The F. Matthias Alexander Story – It Ain’t Necessarily So

F. Matthias Alexander

Who was Alexander? Well the simple and obvious answer is that Alexander was the founder of the Technique that bears his name.  It’s hard to imagine today’s Alexander Technique without Alexander.

But what do we really know about the man and what he did?

We do have his four books, numerous short essays, pamphlets, photos, letters to the editor, transcripts of a lecture he gave, and a partial autobiography.  We also have a couple of short videos of him.

And of course a huge amount of material by Alexander Technique teachers and students – books, videos, blogs, websites etc.

For the most part this material supports the following highly abbreviated and simplified story of the man:

Alexander had a voice problem which threatened his career as an actor and reciter.  No one could help him. So he decided to study himself using mirrors.  He fairly quickly saw that his problem stemmed from harmful patterns of movement, but it took him almost ten years of self-study and self-experimentation to figure out how to prevent those habits from manifesting. He started to teach others what he had learned, moved from Australia to London, became well-known, had prominent students, started a teacher training course, died –  and then others carried his work forward.

It’s pretty much the story I was exposed to for years and that I used to share with my students, and in my writings.  I even likened Alexander to a sort of Phoenix rising from the ashes of a Tasmanian wasteland – an unpleasant penal colony, and site of a particularly swift and nasty genocide of the Tasmanian Aboriginies.

But about 30 years ago, I noticed some disturbing passages in his books, particularly regarding his views on certain groups of people – “primitive people”, Germans, and Blacks in the American South.

Of course these didn’t directly challenge the basic story, but they got me thinking there was more to Alexander than we had been told. It was on a Summer Workshop with Marjorie Barstow in the late 1980s that I was chatting about this with an Alexander student who also happened to be an English professor.  She said: “Well I guess it’s time we stopped accepting all the Alexander hagiographies at face value.”

Hagiographies?  What are those?  I’d never hear that word before but she explained it meant a biography that idealized it’s subject.  Kind of like the stories of saints.

And kind of like most of the historical information about Alexander then available.  Knowing the word “hagiography” actually made me more alert to challenges to the Alexander narratives.

And indeed two very serious challenges to those hagiographies have emerged since then. I’ll very briefly summarize them below, but for the record I want to state that I do consider F. Matthias Alexander to have been a genius – but like most geniuses, flawed.  And a very different kind of genius that we have been led to believe.

The first challenge came from Jeroen Staring, a Dutch academic and student of the Technique, who shows pretty convincingly, I believe, that all of Alexander’s teaching procedures came from others.

You can learn more about Staring’s discoveries in these two blog posts by Luke Ford, an Alexander Technique teacher in Los Angeles:

Jeroen Staring – Historian Of The Alexander Technique

When Your Leader Is A Plagiarist

The second challenge is more recent, and ultimately far more profound, since it’s no so much about Alexander Technique procedures, but about where some of it’s basic principles actually came from.

Jeando Masoero a French Alexander Technique teacher and self-described “archaeologist” of the Technique, has discovered a heretofore unknown link between Alexander and Francois Delsarte, a Frenchman whose Method Alexander taught in Australia before moving to England.

We’ve known for some time that Alexander originally promoted himself as a teacher of the Delsarte Method, but its always been hard to imagine how Alexander could have learned much about it because there were no writings by Delsarte or his students that he could have read.  But Jeando discovered that Delsarte’s younger brother Camille, also a teacher of the Delsarte Method, moved to – of all places! – Tasmania in 1851 and lived in Hobart, the capital for about 20 years. He had a huge influence on musicians and actors locally and on the mainland of Australia.

Alexander was no doubt influenced by Delsarte’s work. His initial decision to use mirrors to learn the truth about what he was doing to cause his vocal difficulties, for example, comes right out of Delsarte’s emphasis on using mirrors for self-discovery and self-improvement.  A great deal more about the Alexander – Delsarte connection at Jeando’s website or here: Francois Delsaarte’s influence of F. Mattias Alexander and the Alexander Technique

(According to Jeando, the time between Alexander deciding he’d figure out how to solve his problem on his own, and the start of his teaching career was no more than 18 months, not 10 years! And, lest we forget, Alexander’s niece, Marjory Barlow, said that Alexander taught his brother, A. R. Alexander, the Technique in six lessons – without using his hands.  And that was enough for him to start teaching along side Alexander!)

In my opinion, Alexander’s true genius lay to some extent in solving his problem using the version of the Delsarte Method he has access to.  But even more in packaging, popularizing and teaching it, and later adding some new components – notably what are now called Alexander Technique Directions, and the use of his hands to both guide his students and reinforce the ideas he wanted to get across to them.

For me this makes Alexander far less intimidating, and the Alexander Technique far more approachable, for perspective students. And far more likely to become better known and appreciated.

***

The title for this blog was inspired by It Ain’t Necessarily So from Porgy and Bess:


Comments

The F. Matthias Alexander Story – It Ain’t Necessarily So — 10 Comments

  1. This is the most important and honest writing about F. M. and the Alexander Technique in a long time! Many teachers today complain that the AT isn’t given sufficient credit and recognition. Well, the AT was not a singularly engenious phenomenon, it was part of a worldwide body/mind evolution and tied into other fields and similar contemporarydiscoveries. F.M. never seemed to give much credit or be honest about his influences, so what can we expect today? Let’s make it communicable, let’s make it honest, let’s say what we know, and what we don’t know, to whom we owe and from whom we want to learn.

  2. My father, Peter Scott, who was a teacher trained by F.M., always said that Alexander was part genius, part showman. But the best way to determine the value of the technique itself is to experience it directly, don’t you think?

      • Quite right. He moved his practice to Ealing — 25 Corfton Road, where we lived — when Ashley Place was demolished to make room for the new plaza around Westminster Cathedral. I’m so glad to hear you met him!

  3. While Delsarte did not publish there were available books by American ‘descendants’ the most famous of which was the Delsarte System of Expression by Genevieve Stebbins. Her book built on what little was known about Delsartes theories and minimal lessons- none of which were originally designed as a complete curriculum and could barely be called a method. what she did was create a system out of bits and peices of Delsarte and his only American student Steele Mackeye. The only contemporary study related to Delsarte worth reading is The Cultivation of Mind and Body in 19th Century American Delsartism by Nancy Ruyter. Alexander teachers interested in learning more about what Delsarte did or did not innovate should start there

    • My understanding from Jeando (and you should contact him about this because he’s the expert) was that the only material Delsarte wrote was not published until very recently and that he stopped teaching his original method well before the later material was published – that Mackeye’s material, for example – has nothing to do with what Delsarte was teaching earlier.

    • I was the first person to mention that Delsarte’s brother went to Tasmania in relation to psychophysical studies.

      As well as the possibility of transmission from Camille Delsarte Alexander could have taken up Francois Delsarte’s ideas from several other sources. Alexander did have other teachers, who would have had their own take on the elocution trends of the time, which often had an American Delsartean emphasis. Alexander’s Sydney business partner, Gustav Slapoffski, from the time Alexander had “Delsarte” on his letterhead, had previously organised Delsarte lessons for musicians in London from Henrietta Hovey.

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