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Tips4Pupils – Means-whereby

When I need to undertake a task of some sort there is an inner activity and an outer activity. The sequence, according to Alexander’s ideas,  of “inner events” is something like this:

  1. say “no”!
  2. consider my options
  3. make a decision
  4. organise myself (head, neck & back etc.)
  5. work out my “means-whereby” (the best way to do it)
  6. reconsider (I can still change my decision)
  7. let my head go forward and up and get on with it

Is it not the case, though, that there is often an assumption that as long as my neck is free (etc.) I am “using” myself well?

Think of any task involving a number of necessary actions. For example, decorating a room: I might need to move all the furniture into the centre of the room or even out of the room all together.

Where am I going to put everything? Which items should I move first? Should I empty drawers or bookshelves before trying to move heavy furniture? Where might I store the contents ? Etc, etc……That’s before I even start preparing the surfaces to be painted.

Unless I work out my means-whereby before I start, I am likely to have to do a lot more work than necessary.

If I start moving a sideboard around with no idea where to put it because I filled the only large enough space with piles of books, BUT….. I keep a free neck – does that mean I have “good use”?

Compare this with the practical man or woman – amateur or professional decorator – who, before starting, thinks things through and works out the optimum sequence of events, BUT….. stiffens or collapses somewhat while doing the practical work.

Whose “use” is better?

Taking a moment or two to consider the means-whereby we are going to carry out an activity (the best way to do it) can bring a new dimension to our understanding of the use of the self.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Tips4Pupils – “Use” & “Self”

According to Erika Whittaker, when one of his students or pupils would complain to FM Alexander about something or other that was going on in their lives, his response was often to say:

“But it’s you! It’s you who’s doing it.”

So Alexander’s concept of “use” was total. It is not just about what you do or don’t do; or whether you do it with a free neck. It is about who you are: not “use of the body” but “use of the self”.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Tips4Pupils – Respiration & Voice

How will the Alexander Technique help me with respiration?

In two ways:

  1. by having generally better “use” – that is to say, carrying less unnecessary tension and having the proper support in the body – the respiratory system will not have to work so hard to move air in and out of the body;
  2. by learning how to leave your breathing mechanisms alone, you will not be interfering with what Nature does very well.

What are the mechanisms involved in breathing?

Briefly, the brain receives information about carbon dioxide levels in the blood. When they are too high it responds by sending a message directly to the diaphragm which in turn contracts downwards and outwards from its dome-shaped resting position while the ribs move side-ways and upwards. This brings about a considerable increase in the volume of the thorax. The internal air pressure is thereby reduced and atmospheric pressure pushes air into the lungs. The diaphragm then begins to relax and come back up inside the rib-cage, which closes around it, into a dome-shape, aided by the internal organs and abdominal wall which – having been pushed respectively down and out during inspiration – are exerting pressure. The resultant decrease in the volume of the thorax puts the air in the lungs under increased pressure (higher than atmospheric pressure) and it therefore passes out through the wind-pipe (i.e. is exhaled).

The most important aspect of this from the point of view of respiratory re-education is that the movement of air in and out of the lungs, when not interfered with, is a passive consequence of work done primarily by the diaphragm – not under voluntary control. It is when we either interfere with the voluntary muscles (either consciously or unconsciously), or are more or less permanently in a state of rigidity or collapse that things go wrong. Therefore any effort made to make air come in or out of the lungs is counter-productive. To learn to breathe well is to learn how to get out of the way. Alexander work is a very effective way to bring this about.

How will the Alexander Technique help me with voice?

Natural breathing, as described above, is the foundation for any work with voice. In order to produce sound, the vocal chords squeeze together and provide a resistance to the air being pushed out of the lungs by the increase in air pressure caused by the diaphragm and rib-cage. When this is done without any unnecessary interference from voluntary muscles, the voice has a particular resonance which can be recognised. The most common faults in voice production (or playing a wind-instrument) are:

  • accessory breathing mechanisms are used to pull air into the upper chest. This mechanism (used, for example, when panting) allows for a rapid exchange of air for emergency purposes. However, since the lungs are more or less pyramid shaped they very soon feel full if the air is coming into the top part first. This is the most common reason why singers and public speakers find they feel puffed up with air and yet cannot finish a phrase.
  • the abdominal muscles are used to try to force air into the base of the lungs. The effect of this is to weaken those muscles, cause flaccidity in the intestines, weaken the diaphragm (whose work is being done by the wrong body-part), and bring about a rigidity in the rib-cage, which is denied its chance to expand and contract with respiration.
  • excess tension is used in the throat region to try to control the rate at which air is expelled.

Though there can be exceptions and special circumstances, re-education of the vocal mechanism is best done in the following sequence:

  1. work on improving general functioning
  2. work on rediscovering natural breathing
  3. work on producing simple sounds (whispered vowels) without interference
  4. speech
  5. song

© 1994 John S Hunter