August 2015 Convention
Washington, D.C.

Alexander Technique: The Use of the Self

The National Flute Association’s 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, Alexander Murray, provided a lecture to help flutists understand his experience learning and teaching the technique developed by F. Matthias Alexander. Alexander Technique, as outlined by Murray, evolved to help maintain continuing improvements in our functioning as musicians and human beings. As an Alexander Technique practitioner, I was very excited to get the opportunity to listen to a teacher and flutist who trained with Alexander directly.

Alexander Murray

photo by Paula Gudmundson

Murray began his workshop by asking us to imagine picking up and playing the flute. He noted that we were quick to perform the action without considering our surroundings or even our own body. He invited us to consider our relationship between “heaven and earth,” a common theme in Alexander Technique. Murray explained that you must go down to go up, and vice versa. He asked the group to consider how one might move the head on its two joints and how we are sitting on two sit bones, and finally, to consider how one might incorporate the instrument: leading with the head, breathing on your own, and maintaining a sense of direction through the head to bring the flute to you.

Alexander Murray

photo by Brian Covington

Murray focused on fundamental elements of existence, making them a point of reference for the technique. As babies, we all have the need for food, in the form of mother’s milk. Babies are able to eat through this rooting reflex, which develops the sucking reflex allowing you to build and develop the diaphragm. Masterfully, Murray tied this into Alexander, who was born (in 1869) without this sucking reflex. Normal breathing occurs through the nose while a baby is sucking with its mouth closed. Alexander later discovered, in his own performing, that he struggled with loud gasping breaths. These observations lead to many of the fundamental elements developed in the technique, including retraining the breath, inhibition, lying down to experience the full ability of the breath, leading with the head, and learning to unlearn.

Alexander Murray briefly referenced Raymond Dart, the first to discover, in Africa in 1926, human ancestor fossils that later became known as the “missing link”: a “Taung child” skull with a braincase scarcely bigger than a chimpanzee’s, recognized as a hominid walking upright. Dart worked out a series of poses from which to explore how weight-bearing affects the nervous system, a series now known as the Dart Procedures. Dart taught at the Institutes for Human Potential in Philadelphia in the 1970s, where he met Alexander Murray and his wife Joan Murray.

One of the most memorable moments of the lecture was when he described how he constructed a way to suspend his flute from the ceiling so he could observe how different it felt to play the flute. He even demonstrated how he approaches a flute. First, he notices the balance of the flute just in his hands. Then he leads with the head by rotation to incorporate the flute. Then he tried talking into the flute, then simply breathing out and capturing the natural reflex to breathing back in. It was striking how simple and directed this can be.

—Paula Gudmundson