F.M. - The Life of Frederick Matthias Alexander, Founder of the Alexander Technique by Michael Bloch, with a Forward by Walter Carrington
Reviewed by Robert Rickover
This is a wonderful new biography of F. Matthias Alexander. There have been earlier works including Up from Down Under by Rosslyn McLeod and Frederick Matthias Alexander - A Family History by J. A. Evans. And Frank Pierce Jones included quite a bit of biographical information in Freedom to Change. But until the publication of the present volume, there has not been a comprehensive account covering both Alexanders life and the development of his ideas.
Most Alexander Technique teachers are familiar with the broad outlines of Alexanders story - his hard scrabble beginnings in Tasmania, the recognition of his theatrical talents in Sydney and Melbourne, his early self-study experiments, success in London and in America, the establishment of a teacher training course and the South African libel trial. Bloch has fleshed out the details of Alexanders life in ways that give us a much fuller picture of his personality and how he responded to the many challenges he had to confront.
To cite just one example: I had never realized before reading this book that people from the northwest region of Tasmania, where Alexander was born, were seen as outsiders elsewhere on the the island. Since Tasmanians were themselves regarded with disdain in the rest of Australia and Australians were looked down upon in proper early twentieth century British society, Alexander was always someone who came from the wrong side of the tracks. On top of that he had absolutely no formal academic qualifications. Clearly, he needed to be amazingly adaptable - a chameleon in the best sense of the word - to successfully make his way among the elite of early 20th century British society.
In F.M. there is a good deal more information than has been previously published about Alexanders personal relationships, his obligations to a large and mostly poor extended family and his sad marriage. His insularity and prejudices are also explored. I used to think his anti-German fulminations were the result of British propaganda during World War I. But in a letter to Irene Tasker about a trip he took to the Continent in 1905-06 he wrote, As the song goes, Theres always something fishy about the French... (They) seemed to me to be all wrong. All rotten in fact. Was little more impressed with the Italians that trip, and the hordes of Germans I ran into in different places I visited served to confirm my earlier opinion of those lowly evolved people.
Bloch rightly presents these sorts of details in a manner that does not detract from the importance of Alexanders discoveries. Rather they serve to humanize the man and encourage us to let go of the idealized image of him that is still prevalent in parts of the Alexander teaching community.
I do have one major disagreement with Bloch: In the last paragraph of his book he writes, ...F.M, almost alone of the notable innovators of this time, had no discernible precursors....Alexander - apart from his training as an elocutionist and reciter, which taught him certain fairly obvious things about breathing, vocalization and posture - had nothing to build on.
The facts simply do not support this view. We know, from the research of Joren Staring (1) and from Articles and Lectures (2) that Alexander was exposed to several outside influences, including the Delsarte system of speech, gesture and movement. Indeed he held himself out as a teacher of that method for a time in in Sydney. And if Staring is to be believed, all of his teaching procedures came from others.
To see Alexander as a lone genius who spent many years working entirely on his own - a view found in almost all accounts of his discoveries - is to encourage the notion that to have any hope of learning the Technique one needs a great many lessons from a teacher who has also spent years being trained by teachers whose lineage can be traced directly back to Alexander. The experience of a growing number of students, particularly in America where this traditional view is sometimes less strongly adhered to, shows that this is not necessarily the case - that it is possible to learn quite a bit with the help of occasional lessons or group classes, or indeed entirely on ones own using books, videos and internet resources. (3)
Nonetheless, F.M. represents a significant contribution to our knowledge and understanding of Alexanders life and discoveries. It is a must read for Alexander Technique teachers and serious students. Because it is so well written, it will undoubtedly attract new students to the work. Any lover of biographies will enjoy reading it.
Alexanders story is a fascinating one and F.M. admirably succeeds in fulfilling Blochs aim, ...to give a birds-eye view of a long and extraordinary life...
F.M. - The Life of Frederick Matthias Alexander, Founder of the Alexander Technique by Michael Bloch was published in 2004 by Little, Brown in Great Britain. Information on ordering the book can be found at the Alexander Technique Bookshop (UK) and the Alexander Technique Bookstore (USA and Canada). It is listed under History of the Alexander Technique.
(1) The First 43 Years of the Life of F. Matthias Alexander (Volumes 1 and 2) by Joroen Staring, Published 1996 and 1997 by Staring in Nijmegen, The Netherlands.
2) Articles and Lectures - Articles, Published Letters and Lectures on the F. M. Alexander Technique, Published in 1995 by Mouritz, London, England.
(3) From Blochs description of the teaching process on pages 1 and 2 it appears he does not realize that the Technique can taught in group classes, or indeed that Alexander himself taught his first successful class with 19 students in 1895.
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