Alexander Technique
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2006  Royal Northern College of Music

I’d like to share with you some of the steps that I’ve made on this journey towards my subject today, ‘In the twinkle of an eye’.

On the way I’ll be asking you to take part in practical explorations to illustrate and underline the ways in which I work. I use many of these experiments working with my pupils, both individually and in groups; in fact many of these experiments are best observed in group settings like the one you’re in today.


At some point during my Alexander training someone said:

“It has been scientifically proven that it takes less energy to smile than it does to frown”.

It could have been in a lecture, it could have been during a turn, or it could have been that I overheard it being said to another student within my hearing. I think I was a little startled by the notion at the time but it was like a seed casually thrown to the ground waiting for the right conditions for it to germinate.

Another time I remember a teacher saying to me as I worked on a fellow student:

“Don’t be so serious, Patrick”

My reaction was pretty much rejection of both the idea and the person who’d said it. I took it rather personally and I obviously wasn’t ready to hear it.

Some years after qualifying I was told by Don Burton that I had stared and frowned during lectures every time some new piece of information came my way. (I took it he could tell me because I’d stopped doing it!) Then I read an article by Kathleen Ballard about the eyes, their nerve feedback into the muscles in the neck and how all the senses have similar connections. I became fascinated with studying all these structures and started to look at how everything worked together.

One day as I moved my eyes to one side I felt movement in my ears! I looked in a mirror and saw it, too! What was going on here? I got quite excited by this. I even had a chance to ask Kathleen Ballard about this at a conference and showed it to her.  She was unimpressed with my ‘party trick’ and just asked me to give my directions and free my neck! That didn’t stop the movement! I often ask pupils and workshop participants to try the same thing, though not everyone can produce the same effect. My friendly cranial osteopath thinks it just shows a particular degree of freedom through the structures of the skull, both skeletal and ligamental. Whatever, I’ve still not come to the end of its implications and probably never will.

It was round about this time that I was given a real human skull. Although I’d had experience through cranial work that the skull is made up of many different bones all joined and moving in relationship to each other, to have it so graphically in front of me was rather inspiring, to say the least. One of the first things I saw was how near the eyes are to the jaw. The base bone of the orbit of the eye, the sphenoid, has the mandible hanging from muscles underneath it (the lateral and medial pterygoid muscles). You only have to yawn to feel their connection and pull on one another, sometimes the eyes even water a little because of this.

What I also observed significantly is that our dominant senses; sight, hearing and balance all lie in the same basic horizontal plane.

One day as I was running around the countryside where I live I started working with these ideas as I ran. I recall struggling up a hill one day and hearing the words inside my head; “….it takes less energy to smile than to frown”. I realised I was frowning and then a thought came that it was time to put into practice all these things I’d learnt. I smiled. Suddenly my running became easier. Arriving home I dutifully did my stretching and in a particularly involved position again became aware of the frown. This was accompanied by holding in my jaw and tongue and my lips were pressed together. Again I smiled, everything released and my whole structure became freer. The seed from years before had finally germinated.

At this point what surprised me was the consequent release I noticed in my pelvis. Again I checked this out with my cranial osteopath and she said that the sacrum has a strong relationship to the vomer, the thin central upright bone in the middle of the nasal cavity. She even suggested I directed my thoughts to this bone as I ran!

After this I worked with these ideas myself and introduced them to my pupils, many of whom are musicians. It soon became clear that changes occurring when a pupil found a sense of humour, allowing it to be there and staying present with it were most beneficial. Eyes sparkled; complexions became more colourful and radiant, frowns changed. Both singers and instrumentalists benefited. Of course this is nothing new in the Alexander world, for F.M. himself always seems to have a twinkle in his eye in photos I’ve seen of him and a sense of humour is essential in practicing the whispered ‘AH’.

The face is part of the instrument.

Once during a singing lesson with Nicholas Powell he said; “the face is part of the instrument”. I had just made great improvements in an exercise I’d always found challenging and he’d only asked me to think with a different attitude! This had changed the tone in my facial muscles and consequently the tone in my voice too, both in sound quality and ease of performance. With this almost throwaway remark I began to observe all my pupils who sang and ask them to experiment in similar ways. Soon I started to make the face a central focus in non-singing pupils too.

