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Robert Henry Scanes-Spicer

We come now to  Dr. R. H. Scanes-Spicer  (1857-1925), [1]  a London physician who specialized in disorders of the nose and throat.  He was interested in breathing as well and wrote articles on the subject which Alexander had read in Australia.

In 1904 Alexander left Australia for London, taking with him a letter of introduction to Dr. Spicer.  In due course Dr. Spicer had lessons from Alexander, and soon was referring patients to him, especially actors with voice problems.

Alexander split with Dr. Spicer about 1908, and later accused him of lecturing about his work without giving proper credit.

Dr. Spicer never made the reverse charge, but Jeroen Staring, a century later, makes it for him.  Staring maintains that Alexander appropriated the Alexander Technique from Dr. Spicer, that Alexander didn’t begin teaching what we know of today as the Alexander Technique until 1909.  Prior to that, Staring claims, Alexander taught merely breathing, using unoriginal methods.

It’s true that at the beginning of his teaching career Alexander promoted himself as a teacher of breathing, a fact well known among Alexandrians.  During the early days he was even called “the breathing man.”  That he emphasized the respiratory benefit of what he taught is not inconsistent with his knowing the essentials of the A.T. familiar to us today.  In the early years he taught the Technique as the means to better breathing and voice production.  “Breathing teacher” ought to be understood as a convenient label rather than a complete description of what he was doing.

We will present evidence for this in a moment, but first:  why Alexander’s emphasis on breathing in the early years if he knew what we know today?  One can only conjecture.  Good use promotes general well-being, including better respiration.  Alexander, though, seems to have understood good use as promoting better respiration, which in turn promoted general well-being.

It took time for him to realize that his method was more important than its application to voice, the application with which he himself had started.

The market may have influenced what Alexander emphasized.  His work’s very newness would have been an obstacle to its promotion, no matter how valuable it was.  He had to advertise in terms people could understand and to address their problems as they saw them.  In the early days of Alexander’s teaching career there were other breathing/elocution teachers and a market for their work.  Breathing exercises were in fact something of a fad during the first part of the century.

Alexander’s experience in the theatre doubtless had an effect on how he presented his teaching.  This was the field he moved in as a stage actor and recitalist, where voice was of paramount importance.  The Technique had started with a theatrical voice problem, and it ought to be no surprise that for a time the Technique stayed in the theatrical arena Alexander knew so well.

Here would be a good place to make a related point.  At one time Alexander taught  other  skills in addition to the A.T., either separately or in conjunction with it.  A 1902 advertisement shows him directing a school that taught Delsarte, acting, speaking, and singing. [2]  And Alexander once taught skills beyond the A.T. along with the A.T., such as voice inflection and modulation.  Neither of these facts detract from his having taught the A.T.

Staring disagrees with all this.  He maintains that before 1909 Alexander taught nothing but well-known breathing methods, that Alexander was completely ignorant of what we know of today as the Alexander Technique:  the importance of the head-neck relation, directions, inhibition, the force of habit on carriage, kinesthetic sense appreciation, means-whereby.  Here is what Staring says, referring to a booklet of 1907:

“... Alexander was a breathing teacher !  He was not an Alexander Technique teacher as we know today.  He was a breathing teacher.  This 1907 text is on breathing.”  (page 11, exclamation in transcript)

Alexander reprinted the text of this 1907 pamphlet as Part III of his first book, published in 1910 and kept in subsequent editions.  He never hid the fact that he began as a teacher of breathing. [3]

Staring however means more than that Alexander taught breathing.  Alexander taught nothing but breathing:

“As a breathing teacher, which he was up to 1908 or so, phrases in his writing and talks about his method were about breathing and nothing else.”  (page 14)

“The 1906, 1907, and 1910 texts remained texts on breathing throughout his life.  If you interpret it as texts on posture as Carrington does, as Fischer does, as Murray does, then you don’t understand what Alexander is saying.”  (page 23)

“I only know what Alexander said and wrote from the texts that he wrote from 1910 and before.  Examine Alexander’s articles up to 1908 in Fischer’s edition of  Articles and Lectures,  you can see that Alexander wrote on breathing.”  (page 32)

“Where is Alexander in 1906?  He was a breathing teacher whose texts indicate he had very little understanding of the function of the head on balance, voice, respiration, and breathing.  ...  By 1908, he was still a breathing teacher.”  (page 36)

Note how Staring relies on what Alexander published to determine what Alexander was doing.  Here and elsewhere Staring seems to believe that if Alexander hadn’t published it he wasn’t teaching it.

