Rhythm for Alexander Teachers

A talk delivered at the Annual General Meeting of the Australian Society for the Alexander Technique in October, 2004.

I would like to talk about what is the most important thing in life, if I may make an extravagant claim. And that’s rhythm. I won’t try to define it—it’s as hard to define rhythm as it is to define the Alexander Technique. Later today, perhaps at dinner or afterwards over drinks, see if you and your friends can define rhythm. I predict that before you arrive at anything approaching a proper definition of the term, your friendships might be quite strained with the inevitable disagreements you’ll encounter in the discussion!

Instead of defining it, then, I’ll talk about quite a few of its aspects. Needless to say, I hope that you’ll come to agree with me that rhythm is indeed the most important thing in life, therefore the most important thing in the Alexander Technique.

Let’s start with the simplest, most basic aspect of rhythm. We’ll call it beat, or pulse. Before we define it, let’s look at some examples of beats. I snap my fingers as if accompanying a tune being played on the radio—that’s a beat. The ticking of a clock is a beat. The ticking of a metronome gives a steady and predictable beat. We humans have our own inner metronome: the heart. But here’s our first complication. The heartbeat is both like and unlike the beat of a metronome. It’s like it because it’s regular and repetitive, and unlike it because it’s organic, rather than mechanical, and highly changeable. Furthermore, the heartbeat consists of two sounds, not one, but this complication can wait for a few pages before we address it.

Beats, which we associate with sounds, have a visual counterpart. If you’re riding a train and you look out of the window and you see telephone poles going by at a steady pace, you see the visual representation of a beat. Run your eyes across the tiles in the bathroom wall, and there too you’ll “read” a beat, as it were—you’ll translate a visual pattern into a rhythmic one.

Let’s call a beat a more or less predictable subdivision of time. Its visual counterpart is a more or less predictable subdivision of space, which we intuitively perceive as a rhythmic event. In that sense, reading a newspaper, flipping through the phone book, or creating a spreadsheet are all rhythmic events.

I go back to my demonstration of the beat as a snap of my fingers, repeated over time. Now I organize these beats into measures—regular groups of two, three, or four beats. Imitating an orchestra conductor, I add a new gesture to my finger snapping, and I delineate the song’s measure by moving my arm in front of me. In a measure with two beats, I move my arm up and down in space. In a measure with three beats, I move it down, then to my right, then up. In a measure with four beats, my gesture goes down, left, right, up—and then down again, to start the new measure. Measures, then, are collections of beats. They too have a visual equivalent, not only in the gestures of my arm but also in the arrangement of objects in space. For instance, you can “read” a set of bookshelves in a library as if it were a measure: every bookcase a measure, each shelf in it a beat. The rows of seats in a movie theater, silverware displayed on a banquet table, cars parked in patterns along the sidewalk—the visual parallels to the aural effect are endless.

Here are three songs, each illustrating a different measure. Note that I wrote the first beat of each bar in capitals.

“Frère Jacques” has two beats:






(1)VOUS, (2)(silence)


(1)VOUS, (2)(silence)…

“Happy Birthday” has three beats:


(1)BIRTH-(2)day (3)to

(1)YOU, (2)(silence) (3)happy

(1)BIRTH-(2)day (3)to


“La Marseillaise ” has four beats:

al-(4)lons en-

(1)FANTS (2)de (3)la (4)pa-

(1)TRI- (2)…i… (3)e…

Those of you who are musicians know much of this information already. Please bear with me as I go through these basics. I promise I’ll complicate matters enough to make it worth your while, and I promise too that all this information will be pertinent to your teaching the Alexander Technique.

