The Vault

We Go Forward And Up

By Glynn MacDonald


"To be or not to be that is the question."

When Shakespeare put those words into the mouth of Hamlet, he gave voice to the universal choice! That choice is between two ways of living:

To be conscious, rational, inspired, creative, fully alive or to become unconscious, irrational, uninspired, uncreative, only partly alive.

Who would choose the latter? Who does not wish to come into his own supreme inheritance?

Goethe called this life "The childhood of our immortality," and we through fear and lack of courage, forget the bright fire of eternal life and smoulder weakly on like tired machines through this most joyous time.

F. M. Alexander was a man of vision. Through his understanding and experience he has enabled us to come to grips with the most basic questions which we find so difficult to answer—these common questions: "What shall I do?" or "Am I fulfilled?" or even "How are you?" Oliver Sachs in his remarkable book Awakenings explains both simply and deeply that these questions "How are you?", "How are things?" are metaphysical questions, infinitely simple and infinitely complex.

The dialogue about how one is can only be couched in human terms, familiar terms, which come easily and naturally to all of us; and it—the dialogue—can only be held if there is a direct and human confrontation, an 'I-Thou' relation.

As Alexander teachers we are dealing with the metaphysics of the muscles. "Metaphysics," according to the Oxford Dictionary, "is the speculative inquiry which treats of the first principle of things, including such concepts as being, substance, essence, time, space, cause and identity."

This is not to deny that there is a great body of mechanical work to be done on ourselves; but without basic inspiration and self knowledge the workings of the muscles become more important than why we are involved in the Alexander Technique.

Leibnitz stresses that metaphysics comes first—that although the workings of the world never contravene mechanical considerations, they only make sense and become fully intelligible in the light of metaphysical considerations—the world's mechanics subserve its design.

Again Oliver Sachs says:

If this were clearly understood, no trouble would arise. Folly enters when we try to 'reduce' metaphysical terms and matters to mechanical ones.1

He goes on to explain this more fully:

But no scale, no measure, no rule can work, unless it works personally, livingly for one. Posture, we may say is a reflection of gravity, and of other physical and psychological forces acting upon one: it is the resultant and expression of such forces but it is one's representation and expression, an active and absolutely personal expression, and not merely a mechanical or mathematical one. Every posture is unique and personal, as well as being mechanical and right and rational: every posture is an 'I' no less than an 'It.' Every posture, every action, is suffused with feeling—with grace ("Grace is the peculiar relation of actor to action", writes Winkelman). And it is precisely this which is missing in diseases such as Parkinson's. There is a loss of natural feeling and grace; a loss of the living 'I'-—this is our way of seeing the inert, impersonal, Parkinsonian state. And this is the rationale of an 'existence' therapy: not to instruct but to inspire—to inspire with art to combat the inert (which means, quite literally 'in-art,' to inspire with the personal and living, and, in the directest sense possible to awaken and quicken.2

Not to instruct but to inspire—to inspire—to allow the breath in. This was Alexander's great discovery. He proved that when the breathing and vocal mechanism was re-educated, the student was free to explore and interpret his art, be it speech or song or whatever creative field in which he was involved. In a pamphlet published in 1906, FM wrote:

The student can hardly fail, after re-education, to sing in human fashion. The training has become part of himself, the new habits, so far as the respiratory and vocal mechanism is concerned, give full control, leaving the whole mental power free for devotion to intelligent interpretation of songs or speech. There is a co-ordination of respiratory and vocal powers, unconscious direction having been engendered, or, as we say, use has become second nature. Nature's mechanism has been restored. The speaker has no longer any anxiety as to whether he can or cannot breathe adequately, or produce this or that tone correctly, or sing up to his proper standard; an unconscious mathematical precision born of absolute confidence is enjoyed, and he can therefore throw himself heart and soul into his singing, knowing full well that the artistically employed mechanism at his command is making for nothing but the highest standard of perfection.3

Always the harmony of nature was respected and restored. Always the search for grace and poise uppermost in his explorations.

St. Theresa of Avila reminds us: "When once our grace we have forgot, nothing goes right."4

And indeed this loss of grace is often our own doing. We insist on doing instead of stopping. Alexander explains in the The Use of the Self:

After many disappointed experiences of this kind I decided to give up any attempt for the present to 'do' anything to gain my end, and I came to see at last that if I was ever to be able to change my habitual use and dominate my instinctive direction it would be necessary for me to make the experience of receiving the stimulus to speak and of refusing to do anything immediately in response.5

The 'Readiness is all'—a delicate balance of withholding consent until our sensory experience becomes a little more reliable. So we begin to have a reasonable idea of where we are in time and space; we find ourselves to be less fooled by debauched kinaesthetic appreciation.

