Alexander Technique Center

The Alexander Technique for Musicians

Grabbing the Bird by the Tale: A Flutist’s History of Learning to Play

by Alexander Murray, 1986

An earlier version of this essay appeared in Curiosity Recaptured: Exploring Ways We Think and Move. Available from Mornum Time Press, 2315 Prince Street, The Cottage on Halcyon, Berkeley, California 94705.  

“The native and unspoiled attitude of childhood, marked by ardent curiosity, fertile imagination, and love of experimental inquiry, is near, very near to the attitude of the scientific mind.

John Dewey, Preface to How We Think,1910

“The spontaneity of childhood is a delightful and precious thing, but its original naive form is bound to disappear. Emotions become sophisticated unless they become enlightened, and the manifestation of sophisticated emotion is in no sense genuine self-expression. True spontaneity is henceforth not a birth-right but the last term, the consummated conquest of an art, the art of conscious control, to the mastery of which Mr. Alexander’s book so convincingly invites us.

John Dewey, Preface to Man’s Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander, 1918

My life-long interest in music was sown in me by my mother, who could play on the piano any melody she heard, and by my father, who introduced me to the penny whistle as soon as I could hold one. Musical curiosity pushed me in my mother's direction and I discovered very early how to play tunes “by ear” on the piano as well as on the penny-whistle.

Alexander Murray
Alexander Murray

In the window of the local music shop was a wooden recorder which I coveted but could never afford (it would have cost six months’ pocket money). It seemed to me, at age ten, the most superior form of penny-whistle. Not many months later, in June of 1940, opportunity knocked. By this time, however, the recorder had taken second place in my affections to a wooden fife.

Believing invasion to be imminent, the British Government had initiated a scheme to evacuate children. My parents arranged for me to live with my aunt in South Africa. Prior to my departure, I did the rounds of my hometown relations collecting pocket money for the journey. I concealed enough of the money from my parents to purchase the much-coveted fife. I remember sitting on my bed, trying to elicit a tune from it and pretending it was just one of my penny whistles.

On the ship to South Africa, with 300 other children, we would gather every evening for a sing-song which I would accompany on the fife or whistle. By the time we arrived in Cape Town I was able to play both instruments with equal facility. As we had cases of measles on board, we were kept in quarantine at the Governor General's House. During this period, the Municipal Cape Town Orchestra played for us. During the intermission I spoke to the youngest member of the flute section, a 21 year-old Englishman, David Sandeman. “I play the flute too,” was my opening line. He asked me to show him my instrument—very different from his—and invited me to visit him when I settled in with my aunt and uncle.

After my first visit and lesson, I was in possession of a real flute, the one on which David had started his career. I was invited weekly for a free lesson which was always concluded with tea and donuts in the company of his mother. David returned after the war to become principal flute in the London Philharmonic. Many years later, he gave my wife an account of my lessons with him. He related that I was his first pupil ever and that he was under the impression that there was nothing to teaching the flute: You told the student what needed to be done and he would come back the following week doing it. It wasn't until he had his second student that he discovered that there was more to it.

David Sandeman's approach to playing the flute was perfectly suited to me. He encouraged me to teach myself—to learn how to learn. He practiced William James's cardinal rule: “Never discourage; discouragement is of the devil.” This fruitful relationship lasted a year. Then my uncle was transferred to Johannesburg and I was musically on my own.

As luck would have it, David's orchestra came to Johannesburg for an opera season and I renewed our friendship. During his stay, he introduced me to the Professor of Music at Witwatersrand University. The professor invited me, age 13, to play in the University Orchestra.

On one occasion, we played for the visiting Cape Town Ballet, whose repertoire included the Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns. This remains indelibly in my memory because of the virtuosic flute solo, the Aviary. In little over a minute, the player is required to synchronize breath, fingers and tongue, the latter articulating rapidly the syllable teketeketekete over 300 times—a technique known to wind-players as “double-tonguing.” At age 14, I had not attempted to teach myself this skill, having been told by David Sandeman that it was first necessary to master “single-tonguing” (the rapid reiteration of tetetete). In the performance, I think I played the notes minus the articulation—less of a flutter than the composer intended.

