The Alexander Technique and Flute Playing
by Alexander Murray
I spent the war years 1940-1946 at school in South Africa. When
I returned to England I had the good fortune to meet a “natural” flute player, Stanley Farnsworth, who was a visitor to my hometown
on the occasion of his niece's wedding. At that time he was in the
orchestra for “Song of Norway,” a London musical, playing to
packed houses. I was about to go to London for my Royal College of
Music audition and he invited me to stay in his home.
Stan was an all-round musician, played the cello, accompanied
me on the piano and composed and scored tuneful salon pieces. He
had a photograph of himself at age five, sitting on top of an
upright piano, playing the piccolo. He couldn't remember when he
first acquired one. Training as a boy apprentice at Kneller Hall
School of Military Music, he served his time in the army before
becoming a free-lance musician.
I have never heard sweeter flute playing (on an old Rudall
Carte ebonite flute). Unambitious, he accepted the London Theatre
scene as his main source of income. His last engagement was in the
Drury Lane Theatre orchestra for “My Fair Lady” after which he,
his wife, daughter and son-in-law emigrated to New Zealand.
To Stan, flute playing was as natural as talking—even more
natural as he was by no means loose-tongued. What do I mean by
“natural” flute-playing? It is easier to say what it is not. Many
distinguished flute-playing artists appear to be fighting with the
limited number of stereotyped movements which accompany whatever
they are playing. If you are watching a TV performance, turn off
the sound and see if you can infer the music from the gestures. If
they were truly fitted to the music, it might be possible. I have
never found this to be the case.
If you did not have the good fortune to learn to speak with the
melodious tongue of the flute by the age of 5, how can you become
a “natural” player?
I can't pretend to know the answer. The best advice I can give
is that proffered by John
Dewey in 1918 in his introduction to the first book on the
Alexander Technique to appear in the United States:
The spontaneity of childhood is a delightful and
precious thing, but its original naive form is bound to
disappear. Emotions become sophisticated unless they become
enlightened, and the manifestation of sophisticated emotion is
in no sense genuine self-expression. True spontaneity is
henceforth not a birth-right but the last term, the consummated
conquest of an art, the art of conscious control, to the
mastery of which Mr. Alexander's book so convincingly invites
F. Matthias Alexander was born in Tasmania in 1869, ten years after John
Dewey. As a young man he was a successful actor and orator until
afflicted with a recurrent hoarseness. Failing to find a medical
solution to his problem, he set about studying what he was doing
while reciting using mirrors as a visual guide. Early in his
self-study he realized that he had discovered principles
applicable to cases other than his own. He progressively evolved a
technique for communicating these principles to other
Alexander had been teaching his technique for over a quarter of
a century when he met John Dewey whom he helped recover from a
stress-induced breakdown. During the earlier part of his career
Alexander had worked mainly with actors and voice users and was
initially known as “the breathing man.” As he gained more
experience in helping alleviate vocal and respiratory problems, he
realized that these were symptoms of mal-coordination which he
subsequently called “mis-use.” In 1932 he wrote a retrospective
account of how he had dealt with his own problems. The Use of
the Self was written for the benefit of his first Teacher's
Training Course. By the time of his death in 1955 Alexander had
trained about 50 teachers some of whom in turn trained others.
There are now several thousand Alexander teachers worldwide. The
Alexander Technique, like the flute, cannot be adequately taught
by the written word. That being said, I will do my best to explain
its value to flute players.
Alexander realized that what he initially conceived of as a
“physical problem” with a “mental aspect” must be treated as a
“psychophysical” unity and that his approach was “re-educative,” restoring conditions that have changed for the worse by
subconscious bad habits.
One of the first bad habits Alexander dealt with was noisy
breathing—sniffing and gasping. When the nostrils are flared and
not narrowed, the air can come in through the nose noiselessly,
unless the nasal sinuses are blocked. Similarly, if the jaw is
released and allowed to open, the air will enter soundlessly and
easily through the mouth as in swimming. Noisy breathing means
that the air is being impeded—subject to friction as it enters.
“Natural” breathing is taking place all the time. If you exhale
deliberately (whether playing, or whispering) then close the lips
and wait, the air will return in its own time. This is a useful
experiment when practicing—play a phrase of moderate length,
close the lips and notice how long it is before you have recovered
the breath expended.
What Alexander discovered is that there is a certain optimal
condition of the organism, which if maintained, brings about a
natural recovery of breath. This condition is present normally in
healthy young children but is lost as they grow and develop under“civilized” conditions.
The flexibility and mobility of our bodies is affected by our
day-to-day habits. Slouching in schoolrooms for long periods of
time changes the natural capacity of the organism. Healthy
activities in the open air can mitigate conditions to some extent,
but very often even the best coordinated athletic youngsters will
return to the classroom and to a “slumped” attitude.
The alertness which is taken for granted on the court or field
is the sort of alertness we need to bring to our practice as
flutists. Long periods of boredom in band or orchestra while the
conductor deals with problems of blowing or bowing hardly
encourage lively habits of mind.The Alexander Technique can help
the student utilize these lulls in activity to promote personal
alertness and readiness to play when the time is appropriate.
The most counterproductive habit is one of anxiety. The most
exaggerated form of this is what is known as the “startle” pattern. We have all experienced “startle” when a sudden loud
noise causes us to contract. This contraction if often present in
a small but noticeable (to others) degree when we are anxious
about the success or failure of our efforts. Learning to recognize
this behavior and neutralize it is one of the ways in which an
Alexander teacher can help.
