Calming the nervous system
Singers have a Trojan task to accomplish. Using only their own body coordination, they need to be able to sing in front of people who are quite happy to judge the resultant sound as they see fit. Singers can’t offer explanations or excuses – they just have to accept the criticism, merited or not, and move forward. On top of it all, they have to express the emotions of the words and music at the same time and maintain the highest standards of musicianship. The ability to stay calm, quiet, open and still in control of the body is of paramount importance to a singer. Nerves can’t be allowed to interfere with vocal technique. Without the skill to calm those performance nerves, they can often hinder the breathing mechanism and the support mechanism, just those parts of the vocal mechanism most crucial to producing a beautiful, open and free sound.
For the most part, singers are left on their own to figure out how to handle the pressure when performing and many, with enough opportunities to get used to performing in public, learn to cope in some way or another. However, some talented singers never learn and stop singing because of it. What if there was a tried-and-true method for calming down, when and wherever it is needed? There is. It is called inhibition and it is specifically taught in the Alexander Technique.
Inhibition, in this context, means to pause or not react immediately to stimulus. Stimulus could range anywhere from a thought to an expectant audience, a barking dog to an irritating statement from a conductor. Inhibition works with the natural functioning of the brain and creates a short pause in the face of stimulus. That is because the brain is constantly deciding whether to react to stimulus or pause and wait to see what happens. It is part of our flight vs. fight instinct. Inhibition is our way of taking advantage of that function of the brain and learning to use it for our own benefit. Having the ability to pause briefly, instead of merely to react in a knee-jerk fashion, offers new possibilities and the option of choosing how to react. The option of choosing is crucial to undoing old habits and for making a conscious decision to be calm and relaxed, instead of hyper and nervous. The Alexander Technique teaches this ability to students through several different methods and offers myriad opportunities to practice the skill.
One of the ways that the Technique teaches inhibition is through hands on contact from the teacher. This hands on touch transmits directly from the teacher to the nervous system of the student, calming the nervous system dramatically. Over a series of lessons, the student’s nervous system learns and adapts to a new, calmer state of being, as the inhibitory response in the body gets deeper and deeper. After integrating this new experience of calmness and the ability not to react, it is then possible for the student to learn how to bring about this calmer state without outside assistance by using the mind.
The Technique offers lots of practice in inhibition by incorporating it with movement during the lesson. The student is asked use his or her thinking to inhibit – not react or go to a habitual response – while in motion. Noticing when habit kicks in vs. inhibition allows the student to sense the subtle difference between the two. As awareness of that difference grows, a student can start building the skills to inhibit on his or her own. Inhibition does not keep muscles from working and make everything go slack. On the contrary, inhibition allows just the muscles needed to do the activity at hand to work while stopping any excess work in those or other muscles from taking place. It creates an extremely efficient use of the body without expending extra effort, which makes any activity feel easy and effortless. Consciously calming the nervous system and the tendency to respond habitually allows the body to learn how to release unneeded tension and therefore work the way it was designed to work.
Inhibition as taught by the Alexander Technique is exactly the tool needed by singers to cope with the high-pressure, performance situations. Since it allows singers the opportunity to relax amidst a stressful situation, it can make a tremendous difference in the level of body control, the quality of the singing and the amount of pleasure a singer experiences while performing.
Reprogramming muscle memory
Inhibition has another important application to singing, which is as a wonderful tool to enable singers to get past stubborn, old habits of singing, breathing, etc. In fact, without the use of inhibition, it can be very difficult for some singers to stop their old habits long enough to truly learn the new, healthy habits. That is why there are singers with fabulous native instruments who never manage to fully develop their techniques – old habits are in the way and refuse to allow new and better coordination to happen. Well, inhibition is the magic wand that will solve that problem, as long as you use it consistently and intelligently.
When working in the practice studio, experienced singers realize that just singing through vocaleses and music without any goals or focus isn’t the way to make any substantial changes. In order to make real changes and improve technically, each technical aspect needs to be isolated and worked on one at a time as much as is feasible. After that, it is possible to combine different technical aspects together to build new coordination. But singers aren’t working from a clean state and learning new habits from there. Every singer who has sung for even a year or two already has built up habits that control the coordination used for singing. Some of these habits are helpful and healthy and some are simply not.
Habits are extremely strong and they are the first option that our brains and our muscles want to carry out when given the least opportunity. Because of that reality, it is difficult to change habits and takes a great deal of patience and tenacity with the correct approach, in order to incorporate healthier habits that work in conjunction with the functioning of the voice. Many singers have unhelpful vocal habits and struggle for years to correct them. However, using the concept of inhibition as taught in the Alexander Technique offers a unique boost to the emotionally-draining, vocal technical work that singers have to slog through to effect positive changes.
