What does a classical singer need to do, in order to build a good technique or refine an existing, but incomplete one? He or she needs to learn a systematic way of singing, which is learnt and applied by tuning in to the felt sense of his or her own vocal mechanism. Once on the path of serious study, singers have to attend voice lessons regularly and sing with the guidance of the teacher, learning how to notice and become familiar with the sensations of a more-functional, better technique versus those of a less-functional technique. Then, the student has to practice alone, using those same sensations as the only real guide. Listening to one’s own voice is tempting, but is not a reliable substitute for felt sensation. Only by noticing these tiny, almost imperceptible changes and repeating the ones associated with the more-functional technique can singers make substantive improvements.
Consequently, the main work of singers and the most important thing that they do is to learn to pay very, very close attention to the feedback they get from their bodies. This is particularly important in the parts of the body that relate to the singing mechanism: the torso; the whole neck, including the walls of the throat, the larynx and space above the larynx; and the head, including the jaw, tongue, palates, naso-pharynx and the structures surrounding the oropharynx. It can be easier to “feel” and therefore control the external parts of the body like the arms and legs. Instead, singers have to become intimately aware of and familiar with less-known territory and develop their own unique spectrum of sensations, making a mental connection with what they have learned in voice lessons about what feeling and what gradation is associated with better technique. It is as if each singer has to learn a completely new, internal landscape of felt awareness, labeling each signpost along the way and often going back for reminders.
It is easier for some singers than for others to enter this inner world of subtle, transient, shifting sensation. Certain people are just more sensitive to their own felt sense of their bodies. This ability to feel and make appropriate changes is crucial to a singer, since singers have to be able to teach themselves and later monitor their own techniques carefully when in the midst of a performance career.
There are certainly singers with natural coordination who do not notice a lot of sensations associated with their singing. With a good technique and coordination, the amount and level of acuity of sensations actually lessen, leaving a sense of ease and openness. However, those singers who already began with a certain amount of coordination in place still need to learn to be aware of their bodies and their voices. In fact, it might be even more important, because they are the singers more tempted to sing beyond their boundaries and end up in vocal trouble. Without remembered signposts of sensation, it can be difficult to find one’s way back on one’s own.
The Alexander Technique addresses awareness very directly. Developing awareness of the body’s felt sense of itself is the first principle learned by new students and awareness is encouraged to grow and develop over time. Awareness is developed through the Technique in basically three ways. First, the teacher helps the student understand the importance of paying attention to one’s own body. So many people’s lives now are filled with distractions of every kind that simply noticing internal physical sensations can seem trivial, unimportant and even downright boring. However, our bodies are our birthright. For both singing and the Alexander Technique, the ability to notice exactly what sensations are occurring inside one’s body is extremely important. By hearing a teacher emphasize the importance of awareness and create a situation conducive to focusing on awareness, a student can begin to open to an even fuller experience of that internal landscape of felt awareness.
Second, the teacher builds awareness skills by verbally encouraging the student to learn to pay attention to his or her body. This is done both specifically for different parts of the body, for the body as a whole and how the body is coordinated. Awareness is a skill that can be learned and deepened. The Alexander Technique teaches students how to become more consciously aware of themselves, as layers of unnecessary tension drop away. By focusing on it as a practice in and of itself, students learn to become acute observers of their own bodies, while they are also participants, which is exactly the combination required for singers.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the Alexander Technique itself conveys, through hands-on from a teacher, a completely new sense of opening and freedom in the body that actually makes a student automatically more aware of that inner landscape of sensations. Suddenly, the body feels open, alive and accessible in a new and different way and students experience the three-dimensionality of their bodies. Our brains are biologically wired to notice changes of any type that occur, including those inside of our own bodies. As a student’s body frees and muscles release, the brain sends out a message of, “Pay attention!” and we become aware of that sensation of release and the area around it. As the student experiences more and more freedom through a series of lessons, the ability to notice very subtle shifts and feelings gets stronger and stronger and new awareness grow drastically. This allows students to get more feedback from their bodies in activity, including while singing. Studying the Alexander Technique essentially creates the paths and fields of the inner landscape, giving students who are also singers both an important head-start and an easier time identifying the signposts that are crucial for the singer’s learning process.
