For many singers, breathing for singing is a concern and an on-going challenge. Everyone knows that it is important to breathe well for optimal singing, but singers are often uncertain about how to improve their breathing. That leads to determined singers doing a lot of experimentation on their own to try to make things happen – make the abdomen stick out, push the ribs out, etc. All of this usually results in what the Alexander Technique calls “doing” or making extra work happen that isn’t necessary or helpful and in fact, ends up getting in the way of the free, easy, coordinated, low breathing that singers are searching for.
I have already discussed the basic mechanics of breathing in my previous article, Breathing for Singing. The best breathing is based on the natural reflex that we all possess that springs the rib cage open, expands the back and releases the abdominal wall on inhalation. In order to breathe well, the real task for singers is not to do more work. The real task is to learn to “do” less, get out of the way and allow the reflexive breathing mechanism to work unimpeded in the way in which it was designed.
“That’s good to know,” I can hear singers saying, “but how do I get out of the way?” The answer is that singers need to be taught how to get out of the way by the direct experience of feeling it in their own bodies. Through the Alexander Technique, it is possible to experience exactly what it is like to breathe for singing without trying hard and “doing”. An experience of the right body coordination liberates the torso and the rib cage of unnecessary tension, permitting a free excursion of unhindered ribs and often dizzyingly-new sensations for the singer. It is as if a cage of held, tense muscles directly on top of the rib cage is suddenly lifted, which thereby allows the ribs to move easily and naturally. With repetitions of this felt experience, the body learns a new pattern of habits of opening the torso and allowing the breathing reflex to work. This pattern can then be integrated into a singer’s vocal technique, thereby vastly improving both the singer’s breathing, support or breath resistance and the resultant tone quality.
The Alexander Technique has long been known to facilitate the breathing mechanism by releasing excess tension in the body. F. M. Alexander, the founder of the Alexander Technique, actually began his professional work with the Technique by helping people breathe better. By putting “hands-on” or gently laying his hands on someone’s torso, neck and head and using his own superb coordination, he was able to send a direct, non-doing message to those areas, free obstructing tensions and greatly improve the individual’s ability to breathe easily. He became known in Australia as “the Breathing Man” and had a number of doctors sending their patients with breathing issues to him, including those with tuberculosis. The miracle of the Technique is that it not only frees the body, but also is able to improve the underlying coordination of breathing, the other bodily mechanisms and the body itself as a whole. So, a singer receives not one, but two benefits – less obstructing tension and improved coordination. This is the way to maximize the crucial breathing function for singers.
In my own experience teaching the Alexander Technique, breathing is one of the first things that improves. In fact, it is one of my major benchmarks for knowing the extent to which the student is opening and freeing. The breathing mechanism is so intertwined with the functioning of thewhole body that as soon as a student frees in one area of his or her body, the torso also gets freer and the ribs start to spring open automatically. It seems counterintuitive, but freeing in the neck, shoulders, arms and legs almost always improve a student’s breathing and often improve it drastically. That shows how readily available effortless breathing is to us, as long as we get out of the way! The better the body is coordinating as a whole, the better the breathing is. The body wants to breathe fully and easily, but in order to allow it to do so, we need to honor its inherent design. To do that, we have to learn to get out of the way and not interfere.
In a lesson, when I actually put hands-on a student’s torso after getting the body more coordinated, I address the breathing mechanism directly in two ways. First, I send non-doing messages to the torso to help free up the student from excess tension that is interfering with the excursion of the rib cage. Then, I work with the student on the rib cage reflex exercise in my previous article. By doing this combination, the singer experiences exactly what was mentioned above – a vastly-improved, free, reflexive breath that happens without the student doing anything. Because this felt experience is so astonishingly different than the way the student usually breathes, it is a radical, pleasurable and occasionally overpowering experience the first few times it happens! Singers always understand immediately that this type of reflexive breathing would be extremely beneficial for singing.
The Alexander Technique offers to singers’ bodies what it would be amazingly helpful to get from voice teachers for the voice – a felt experience of exactly what the ideal coordination is without words being needed. Of course, it is impossible for other voice teachers to do that, so it is up to the student to use the teacher’s expert instructions to experiment and discover that felt sense of coordination for him or herself. The Alexander Technique does not teach the mechanics of singing, but it does give the incredible opportunity for singers to have an open, free body and take advantage of reflexive breathing as preparation for the best coordination for singing and, as a consequence, the best quality of sound.
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