Direction and stage presence
Singers don’t sing in a vacuum. They need to be ready to audition and perform in front of others in many different circumstances and often the circumstances are less than ideal. Not only do they have to be vocally prepared to do their best, but they also have to show they are polished performers and able to maintain the audience’s attention with a larger-than-life stage presence. This is not easy to do. For most people, it requires instruction and practice to develop.
There are stories of legendary opera singers who were mesmerizing to watch on stage, weaving a spell that held the audience enthralled, waiting with baited breath for the next phrase and gesture. Part of that was wonderful acting and part was the larger sense of self that the singer was projecting outward. Becoming a great actor usually requires study with an acting teacher, but the larger sense of self is something that the Alexander Technique is very effective in helping develop.
In general, people tend to pull their bodies inward instead of expanding outward. One reason that happens is that we each conceive of ourselves as ending at the boundary of our skin. Therefore, if anything occurs in our surroundings that seems threatening or encroaches on our personal space and we feel the need to get smaller in response, we have no choice but to squash our own bodies inward to achieve that. Obviously, this type of squashing interferes with the normal functioning of the body and is detrimental for both singing and for stage presence.
Our bodies do not end at our skin. The area right outside of our bodies belongs to us, too, and we need to claim it. Until we claim that area, we do not have any space into which our bodies can expand. Claiming this area is the first step toward developing an enhanced stage presence. An easy way to start is by using our thinking and believe that our bodies are bigger than they actually are – say, one extra foot around the entire perimeter of our skin on every side. By having a larger, three-dimensional concept of yourself and the space that you take up, you will be encompassing and claiming that area right around you that is a part of your space anyway.
This expanded sense of self is exactly what the Alexander Technique teaches. Once we are aware of ourselves and have the ability to calm our nervous systems and not react automatically with our habitual response, we can give ourselves suggestions for specific, three-dimensional directions that allow us to expand our bodies outwards and end up enhancing greatly how our bodies move and feel. These directions are designed to counteract the squashing and tensing of our bodies that we normally do. If we do not have a large sense of our physical bodies, it is very difficult for these directional suggestions to work.
When I was in teacher training for the Alexander Technique, we did an exercise called “Walking in a Bubble”. The idea was to imagine an expanded sense of yourself in the form of a bubble outside of the perimeter of your body and to walk around, maintaining that same bubble and varying its size. It was important to get near objects and other people from time to time and notice your reaction. At first, any solid object would cause this expanded sense of self to collapse. If that happened, we then had to re-erect the bubble around ourselves mentally and try again. With time, the sense of space in the bubble around us got more certain and it was easier to maintain it over time.
What was fascinating about this exercise was that other people could subconsciously sense the size of the bubble of space around each person. This became obvious when I was able to walk right next to one person with a collapsing bubble, but instinctively gave a wide berth to someone else successfully keeping a big, space bubble in her thinking. My colleagues reacted in the same way to me and these experiences were repeated consistently over and over again. We as humans somehow intrinsically recognize when an individual has a larger sense of self and is expanding his/her thinking outward into the space around him or her. Interestingly enough, we also recognize the size of that energetic bubble. I have repeated this exercise on city streets and got basically the same results – people usually stepped out of my way when I had an expanded sense of myself, but did not bother if my sense of self ended just at the border of my skin.
Having an expanded sense of self is what is needed to develop a dynamic presence on stage. Performers need to learn over time not to think just a foot around the perimeter of their bodies, but to expand their personal space outward to encompass the whole stage and also all of the way out into the audience. The audience will automatically sense this huge space as part of you on an energetic level. Because you are including them in your space, the audience will also be drawn into your performance in a very different and more intimate way.
This is the key to stage presence! Expanded, directional thinking, as taught by the Alexander Technique, makes it possible for those singers without a natural stage presence to cultivate one over time and become a more dynamic, absorbing performer for the audience to enjoy.
Using the body to direct the mind
There are three basic principles of the Alexander Technique – awareness, inhibition and direction. These principles have been isolated, in order to break down exactly how each of them can help singers with the different aspects of singing. But in this and the following, concluding blog, the importance of how the three principles work together is to be emphasized. In the Alexander Technique, the term “direction” has a double meaning, that of expanded movement in a three-dimensional sense and also sending messages or requests from the mind to the body.
Singers need to talk to themselves mentally and give commands or directions all of the time. These directions are to inform the body and specifically the singing mechanism what is desired at a particular moment. When developing the voice and working intensively on technique, singers are constantly sending out messages from their conscious mind to the body, requesting that various specific, technical coordinations be carried out. The more effective those directions are, the more quickly and more consistently vocal technique can change for the better. So, being able to give directions well and getting the right results is important.
