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. Hehad 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 us.
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 individuals.
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 personalalertness 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 (top center) 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 and arms.
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.
About the Author
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 Alexander Technique.
- Introduction to the Alexander Technique
- Alexander Murray – Alexander Technique Center Urbana
- Raymond Dart, Alexander Murray and the Alexander Technique:
Beginning from the Beginning: The Growth of Understanding and Skill: A Conversation about the Dart Procedures with Joan and Alexander Murray.
- Neuromuscular Anatomy, Child Development, and Evolution for the Alexander Technique: AT Anatomy Weebly by Alexander Murray and Anna LeGrand.
- John Dewey and the Alexander Technique
- Three Musicians Talk About the Alexander Technique
- Mornum Time Press
The Alexander Technique: Freedom in Thought and Action by Tasha Miller and David Langstroth. The first chapter is available as 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. Available from Amazon.
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“The whole of you lifts the flute, not merely the hands and arms.” –Alex Murray