Let me go back to my two-beat measure. You’ve seen it, heard it, perhaps “lived” it as a kind of total sensorial reality, so you might be tempted to say to yourself that you’ve understood all there is to be understood about a two-beat measure. But let me sing a new song in two beats:

heigh(1)HO, (2)

heigh(1)HO, (2)

it’s(1)OFF to(2)work


In one supremely important detail, this song is different from “Frère Jacques.” Both songs might share the two-beat measure, but otherwise they belong to two totally different rhythmic categories. Sing “Frère Jacques” (FJ) and “Heigh-ho” (HH) again, conducting yourself as you do it.

FJ goes down and up; HH goes up and down. FJ starts with a strong beat; HH starts with an upbeat. FJ can be counted “ONE-two, ONE-two”; HH can be counted “two-ONE; two-ONE”.

We’ll borrow some terminology from the study of poetics and give names to these two patterns. “ONE-two” we call a trochaic foot, “two-ONE” we call an iambic foot. (In this context the word “foot” means simply “unit” or “group.”) “To be or not to be” contains three iambic feet. “Never, never, never!” contains three trochaic feet. The iambic group has a syllable of preparation, followed by another of stress. The trochaic group has a syllable of stress, followed by a syllable of release. This gives us a total of three qualities of rhythmic energy: preparation, stress, and release.

The interplay of these three qualities gives language its swing, and also much of its meaning. “It don’t mean a thing… if you ain’t got that swing.” Joke apart, for language to be comprehensible, its rhythm must be organized into logical and organic patterns, which our ears recognize and process and analyze and respond to more or less intuitively. It’s nearly impossible to understand something said with bad rhythm. Let me give you a banal example:

To… be OR… not TO… be THAT… is THE… ques-TION.

Say the above out aloud to a friend, and he or she will tell you how hard it is to seize its meaning.

Let’s backtrack a little bit. In studying rhythm, we’ve already met the concepts of beat; measure; and qualities of preparation, stress, and release. Preparation/stress makes for an iambic foot; stress/release makes for a trochaic foot. The heartbeat that I mentioned earlier is a trochaic beat: PUM/pa, PUM/pa. “Frère Jacques” is a trochaic song, “Heigh-ho” is iambic. Without its rhythmic organization, language doesn’t make a lot of sense. Neither does music. And, we will start suspecting before long, neither does any aspect of your use, and therefore of your teaching of the Alexander Technique.

To illustrate the relationship between use and rhythm, we’ll take walking as an example. After reading this article, go for a stroll and see if you can detect the rhythmic pattern of your habitual manner of walking. In all likelihood there’ll be a slight asymmetry to your steps; perhaps you land on the left foot a little more heavily than the right one, or vice-versa. Perhaps your first step is a preparation, and the second one a stress; if so, then you walk iambically. Perhaps your pattern is a stress followed by a release; then you walk trochaically. You might put the stress on your dominant foot, or less likely on your weaker one. This gives us four patterns of walking:

Left RIGHT, Iambic

Right LEFT, Iambic

LEFT right, trochaic

RIGHT left, trochaic

See what happens to your use if you break your habitual pattern. What if you change from iambic to trochaic? Or vice-versa? Or what if you land more heavily on the foot that normally is lighter? I think you’ll have some significant proprioceptive discoveries. And, like with all of proprioception, these discoveries may have startling emotional and psychological resonances. I recently taught an older British man who’s a good amateur pianist. At some point in our lessons it became useful for us to consider the issue of rhythm in walking. My pupil eventually came to realize that, all his adult life, he had walked with an unbalanced trochaic pattern as a result of having served in the army:

LEFT! two, three, four, LEFT! two, three, four…

The pattern wasn’t conducive to good use, and yet my pupil had internalized it unquestioningly for fifty years. Suddenly seizing its reality—a psychophysical, cultural, social reality—gave my pupil quite a jolt. Alexander liked saying, “Talk about a man’s individuality and character; it’s the way he embodies rhythm.” I’m misquoting him on purpose, of course. But perhaps you see my point: rhythm is synonymous with use, and use is synonymous with individuality and character.

Start assuming that every gesture lends itself to rhythmic organization, including lifting your arms, taking hold of a pupil’s head, turning his head, or inviting him to sit down.

