FM’S SMILE by Patrick Gundry-White
In almost every photo of FM Alexander, his eyes twinkle and there’s a smile upon his face. In conversation with Marjorie Barlow he said “If you can’t smile at will, you cannot direct,” There was obviously something quite fundamental about smiling that was important to FM. He even asks us to think of something funny or that makes us smile when undertaking a whispered “Ah”. I’d like to talk about the ways I have utilised the “smile” over many years of working with musicians at all levels. To start I’m going to tease apart some of the structures and elements that the smile works upon and is affected by.
There are four main areas that we need to bring to our attention in order to more fully understand how something so disarmingly simple and natural as a smile can be of immense practical use to performers and non-performers alike.
I hope you can forgive me for grossly oversimplifying the extraordinary complexities of the structures I am about to use in order to illustrate my ways of working.
First of all, I’d like to look at the facial muscles. Like all muscles, they gain their ability to function from their connections to the boney structures of the skull. In this illustration (fig. 1) you can see on the right side of the face (the happier side ) that the main directions of pull of the muscles radiate from the front of the face, primarily the lips (and the wonderfully named obicularis oris ), back and away to the nearest boney structures; the jaw, cheek bones and the ears. The muscles around the eyes connect to the orbit of the eyes, and to the forehead which in turn wraps around the cranium and connects to the back of the head.
If one were able to peel all these muscles together off the structure of the skull and weigh them, they would be a substantial weight. We only need to take hold of our lips between forefinger and thumb to gauge the thickness of this muscle tissue and see that its combined mass is not inconsiderable. There are many instances in our practice and teaching of the Alexander work that we would ask and be asked to direct such a mass of muscle in a conscious way. Yet I am
often aware that these facial muscles are allowed to become inert, unanimated and heavy. If they are not directed and toned in this back and up, wrap-around way, they are pulling down. That means they are contributing to pulling the head down, interfering with the head/neck balance and ultimately the primary control as well.
We can’t, of course, separate the facial muscles from these other areas of observation and perhaps as you’ve been reading this you have been experimenting with thinking through the structures I’ve been talking about. What you may have been aware of (and the more we bring these things to our awareness, the more subtly we can experience their effects) is the reality that we cannot bring about a change of tone in the facial muscles without an accompanying change in the eyes.
If you allow a masked or pulled down quality in the muscles of your face, the eyes lose their light and become dull. I use this simple experiment with every single one of my pupils and it never fails to show the interconnectedness between the eyes and facial muscles. It is most noticable when observing the movement of the ears when going from a state of dull to twinkling eyes. If you’re able to observe someone else’s ears (or your own in a mirror) from the front, you’ll see the ears rise and move back very slightly. If you observe the same phenomena from the side you’ll see a movement of the cartilage of the ear. The movement is not one dimensional but could best be described as forwards and up (!). This happens with even the most subtle and secret of smiles in the eyes. This movement is not just a superficial one. There are many more movements on a much more subtle and fundamental level, and too many for me to talk about here, but I’d like to bring one to your attention.
For this I’d like to illustrate it with a view of the sphenoid bone (fig.2). The essential thing about the bones of the head is that they are not fixed but have subtle mov
ement relationships between each other and this bone lies at the centre of the head. As you can see, it forms the base of the orbit of the eyes and therefore what we do with our eyes, and the quality of our eyes affects the freedom of the sphenoid. It articulates with more bones than any other bone in the head, including the temporal bones (which houses the ear and the vestibular organs of balance) and, importantly for us as Alexander teachers, the occipital bone, which articulates with the first vertebra, the atlas. Joe Sanders told me that a smile resets our balance in the semi-circular canals, deep within the temporal bone together with the inner ear. So as a smile brings freedom to the sphenoid, it also allows us to free our hearing and our balance. With that expansion of the opening of the outer ear ( that little movement of the cartilage I mentioned earlier) and a greater freedom of the inner ear we can become more able to listen in less habitual ways and stay balanced at the same time. Surely something essential to a musician!
The jaw is slung beneath the sphenoid bone and articulates with the temporal bones (commonly known as the temporo-mandibular joint or TMJ) just in front of the ears. So it can also contribute to our ability to hear freely. The Jaw also has an involved relationship with the eyes through the medial and lateral pterygoid muscles and the pterygo-mandibular ligament (see fig. 2 ). One illustration of this connection is that when we yawn, our eyes often water.
For us as Alexander teachers it is interesting to note that the jaw’s bi-lateral joint articulation has a potentially symmetrical relationship with the centre of the axis of the head as it balances on the spine (fig.3). The lines drawn through the centres of the articulatory joints ( the condylar processes ) meet at the the foramen magnum, which is just in front of the point of axis. I say potentially symmetrical, because it is not unusual for the jaw joints to be used asymmetrically. How many times do we see singers open their mouths to one side and how often do instrumentalists hold their jaw to one side when playing , especially when any difficulty is encountered. This usually denotes an increase in effort and the less well prepared a musician is, the more it happens!