The Alexander Technique helps develop awareness in the following ways: understanding its importance and creating a place for it in the learning process; gradually building conscious awareness skills; and experiencing a new, felt sense of the body through hands-on work, granting a certain level of awareness of the singing mechanism, so the singer does not have to find that awareness from scratch. Studying the Alexander Technique significantly improves the awareness level of a singer, as well as the ability of a singer to both learn vocal technical concepts more quickly and effectively and monitor his or her voice successfully without the input of a voice teacher.
How we conceive of and understand our own bodies affects how we use them in a very concrete way. This seems self-evident and rather trivial, but really it isn’t. We all use our bodies, have experiences and then adapt how we use our bodies accordingly. Sometimes, without truly understanding how our bodies were designed, we get strange ideas in our heads about where a joint is located, how that joint is supposed to work or how different parts of our bodies relate to one another and these ideas end up getting stored in our unconscious mind as truths, even if they are, in fact, inaccurate. Because the unconscious mind is very literal and merely carries out what ideas become subsumed into it, those “truths” then ends up affecting from that time forward how we use our bodies. This can be something relatively small and minor or it can be something quite important that results in using the body incorrectly over time and excess muscular tension, which may lead to pain or even injury. Therefore, understanding exactly how our bodies are designed, or having an accurate mental map of our bodies and their structure, is extremely worthwhile and is usually quite revelatory for just about everyone.
In an Alexander Technique lesson, a teacher will usually use visual aids like a model of a skeleton or a chart of different bones or muscle groups from time to time to help clarify in a student’s mind exactly how he or she is designed. Just seeing a visual picture and understanding the location of a particular joint, how the joint is designed, the amount of volume inside the body cavity itself, how the rib cage is designed, etc., actually changes how the student moves! With a clearer mental map of his or her true design, the student automatically then uses his or her body in a much better way and in a way that coordinateswith the body’s design versus against it. Additionally, a Alexander teacher uses hands-on to give the student additional input to match up a feeling sense of exactly where the joint is, how the ribs move, etc., with the new mental map. This reinforces the new information the student has received and gives a wonderful sense of awareness, ownership and control of the body in a radically different way.
Of course, understanding the design of the body is crucial for singers and is something that often gets left by the wayside in their education. Most singers have only a vague understanding of the anatomy of their vocal mechanism and often much less of their anatomy in general. The Alexander Technique offers singers the opportunity to build an anatomically-accurate, mental map of their bodies, coupled with a felt sense of that map, which can then be utilized when working on vocal technique, performing, moving on stage, etc. This mental map can then work brilliantly well in conjunction with the inner landscape of remembered sensations discussed in the previous blog. For singers, the body is an instrument and they need to understand exactly how that instrument works, both conceptually and experientially.
Unnecessary tension affects the body in many different ways. One way in which it affects the body is to close around the nerve endings in the areas with tension, numb the nerve endings and shut down their ability to send completely accurate information back to the brain. When that happens, the brain ends up working with faulty information, leaving us with a false sense of what is actually happening in our bodies. The “numbing” of our nerve endings brings about debauched kinesthesia or unreliable feelings that cause us to fail to accomplish activities in the way we want to. For instance, if a singer wants to work on opening up the rib cage for breathing, but has debauched kinesthesia, he or she will not have a good feeling sense of what is happening in the torso and have much more difficulty accomplishing the goal. It’s like trying to high-five someone else in a dark room. This can be the reason why some singers fail consistently to improve certain areas of their vocal technique. They keep trying and trying, but with unreliable information coming in, they are simply not able to bring about the desired coordination.
Having hands-on with an Alexander Technique teacher opens and frees unnecessary tension in different muscles layer by layer over time, allowing the nerve endings to function normally again. Then, the nerves can start giving more accurate information to the brain and retrain the kinesthetic or feeling sense to be accurate. This includes the feeling sense of the vocal mechanism and all of the tiny sensations associated with singing. With an accurate feeling sense of the body, it is significantly easier for a singer to make accurate technical changes easily and have a responsive body-as-instrument at his or her disposal. The Technique also actively encourages the student to be more aware of his or her body, teaches skills to practice awareness and activates a light switch inside the body, giving a radical new sense of awareness. So, the Alexander Technique enhances awareness in the body in many different and very important ways and is a tremendous tool for singers.
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