer of stress and pressure to succeed. And that means, funnily enough, that we’ll be more relaxed and open, and therefore in the best condition to achieve success.

Success, according to Alexander, isn’t rocket science, and it isn’t a mystery. It’s just a matter of doing the work.

And we can all do that. Can’t we?


FM Alexander, Use of the Self in the Irdeat Complete Edition, pp.413-415.
Image by kristja, stock.xchng

Alexander Technique and Singing: Process, not Product


This is the story of my most recent singing lesson, where I learned once again the vital importance of the Alexander Technique’s emphasis on process, not product. It mirrors very neatly the experience of a delightful colleague of mine, Bill Plake, playing his saxophone. When you finish my article, swing on by and read his.

I have been having singing lessons for a few years now. I am lucky that my teacher, Gerald, has had Alexander Technique lessons, and knows the books of FM Alexander fairly well.

At my most recent lesson, we began, as always, with some exercises. Gerald played the notes that he wished me to sing. I sang them. We did this, going up the scale a little way. Then Gerald paused, and thought for a moment. He didn’t tell me that what I had done was wrong. Gerald almost never does this. Rather, he asked me to do the exercise again, but with one vital difference. He asked me to sing the notes with my fingers in my ears.

At first, I didn’t want to do it. A stubborn streak in me resisted, whether from vanity or a deep-seated suspicion of trickery. But I trust Gerald, so I sighed, put my fingers in my ears as requested, listened hard to hear the notes from the piano, and then sang.

It was weird.

The sound I could hear inside my head was bizarre. I could barely hear the piano.  I couldn’t hear anything else at all – none of the sound of my own voice that I was used to hearing bouncing off the walls of Gerald’s teaching room. I had no idea at all if it sounded good, bad, indifferent, or downright awful. I didn’t even have feedback as to whether I was hitting the right notes. So I just sang.

The experience was completely discombobulating and yet strangely clarifying all at the same time. The sound feedback I was getting from inside my own head was thoroughly unfamiliar and it was tempting to be carried away by the shock of it.

At the same time, though, I realised that the removal of all my usual markers for how I was singing was freeing me. There was nothing pretty to listen to. So all I could do was think about the process of what I was trying to do. I was thinking just about the note, the vowel, and the breath. It was astonishingly, daringly simple. It couldn’t possibly sound any good. Could it?

Then I looked at Gerald. He was smiling. This is a good sign.

I still don’t really know how it actually sounded. Gerald was pleased, though, and that’s good enough for me. But that isn’t the point.

The point of the story: complete commitment, total detachment

What I learned last singing lesson was a practical demonstration of what I talked about in my blog Banishing Stage Fright with the Jazzmen, part 2. I learned about the primary importance of process over product.

You can’t directly control product. It just doesn’t work. Product is of its very nature the outcome of some sort of process. So if you want to make the product as good as possible, the only real choice you’ve got is to work on the process.

FM Alexander put it this way: “where the ‘means-whereby’ are right for the purpose, desired ends will come. They are inevitable… We should reserve all thought, energy and concern for the means whereby we may command the manner of their coming.”*

What FM Alexander asks for is no less than this: complete commitment to the process, and total detachment from the outcome.

Of course, it is easy to say this in theory. But it quite another to experience it in practice.

So I have a challenge for you: can you find one situation this week where you can make an attempt at complete commitment to process, and total detachment from the outcome? Tell me what it is in the comments!

FM Alexander, The Universal Constant in Living, in the IRDEAT edition, p.587.