There is a sentence in the Mahabharata: "Destruction never approaches weapon in hand. It comes slyly on tiptoe, making you see bad in good, and good in bad."6

There is always a choice. We can choose to clear the doors of perception through the conscious control of ourselves, but Alexander does warn us in the The Use of the Self:

I would point out that this procedure is contrary not only to any procedure in which our individual instinctive direction has been drilled, but contrary also to that in which man's instinctive processes have been drilled continuously all through his evolutionary experience.7

It is a long procedure, and by its very nature a slow one, but "If you would create something you must be something." Goethe does not suggest that to be something is easy—he goes on to say: "Life is a quarry out of which we are to mould and chisel and complete a character." Character for Novalis is "perfectly educated will."

This work is to be done on ourselves before we enter the turbulent world and try to explain and demonstrate the gift we have been given by Alexander's discovery. This means—'whereby,' 'conscious,' 'reasoned 'direction,' 'inhibition and 'non-doing' are simply terms until we illuminate them for ourselves and for our students. The light Alexander has brought into the world must be brought burning brightly into the twenty first century. We have a universal constant in living and we are the guardians of it. Hamlet, Prince of the Danes, puts it perfectly:

What a piece of work is man!
How noble in reason!
How infinite in faculty!
In form, in moving how express & admirable!
In Action how like an angel!
In Apprehension how like a god!
The beauty of the World!
The Paragon of Animals!
(Hamlet, II, 2) Shakespeare

The Whispered Ah

The whispered Ah is one of the most basic and important procedures which Alexander encouraged his pupils to experience. It grew out of his need to find a way of using the vocal mechanism. What is the vocal mechanism?

The vocal mechanism consists of the energiser which is the breath, the vocaliser—which is where the sound begins, and the resonators—which are the spaces in the head and body where the sound is made louder and fuller. The co-ordination of these make the voice work. It only takes one of these to be not working and the voice becomes inefficient. If you pull the head back, shorten the neck muscles, pull down the front, gasp or suck in breath, then you will be interfering in each of these areas. But do not worry— help is at hand!

The whispered 'Ah' will enable you to use your voice properly. As Frank Pierce Jones said:

As they [Alexander brothers] used it in their teaching, it is an extremely effective device for demonstrating the role of inhibition in breathing and voice production.8

How do you teach it?

After checking your directions think of something funny. The thought will make you smile and that will liven and lift the soft palate and soften the face. As you go forward and up, the light in the eyes continues and the epiglottis follows in the forward and up direction, so masses of space is suddenly available. All through non-doing.

Now notice the tongue and direct the tip of it to the back of the lower teeth. This stops that large organ from getting in the way and prepares the mouth's cavity for the shape needed to form the open sound of 'Ah.'

Then working closely with gravity and appreciating the help it is giving you, allow the jaw to move forward and down—watch here that you do not tilt the head back. Now the whisper—to speak in a whisper is not what we habitually do, so Alexander asks us to practise the sound 'Ah' in this unusual way.

All vowels let the column of air through without interference. The vowel 'Ah' is the most open of all the vowels. Compare the consonants—which are definite blocking of the air: p—b—t—ch. So, with your attention organised in this very specific way, whisper "Ah-------"

Now close the jaw and the air will come rushing back in through the nostrils. If the ribs have been consciously directed together and the length and freedom maintained while saying the whispered 'Ah' then there should be no problems with the reflex actions of the in-breath. If you consciously direct the air out, the in-breath will happen automatically.

The whispered 'Ah' is not only important for the beginner, but it is a very true measure for the experienced teacher, the Alexander student and the performer to persistently check both their inhibition and direction.

In my experience it is a perfect exercise that should be put into practice daily.


1. Sachs, Oliver, Awakenings, Picador, London (1982) p205
2. Ibid, p251
3. Direction, Vol. 1 No 3, p92.
4. Teresa, of Avila Saint, The Way of Perfection, translated by the Benedictines of Stanbrook Abbey, London (1911)
5. Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, Methuen & Co, (1931) p27
6. Carriere, Jean Claude, Mahabarata—A Play Based on the Indian Classic Epic, translated by Peter Brook, Methuen (1988) p50. The line was spoken by Krishna.
7. Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, op cit., p35
8. Jones, Frank Pierce, Body Awareness in Action, Schocken, New York (1979) p21


Glynn Macdonald is a graduate of the Constructive Teaching Centre. She has taught the Alexander Technique at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, the Guildhall School of Drama, and the Central School of Speech and Drama. She is currently Chairperson of the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT).Her book, The Alexander Technique, was published by Hodder and Stoughton as a Headway Lifeguide, in 1994.

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