This fallacy of Staring’s, going by only what Alexander published, arguing:

There is no public written account by Alexander of  X  at time  T,
therefore Alexander didn’t know  X  at time  T.
and ignoring testimonials about what Alexander actually was doing, or at least the effects of what he was doing, is a major source of Staring’s errors.  Staring often refers to the  “historical record,”  yet he ignores a large part of it.

A teacher rather than an author, Alexander was not obliged to publish details of his work, work far easier demonstrated than described in words.  Indeed he had reason for not making too much public.  In the early years he may have thought of the A.T., at least the teaching part of it, as a trade secret.  The A.T. was his livelihood and a monopoly would be valuable when pupils were few.  Reading his early advertisements and articles, they arouse curiosity rather than reveal method.

Consider the booklet that so exercises Staring:  The Theory and Practice of a New Method of Respiratory Re-education,  published 1907 in London.  In the  Introductory  Alexander refers to  “certain original principles,”  but does not give them.  Well, that is only the introduction.  In Chapter I  he refers to  “detailed instructions,”  but does not say what they are.  In  Chapter II  he refers to  “the fundamental principles of my method,”  yet you will search in vain trying to find them.  One of the paragraphs in  Chapter III  begins as if he had already explained, though he has not, something whose effects he now describes:  “There is such immediate improvement in the pose of the body and poise of the chest whatever the conditions (excepting, of course organised [organic] defects), that a valuable mechanical advantage is secured in the respiratory movements ... .”  In the  Concluding Remarks  he tells of the advantages of respiratory re-education in general terms.  However many interesting things there are in this booklet, you will find no details of a method:  the Technique or any other.  (Though that  “improvement in the pose of the body”  is worth remarking.)

It may seem odd that Alexander would be concerned that everyone would just learn out of a booklet if he described too much.  But from his own point of view it might seem a natural accomplishment:  he after all had done it even without a booklet.

On the other hand, he may have been concerned that the reader would apply details imperfectly, and so be put off by the subject — losing not only pupils, losing adherents.  He himself laments the difficulty of describing his work in words in his first attempt at it:  the booklet  Introduction to a New Method of Respiratory Vocal Re-Education  published in 1906.  It begins:

“I am well aware of the difficulty of expressing in writing particular ideas and arguments so clearly that an exact meaning is conveyed to all.” [4]
He repeats this warning in later writings.

It is impossible to say for sure why Alexander provides so little detail:  a desire not to reveal too much, or the difficulty of communicating it in words.  Perhaps a bit of both.

His early writing ought to be viewed more as advertisement than instruction. He tells about results, and claims that you can attain them with his method, which he only vaguely suggests.

Staring will have none of this.  What we know of today as the Alexander Technique, with its focus on carriage, he maintains was not discovered by Alexander at all but rather by Dr. Spicer.  Staring says bluntly:

“My view on the Alexander Technique is that it is something very valuable.  I would call it the Scanes Spicer Technique.”  (page 35)

Staring makes much of the question whether good breathing leads to good posture or vice versa.  Arthur Keith, an anthropologist and anatomist, had argued that  “breathing is dominant over posture”  and, continues Staring:

“Scanes Spicer turned Keith’s argument on its head, asserting first [that is, before Alexander], that if you have good posture, as an effect of that, you will breath well.  Scanes Spicer presented that theory in 1909.”  (page 32)
Remember the year.  Staring concludes:
“... there is no doubt from the historical record that Scanes Spicer presented his findings to the public before Alexander did.”  (page 32)

“The textual evidence strongly suggests that Alexander learned from him [Scanes-Spicer].  Alexander did not teach Scanes Spicer.  It was the other way around.”  (page 38)

Whether Spicer discovered on his own that good posture promotes good breathing (we use the word “posture” in the same general way Staring uses it), or got it from Alexander, or vice versa, we cannot determine which from Spicer having written about it first.

In any case, knowing that better posture results in better breathing is of little value by itself.  It tells us nothing about how to  acquire  the good posture that allegedly promotes good breathing.  That  is Alexander’s contribution, not the idea of applying it to breathing.

One can understand that good posture is required, yet have no idea how to get from current bad posture to the desired good one.  Alexander, even if he hadn’t described it well in print, clearly had developed a practical way to do just that.

