The whispered ‘ah’ in the Alexander Technique is producing the sound of an ‘ah’ in a whisper while thinking of something that may produce a smile.
The ‘a’, ‘ah’, has probably a long history in singing, in bel canto in particular. For example, Domenico Crivelli’s L’arte del canto (1841), English edition 1859:
To avoid these defects [guttural or nasal singing], the Student ought to practise the Solfeggios with the vowel A, shaping the mouth as if smiling . . .
The Italian A, (pronounced as a in father,), should at first be exclusively used . . . the tongue should be slightly hollowed and touching the lower teeth, . . . Most of the future progress of the Pupil depends upon this first step.
William Shakespeare in The Art of Singing (1898, 1909) also refers to ‘ah’. William A. Aiken (The voice, 1900) also referred to a ‘whispered A’ (saying it should be ‘ah’). H. H. Hulbert in his Voice Training in Speech and Song (1912) also provides a description of a whispered and a voiced ‘ah’. Leo Kofler, in his The Art of Breathing (1897) – which Alexander was familiar with – describes the “aa” sound (not whispered) thus:
This is the same sound as signified by the letter a in father. The physiological process of this sound is as follows: The lower jaw is dropped lower than for any other vowel-sound, but not so low as to require force to keep it in position, or to cause stiffening of the jaw. The lips assume a faint-smiling position, and the teeth are kept so far apart that the student, if we wishes to gauge it, can admit the thumb edgewise between them. The tongue lies flat in the mouth, its point exactly behind and level with the edge of the lower teeth, . . . 
It has several benefits of which benefits to breathing and voice are the most obvious. Alexander wrote about the benefits of using a whisper as a preparation for vocal work:
We must resort to the whisper tone, which is rarely used in speaking, and is, therefore, little associated with cultivated bad habits. It affords, also, the most favourable opportunity for freeing an unduly depressed larynx and correcting the imperfect action of the vocal reeds, soft palate, cheeks, and tongue, and the student is more easily enabled to open the mouth correctly.
And later: ‘In ordinary vocalization the reeds are more or less approximated, but in the whisper tone they are much wider apart.’
F. P. Jones wrote that – as was used by F. M. and A. R. Alexander in their teaching – it was an extremely effective device for demonstrating the role of inhibition in breathing and voice production.
Origin – Alexander
Alexander first writes about the whispered ‘ah’ in a 1906 article, in listing typical defects in singing and speaking:
In all these cases there prevails a stiff-set position of lips, cheeks, tongue, etc., combined with undue depression and fixity of larynx, adaptable only to the production of vowels such as ‘o,’ ‘aw.’ For this reason not one singer or speaker in a hundred can produce a sustained perfect ‘ah’ in either a whispered or vocal tone.
It is not known when or how Alexander evolved the whispered ‘ah’. However, given the prevalence of the use of the ‘ah’ in voice work in the 19th century, Alexander could have been inspired a by number of sources. Walter Carrington records in his 1946 diary Alexander relating how he got the idea for the whispered ‘ah’:
With regard to the whispered ‘ah’, this was evolved when a singing teacher called Mr Lawrence pointed out that the perfect ah required the removal of the upper lip from the teeth. This naturally resulted in an ugly grimace. FM then got the idea of a natural smile to achieve the same result.
Kitty Wielopolska, who was on Alexander’s first training course, recollected that Alexander discovered during the training course that to achieved a natural smile you had to think to think of something of funny.
As well as the articles above Alexander refers to the whispered ‘ah’ in ‘The Theory and Practice of a New Method of Respiratory Re-Education’ (1907) (which is also included in MSI):
The quantity of residual air in the lungs is greatly increased, and if the expired air is always converted into a controlled whispered vowel during the practice of the breathing exercises, very great benefits accrue . . .
The most detailed description is in CCC:
When a satisfactory, co-ordinated use of the mechanisms concerned with the acts of inspiration and expiration is established, the teacher may then proceed to help the pupil to employ this co-ordinated use in connection with all vocal effort. As has been pointed out in Man’s Supreme Inheritance, this should begin with whispered vocalization, preferably the vowel sound ‘ah,’ as this form of vocal use, being so little employed in everyday life, is rarely associated with ordinary bad psycho-physical habits in vocalization.
For this reason, the teacher will begin by helping the pupil to make the expiration on a whispered ‘ah.’ This calls for a knowledge of the psycho-physical ‘means-whereby’ of the use of the organism in general, and of the acts of opening the mouth, using the lips, tongue, soft palate, etc., with freedom from stress and strain of the vocal mechanisms, and to this end a definite technique is employed. The process involved prevents sniffing and ‘sucking in air,’ undue depression of the larynx and undue stiffening of the muscles of the throat, vocal organs, and neck. It also prevents the undue lifting of the front part of the chest during inspiration, its undue depression during expiration, and also many other defects which are developed by any imperfectly co-ordinated person who attempts to learn ‘breathing’ or ‘deep breathing,’ etc., guided by the unreliable sensory appreciation which is always associated with an imperfectly co-ordinated condition of the psycho-physical mechanism.
There are multitude descriptions of the whispered ‘ah’ in the Alexander literature.
Writings – First Generation Teachers
- F. P. Jones describes the procedure in Freedom to Change.
- Marjory Barlow describes the procedure in The Ground Rules, and Think More, Do Less. She also describes her experiences with the whispered ‘ah’ with Alexander in a in a Congress workshop in 1999. She also discusses it in An Examined Life.
- Walter Carrington discussed the purpose and the importance of the whispered ‘ah’ and its use at Alexander’s training course both in Explaining the Alexander Technique, and in Personally Speaking. How the Carringtons taught it on their training course is described, with several variations, in Directed Activities. Walter Carrington also describes the whispered ‘ah in Thinking Aloud.
Writings – Articles
- ‘Alexander Technique and the singing voice’ by Glynn Macdonald; on the usefulness of the whispered ‘ah’ for the voice, demonstrating with the audience.
- ‘The whispered “ah” and the expression of emotion’ by Robin Möckli considers the whispered ‘ah’ and our resistance to performing it.
- ‘Voice and the Alexander Technique - The whispered “ah”’ by Jane R. Heirich is an edited excerpt from the author’s book Voice and the Alexander Technique.
- ‘General and specific benefits of practising the whispered “ah”’ by Jane Heirich lists nine benefits of practising the whispered ‘ah’ with reference to Alexander’s writings.
- ‘The use of breathing and the body vowels’ by Agnes de Brunhoff.
Writings – Books
- Breathing and the voice – A practical guide to the whispered ‘ah’ by Theodore Dimon Jr. covers breathing and the whispered ‘ah’.
Sections on the whispered ‘ah’ are included in
- Voice and the Alexander Technique by Jane Ruby Heirich.
- The Alexander Technique and the Art of Teaching Voice by Maria Weiss.
- Indirect Procedures by Pedro de Alcantara.
- How to Breathe by Richard Brennan.
There is a short clip of F. M. Alexander doing a whispered ‘ah’ in a silent film footage from 1949-50.
Walter Carrington demonstrates a whispered ‘ah’ in two DVDs: Walter & Dilys Carrington Demonstrate the Alexander Technique DVD filmed in 1986, and Walter Carrington on Breathing + Revealing his larynx.