During my studies at the Paris Conservatoire from 1950-52, I was once again confronted by the “Aviary,” which I took in my stride, double-tonguing and all. Several years later, with the London Symphony, I was called upon to record it as backing to the Ogden Nash verses, recited by Bee Lillie. This version, instead of lasting one minute, was doubled in length, which entailed over 600 repetitions of teke. As an aside, Saint Saëns Voliere is only one of many pieces in which the flute represents our feathered friends. I sometimes ask, in doctoral exams, that the student write on the ornithological aspects of the flute. A cursory search of my memory recalls the following recordings I made with the London Symphony Orchestra between 1955 and 1967: Lo Here the Gentle Lark, the Gypsy and the Bird (Joan Sutherland); Bluebird in Sleeping Beauty (Pierre Monteux); Pastoral Symphony (Joseph Krips); Respighi—The Birds (Dorati); Firebird (Stravinsky); Le Rossignol (Dorati); the Morceau de Concours for First Prize at the Paris Conservatoire in 1952 was Messaien's Merle Noir (Blackbird).

Over fifty years after my first acquaintance with the piece, I found myself again confronted with fluttering like a bird while playing in the Sinfonia da Camera (Hobson). As with athletic skills, rapid movements are seemingly more suited to the young in years than the long in the tooth. Faced with rapid repeated tongue movements I began to wonder whether my tongue had loosened over the years or whether its mechanism was deteriorating.

I suggest trying the following experiment. Divide a regular pulse of one second into three parts (as in a waltz). Count 1-(2) of the 1-2-3 and maintain a pulse of 1-(2) 1-(2) 1-(2) beating time on the one only. This will give you a pulse of 90 to the minute. At this speed repeat the syllables tetetete—four tes to a beat. Then intersperse ke between each te (maintaining the four tes to a beat). Thus you come up with teketeketeketeke and you will have the articulation problem to which I have been referring. This is the “tongue-twister” set by Camile Saint-Saëns.

Except for my very positive experiences with my first teacher, David Sandeman, I consider myself largely self-taught. I did make one disastrous effort to learn the flute from a teacher whose approach was: If you want to study with me, you must do as I say. From his vantage point, everything I had done previously was wrong. To breathe, I must raise my chest like a pouter pigeon. My lips should be fixed in a permanent smile and my tongue must strike the palate audibly to begin each note. Raising the chest to breathe in was one of the erroneous preconceived ideas with which Alexander [F. Matthias Alexander, the developer of the Alexander Technique] had to contend in the early days of his teaching. Fixing the lips in a permanent smile is perhaps worse in that it is tantamount to fixing the head at the atlanto-occipital joint. Assiduous practice on these lines precipitated a nervous breakdown, one of the symptoms of which was a stutter every time I pronounced the syllable te. In her recent book Hillary and Jackie, Flutist Hillary Dupres describes her studies with the same teacher and her development of the same problem (also seen in the movie based on the book).

I am still recovering from that teacher’s influence. The loss of a natural skill led, in my case, to a tendency unduly to analyze and criticize myself and others. Trying to be right when you have lost belief in your own rightness (an important ingredient in the make-up of a performing artist) is a double bind. In contrast to the way this teacher taught, a very good friend told me his teaching was based on the question: “What is preventing this person from playing well?”

Foreign service in the Royal Air Force put an end to my studies with this teacher and I returned to finding my own way.

Early in my professional civilian career, in 1954, I was introduced to a version of the Alexander Technique. I lost no time trying to apply the principles (as I understood them) to playing the flute. When I began lessons, I was principal flute of the Royal Opera, a strenuous occupation, entailing long rehearsals. Performances were every evening with an afternoon performance on Saturday. During the rehearsals in the orchestra pit, there was frequently a cold breeze blowing through the theatre while the scenery was being transported from the street to the stage. I had a tendency to bronchitis which was aggravated by such working conditions. A friend suggested that Charles Neal, a member of F.M. Alexander’s first teacher training course, might be able to help with my respiratory problems. I took lessons from Neil over a period of several years. I regret to say that what I learned at that time was not what I now understand to be the Alexander Technique. Neil attempted to make the technique more marketable and claimed that he had made advances in F.M. Alexander’s work. Unfortunately, he promoted some common misconceptions and left out the technique’s most important principles. What Neil taught was a variety of relaxation methods and exercises. Neil held a typical conception about relaxation—equating it with a lack of muscle tone—flaccidity—and rest. In contrast, Alexander's technique involves a fundamental learning process concerned with movement---the total dynamic pattern of coordination in activity. Coordination and the typical idea of relaxation have little to do with one another. However, at that time I was unaware of the fundamental differences between what Neil was teaching and the Alexander Technique.

