The Vault

F. M. Alexander an Historical Overview

Rosslyn McLeod

 

The Alexander Technique is now taught in many countries, but as yet there is no biography of Alexander, though there are numerous books on his work. The life of any individual is a journey which is unique to that person. When studying Alexander's ideas today, we must remember that they are the result of varied experiences and that each one of us will interpret Alexander's ideas according to our own background.

Each life is shaped by three main influences: heredity—our individual ancestral stock; environment—where we grow up, people we are in contact with; and thirdly, use—the way in which we choose to carry out the detail of our lives,—the mental, emotional and physical minutiae that shape what we become. It is the third influence, use, and how we deal with it, that came to occupy F.M. Alexander for much of his life.

Alexander's Early Life

Frederick Matthias Alexander came from a family who had had their share of trial, tribulation and success. His grandfather, and two brothers, were sent from England to Van Diemen's Land in 1831 as convicts—the grandfather and one brother received this sentence for taking part in riots that were a protest against the very difficult living conditions at the time. After receiving their pardons some years later, the three Alexander brothers settled in the north-west of Van Diemen's Land, later called Tasmania.

F.M. Alexander was born in Tasmania in 1869, his family was one of a number of Alexander families in the area. He went to the local school and must have done well, as in 1883 he was appointed a school monitor, a position of assistant to the school teacher. In schools with only one or two teachers and classes of children of varying ages, it was the custom for an older pupil to be appointed as monitor to assist the teacher. In mid-1885 FM went to the nearby mining town of Waratah and obtained a position as junior clerk with the mining company. As well as work, he took part in amateur drama performances, further developing his love of theatre, which then led him decide to go to Melbourne in the late 1880's to develop a career as an actor.

Melbourne and New Zealand Experiences

"Marvellous Melbourne" of that era was a city that had developed quickly because of the enormous wealth of the gold found in the surrounding areas of the colony of Victoria. When FM arrived there in the late 1880's, theatre life was flourishing. FM attended many performances and took lessons in the arts of elocution and acting, supporting himself by work of various kinds. The story of how he developed voice problems and solved them is described in much of the literature both by Alexander himself, and others. What is not as well known is detail of Alexander's life and work in Australia and New Zealand until 1904, when he went to England.

As Alexander developed confidence in his ability to recite and teach voice, he returned to Tasmania in 1894 to follow this dual career. In 1895 he lived and worked in New Zealand. His six months in Auckland in the latter part of 1895 were very successful. His recital performances included extracts from plays, Shakespeare and other playwrights, and a variety of poetry. His choice of poems was from the repertoire of the day, moods ranged from tragic to humourous, titles included: "Kissing Cup's Race"—a horse race with marriage hanging on the outcome; Tim Twinkleton's "Twins"—a story of mixed fortune with a happy ending; "The Dream of Eugene Aram"—a dark tragedy; "Keeping His Word"—a sad story of a London waif; and "In the Signal Box"—a railway story with drama and relief at the conclusion. As well, prose extracts ranged from the high passion of political oratory to the humour of absurd situation. Much of the material that Alexander and his contemporaries used for their recitals is to be found in elocution books of the time.

FM returned to live in Melbourne in 1896. His career as teacher of natural elocution flourished. Many of his pupils were not those aiming for the stage, but came From the professions where public speaking was a necessity and good oratory highly prized. There were no microphones then so lawyers, politicians and the clergy were conscious of the need of sound voice production. In Melbourne, Alexander received high praise from many of his pupils, who came from diverse walks of life, for the help he gave them in the art of good speech. Also, the breadth of Alexander's work was expanding and doctors were sending patients with breathing problems to Alexander.

From Sydney to London

In 1900 FM moved to Sydney. Here he continued his recital work and his reaching. He had the support of some prominent doctors and it was their encouragement that led him to deciding to take his work to England in 1904. The wider opportunities offered abroad have beckoned many Australians and FM was destined to be one of these. He never returned to Australia though, through contact with Australians who were overseas and by letters with people in Australia, FM did maintain some links with his homeland.

FOOTNOTE

Rosslyn McLeod's book Up From Down Under: the Australian Origins of Frederick Matthias Alexander and the Alexander Technique, is obtainable from: STAT books, 20 London House, 266 Fulham Road, London, SW10 9EL, England or from the author at the address below.

BIOGRAPHY

Rosslyn McLeod is a music and education graduate from Universities in Adelaide and Melbourne. After many years of music teaching she trained as a teacher of the Alexander Technique—two years of study were done in London and a final year in Sydney—which she completed in 1984. Interest in the historical background of Alexander's Australian years led to the publication of her book on this topic.

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