What can you expect if you decide to have an Alexander lesson?
Your teacher may ask you if you have any particular
problems—holding the flute, breathing, embouchure,
double-tonguing or any of the categories of problems into which we
analyze our flute playing activities. You may be asked to
demonstrate the difficulty. But what the teacher is interested in
is the way you move and approach whatever you do—your pattern of “use.”
Alexander Murray (right) giving instruction to a teacher-trainee at the Alexander Technique Center Urbana.
The most important factors in any experimental situation are
awareness and observation. An Alexander lesson is an experiment in
which the pupil and the teacher are both observing and becoming
aware of the process. Whatever the activity—lifting the
instrument, playing a note, playing a technical passage, or making
a simple movement from sitting to standing or vice versa—the
teacher and pupil will be organizing their perceptions of what is
going on. And this organization will not be on the “end” to be
gained, but on the way in which it is accomplished—the steps
which lead to its accomplishment.
The first step in any activity should be “Stop,” and then,
“Consider.” If you lift the flute as soon as you think of lifting
it, you will lift it in your habitual way. If you wish to change
this you must first stop. Then think of the “means” or the way in
which you will pick it up. Before you make a move there are other
matters to be considered. These are the responsibility of your
teacher. With the teacher's hands appropriately placed, the
teacher will notice the way in which you are responding to the
idea of moving and will encourage you to become aware of a certain
natural relationship of the head, neck, and torso and the ways in
which you may be interfering with this. This relationship, which
is a dynamic one, becomes part of the organization of what
follows. The whole of you lifts the flute, not merely the hands
As musicians we are accustomed to “thinking-in-activity,” a
phrase Dewey applied to the Alexander Technique. We note key, time
signature, and tempo and maintain this information at a more or
less subconscious level while playing. With the Alexander
Technique the relationship of the head, neck, and back is primary
in every activity. Just as we pay little attention to key, time
signature and tempo until there is a change, so in the Alexander
organization of awareness, when something changes, we reconsider
the total pattern.
There is no activity of the fingers, lips, or breath which does
not involve the whole organism: the head (with our wonderful
brain), the neck (through which flows food for thought), and the
torso (the engine, driving the whole unit). How to intelligently
involve the whole self in one’s flute playing, naturally
and spontaneously, is the purpose of the Alexander Technique.
Reprinted with permission of Alexander Murray.
This essay appeared in The Flutist's Handbook: A Pedagogy
Anthology, The National Flute Association, Inc.
Alexander Murray is a Professor Emeritus of Flute at the University of Illinois School of Music. Formerly principal flute with
Covent Garden Opera and the London Symphony, he has taught at the
Royal College, Royal Academy, and Royal Northern College in
England, the Royal Dutch Conservatory, Michigan State University,
and the National Music Camp at Interlochen. He has recorded
extensively with the London Symphony Orchestra and made solo
albums for Pandora Records. Since 1959, Mr. Murray has designed
flutes made by Albert Cooper and Jack Moore with advice from
physicists Arthur Benade, John Coltman and Ronald Laszewski. (See The Development of the Modern Flute.) In cooperation with
physicist Ronald Laszewski, he has continued to investigate the
acoustics of the flute including Renaissance and Baroque
instruments on which he performs regularly. The most recent
experimental flute (1998) is a quarter-tone instrument, pitched a
tone lower than normal (A=392). Alex Murray is Winner
of First Prize, Paris Conservatoire and a founder-director of the
National Flute Association. He taught and performed annually at
the Oxford Flute Week at Queen's College and is principal flute in
the Sinfonia da Camera.
With his wife Joan, Alex Murray is Co-Director
of the Urbana Center for the Alexander Technique and has trained
over 100 Alexander teachers, including several flutists. The Murrays spent nine years working with Walter Carrington, who was F.M. Alexander’s principal assistant. They
completed their teacher training in the Alexander Technique with Walter
Carrington in the early 1960s. The Murrays worked with many first generation teachers, including: Walter Carrington, Frank and Helen Jones, Patrick Macdonald, Majorie Barstow, Charles Neil, John Skinner, Peter Scott, Tony Spawforth, Richard and Elizabeth Walker, Lulie Westfelt, Kitty Wielopolska, and Peggy Williams. In
collaboration with renowned anthropologist and anatomist Raymond
Dart, Alex and Joan Murray have created a
developmental approach to learning and teaching the Alexander
Technique. Alex Murray is the editor of Skill and Poise, a
collection of Raymond Dart's papers. He is also the editor of a
series of booklets on the Alexander Technique and philosopher John
Dewey. The Murrays are members of the Society of Teachers of the
Recommended Introductory Books on the Alexander Technique
The Alexander Technique: Freedom in Thought and Action by Tasha Miller and David Langstroth. The first chapter is available for a free download from Alexander Technique Atlantic. Audio download is available from cdbaby. Nous Publishing, 2007. ISBN 9780973978629. "...two writers who are so articulate and stylish, so broadly read in their subject, and so sensible in their commentary...a very healthy and much needed work.” – Alex Murray
Indirect Procedures: A Musician's Guide to the Alexander
Technique by Pedro de Alcantara. Foreword by Sir Colin
Davis. London: Oxford University Press, 1997 edition.
The Alexander Technique for Musicians
Alexander Technique: The Insiders’ Guide
Web site maintained
by Marian Goldberg
Alexander Technique Center of Washington, D.C.