Joe Armstrong
January 2002


Most people understand what we mean when we use the words "our speaking voice," or "our singing voice." In many of us, these two operations of our vocal mechanisms often produce rather different qualities of sound, although you can usually tell that it's the same person who's speaking or singing. But even in those whose singing and speaking voices are nearly the same (Bob Dylan?), I think everyone would agree that there's at least a basic difference in duration of sounds between when they speak and when they sing; and, of course, there's usually a greater variety of pitches from high to low in singing than in speaking. Sometimes there are other features in singing, like resonance and vibrato, which also make it distinct from speaking.

So if you take these contrasts between our speaking voice and our singing voice as a basis for looking at vocal character, you can also fairly easily see that we might have corresponding differences between what we might call our "thinking voice" and other voice qualities our imagination can produce - completely separate from any action in our vocal mechanisms: vocal cords, lips, tongue, diaphragm, lungs, chest, abdomen, etc. For example, I think there is usually a distinct difference between our ordinary, daily thinking voice and the kind of inner voice that we use to say words silently for pronouncing a meditation mantra or a prayer. And becoming more aware of that difference can be extremely important in learning to "order"1 effectively in working on yourself with the Alexander Technique to change and improve your conditions of use.2

But we probably need to allow here for a great deal of variation from person to person in the ways our overall "mentating" activity happens. I know there are theories about how each of us is predominantly either a verbal (aural?), visual, or kinesthetic thinker; and based on that idea, our internal way of processing and understanding experience, concepts, etc. is very much dependent on whichever of these three modes of thinking is dominant. (And then there is also the idea that this dominant mode of thinking also affects our communication with others, which can often put us at crosscurrents if we are trying to discuss something with someone whose dominant mode of thinking is different from ours.)  So it seems to me that, if this theory of there being several modes of thinking is correct, it could be very likely that some of us could have much greater difficulty getting in touch with and using our verbal/aural thinking mode for our "ordering voice." Whatever the case, I'm hoping that I can describe some ways of uncovering and working on our inner, aural voice that can be useful to everyone in working on themselves.

One of the main components of ordering effectively, I think, is time. You need to be able to allow a considerable length of time for an order to "get through" enough to bring about a change in your entire conditions of use of yourself - enough time for, as Alexander said, projecting "messages from the brain to the mechanisms" and for "conduct[ing] the energy necessary to the use of these mechanisms." (The Use of the Self, 1932, p. 35, repub. by Gollancz, 1985.) A second or two of directing or ordering is usually not enough to produce a very deep change in our "mechanisms," particularly if we are tired or overstressed. Fifteen to twenty seconds, on the other hand, might be. I think there can be a world of difference in potential between the two lengths of time. And this is why I think the extended orders that I've based on Kitty Wielopolska's concept of "special orders" can be so much more useful than just saying the regular orders ("my neck . . . to be free . . . my head . . . to go forward and up . . ." etc.) just once, or even a number of times. To "hear/say" even one of the special orders takes at least twenty-five seconds or so, especially if you include substantial pauses between each word cluster: "let all . . . residual tension . . . be dissipated . . . by graduated amounts . . . in a forward and up direction . . . from the top of my whole neck . . . being free . . . ." Of course the quality of inner voice you're saying the order with can also add considerably to the length of time it takes to say the whole order or series of orders, especially if you're saying the them with a fairly slow, fluid quality.

But how do you identify this slower, smoother, richer quality of inner voice, especially if you've never meditated or prayed much, or if you haven't worked much with your imaginative hearing in the way actors and musicians often do? Some people seem to be able to memorize scripts, speeches, poems, concertos, etc. with no trouble at all: and they can often go through a whole speech, poem, or concerto just in their imagination alone. To a certain extent, I think most of us use our inner hearing more actively like this when we read silently.3 Others seem to have enormous difficulty with this kind of exact aural remembering. For example, I've found it very difficult to memorize words and music since I was about ten years old; but I recently discovered that I can still remember many nursery rhymes precisely as I was taught them before I could read, even though I hadn't thought of them, heard them, or recited them for nearly fifty years. I think this is probably because most nursery rhymes are also spoken or sung to us with special rhythms and are often combined with touch and particular motions ("Patty-cake, patty-cake . . . " "This little piggy went to market . . . " etc.), and the kinesthetic and tactile elements are very likely a key factor in embedding the words so securely in our memory. It's a total experience, not just a thinking or speaking one.4