In attempting to gain greater understanding of how and why all these inter-relationships work and influence each other I’d like to explore some of them with you in practical and (hopefully) observable ways.

So the subjects of our observations as we experiment will be; the eyes, jaw, tongue and the muscles of facial expression.

They all have deep reflex connections to all the structures of the skull and the musculature that subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) influence the head/neck/back relationship.

I have the image of a 3 dimensional helical and spiralic interweaving of layers through structures and tissues of the whole skull, with each layer reflecting and mirroring the tone of the others.

To demonstrate different aspects of this, I’d like to take you through a series of experiments going between a ‘smiling’ and a ‘non-smiling’ state.

Firstly, try giving an impression of someone who is bored with the world. Let all those muscles on the front of your face go dull and heavy. To make sure of the effect also let the light go out of your eyes as well (this usually happens automatically). How does your head feel, any heavier? What about the inside of your mouth and the back of your throat? (the list could be endless). Now let the light come back into your eyes, look around you. Feel the muscles tone up and become more animated. Does your head feel lighter?

Try it once more with a partner or in front of a mirror. This time watch one of your partner’s ears. It will drop with the dullness, but more importantly when your face and eyes become livelier, the ear will go up – back and up to be more precise. If you were to continue the movement through it’s axis it would turn into “forwards and up”. You can see this clearly with a partner looking directly at their ear. These movements have counterparts deep within the structures of the head and with the next part of this experiment I hope to show you some aspects of this.

Using the same “dull /animated face” experiment can you observe the sounds made by the air passing in and out through your nose. Again let your face go dull and listen as air enters and leaves your nostrils.

Find your sense of humour, your “inner smile” and listen again. What do you observe? Is it quieter, calmer? Does the air enter and leave with greater ease and rapidity? Is there a greater expansion of the lungs and chest?

My understanding of what is happening here is that the mucus membrane lining the inside of the nasal septum and nostrils makes greater contact with this inner bony structure which is itself expanding, thus creating more internal space.

There are changes on down through the throat, pharynx, oro-pharynx and down into the larynx. As the mucus membrane is a continuous structure right through this area to the trachea and on into the lungs it works as a unified whole. Any interference to any one part produces a lessening of all it’s functioning parts.

What is also strongly affected by our smile (linking together all the structures I have been talking about) is the soft palate. This is made up of two muscles; levator veli palatini (which raises the soft palate) and tensor veli palatini (which tones up the soft palate). We use the first of these everyday in eating and swallowing and if we need to, breathing through the mouth. The second, in toning up and raising the soft palate is of vital importance in creating resonance and amplifying our voice. All great singers have light in their eyes and great tone in their facial muscles. The zygomatics, major and minor have a powerful influence here connecting the lips and cheek muscles onto the cheekbones.

As I talk I can lose the bright, higher harmonics in my voice by letting my face go masked, and gain the brightness back as my face takes on a more enlivened state accompanied by the light in my eyes. This would be amplified to a much greater degree if I sang.

Here we come to an important area for ourselves as Alexander teachers. The combined muscles of the soft palate, if not toned up, pull us down in quite a crucial place; directly in front of the atlanto-occipital joint. Toned up, they encourage a more complete connection all the way down the throat to the vocal chords. When this continuous sheet of muscle and mucus membrane is connected in this way it also makes the most intimate contact with the front of the cervical spine. I shall come back to this point a bit later.

I’d just like to look here at our facial muscles, starting with the lips and expanding to the cheeks, eyes, jaw, ears and on beyond onto the very structure of the skull.

With the middle finger and thumb of one hand, measure the thickness of your lip about a centimetre from its edge. Without changing the distance between finger and thumb have a look at how thick it is. That thickness of muscle covering the face is a large area of tissue and as Alexander teachers, if it were anywhere else on the body we would be asked to direct through it. However, it seems to me that in the Alexander world it is let go of a lot but not directed through. If it isn’t being directed through, back and up onto the bones of the head then it’s going to be pulling down. So this subtle sense of humour and its resultant toning up of these facial muscles is actually directing them back and up onto the skull and wrapping itself round behind the head.