Here’s an example. Take a pupil’s head in your hands. Then, with your hands and verbally, establish the following pattern, turning the pupil’s head as needed and readying him to sit down in the flow of your mini-poem:

Up to TURN… up to TURN… up to SIT!

These few words (and gestures) contain a beat, a measure, and the interplay of preparation, stress, and release.

Much of what we looked at so far involves the organization of words, sounds, or gestures into more or less regular and predictable patterns. Patterns are shapes that we recognize, understand, and relate to. Imagine a world without patterns—visual, aural, of syntax or rhythm, of behavior, of movement, of time. It’d be utter chaos. Now imagine a world totally dominated by symmetrical, rigid, predictable patterns. It’d be a lifeless mechanical tyranny.

I think what we want are organic patterns, changeable but coherent.

One good way of working with your pupils is to set up a pattern (with a view towards coherence) then break it on purpose (with a view towards adaptability). To give a simple example, you can lead your pupil from standing to sitting three times in a row, at a steady speed; then do something surprising, like changing the speed, or doing something else altogether—taking the pupil on his toes, for instance. (Needless to say, this is the strategy Alexander adopted to break the link between his wishing to do something and his automatic end-gaining as he carried out his wish. He describes the strategy at the end of the first chapter of “The Use of the Self.”) In a moment I’ll return to the matter of working with your pupils, but first I’d like to discuss the rhythmic possibilities that exist for breaking up a pattern.

We have already considered that some beats are very regular and predictable, like the clicking of a metronome, others are changeable, like a heartbeat. The heartbeat gets slower and faster depending on a large number of factors. But it doesn’t lose its essential “beatness” when it gets faster or slower. In music, too, it’s possible to sing a tune varying its pace, slowing it down here and speeding it up there, without the tune’s losing its essential beatness. And, indeed, that’s the way most great musicians play their pieces, be it Arthur Rubinstein playing a Chopin mazurka or Miles Davis playing his exquisite “Flamenco Sketches.”

Making the timing of beats or words unpredictable is called “rubato.” It comes from the Italian, and the full original expression is “tempo rubato”—stolen time, as you steal a fraction of a second (or more) from a word or syllable to give it, as it were, to another word that is then lengthened and emphasized. Rubato adds expressiveness to music, to language, and also to gesture. If a rubato is organic, it can be quite exaggerated without robbing a gesture of its meaning.

When you work with your pupils, your sense of time (as it applies to giving directions, using your hands, setting off gestures, and so on) doesn’t have to be metronomic and predictable. On the contrary; the best timing, as demonstrated by musicians, dancers, basketball players, and hunting cheetahs, is fluid and ever-changing, even while respecting a basic continuity of pattern.

So far we have looked at beats, measures, the Iambic-Trochaic Paradigm, and rubato. Let’s add three new concepts, all of them useful in breaking up a rigid pattern: sforzando; fermata; and subito.

There’s an American ditty that goes like this:

Mama had a baby,

And her HEAD popped off.

My wife taught me this the other day, explaining that American children say it when they’re pulling dandelion heads off their stems. The louder “HEAD” is an accent which we musicians call a sforzando. There are other musical accents as well, such as fortepiano or rinforzando. But for our purposes we can limit ourselves to the sforzando, which is Italian for “reinforcing.” Take a pupil’s head in your hands and gently direct it forward and up, perhaps with a pulse and a verbal accompaniment:

Forward and up… forward and up… forward and up…

Perhaps you could add a movement:

Up to turn, and stop; up to turn, and stop; up to turn, and stop.

After you set up the pattern, you break it with a sudden increase in the tone of your hands, the firmness of the grip, the stretch of the spine, the forward-and-up curve that you give to the head, or a combination of those elements. And use the sforzando to trigger a new movement:

Up to turn… up to turn… up to turn… KNEES!