F. M. Alexander teaching student
F. Matthias Alexander teaching his technique.

Charles Neil died in 1958. After his death, I took lessons with Walter Carrington, who had been Alexander’s principal assistant. This is when my Alexander lessons finally began. It was the beginning of a process of change in my conception of the Alexander Technique, my use and, of course, my breathing.

My earliest recollections of applying what I was learning about the Alexander Technique to flute playing was to rid the mind of “taking a breath” to play. This continues to be an important aspect of all my practicing. If I wish to play a long phrase, I first exhale, then allow the breath to return (through the nostrils, silently) and then play when the breath is ready to move out. When playing continuously, I always take time to breathe, even if it means stopping the flow of the music. Naturally, this applies to practice. When one is performing, one does what the music requires with whatever means one has at the time.

This kind of practice paid its first real dividends in the late 1950s when I was principal flute for the London Symphony. We played an annual Beethoven Cycle with Josef Krips. I found I was able to play a loud, continuous section of the first Allegro in the 7th Symphony without being aware of “taking a breath.” The breath was returning in the brief intervals between the rhythmic figures. Some idea of what happens when you stop habitual interference can be experienced if you exhale quickly, blowing out the cheeks. Repeat this experience rhythmically several times and you will notice that the breath returns with a sort of “elastic recoil.”

The next really significant change in my playing was triggered by one of Alexander’s early articles (1906), in which he names the great principle in respiratory re-education (an early name for the Alexander Technique) to be antagonistic action. The clue for me in this article was, “Many people can acquire fair chest poise at the end of inspiration, the end of the expiration the mechanism is absolutely disorganized.” I was practicing some difficult passages on my flute at the time, using two mirrors for visual feedback. In my customary way, I divided the long opening phrase into sub-phrases, played them with time for breaths and then, finally, decided to “deflate” and “inflate” myself several times prior to playing the whole phrase in one breath. As I got to the end of the phrase, I saw myself visibly shorten—the pelvis moving forward over the feet, the lower back narrowing. This was the first time in my practice that I had really made an unusual demand on my respiratory capacity and I saw in what way my mechanism was “absolutely disorganized.” I then played the same passage but without the movement forward of the pelvis, maintaining my body’s length, and found that I had just as much air as before, but that at the end of the expiration the inspiration took place by “elastic recoil.” This to me exemplified antagonistic action.

The next significant evolution in my playing developed out of questions related to the balance of the head, initially raised from reading Professor Frank Pierce Jones’s (Alexander Technique teacher) article on the Alexander Technique in the Psychological Review (1965). Jones stated that the center of gravity of the head corresponds roughly to the “sella turcica,” an area at the anterior base of the skull. However, I concluded that this was not accurate. I had recently realized that the jaw moves not only as a hinge but also like a cradle; it slides forward and back (and in other directions as well). When it slides it changes the distribution of weight in the head. I reasoned that the center of gravity must be dependent on the mobile relationship of the upper (head) and lower jaw. Free movement of the jaw is integral to the kind of flute playing in which I was interested.

This questioning about the relationship of the jaw and balance led me to the writings of Raymond Dart [anatomist, anthropologist, and student of the Alexander Technique]—initially Dart’s article, “The Postural Aspects of Malocclusion.” Dart's article on malocclusion describes how the relationship of the upper and lower jaw is a dynamic one. He explained how this relationship affects the balance of the body as a whole. Just as importantly, he explained how the relationship itself is affected by the balance of the whole body.

There were two influences for Dart’s writing the article on malocclusion. The first was a series of articles by Arnold Nove, a dentist and orthodontist. Occlusion, according to Nove, was determined by the musculature of the head and neck. He considered the relationship of the head (the “upper jaw”) and the lower jaw as a dynamic one, and that the tongue is not fixed in one place. Correcting malocclusion should start with correcting this dynamic relationship. Nove changed the inter-oral space to get the tongue in a place to optimize swallowing. He did this by having the patient use splints during sleep. The use of splints allowed swallowing to function more naturally. The change in the tongue and swallowing altered the use of the jaw musculature, which transformed the head and neck posture of the patients he worked on.