Unfortunately, singers often don’t give directions effectively. They try, but either their bodies don’t respond in the way they wanted or the level of energy employed is haphazard, either too much or too little. That is because they lack the skills that these three basic principles of awareness, inhibition and direction specifically teach. Awareness and inhibition are prerequisites for direction to work the way it should. Awareness opens the door to an improved proprioceptive sense or felt sense of one’s own body, which provides a more accurate, internal body map, consciousness and three-dimensionality to the body that is often lacking. Inhibition calms the nervous system and superfluous muscle tension, while simultaneously allowing the body’s natural coordination to start to come to the fore. However, those two principles alone are not enough. Direction is needed to counteract our natural tendency to squash our bodies inward when under stress and reawaken our innate, free coordination and is therefore the final, crucial piece of the puzzle.
Simply put, direction is the act of thinking thoughts of expansion in certain, very specific actual directions outward from the body. How that is done is what is pertinent in this blog. These directions have to be said very gently inside the mind. One description of them by a famous Alexander teacher has been like “fairy wishes”. In a way, they can even be viewed as more like requests or suggestions to ourselves then actual directions. Our internal voice has to be very, very quiet and tranquil when giving directions, either those specific to the Alexander Technique or those used by singers to work on vocal technique. After all, inhibition has already helped calm down the nervous system to a completely new level. Any loud, insistent, impatient directions inside our minds will disturb that tranquility, stressing the nervous system and taking away the desired, subtle effects we were hoping to have on the delicate vocal mechanism. These loud directions then act more like bludgeoning, which can create excess tension and new, bad vocal habits, instead of helping to rid us of the ones already existing.
In an Alexander lesson, the teacher’s hands sends information to the student that increases awareness, sends an inhibitory message to the nervous system, improves coordination and sends expanding, three-dimensional directions, all of which enable the student’s body to open and free. By learning how on his or her own to employ awareness, inhibition and finally direction, a more proficient Alexander student practices and experiences exactly how to say these gentle requests in a way that does not disturb the already-established tranquility from inhibition. The student learns when those directions are performed effectively by using his or her much-enhanced sense of awareness to notice the positive change in his or her coordination through felt sense of the body. These skills can then be easily and effectively transferred from directions relating to body coordination to directions relating to singing coordination.
The brilliance of the Alexander Technique is the wonderful combination of calming inhibition with quiet direction. This unique calming of the nervous system and body with very gentle requests indicating what action is desired works extremely effectively with how our body and nervous system are designed. When we are calm and open, we respond with freedom and ease to requests for change. When we are stressed in some way, we respond with tension and anxiety instead. Unfortunately, the approach of many singers is the latter, which is detrimental to ideal, vocal coordination. By studying the Alexander Technique, singers can take advantage of a tried-and-true system that teaches exactly how to give specific directions to the body and the singing mechanism, thereby getting the very best sound-quality in their voices.
How the directions help the singing mechanism
The Alexander Technique is well-known for helping the body function better, but the normal language explaining it includes few specifics related to singers. (All of the previous benefits covered in my articles are much less recognized, due to the small number of experienced singers/voice teachers who have also gone through the extensive training required to become a certified Alexander Technique teacher. It requires a high level of training in both to have the insight to recognize the synchronicities between the two.) These commonly-known benefits also relate to the combination and coordination of all three of the main principles of the Technique – awareness, inhibition and direction. Awareness focuses us more on our physical selves, like turning on the lights in a darkened room. Because we have a heightened, three-dimensional sense of the various parts of our singing mechanism, they become much more easy for us to communicate with and thereby, to manage. Inhibition relaxes and calms us on both a physical and emotional level, clearing the way for the action to follow, which is provided by the gentle voice of direction.
As a mentioned above, direction in the Alexander Technique has a double meaning – a set of actual, three-dimensional directions that help the body expand and the act of mentally speaking those directions for the body to carry them out. The former are a set of specific words designed by the Technique’s founder, F. M. Alexander, to counteract the common pattern of tension found in most people living a Western lifestyle. When in an Alexander lesson or working on your own, they are to be mentally repeated gently and slowly over and over again. By associating the freedom and expansion felt in the lesson with these specific directions, you as the student learn how to employ the directions on your own and reap the rewards of expansion when and where you choose. Remember, the Technique is always about allowing and getting out of the way, so these directions only work when combined with a couple of tablespoons of awareness and a heaping cup of inhibition.
Here are the classic directions. They are often prefaced by an inhibitory message – “I leave myself alone”:
I allow my neck to be free…
So that my head can go forward and up…
So that my torso can have length, width and depth…
So that my knees can go forward
F. M. Alexander realized that the head, neck and upper back near the shoulders is the key area that reacts and contracts when a person is stressed. This is also the area of the body that affects the rest the most profoundly. He discovered that when this area is tense, the other joints and muscles in the body do not work as well, which creates a cascade effect of built-up tension over time. When we are not expanding our sense of ourselves and owning our personal space, the body ends up tensing and squashing into itself. Conversely, when this area is completely free of unnecessary tension, the whole body works much more easily. The joints are free, excess tension slips away and movement becomes light, easy and a great pleasure. That is because the body is expanding. Expansion outward is the key and the directions as bequeathed to us by F. M. Alexander himself tell our bodies exactly how they have to expand in order to best counteract the normal, contracting tendencies we have learned over time.
