What’s a “primary control” and why should I care?

Alexander’s new toy.

In most conventional Alexander Technique schools, you will encounter a concept known as “primary control”. This is a term that Alexander introduced into his teaching in the 1930’s and used extensively in his book The Use of The Self, published in 1932. The phrase also appears in a modified form in The Universal Constant in Living, published in 1941.

The way Alexander talked about this phenomenon is not always easy to follow. Some of the references are quite ambiguous or depend on an understanding of other technical terms that Alexander routinely used. For my money, one of his most complete descriptions of primary control appears in The Universal Constant in Living.

Readers of The Use of the Self will remember that when I was experimenting with various ways of using myself in the attempt to improve the functioning of my vocal organs, I discovered that a certain use of the head in relation to the neck, and of the head and neck in relation to the torso and the other parts of the organism, if consciously and continuously employed, ensures, as was shown in my own case, the establishment of a manner of use of the self as a whole which provides the best conditions for raising the standard of the functioning of the various mechanisms, organs and systems.

(The Universal Constant in Living, Mouritz 2000, p.8)

Oh my! I could talk about this paragraph for hours. I mean, just look how much is going on in that sentence! (Yes, that’s one sentence)

I will control myself and just pick out some of the highlights.

 Sounds very clever, but what does it mean?

The above passage may seem somehow familiar to readers of my previous post: One Simple Thing. I said then that one of Alexander’s first discoveries was the peculiar importance of the relationship of his head to his body and the influence that this relationship seemed to have over the rest of him.

In The Use of The Self, he described the discovery and some of his many experiments that grew from it, but in this paragraph, I believe Alexander presents one of his clearest explanations. So, what was it he discovered?

A certain use of the head in relation to the neck… 

Alexander students will nod their heads (no pun intended) and smile knowingly at this point because this seems like very familiar territory. But he’s not finished yet. 

A certain use of the head in relation to the neck, AND of the head and neck in relation to the torso… 

Okay, now it’s getting a bit complex. Is that two relationships or three? Is it [head-in-relation-to-neck] and [head-in-relation-to-torso] and [neck-in-relation-to-torso]? Or is it just [head-in-relation-to-neck] in relation to [torso]? Or something else? 

But wait, there’s more: 

A certain use of the head in relation to the neck, and of the head and neck in relation to the torso AND the other parts of the organism… 

Hmmm, maybe this stuff is a bit more complex than I was led to believe. Maybe this will require a bit of thought. Meanwhile, what does this relationship (or relationships) of the head/neck/torso/other parts do?

ensures … the establishment of a manner of use of the self as a whole…

I like the sound of “ensures”. That tells me we’re onto a sure thing here. It tells me that if I can figure out what this use of the head in relation to those other things actually means I can pretty much guarantee something good.

Let’s get technical

The something good, in this case, involves one of those technical terms I mentioned: “a manner of use of the self as a whole”. As with most technical terms, it’s actually much simpler than it looks. 

If you use a tool in order to carry out a task, whether it’s a saw, a paint brush, a saxophone, or a bulldozer, you can use that tool well or you can use it badly. There’s a certain skill required.

Same thing with your own inbuilt tools. You can use your hands well or not, you can use your legs, your eyes, your voice well or not. But for Alexander there is a use that governs all of these uses, a kind of ‘uber-use’, which is where the more specialised meaning of the word “use” comes in. 

The use of your self as a whole; the way you organise and coordinate your whole self in activity.

Alexander’s claim is that if you establish an effective use of the whole, then your chances of using each of the parts more effectively will go up significantly. 

…the establishment of a manner of use of the self as a whole which provides the best conditions for raising the standard of the functioning of the various mechanisms, organs and systems.

What Alexander discovered, and was able to demonstrate, was that there is one element of our movement behaviour that is not like the others; one set of relationships starting from the head downwards that has the power to affect the way in which your whole system functions. 

In other words, there is a set of relationships that establishes a good use of the whole of me. And it all starts with how I use my head. 

Let’s get practical

Okay, so in order to ensure an effective use of the whole of me I need to establish a certain use of my head in relation to the rest of me, but what does that mean? How does that work in practice?

Funny you should ask. He continues:

I found that in practice this use of the parts, beginning with the use of the head in relation to the neck, constituted a primary control of the mechanisms as a whole, involving control in process right through the organism, and that when I interfered with the employment of the primary control of my manner of use, this was always associated with a lowering of the standard of my general functioning.

As I may have suggested previously, there are many approaches to teaching Alexander Technique. In some approaches you will find various specific instructions about precisely how to establish this “use of the parts, beginning with the use of the head in relation to the neck”. I have encountered many procedures and ‘verbal orders’ designed to bring about this desirable condition. 

When I read that last paragraph, though, it seems to me that we’ve been given a simple recipe. What is it, according to Mr Alexander, that is always associated with a lowering of the standard of my general functioning? 

Interference.

…when I interfered with the employment of the primary control of my manner of use, this was always associated with a lowering of the standard of my general functioning.

What this says to me is that something is lowering the standard of my general functioning and that there is a strong correlation, if not causation, between this lowered functioning and my interfering with the employment of my primary control. This suggests to me that in order to prevent the lowering of my functioning, all I have to do is stop interfering. 

Could it be that the secret to establishing this advantageous relationship of the head to the body is to leave it alone?

Leave them alone and they will come home

When I am teaching people towards the beginning of their Alexander journey, I avoid specific instructions with respect to this phenomenon. I take the position that if there is this primary controlling factor in movement, then it’s part and parcel of the organism. Millions of years of evolution have probably done a better job than I ever could, so maybe I should just leave it alone.

In other words, I don’t teach people how to use this thing, I teach them how to stop misusing it.

Rather than telling the students what to do with their heads, I look to see what they are already doing, decide whether it counts as “interference” (it almost always is, btw), see if I can persuade them to stop doing it, and then watch what happens.

So far, what happens is people get better. Of course, I’ve only been doing this for about 20 years so maybe it’s a bit early to tell for sure.

If you have been following these articles, this should all start to seem familiar somehow. Isn’t this just the first step in Alexander’s journey again? Here we are, once more asking the question that started it all: “What if there is something I am doing that is the cause of my trouble?” 

And the answer today is the same as it was then. Stop.

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By Simon Gore

Simon teaches Alexander Technique in Bristol, England, and is a course coordinator for the ITM teacher training programme.

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