The jaw is an indicator of thought processes reflecting the performer’s abilities to be present and their potential levels of irritation. With actors it is common for the set of the jaw to be a central element in the characterisation of “tough guys”! FM Alexander said it was rare to find a man who can keep his neck free and open his jaw. This is particularly so when there is a one-dimensional movement of the mandible and an absence of widening through the rest of the musculature. The use of the smile achieves this width, easing the jaw movement and connecting it with the tongue without us even having to think about it.
The tongue and the jaw do not work in isolation from one another – one only has to bite the tongue whilst eating to experience the painful truth of this! They have to work together but need independence. Becoming aware of the habitual nature of their relationship can produce long-term unforseen benefits to many aspects of our work. Together they are able to bring to our attention reactive patterns of thought which reveal themselves like an early warning system. Working as I do with many orchestral muscians, observing the tongue-jaw relationship is a never ending source of information both for me and my pupils about the thought processes going on in their minds. One player came back to me the week after I brought this into a lesson to tell me how terrible he was at this. I assured him that this was good news because if he had this awareness he could do something about it. For as long as we are given stimuli to respond to, our tongue and jaw will tighten unless we have that ability to be aware and choose how we respond.
In the next illustration (fig. 4 ) there are three aspects of the tongue that I want to bring to your attention. The first is with the styloglossus muscles ( the shaded muscle in the diagram ) which come from underneath and either side of the main body of the tongue and sweep back and up to the styloid processes. If the tongue is held then it exerts downward pulls on these processes and thus contributes to the head pulling back and down. Many people have tongues which habitually go to different parts of the mouth, for instance pressing onto the roof of the mouth or against the backs of the teeth. I am often presented with different and new variations on this theme. One direction which I find effects changes here is to think of a smile in the back of the tongue.
The second aspect here is that the main body of the tongue is often pulled down into itself making it both shorter and tighter and thus, harder. When it softens it has its own forwards and up and presents little or no obstacle to the flow of air around it ( especially important if this air is vibrating as it does when one is s
inging). It also allows the glands around the mouth to work more freely so it does not dry out ( a complaint often made by those who get nervous!).
Thirdly, the root of the tongue, the hyoid bone ( seen at the bottom of fig 4 ) has muscular connections to the styloid process, through the stylohyoid muscle, the mastoid process and the jaw through the digastric muscle. Pivotally, the hyoid bone also supports the musculature which the larynx hangs from.
So I am saying that all four of these areas of attention I’ve been discussing affect each other reciprocally. If one of them is out of balance then they are all out of balance. And the one thing that helps them all connect into the primary control is the result of a sense of humour, a smile. Some people feel limited by this, especially in relation to the performace of sad and serious music; the Viennese have a saying; “One eye happy, one eye sad” and Schubert’s music, (that most Viennese of composers ) is often described as “smiling through tears”. When we look back at my first illustration (fig. 1 ) it is clear that the “sad” side of the face while still having the same connections to all the structures I have been describing as the “happy” side exerts pulls in different directions. I may be oversimplifying yet again, but I see those pulls on their own as having a general trend towards taking the musculature into a shortened and narrowed state.
And here we come full circle back to my initial area of attention; the facial muscles. These are first and foremost muscles of emotional expression and as such are of course governed by our emotional life. So I ask my students to come back again and again to what is happening here and now and to stay in the present moment when they are practicing and performing. And as they do this they find that they are able to notice the little facial habits which create unnecessary effort (for example frowning, or putting the tongue between the lips or fixing their eyes).
To sum up – the habits that interfere with the brow, tongue and jaw, especially, indicate a particular habitual thought pattern which pre-empts an increase in effort, consequently a greater degree of interference in motor control and a resultant decrease in tone. Some may like to see this purely as a change in tone, timbre, colour or quality. The question then arises: is this the intention of the performer? It may be the case that many a skilful, talented and committed a performer may display these or a combination of these habits in question. For the most gifted and masterful performers it may make little difference to the resultant level of music-making but it is my experience that when a performer includes these aspects of awareness & direction of attention over a prolonged period of time and works with them to bring an aspect of choice to the acts of practice and performance; when the smile is brought into awareness for singers, there i
s a resultant enrichment of tone in all its aspects – the whole harmonic spectrum is expanded. The higher harmonics enriched, the lower partials widened and deepened. The greatest singers all seem to have twinkling eyes, well-toned facial muscles and radiant complexions as part of their basic demeanor even before they open their mouths to sing.
These things appear most naturally in the greatest performers – those who experience and give off great joy as they play.
Earlier I quoted Marjory Barlow’s conversation with FM ( from her book; “An Examined Life” ) in which he said “If you can’t smile at will, you cannot direct,” but I left out what he said next: “…and if you can’t smile at will, God help you!”