The first direction, “I allow my neck to be free”, is actually a specific, inhibitory message and helps soften and release neck tension, opening the gateway for the other directions to work. As the connection between the head and the rest of the body, the neck has a unique and special role to play in how well our bodies are coordinated on many levels. Interestingly enough, all of the rest of the directions are by-products of the neck freeing, it is that important!
The second direction, “So that my head can go forward and up”, is a positive message that counteracts the tendency of the head to pull in down and back directions when tight and stressed, rotating the head backwards on its pivot point at the top of the spine by contracting the connecting muscles between the head and the back of the neck. The neck has to soften and release for these muscles to lengthen, so the head is able to have a more forward and up relationship to the neck and the spine. This is not a position, but instead a release, so it is virtually impossible to learn it on your own. Working with an Alexander teacher can give you an experience of this profound and important release.
The third direction, “So that my torso can have length, width and depth”, is about using the innate design of our anatomy and expanding three-dimensionally. When the neck is softening and free of excess tension and the head is releasing forward and up, the weight of the head is balanced and lifted off of the spine, which is shaped like an “S” and acts like a strong, natural spring inside our bodies. By sending a message of expanding the torso in every direction, we release excess, “squashing” tension, free into the space around us and get out of the way of contracting the spine downward. When allowed to perform its inherent function, the springy spine expands up and manages the coordination of the head, neck and torso beautifully with what feels like no extra work on our part at all. This expanding spine plays a major role in what gives the feeling of lightness and ease that is so closely associated with the Alexander Technique.
The fourth direction, “So that my knees can go forward”, relates to a freeing of the legs down and away from the torso, the separation point between the two being the hip joints. At this point, the torso is moving up with the free spine. The legs have three joints, all of which are affected by each other – if one is tight, the others are not able to move easily and soon become tight, as well. By sending a directional message that the knees release forward in space (irregardless of whether they are bent or not), the muscles of the legs can lengthen and both the hips and ankles are given more space in which to move, which equates to more freedom in all of the joints. Then the legs can release down in the opposite direction from the torso, creating even more space and ability to articulate in all of the leg joints. This same relationship also holds true for the arms – the elbows release out in whatever direction they are facing, lengthening the muscles in the arms and giving more freedom to the shoulder and wrist joints.
How does all of this help singers? Anyone who works primarily with the body, as singers do, wants to have it working its best. When using awareness, inhibition and the specific directions above to expand the body in all directions, it is going to function significantly more freely, efficiently and in a more innately coordination fashion. Your body will feel lighter, movement will feel considerably easier and you will be working with the design of your body, instead of against it.
Not specific enough for you? Ok. Both inhibition and the first direction soften and ease habitual tension in the neck, where the larynx (voice box) is. Any excess tension in the neck is the enemy of a well-produced vocal technique. A free neck is going to set up the ideal conditions for the vocal cords to phonate in the healthiest manner and for the throat to be open and relaxed. It also helps the larynx to relax down, but not be held, since holding is really thinly-veiled tension, and makes it easier to expand the oro-pharnx to improve and maximize resonance.
The jaw is also closely related to the neck, so a free neck will release jaw tension, a major issue for a number of singers. When the spine is working its springy magic, more room is created in the back of the neck, which gives the jaw more room in which to articulate and helps open and free it.
The tongue is in the same neighborhood and is closely related to the jaw. When the jaw frees, the tongue also frees. A free tongue helps in articulation of vowels and consonants and prevents tightening in the back of the tongue that pulls up the larynx and separates the vocal cords during phonation.
The breathing mechanism – lungs, rib cage, intercostal muscles, diaphragm, as well as abdominal muscles and lower back muscles – can work the way it was designed to when the torso is expanding three-dimensionally. Unnecessary tension in the torso directly impedes the free excursion of the rib cage, the expansion of the lower back muscles, the release of the abdominal wall, and the full excursion of the diaphragm, all of which are necessary for the low, relaxed, inhalation coordination so crucial in singing.
In all of these ways and many more, the Alexander Technique sets up the ideal conditions for singing without the unnecessary interference of tensions detrimental to a beautiful, vocal sound. But it is only part of the equation. To be able to remain free when phonation/singing takes place requires a good, solid vocal technique that works in conjunction with the design of the body. Certain muscles in the torso have to do the necessary work of breath resistance, allowing everything above to be free, the cords to phonate healthily, the resonance chambers to be open, the jaw and tongue to stay relaxed and open and all of the more subtle, requisite coordinations to function. Voice teachers teach students these crucially important skills of vocal technique. The Alexander Technique does not address how to coordinate the body for singing, but instead, how to get excess tension out of the way to allow singing coordination to work optimally. However, what it does, it does brilliantly and in a way so wonderfully aligned with every goal of good vocal technique that no other modality can even come close.
For more articles and information, visit my website, http://www.thebricelandstudio.com