Some Alexander teachers, as I wrote in the article I mentioned above, seem to be very much against any form of verbal ordering whatsoever. But I think I made it clear that within the realm of using words silently, there are perhaps more usable possibilities than many teachers allow for. During the past ten or fifteen years that I've not had much of any hands-on work from other teachers, I've been obliged to explore every avenue I could for improving and maintaining my own conditions of use. And I've found the "special ordering" more and more effective for restoring my conditions to the standard they were when I completed my training in 1972, which of course included so many hours of hands-on work that it really wasn't possible for me to tell until several years later whether the direction I was maintaining came primarily from my own conscious guidance and control or primarily from the effect of all the hands-on work it was combined with. As I wrote in my article on directing and ordering, when I became very ill in 1980 it showed me that what I thought had been all my very own direction up till then actually was not. And it's been a very long road since then toward finding out what my own best source of improving my conditions needs to be. The regular orders I began using helped a lot, but I feel the special orders that I've begun using more recently really get to a much deeper level of change.

But again, they take time - often a great deal of time. Sometimes I might even spend a whole hour on them. But the results are usually more than worth it because they carry over so much better into directing my manner of use in both my teaching and my general daily activities, including sleep, to a far greater extent. I also find that sometimes just a few seconds of giving a special order - like when pausing between reading paragraphs of a book, or while waiting for my computer to process a request - makes a profound change, even as I'm continuing with my regular directing and going up. All this has made me want to help others to uncover that same potential for improvement.


"Conscious guidance [and control]" as opposed to "subconscious guidance" was an expression Alexander used in his books to stand for what we're learning in the Technique; and I think it might be a good expression for us to use in working with our ordering voice too. In ordering, the inner voice is definitely "guided;" and it's guided rather slowly and rather fluidly - for me, it's almost as if I'm using a slow kind of singing, distinct from the shorter, more clipped sounds of my regular speech.

One suggestion for developing your ordering voice is to practice saying the special orders aloud in a more sustained speaking voice. For instance, if you pretend you are saying a pledge, oath, or vow - all of which are usually spoken at a slower pace than conversational speech because they're often said along with other people, or in front of a group.

"I pledge allegiance to the flag . . ."

"On my honor, I will do my duty . . ."

"I, John/Susan, take thee, Mary/Bill . . ."

Or you might pretend that you are a justice or a clergyman officiating at an inauguration or wedding, saying aloud the oath of office or the marriage vows so that the elected person or betrothed can remember them well enough to repeat them after you exactly.

"I, Jane Doe, do solemnly swear . . ."

Then, right after you've said something in this slower, more flowing, earnest way, try to remember just how it sounded. Try to imagine the sound of saying the orders in that way too. Or, if it's too hard for you to remember your own voice, you might try speaking the orders this way into a tape recorder and then playing them back to yourself so that you can get a better "distance" from the actual, physical act of saying them with your own vocal mechanisms. Or you might tape someone else saying the orders at the pace and in the spirit they need to be given to become deeply effective. Then try to remember, or "hear" in your imagination, that sound of the words being spoken that way for yourself.

When I'm saying the orders for myself, I don't feel that the vocal quality I "hear" or imagine is exactly the same sound as my speaking voice, but it's roughly the same in general pitch and resonance, I think. It's more of a neutral voice, and it could be any man's voice of my age and size; however, it's not at all dull or monotonous, nor is it excited or "spiritual," false or affected. If anything, the quality of it's somewhat softened simply by my giving so much attention to remembering the whole, long special order:

Let all . . . residual tension . . . be dissipated . . . by graduated amounts . . . in a forward and up direction . . . from my . . . etc.

Most important of all, the quality of my ordering voice needs to remain kind and generous, as if I were speaking to someone who genuinely needed my help, compassion, and understanding and is willing to listen and take in fully all I have to say for the betterment of their whole being. It's certainly not a chatty voice, nor argumentative, dictatorial, demanding. Neither is it lugubrious, boring, or desolate sounding.

Depending upon the character of your own outward speech (as well as your thinking speech), it might take some work to locate this kind, generous, and compassionate sound and to find its most effective pace. I can imagine that some people who are used to speaking very rapidly or stridently, or those who are used to thinking very fast and guessing ahead, could have great difficulty accessing a slower pace and more fluid texture in their inner, ordering voice. I wouldn't be surprised if, in most of us, our "thinking voice" operates with very much the same habits and characteristics as our speaking voice. (It would be interesting to take a survey of this sometime.)