If you do it well (and I admit it’s a big if for all of us), the pupil won’t anticipate the sforzando and will do something new, spontaneous, unhooked from habit. He won’t end-gain; he’ll inhibit and direct with your help. He’ll think up, bend his knees, and sit down, not having decided to “sit down” in his habitual manner at all. And if you do it well, the pupil will really enjoy it.

Now let’s go back to singing “Happy Birthday.” Sometimes, to be funny or to annoy other people, we over-stretch one word in the song, holding it for an almost objectionable length of time:

Happy Birthday to you,

Happy Birthday to you,

Happy Birthday, deeeeeeeear Pedro…

Happy Birthday to you!

The very long “dear Pedro” is called a fermata by musicians. In music, fermatas play various structural or ornamental roles. One famous use of it is to allow a singer, say, to display vocal mastery over a note on the top of a melody.

So there you are leading your pupil in movement, in and out of the chair at a steady, predictable pace. All of a sudden, just as he’s about to stand up, you indicate a fermata with your hands: “Hold it, fellow, you’re not going anywhere.” You can talk to the pupil or do your fermata in silence; you can explain it or let your pupil puzzle over it. And the pupil can either end-gain, or inhibit and direct. The pupil can learn to say to himself, “I don’t know what this guy wants me to do right now; I’m beginning to get a bit uncomfortable; my thighs and knees are working way too hard; but I’ll just wait a while and take care of my directions until it becomes clearer what I can do next.” And the next thing is beautifully different from habit. A fermata becomes a mini-meditation, a moment of introspection, and a break from the pattern.

The word “subito” means “suddenly” in Italian. In music it’s used by a composer to indicate a sudden change of dynamic or tempo: a loud passage suddenly goes quiet, and we have a “piano subito.” Or a slow passage suddenly speeds up, and we have a “presto subito.” It’s another way of breaking up patterns. While a sforzando (which, like the subito, happens suddenly) is a single event of short duration, a subito indicates a change that may last for quite a while, until some new tempo or dynamic is indicated by the composer (or by the Alexander teacher using her hands on a pupil). You’ve had your pupil stand quietly in front of the chair for a good minute while you both direct—let’s call this “adagio,” a musical indication of time and mood that originally meant “at ease,” but which means “slow” in a musical context. All at once you take the pupil rather quickly into sitting, then again into standing, and so on several times in a row. Let’s call this “allegro subito,” allegro being Italian for “merry,” but also meaning “fast” in a musical context.

To sum up the preceding pages, Alexander lessons are built on patterns of movement, of pressure and stretch as you use your hands on your pupils, of words and directions, of procedure, of proprioception, of emotional insight. The patterns can be made more regular, smoother, dance-like, meditation-like, song-like, poem-like, through the use of these musical and rhythmic elements I’ve outlined: beats, measures, and qualities of preparation, stress, and release. The hallmark of these patterns will be flow, continuity, and coherence. And the patterns can be made unpredictable, inhabitual, inventive, liberating, through the use of rhythmic disruptions such as rubato, sforzando, fermata, and subito. The hallmark of these disruptions will be spontaneity, adaptability, and freedom.

The smallest of your gestures contains, inevitably, a rhythmic element: bringing your hands up to a pupil’s head, nodding in silence as you listen to him talk, inhaling, exhaling. Half a dozen such little gestures, one after the other, together create an organic rhythmic unit. Over just one or two minutes of your lesson time, you’ll have initiated and established a wealth of rhythmic patterns, loosely organized into a coherent whole. The entire lesson then becomes a composition, bringing together rhythmic elements that evoke the languages of dance, poetry, prose, music, and art.

The truth of the matter is that rhythm is so pervasive that every lesson you’ve ever given in your life has been a rhythmically constructed composition, whether you wished it or not. Indeed, all of us are unwitting rhythm experts in everything we do, in varying degrees of unwittingness and expertise. I hope that reading this article will help you become less unwitting and more expertly.