Untangling the primary control

References to the primary control


I was bothered by the primary control from the  earliest days of my involvement with the AT.

When I was training as an AT teacher at the Constructive Teaching Centre I had an argument about it with Dr Patricia Furst Santiago one of my fellow-trainees.  She is a distinguished Brazilian musician and academic who at the time was finalising her doctoral thesis on "the AT and piano pedagogy" at the London University, Institute of Education. To show her that Alexander's use of the term was so vague and inconsistent that it had no place in her excellently rigorous analysis I copied out every reference he makes to it in his published works.  I cannot remember the final result of our argument but Patricia won high praise for her thesis and was awarded her doctorate - as well as becoming a qualified AT teacher.

I came back to my compilation of Alexander’s references to the primary control some years after I qualified as a teacher and felt just as bothered as ever.  In the meantime I had done a lot of thinking about Rudolph Magnus whom Alexander claimed had scientifically proved the existence of the primary control and Sir Charles Sherrington the great neuroscientist who gives Alexander a very favourable mention in his book The endeavour of Jean Fernel.  A more detailed look at how Magnus’ and Sherrington’s work relates to the AT is available in my paper Towards a neurophysiology of the Alexander Technique here.

Alexander was obviously on to something extremely important about the functioning of the human neuromusculature but I increasingly feel his references to the primary control obscure rather than clarify his message.   He misunderstood what Magnus had discovered and this, I think, sent his thinking in a number of unproductive directions.  This could have been profoundly damaging to the AT but Alexander’s great strength was his unswerving reliance on his own pragmatic experience; this is borne out by the testimony of those who were taught by him and worked with him.

Modern AT teachers attempting to carry Alexander’s work forward face the challenge of distinguishing it from the alternative therapies with which it is so often and unfortunately linked.     The philosopher John Dewey asserted that the distinguishing feature of the AT was that it was scientific in the strictest sense of the word.  But if we are to meet the challenge of convincing the scientific and medical communities of the truth of Dewey’s assertion we need to clear away as much as possible of the opacity and inconsistency of Alexander’s written works.   

The primary control is as good an example of this need as any and I have called my paper  Untangling the primary control.  It is available here; the compilation of quotations from Alexander is here.   I think the issues I am trying to address are important for the AT and I would welcome any criticisms or comments for publication on this website or on a purely private basis.    My e-mail ishere