But even fast talkers and fast thinkers usually have had at least a few experiences of making more sustained, flowing sounds - as in singing a song that has a slow tempo and a lot of longish, held notes; and these quick reactors, as well as the rest of us, could probably benefit very much from singing simple songs aloud like:

"My Country, 'tis of Thee,
Sweet Land of Liberty,
Of Thee I sing!"

Or, if you wish instead:

"God Save our gracious Queen,
Long live our Noble Queen,
God save the Queen!"

Or maybe:

"Oh, Shenandoah, I long to hear you,
Far away, the roving river!"

Then, maybe try speaking these same words as much as possible like you sustain them when you sing them. You're very close to your ordering voice now. All it takes is imagining these sustained words of the song spoken silently, "hearing" them this way, and then merely substituting them with the special orders.

One of my favorite examples for guiding and inspiring my ordering voice comes from the adagio of Schubert's C Major quintet for two violins, viola, and two cellos (Op. 163). The second violin, viola, and the first cello carry the movement's beginning melodic line with some very long, sustained chords, connected by a just few shorter notes, while the first violin and the second cello merely support this floating and soaring of the sustained melody with a light, skipping motif in the first violin above and some intermittent pizzicato notes in the second cello below. (I particularly recommend listening to the recording of this quintet by Pablo Casals and the Vegh quartet.)

1 I distinguish "ordering" from "directing" in my article "Directing and Ordering: A Discussion of Working on Yourself," 1988, published by STATBooks and available through AmSAT Books

2 Alexander made a distinction between "conditions of use" and "manner of use." Conditions of use refers to the tightnesses and flaccidities that we carry within us that take more than a few seconds to alter; whereas manner of use refers to the tensions that we can alter at will almost immediately by inhibiting and directing. I explain the difference more fully in "A Crucial Distinction: Manner and Conditions of Use," June, 2001, which can be found on my website:

3 I remember hearing the famous Canadian author, Robertson Davies (who also studied the Alexander Technique), give a lecture/reading at the Boston Public Library where someone asked him if he thought it was important to "hear" the voices of the characters in a book while we're reading what they say. He emphatically said yes; and he added that he thought most people read much too fast (which Alexander also claimed in his books), thereby crippling their chances of receiving the fullest comprehension and enjoyment from their reading.

4 I made this discovery suddenly one day while driving with my colleague, Jean Clark, back to Boston from New Hampshire. Jean has a remarkable memory for songs and often likes to sing while riding along; and somehow we got into nursery rhymes during this trip. Besides being able to remember them so clearly, I was also amazed to find that I knew exactly when a word or phrase in her English version was different from my mid-western, American one. I thought it was even more astonishing that I could remember these nursery rhymes at all, because I had absolutely no recollection of being taught them by anyone. I thought it might have been my grandmother, because I do remember her reading aloud to my sister and me when she'd baby-sit with us. But I asked my mother about it later, and she said that we did nursery rhymes all the time, lots of them, especially at bath time. My mother was also a very good dancer and a fairly accomplished pianist; so I imagine that her rhythms and movements that she used in saying or singing the nursery rhymes with us were very clear and, no doubt, delightfully fun because she was also such a happy, loving person.


Kitty Wielopolska

Let . . all . . residual tension . . . be dissipated . . by graduated . . amounts . . . in a forward . . and up . . direction . . . from . . . :

  • the top of my whole neck . . . being free.
  • the middle of my whole neck and voice box . . . being free.
  • the bottom of my whole neck . . . being free.
  • my whole upper back . . . and shoulder blades . . . lengthening and widening.
  • my whole middle back . . . lower ribs . . . and diaphragm . . . lengthening and widening.
  • my whole lower back . . . pelvic rim . . . and abdominal wall . . . lengthening and widening.
  • my whole chest . . . from deep inside . . . lengthening and widening.

1. Place, or "hear," each variation of the order in the particular part of you that it's meant to affect, and stay with your focus in that part all the way through saying/hearing the entire order - without making any sound in the vocal cords, and without any movement in the lips, tongue, jaw, etc.

2. Keep away from trying to figure out the meaning of any particular part of the order, and just let the order work in the region by itself. It's the extended and fluid quality of the focus that holds the most value here, rather than the actual meaning of the individual words as you say/hear them.

3. Give each variation several times before going on to the next, collecting the effect of all of them together as you add each successive order so that they feed into your entire going up and lengthening in stature.

"When I employ the words 'direction' and 'directed' with 'use' in such phrases as 'direction of my use' and 'I directed the use,' etc., I wish to indicate the process involved in projecting messages from the brain to the mechanisms and in conducing the energy necessary to the use of these mechanisms."     - F.M. Alexander, The Use of the Self