How is Primary Control Taught?

How does a person who is trained to teach Alexander Technique actually show people how to learn Alexander’s principle of “forward and up”? This may only make sense to you if you do already have some experiences with Alexander’s work, but you can also see what happens as you read and try this out for yourself.

A really interesting link on the web that teaches some of this information in a different way is the flash program at:

First off, I might get a student to tilt their head nodding “yes”, (or sometimes I’ll ask them to slowly look up and back down) while I’ll tell them we’re going to be experimenting with noticing how moving their head affects the rest of their balance. I explain how I’m going to use my hands to “steer” the quality of this motion so they get the idea what I mean directly by joining with my ability to move in easier ways that I can do for myself, introducing the term “guided modeling.” I came up with the idea to do this because I can have a much easier influence on the quality & direction of where and how a student can move if they are already in some sort of motion. This way, I give Direction to a moderately difficult or clueless student who has gotten set as they stand there, waiting for me to “do something” to them.

As they are standing nodding their head “yes,” their balance will most likely “come loose” as their head rounds the top of the arc of the nodding motion. Or if it doesn’t, I can give their body a slight push back and forth in space to exaggerate the increase of ease just at the crucial time to help them notice the more overt ability of their body to move as it is balanced during the top of this arc of nodding forward. Most people are able to notice that it takes much less effort to move their whole body at this moment, once their attention is put to noticing it; it’s a much more rare person who does not.

Then after we do this, I get them to merely think of making the nodding movement forward around the top of the arc of balance by thinking of doing this movement with their head… without actually nodding “yes.” I get them to merely think of agreement and giving themselves the mental suggestion of “yes.”

This shows how purely the thought will most likely make their body “come loose” just as well as intentionally moving to be able to notice it. if it doesn’t, I put hands on and walk them through how to word their thinking. I explain how this is called “faded signaling,” which where you first make a more overt motion and then note the same effect with a much more subtle form of perception and movement. I give the example of a music director or conductor using this ability, giving them the idea their thinking conducts into their ability to move.

I talk about why we focus on such slight motions in AT. It’s because how we influence the sorts of very subtle motions we do automatically that repeat over and over have a cumulative effect on us. These kinds of movements are usually underneath what most people think should matter, but as dripping water will wear down stone, they matter quite a bit over time. This is the essence of “strategic prevention.”

So, at this point I’ve covered what I’m doing with my hands, why I’m doing it and how subtle of a motion we’re talking about; and how and why thought is connected to and influences quality of movement.

Now I’m going to illustrate what to use this sort of thinking for – to go into motion, to initiate it. Sometimes I make my hands into a cradle to illustrate the shape that the skull is in whre it is joined to the neck, (like rounded sled runners,) while I describe the movement of tilting forward and back as the easiest move the head and neck can make. I interpret the advantage of knowing this information to mean that this makes this movement the easiest way to initiate tiniest amount of movement. I might use an illustration of a fern growing in the shape of the beginning of a whip action to sprout if we are moving slowly, or an egret moving its head forward and up out over the water as it is getting ready to see and strike a fish under water. Or Michael Jordan floating up to bag the basketball, Pavorotti singing, or Tiger Woods making a golf shot, or whatever the person can relate to at that point as an example.

Sometimes I have to deal with people closing their eyes. I might have people do an experiment that proves that it is easier to judge location by having them close their eyes and touch their face with their hand. Then have them do the same thing while their head is moving. For the reason that being in motion gives us more information about where we are, it’s easier to touch the point you are aiming at while you are moving. Closing your eyes makes this more difficult, but moving makes it easier.

The two points I attempt to get across is this sort of thinking about movement is a way of initiating movement, and it’s very precise and tiny of a motion – so tiny that only a thought will put the movement into action.

I also have the person looking for the effect of increased ease as the evidence their experimenting worked as they intended…which of course, most people cannot yet sense. But they usually do feel the effect somewhere else in their body; and so they can put together that something is happening differently than the usual.

Then I might show how it is possible to think of this motion rhythmically in the context of walking, expanding just as the foot steps onto the floor and the motion of balance begins to transfer the weight onto the foot. If they can’t handle that yet, I have them merely shift their weight from one foot to the other to understand this dynamic first, and build up to taking a step to walk from there.

I’d love to read how more Alexander teachers teach “forward and up” if they can articulate that sort of thing in words.

2 thoughts on “How is Primary Control Taught?

  1. Welcome Colin! Thanks for your comment.
    Patrick MacDonald was a really amazing first generation Alexander teacher who was nicknamed “the Mechanic” because of the practical organizational knowledge he could convey with the quality of his hands. He was personally responsible to decide that I was ready to put “hands-on” when he was a visiting master guest teacher in my training course. In our field of Alexander Technique, a first generation teacher means this was someone who trained with F.M. Alexander, the originator of the Technique.

    If you want to learn more about Patrick MacDonald’s work, here is a link with a review of the book MacDonald that is a compilation about his teaching style:

  2. Master Teacher Patrick Macdonald would use the words, ” drop the face” to achieve the same result. People often engage the neck muscles when asked to nod the head. Forwad and up is taught by the teacher’s hands, or more subtley, by the fingers directing the pupil’s head in the way Alexander called F&W, at the same time associating this direction with the words F&W. This makes the process truly psychophysical. The pupil does not need to consciencely feel this, they cannot avoid feeling it. This is all reinforced by the pupil thinking or saying the words which eventually induces the sort after result i.e. the head directing itself F&W.

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