Inhibition offers a marvelous opportunity for singers to side-step the struggle with old habits. Instead of starting at a deficit, it allows them to start at a neutral point and build new, healthy habits from there. How does it do that? In Alexander Technique lessons, a student becomes much more aware of his or her body and habits of using the body in activity. This awareness gives the student sudden and great insight into specific tensions. The teacher then instructs the student to pause and to say the following statement, “I leave myself alone,” over and over again silently, slowly and gently, when noticing these habits of unnecessary tensions. The pause and statement sound simple, but they actually encourage the inhibitory function of the brain to become stronger and, what is crucially important for singers, to neutralize tensions and bring the body closers to a free, unimpeded state. Combined with the calmer nervous system that is the result of hands on from an Alexander teacher, the student learns to be able to bring about more inhibitory function while in action, release held, unneeded musculature and greatly improve the natural coordination inherent in both the body and the vocal mechanism.
A student can then take this new skill into the studio and apply it while practicing. When taking a breath or starting a phrase, the student should mentally form the intention to do something in particular, like opening the rib cage, lowering the larynx or raising the soft palate. Then, the student should pause right away and repeat slowly and gently in his or her mind, “I leave myself alone,” before singing. That helps keep the old habits and unnecessary tensions from coming into play and creates a much more optimum environment for learning new, healthy habits. By using inhibition skillfully, singers can circumvent having to wrestle with old habits and gain healthy singing coordination significantly more quickly than otherwise.
Inhibition is such an incredibly helpful tool for singers! It offers a shortcut in getting past bad habits that isn’t available any other way. I know being able to inhibit and utilizing it wisely helped me tremendously in my own technical work. It is worthwhile taking a series of Alexander Technique lessons, in order learn this wonderful tool and apply it to your own singing process.
Letting the process happen
There is another important way that inhibition helps singers – allowing. Many of the best singers often tend to be very goal-oriented and are consequently hard workers. They are happy to toil for hours in the practice room to get the right coordination required for singing, but often in a way that brings on more and more muscular tension. The ideal singing coordination is such a delicate balancing act of some muscles working at a particular level of tension, others at various level of tension and others not working at all, that it is impossible to individuate every single one of the parts and then bring the coordination together gradually. Some elements of the coordination need to happen on their own, once the other elements start functioning more effectively. This does happen naturally and almost all singers remember experiencing it. They work on one element, only to find that other aspects of coordination are working better as a result. Depending on the existing technique and sets of learned habits, it can take some time to get to this point, but it does always happen.
This cooperative coordination for the voice takes place because singing utilizes coordination built in to the body’s functioning. However, singing is a much more complex and highly-evolved process than the coordination on which it is based. The coordination it is using is for activities like laughing, groaning and grunting when lifting weight. Creating a significantly smaller aperture by closing the vocal cords helps keep more air in the lungs and gives more strength to the torso by activating the abdominal wall and lower back musculature. Coincidentally, this coordination also provides the balanced strength and breath resistance to allow the larynx to relax downward and the oro-pharynx to remain open, which allows for the most beautiful singing sound.
But it is crucial that singers not overwork in their efforts to reach their goals and shut off the possibility of tapping into this natural coordination. This is where inhibition can help. By utilizing the skills of using the mind and repeated, calming input from an Alexander Technique teacher to bring about more inhibition one’s self, a singer can get excess tension out of the way and allow that inborn coordination to take function as it should.
Allowing is the key word here. It can be difficult for driven singers (1) to allow the coordination to happen and (2) to keep allowing it to function unimpeded under repeated performance pressure. The best singing coordination is experienced as balanced activity in the torso and openness and ease everywhere above. This can actually feel disconcerting for singers used to overworking versus being connected with their natural coordination. The “I leave myself alone” statement integral to inhibition, as taught by the Alexander Technique, open the door to a new experience of tranquility while singing, so the coordination associated with laughing, groaning, etc. can come into play and become integrally associated with singing, as well. Applying inhibition in the practice studio gives the singer the opportunity to tap into that inborn coordination much more easily by releasing the ever-present need to do unnecessary, extra work.
Under the spotlight, it is actually more comfortable and reassuring to push and grab on the voice, because it feels like the singer is creating the sound in a tangible way. Therefore, applying inhibition as a preventative measure is very important in performance situations. It calms the need to control and make things happen. Then, the singer’s anxiety and insecurities take a step back, so that the body becomes relaxed enough to allow the natural coordination and good habits practiced in the studio to happen. The singers’ challenge is always to try to transfer the best singing possible in the practice studio to much more stressful performance situations and inhibition is fundamental to that process. Singers need to let go and sing easily into order to sing their best. Inhibition enhances the brain and body’s ability to do just that.
Inhibition helps singers in a number of different ways, including with performance anxiety, getting past stubborn, bad habits and allowing the natural coordination to work unimpeded. It is one of the fundamental concepts of the Alexander Technique and considered by many teachers to be the most important concept taught. I have heard a respected senior Alexander teacher say that the Technique is about 80% inhibition! Since this concept is taught uniquely in the Alexander Technique, singers should try a series of lessons and take advantage of the wonderful opportunities inhibition can offer to their singing.
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