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William Shakespeare and the Whispered Ah

Every discipline has its exercises, activities simple and brief which help the student focus on essentials of the discipline.

The Alexander Technique may be unique among “bodywork” methods in that any movement, simple and brief, can be used as an “Alexander exercise.”  Whatever the movement may be, if you focus on doing it gracefully, thinking per Alexander, you are doing something that will help you incorporate the A.T. in all your activities.

Thus what makes a movement an A.T. exercise is not the movement itself but rather the A.T. thought you add to it.  You can rise from your chair or you can rise from your chair plus  X.  The “bare” chair procedure is not the A.T., rather it’s the  X  that makes it so.

This general remark might be kept in mind while we consider Jeroen Staring’s accusation that Alexander stole the “whispered ah” from the voice teachers of his time.  In particular Staring mentions William Shakespeare — not the author of Hamlet but another Shakespeare — author of the book The Art of Singing, near the end of the 19th century.

A respondent, echoing Staring, writes:

« The [whispered ah] clearly didn’t originate with Alexander.  It was a typical part of nineteenth century voice instructors tool bag. »

Indeed it was, if we consider just the “bare” whispered ah.  Alexander never claimed to have invented the whispered ah.  He did however teach it in his own way, and his treatment is rather different from what Shakespeare describes. 

Shakespeare, in his book, calls it the “aspirating exercise,” done to acquire control of the breath. (*)  More important is what is not in the book.  There is no mention of the concepts primary control, direction, inhibition, etc., all that make the A.T. what it is.

The A.T. whispered ah is more than inhaling normally and then exhaling a certain sound, yet that is all Shakespeare’s procedure has in common with the A.T. procedure.

Shakespeare’s whispered ah is a precursor to the A.T. whispered ah even less than getting up out of a chair while ignorant of A.T. concepts is a precursor to the A.T. chair procedure.  Shakespeare is not only ignorant of A.T. concepts, he gives end-gaining instructions for his whispered ah that would tend to undermine good use.

Since Alexander began his career as a professional recitalist, he doubtless knew the vocal teaching of his time long before developing the concepts of the A.T.  (Probably not from Shakespeare.  The first English edition of The Art of Singing came out in 1898, by which time Alexander had been teaching for several years.)

Perhaps we can put the situation like this, with the above as explanation:  Alexander took the whispered ah and made it his own.

*  The chapter  “Management of the Breath”  contains the section  “Exercise for acquiring the method of respiration above indicated.”  It’s a bit long to quote, but is followed by this summary (italics in original):
Breathing Exercise Recapitulated.

1. Balance the body beyond the front foot, and become conscious of the existence of the back muscles by extending outwards and forwards the arms, with palms upwards and thumbs back, while keeping the elbows in.

2. Do the quick breaths or quivering in and out, through the mouth, noiselessly, until they are felt at the soft place underneath the breastbone and under the shoulder-blades.  This gives us a full breath not felt at the points of the shoulders, nor at the chest.

3. Press out the breath as though warming some object with it, while mentally pronouncing a long Ah for ten to fifteen seconds, and finally, without losing control, stop the breath by arresting it with the breath muscles, the throat being open.

Let this be called the aspirating exercise (a prolongation of the consonant h), to be done in silence.  It will prove a practical lesson in breathing, although only mental as far as singing and pronunciation are concerned.  When practised as a preparation for singing, it should last but one or two seconds.

Having acquired the use of the back rib-raising muscles, it will not be necessary to extend the arms outwards;  and when we can take in rapidly an ample breath, we may dispense with the practice of the quick breaths.

In conclusion, the singer must acquire such control over the mechanism of the breath, that the mode of taking it will not interfere in the least with the mechanism of the voice.  This, by avoiding all use of the muscles which raise the shoulders, consists in the restraining action of the inspiratory muscles in balancing and regulating the pressure of breath caused by the action of the expiratory muscles.  (pages 16-17 of the 1910 edition)