Dart understood what Nove was describing because he had seen his son's malocclusion change for the better when his son had a series of Alexander Technique lessons. However, because of his experiences with the Alexander Technique, Dart went further than Nove. Dart saw how occlusion involved more than the relationship/musculature of the jaw, head, and neck: it involved the coordination and posture of the body as a whole.

Alex Murray, at age 85, demonstrates agility and poise.
(This is a spontaneous postscript to his talk on
Raymond Dart and the Alexander Technique at the Freedom to
Conference in NYC May, 2014.)

The discoveries I have made over the years have dramatically altered my flute playing. They have also affected my teaching, despite the fact that I do not teach flute students the Alexander Technique. If they are interested, they can study the technique on their own initiative (with my encouragement). My personal approach to teaching is to accept the student as he/she is, see what I think can be improved and look for a step-wise progression in the right direction. No matter how badly one plays, one can always play worse; this establishes the negative direction on a continuum. To move from worse to better is the immediate goal. How far is in the lap of the gods. In practicing, I always ask that the student take time to breathe inaudibly, no matter how long, and divide the music into phrases which can be played without strain in one breath. Problems of fingering are broken down into the smallest division—moving from one note to the next. Step 1: Finger the note x, think of the fingering for note y. Step 2: Count 1-2-3 and move on 3 from x to y as quickly as possible. Repeat the sequence as required. Step 3: Finger and play x; Step 4: Count 1-2-3 and move to y (as short as possible). Step 5: Integrate notes prior to x, pause on x, count and play y. Step 6: Cut duration of pause (progressively). If you think you are about to make a mistake, STOP. Every mistake practiced is a mistake learned. AMEN.

A book appeared some 20 years ago written by a former concert pianist turned computer scientist, Sentics: The Touch of the Emotions by Dr. Manfred Clynes. The author had investigated the different time-space patterns made by someone pressing their finger on a sensitive button in response to a stimulus designed to elicit an emotional response. The button was able to register time and direction. For example, Hate had a sharp profile and took little time to express. Love by contrast, had a gentler profile and required more time. Clynes named the characteristic form of each emotion in its essentic form. He also experimented with the expressive patterns of musical phrases. One of his most useful observations reinforced something I already thought but had not formulated: only one emotion can be conveyed at a time. Aggressive movements while playing affectionate music will not result in the sum of the parts but in the inadequate expression of one or the other.

A recent study of the early years of Alexander's development (Rosslyn McLeod, Up from Down Under) led me to Francois Delsarte (1811-1872). Like Alexander and Manfred Clynes, he was an artist with a sense of scientific curiosity. Delsarte developed a system of “Applied Aesthetics” which was hugely popular among performing artists in the late 1800s and was a major influence on modern dancers Ted Shawn and Isadora Duncan. The system was taught and advertised briefly by Alexander in 1900 as “an aesthetic science with the same precision as mathematical science.”

Francois Delsarte’s history parallels both Alexander’s and my own. A talented youth with a beautiful tenor voice, he was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire at age 14. After six months of vocal instruction his voice was ruined. He remained at the Conservatoire for four years, studying dramatic art. During this time Delsarte realized that his various teachers were each working according to their own personal tastes without any common principle. He set about searching for a scientific basis for artistic expression. From his observations, he developed his own system of dramatic expression. In common with Alexander, Delsarte used his talent for understanding natural movement to help himself and other people. He taught a course in his system for many years. In it, he emphasized the true nature of all art, “body,” “mind,” and “soul.”

Since losing my metaphorical voice, my flute playing has taken many turns, but I rediscovered the joy of “playing” when Icrossed paths with Chung-Liang Huang, a Tai Chi master and author of Embrace Tiger and Return to Mountain. We met as fathers of daughters at the same grade school when we were talked into performing together for the children. I discovered that dancing and playing simultaneously, undertaken in the spirit of “play,” was both possible and pleasurable. Now when I sit motionless in an orchestra, it is because I choose to. I know the potential for moving naturally is still there but it is restrained by choice, not by anxiety.