What other contribution does Staring claim for Spicer?  Staring begins his discussion of Spicer by saying:

“The Alexander Technique as you teach it today is a gathering of different things already known, not put together by Alexander, but by his mentor Scanes Spicer and then used by Alexander.”  (page 17)

Set aside that the Technique is an integrated system whose parts mean little by themselves (what is direction without inhibition, the head-neck relation without direction, the means-whereby without these?).  In all of Staring’s talk, the only specific contribution he claims for Spicer, useless by itself, is that good posture promotes good breathing rather than the other way around.

Though the A.T. enables one to obtain that desired good posture, Staring seems to regard this as a minor detail.  He attributes this detail to other people besides Spicer — and besides Alexander.

Just how Alexander thought carriage and respiration were related can be seen by examining an early pamphlet, having the same title as the longer booklet considered above:  The Theory and Practice of a New Method of Respiratory Re-education  “by F. Matthias Alexander.”  It is an advertisement for two of Alexander’s associates, AR and Amy, published in Melbourne in 1907, after Alexander had moved to London.  It reveals one way they promoted their work in the early days.

The first half consists of five testimonial letters dated from 1905 and 1906.  Though two of the letters mention voice and throat problems, none mention breathing, and most emphasize general well-being.

The second half of the pamphlet reprints two newspaper articles from  The Onlooker  and the  Daily Chronicle.  (These articles are almost surely advertisements, the newspaper analog of infomercials.)  They do promote the Alexanders’ work as benefiting breathing.  The following is worth a close look:

“[FM Alexander] brought about a complete restoration in a case of spinal curvature, pronounced incurable, by means of perfect breathing,  via  perfect posture and carriage ...”  (page 4 of pamphlet, italicized Latin in original)

Whatever “spinal curvature” entailed and whether or not the restoration was complete, this excerpt shows that Alexander sought to improve carriage, while improved breathing and so forth were desirable consequences.

Whatever the reason for the focus on proper respiration in his advertisements, Alexander was never  merely  a teacher of proper respiration.  The above pamphlet shows that he aimed at improving “posture and carriage” on or before 1907.

There is more telling evidence that Alexander concerned himself with carriage then, and well before then.  The following testimonials are from Rosslyn McLeod’s book  Up from Down Under  (3rd edition),  an account of Alexander’s days in Australia.  Though they are obviously written in the first flush of enthusiasm, and doubtless in some cases with a desire to please, the point remains that Alexander was teaching something beyond breathing.  These men were in Melbourne, all writing prior to Alexander’s departure, i.e. before early 1904 —

Rev. E. Handel Jones:

“I have pleasure in bearing my testimony to the value of the breathing method as taught by you. Its effects on my general health are most gratifying ... .  Breathing, once a difficulty, has now, after a few lessons only, imparted to me new life, enabling me to walk a greater distance with less fatigue.  So perfect is  the equilibrium and general control of the body  secured by your method that going up and down stairs, which I once dreaded[,] is now performed with ease.”  (page 81, italics mine)

Back to London, a letter written in 1908 but referring to earlier events (see  Articles and Lectures) —

James Welch, actor:

“When Dr. ______ first sent me to you I was nearly ‘outed’ ...  That was nearly two years ago [i.e. ~ 1906] and now I am stronger every way than ever I was.

“The only thing I have against you is that with the additional inch and a quarter you have put on to my height, and the two and half inches on to my chest, none of my old clothes fit me.”
A mock-complaint worth noting.

In 1908 the Victorian (as in the state of Australia) Teachers and Schools Registration Board requested Prof. Alexander Leeper, head of Trinity College of Melbourne University, to report on the latest developments of physical culture in Britain and Europe.  He confined himself, however, to England and for the most part to breathing exercises and voice production.  In the course of his investigation he met Alexander in London and had a course of lessons.  This was in 1908.  In his report, submitted March the following year, he recommended several reforms in Victorian physical education, including that the A.T. be made part of the curriculum.

He quotes several endorsements of Alexander’s work by doctors.  Dr. Jakins’ is typical:

“I have sent a number of patients to Mr. Alexander.  I am of the opinion that the principles of his method are far in advance of any other physical or breathing culture known to me.”

Prof. Leeper himself refers to:

“the use of pose rather than of muscular effort to assist the breathing”

Though at this time Alexander promoted himself as a breathing/voice teacher, many testimonials make abundantly clear that his work was broader than that, that his students knew it, and undoubtedly he knew it.

