Joe Armstrong
October 2003

(Published in The Alexander Journal, Spring 2006)


            It was good to see the extensive selection from Jean Fischer'’s compilation[1] of examples of Alexander’'s use of the term "“primary control"” in the Autumn 2003 Alexander Journal, particularly because it shows how Alexander initially seemed to qualify the concept as having only a single, positive manifestation, but then later wrote that there can be either "“a normal or abnormal employment of the central (primary) control relative to an integrated use of the psycho-physical mechanisms as a whole."[2] This should be very useful in overcoming the impression that primary control only operates when we give the specific, conscious directions Alexander devised for its “correct” use.

            With the broader definition of primary control in mind, I would also like to suggest, in case it hasn’t been considered, that research on the Technique might draw significantly on Frank Pierce Jones's’ studies of the startle pattern [3] as a basis for investigating both the normal and abnormal employment of primary control.  These studies show, of course, not only the dramatic effect that a sudden, subconscious reaction (to the unexpected slamming of a door) has on a person’'s postural mechanisms but also the reaction'’s distinctly sequential manifestation.  It clearly begins with a tightening of the neck muscles and a pulling back of the head, and continues with a shortening and narrowing of the torso and limbs that ultimately results in a decrease of the person'’s total staturethe exact opposite of the sequence of conscious directions Alexander claimed should be given to bring about and maintain a lengthening in stature in all we do.

            Even more striking than the still photographs and EMG readings that appear in Dr. Jones's published discussions of the startle pattern is a composite of slow-motion film clips that he showed me of a dozen or so subjects reacting, one after another, to an unexpected gunshot.  Seeing the very same pattern of tightening happen again and again dramatically emphasizes its universality.  But Jones also wrote that when much milder stimuli were used, such as the sound of a dropped book, the reaction occurred in the subject’s neck muscles and nowhere else [4]just what we usually find at the crux of our habitual, subconscious reactions to the stimuli to stand up, sit down, speak, etc.  Of course, this similarity suggests that these behaviors traditionally addressed in Alexander lessons could be considered as earlier points on a continuum that includes all forms of human reaction.

            Although Jones thought the startle pattern studies were significant for illuminating the territory addressed by the Technique, I don’t believe he realized that the approach he used in examining the reaction might also shed more light on the actual operation of primary control.  I suspect this oversight occurred because Frank, as many others, saw primary control mainly, or only, from the positive, or ideal, end of the spectruma view I think that stemmed from the belief, stated in his book, that Alexander chose the term “primary control” to replace the phrase "“position of mechanical advantage [5] when writing The Use of the Self in 1932.

            According to Walter Carrington, though, Alexander chose "“primary control"” to replace "“primary movement”" [6]a term he had used as early as 1907 in the article "“Respiratory Re-education."” Walter must be correct about Alexander's substitution because “position of mechanical advantageunlike the largely discarded “"primary movement"has continued to be used in its own right, in reference to those particular configurations of parts of ourselves (like" “monkey"”) which help to enhance our primary control directions in whatever we have chosen to do.  “Primary control” also serves to shift emphasis more toward "“directing" and” away from any "“doing"” that "“primary movement”" might tend to evoke; whereas, if "“position of mechanical advantage"” were the precursor of "“primary control,"” one would be more likely to view primary control as a single, final configuration to be achieved, rather than a dynamic that affects (for good or ill) any position one might need to be in—whether it be well balanced or badly contorted.

            Tristan Roberts has explained (Alexander Journal, Summer 2001) why most of Jones's research on movement can no longer be considered valid.  But it still seems to me that an extensive myographic study of what Roberts calls "“anticipatory pre-emptive actions" [7] along the whole continuum of reaction patterns, from the mildest all the way to "“startle,"” might also lead to a demonstration of the normal or “"correct”" operation of primary control and illlustrate the influence of the "“direction or misdirection"” of primary control “"upon the normal or abnormal working of the postural mechanisms," [8] both of which Alexander pointed out in The Universal Constant in Living as needing thorough understanding in the fields of anatomy and physiology. [9] I think such an approach could provide a more pertinent basis for further research than studying the trajectories and other characteristics of movements that come after these “anticipatory pre-emptive actions.”  For, reckoning with what happens to our primary control at “the "critical moment" [10]—just before reacting turns into respondingremains the most central concern in our effort to improve our manner of use of ourselves "“in reaction to the stimulus of living" whether we are in motion ar at rest. [11]

[1] See Jean Fischer’s compendium of F. M. Alexander’s use of the term “primary control” at http://www.mouritz.co.uk/23keyconcepts.html (Library: Key Concepts: Primary Control).

[2] The Universal Constant in Living, Mouritz, 2000, p. 108.

[3] Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1964, Vol. 19,  pp. 21-22; Psychological Review, 1965, Vol. 72, No. 3, pp. 196-214; Body Awareness in Action, Schocken Books, 1976, pp. 131-133.

[4] Body Awareness in Action, p. 133.

[5] Body Awareness in Action, p. 46.

[6] Explaining the Alexander Technique, Sheildrake Press, 1992, p. 109.

[7] The Alexander Journal, Review of Frank Pierce Jones’ Collected Writings on the Alexander Technique, Summer 2001, No. 17, pp. 36-39.

[8] The Universal Constant in Living, p. 107.

[9] The Universal Constant in Living, pp. 105-112.

[10] Man's Supreme Inheritance, Dutton, 1918, p.252.  The Use of the Self, Gollancz, 1985, pp. 31, 40, 45, 51.

[11] The Universal Constant in Living ,Preface to New Edition, p. XXVII, 1946: "“I can claim over fifty years’ experience in acquiring the knowledge necessary to enable me to help those who have come to me in the belief that I can help them to improve their reaction to the stimulus of living.  This experience causes me to conclude that man’s failure to make a fundamental change in his reaction is due chiefly to the unnatural and unscientific conception on which his attempts have been based.”"