In my most recent attempts at playing the Aviary, I discovered that, in keeping with a flexible relationship of the jaw, lips and tongue (as examined in Alexander’s procedure, the “whispered ah”), the second syllable of the double-tongue (ke) can be produced in a variety of ways. If you listen carefully to the pitch of a whispered ah and compare it to a whispered eh and then ee, you will notice a rise in pitch as the tongue approaches the palate. The various flutters in the Aviary are in the three different registers of the flute's range. Applying this discovery to the use of the tongue in the different registers, I am able to play the solo more distinctly and easily than hitherto.

As a final experiment , repeat the following at a speed of 90 beats per minute: tikitikitiki/tikitikitiki/teketeketeketeke/teketeketeketeke/takatakatakataka/takataketi. Repeat four times, non-stop.

My own painful experience led me indirectly to the Alexander Technique and to the constant rebirth of curiosity. I hope your curiosity will encourage you to experiment with the articulation of Saint-Saën's Aviary, which is only one aspect of playing such music in an aesthetically satisfying way.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it has liberated Saint-Saëns cage of birds for yet another free flight.

About the Author

Alexander Murray is a Professor Emeritus of Flute at the University of Illinois School of Music. Formerly principal flute with the London Symphony and Covent Garden Opera, he has taught at the Royal College, Royal Academy, and Royal Northern College in England, the Royal Dutch Conservatory, Michigan State University, and the National Music Camp at Interlochen. He has recorded extensively with the London Symphony Orchestra and made solo albums for Pandora Records. Since 1959, Mr. Murray has designed flutes made by Albert Cooper and Jack Moore with advice from physicists Arthur Benade, John Coltman and Ronald Laszewski. (See The Development of the Modern Flute.) In cooperation with physicist Ronald Laszewski, he has continued to investigate the acoustics of the flute including Renaissance and Baroque instruments on which he performs regularly. The most recent experimental flute (1998) is a quarter-tone instrument, pitched a tone lower than normal (A=392). Alex Murray is Winner of First Prize, Paris Conservatoire and a founder-director of the National Flute Association. He taught and performed annually at the Oxford Flute Week at Queen's College and is principal flute in the Sinfonia da Camera

With his wife Joan, Alex Murray is Co-Director of the Urbana Center for the Alexander Technique and has trained over 100 Alexander teachers, including several flutists. The Murrays’ experience of the Alexander Technique began in 1955 with Charles Neil, and continued after his death in 1958 with Walter Carrington. They spent nine years working with Walter Carrington, who was F.M. Alexander’s principal assistant. The Murrays completed their teacher training in the Alexander Technique with Walter Carrington in the early 1960s. They worked with many first generation teachers, including: Walter Carrington, Frank Pierce and Helen Jones, Patrick Macdonald, Majorie Barstow, Charles Neil, John Skinner, Peter Scott, Tony Spawforth, Richard and Elizabeth Walker, Lulie Westfelt, Kitty Wielopolska, and Peggy Williams.

The Murrays met Professor Raymond Dart in 1967. He cooperated in and inspired Joan and Alex’s ongoing investigation into human developmental movement as it relates to the Alexander Technique. They developed the Dart Procedures, an innovative process that influences Alexander Technique teaching throughout the world. Alex Murray is the editor of Skill and Poise, a collection of Raymond Dart's papers. He is also the editor of a series of booklets on the Alexander Technique and philosopher John Dewey. Mr. Murray is a member of the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique.


Recommended Introductory Books on the Alexander Technique

  • The Alexander Technique: Freedom in Thought and Action by Tasha Miller and David Langstroth. The first chapter is available for a free download from Alexander Technique Atlantic. Audio download is available from cdbaby. Nous Publishing, 2007. ISBN 9780973978629. "...two writers who are so articulate and stylish, so broadly read in their subject, and so sensible in their commentary...a very healthy and much needed work.” – Alex Murray
  • Indirect Procedures: A Musician's Guide to the Alexander Technique by Pedro de Alcantara. Foreword by Sir Colin Davis. London: Oxford University Press, 1997 edition. Available from Amazon.

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