And if that work wasn’t the Alexander Technique as later taught,  one wonders what it was.

This is our challenge to Jeroen Staring:  What was Alexander teaching long before 1909 that affected his pupils as described above, and that so impressed many reputable physicians?

How about Dr. Spicer himself.  What was Alexander teaching in 1904 that Spicer would favor him with referral after referral?  Why did Spicer think Alexander superior to other teachers?  Here is what Prof. Leeper placed in his report:

“... Dr Scanes Spicer, an eminent throat specialist and lecturer on diseases of the throat in London University, wrote to me  [evidently in 1908]:—
‘The results, not only in the production of the voice, but also in the  deportment, appearance, and general health  surpass anything that I have hitherto met with.  Among the chief points which distinguish his practice from that of other physical educators are:

‘1. The absolute avoidance of physical strain, so conserving the available energy of the body;
‘2. the thorough emptying of the chest on expiration in such a way as to let the respiratory act be to some extent an elastic recoil;
‘3. the prevention of undue suction of the mucous membrane of the throat by insisting on no gasping or sniffing;
‘4. the better position of the thoracic and abdominal viscera, and the holding of the weight of the body to the best mechanical advantage.’ ”
(Up from Down Under,  page 111, italics mine)
A poor witness Scanes-Spicer makes for the Scanes-Spicer Technique !  Or for Alexander having been just another breathing teacher.

In conclusion:

It is well known that Alexander began his teaching career as an elocutionist and breathing teacher.  He abandoned his emphasis on these skills as his teaching evolved, while retaining what was unique to his method.  This is the interpretation that most easily fits the evidence.  The later evolution in his teaching was a winnowing out of the extraneous from principles already discovered, not a breakthrough.

When Staring claims that Alexander was merely a breathing teacher, he fails to separate method from one of its effects, that is, he fails to see the possibility of the Technique in one of its applications.

Another fallacy of Staring’s is that he relies solely on what Alexander published.  The absence of contemporaneous textual evidence from Alexander is not evidence of absence in Alexander’s work.

Alexander continued to improve his practical teaching skills long after he left Australia (trainees say even into the 1930’s), and he continued to work on how best to describe the principles of the A.T.  He refined the essentials he had discovered years before.  Did Alexander learn anything from Spicer?  We ought to be open to the fact that he may have learned something, but if he did Staring has not articulated what it was.

Spicer gave Alexander practical help after he moved to London by referring to him his first pupils, giving him a foothold in the theatrical community.  But practical help obtaining pupils is quite different from practical help developing the A.T.   Spicer, who lived until 1925, himself never claimed that Alexander was teaching the A.T. at his expense, an amazing absence of complaint if Alexander had actually done so.  Numerous testimonials show that Alexander was teaching something valuable and original, involving carriage, that resulted in general ease of movement, long before he met Spicer.

This ends our look at Jeroen Staring’s claim that Alexander appropriated the Alexander Technique from Scanes-Spicer.  It is absurd.


1  He almost always gets listed in journal indices under  “Spicer.”

2  This was part of his short-lived Sydney Dramatic and Operatic Conservatorium.  See  Up from Down Under,  page 119-120.  “The Director has engaged a competent staff of Professional Assistants ... .”  It is not clear from the advertisement who taught the Delsarte.  The only assistant mentioned explicitly is the singing teacher.

3  Alexander’s first book  Man’s Supreme Inheritance  is rather disorganized;  it is hard to distinguish what is more important from what is less so.  The Technique is clearly recognizable in Part II  (of the 1918 edition at any rate, I haven’t seen the 1910 edition).  To forestall imitators  (he thought Scanes-Spicer was one — we will look into that in another article)  Alexander rushed this book into print with the help of a ghostwriter.

4  Alexander then refers to collaborating with doctors, saying that they knew what proper breathing was but did not know how to bring it about:
“I do not claim to have discovered any new method of breathing, but to understand the only true one—Nature’s;  to have approached the subject from the artistic standpoint, and to have formulated a new method of respiratory and vocal re-education—a fact admitted by the medical men with whom I have had the honour of collaborating.

“These gentlemen knew what was required, but were unable to get practical results by restoring the desired condition in their patients, and teachers of breathing failed to help them in this connection.”  (page 1 of booklet, page 39 of  Articles and Lectures)
He did, as he says, using “indirect means.”  As in the 1907 booklet he is short on details.  The collaboration mentioned above seems to have consisted of the doctors referring their patients for lessons.