Next, staying with those muscles that wrap around the back of the head I’d like you to be aware of them as you play around a little with your forehead and eyebrows and give a little frown. What do you notice? Does it create tightening anywhere? Many of my pupils have mentioned resultant tightening right around the back and top of the head.

This was illustrated for me recently when I was working with a pupil on a table in semi-supine. At a certain point she frowned and at the same moment her neck, lips and jaw tightened. It was just an idiosyncratic little furrowing of the brow but it showed me that her thoughts were elsewhere

On asking her to be aware of this her brow released, became smooth, wide and she was able to release her neck, lips and jaw.

My pupil was reminded of a passage in a short story about Sherlock Holmes and Dr.Watson by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This is an abridged version of the relevant passage she was reminded of (it’s from ‘The Resident Patient’ in ‘The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes’);

‘Some little time ago, Watson, I read you a passage in one of Poe’s sketches in which a close reasoner follows the unspoken thoughts of his companion. On my remarking that I was constantly in the habit of doing the same thing you expressed incredulity.’

“Oh no! Holmes’

‘Perhaps not with your tongue, my dear Watson, but certainly with your eyebrows!’

Holmes then goes on to describe how observation of facial muscles and eye movements he could follow Watson’s thought processes.

And it is this area that I would like to turn now. For the face reflects the thought processes behind the expression. In particular, the brow and jaw seem to be particularly swift at revealing thoughts, especially doubting, negative or questioning thoughts (this last point for me is fascinating, for I have observed in some photos of F.M.Alexander that he had a subtle yet marked pattern of holding in his ‘procerus’ muscle, in between his eyebrows and just above his nose. This indicates to me that he spent much time looking and asking questions to himself about what he saw).

Muscular patterns in the brow can also prove to be very habitual and fixed and give indications of where we and our pupil’s thoughts are in terms of past, present or future. Also the jaw and brow will go into unconscious tightening patterns when we want to be somewhere else or would rather be doing something else.

So ideally we want to encourage our pupils to be in the present moment, to give attention to the now and respond appropriately to what is happening around them. To achieve this they need to be content in each present moment that comes their way.

To put this into a larger context; fundamentally we all came here, in some way or other to be happy in this life. We work better, feel better and play better when we are happy. In our culture the phrase for describing what we musicians do is that we play music. How can we play anything if we are not enjoying ourselves?

So I ask pupils to find a sense of humour, a ‘twinkle in the eye’ and add it to the basic principles of the Alexander Technique. Then the whole structure of the head balancing on top of the neck on top a torso gathers together all the strands beneath it into a cohesive whole as though the strands are the strings and the bones the body of a string instrument.

I talked earlier about the continuous sheet of muscle covered in mucus membrane that makes intimate contact with the front of the cervical spine. It is as though it hugs every contour inside our head and neck. When it is toned in the ways I have described it allows any vibration created by voice or instrument to resonate in around and through the bones it makes contact with. This is because part of the structure of bone is crystalline and crystals vibrate. So the air inside us, our soft tissues and our bones sound with the vibrations. Our backs act like sounding boards of pianos and we can literally tune our bodies. Culturally we even talk about being in tune with ourselves.

The phenomena I have been talking about here have long been part of the way the Alexander Technique has shown and proven itself again and again since FM began his work. The beauty of it is that the performer utilising the technique and the observer can both experience and perceive changes in the most moving of ways.

Before I come to the end I would like to tell you about two recent pupils who have underlined for me this way of working. I was moved when working with an 11 year-old choirboy who experienced an expansion of the sound he made when he found his sense of humour with his eyes sparkling while singing. And a cellist I was working with heard his sound dramatically change to fill the room he was performing in. It was clear that his brow started to furrow just before he got to tricky passages and at the same time he became aware that his shifting was more secure and technical difficulties and intonation problems he had known in octave passages in the last movement of Beethoven’s triple concerto disappeared with the twinkle in his eyes.

I would like to leave you with a quote from Samuel Johnson I found recently that seems to sum up my approach of subtle observation.

There is nothing, Sir, too little for so little a creature as man.

It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.