Presentation – The Alexander Technique for Singers
This 45-minute presentation was given on January 10th, 2014 at The David Jones Teacher Workshop at City College of New York in New York City. A summary of the presentation is below.
What is the Alexander Technique? There are many different ways to view and describe the Alexander Technique. It can be a way to heal from injuries, a way to integrate your mind and body, a way to relax and distress, a way to consciously affect your neurological function and a way to calm your nervous system. Because of the specificity of language that was used by the founder of the Technique to describe various concepts, most teachers today still are still tied to that “jargon”, which can be alienating for those who are unfamiliar with the terms. This keeps people from understanding exactly how the Technique can be applied to other areas, including singing. As a singer, voice teacher and certified Alexander teacher, I would like to use my expertise to become a translator and show exactly how the Technique can help singers.
Singer have to use certain skills and tools every day when they practice and perform. The Alexander Technique offers a significant enhancement of those very skills and tools, making singers much more effective and providing a concrete improvement in tone quality. I myself began studying the Technique right after college and continued on while in graduate school. As I took more lessons, I became acutely aware of the many specific and incredibly helpful ways the Technique could be applied to singing and improving my technique. That is why I decided it was well-worth the three-year time-commitment to train to become and Alexander teacher. For singers the Technique is pure gold.
Awareness is one of the main skills that the Alexander Technique teaches and it is actually a clear and easy concept to understand. The irony about awareness is that it requires awareness. Until you gain awareness, you don’t know that you actually lacked it previously. That makes it a more challenging goal for many people.
Singers lack awareness of their bodies. This is true of most people in general, but for singers, awareness is very important. Singers need to be able to have an awareness of their vocal mechanisms and the more awareness they develop, the better off they are. This is especially true, because the voice is a “hidden” instrument. Other musicians interact with an external instrument, usually using larger muscle groups to do so. Singers have no external instrument with which to interact – only their own bodies. When in voice lessons, students often have a difficult time carrying out the instructions given by a teacher without awareness. That is because a singer can not control what s/he is not aware of and without awareness the finesse required by singing to control very fine gradations of motor control become difficult to impossible.
What if there was a “light switch” that existed that could turn on awareness? There is and it is the Alexander Technique. Through direct transmission of the teacher’s hands, a student experiences a completely different sense of him/herself that defies description. Suddenly there is more of a sense of awareness in different parts of the body and in the integration of the body as a whole. I still remember my first few Alexander lessons vividly and the sense that a dimmer light switch was slowly coming on inside my body, shedding a dim light on areas I hadn’t not even known had existed before. As I continued to study, the light got brighter and brighter and I was able to sense my body in a completely different way.
Being more aware of and in touch with one’s own body is an enlightening experience, to say the least and opens a whole new world of possibilities for singers, especially those to get very little sensory feedback when singing. Specifically, the Technique can bring awareness to the breathing mechanism and muscles of breath resistance, including the rib cage, abdominal wall, solar plexus, back and sternum. It brings awareness to the throat, larynx and vocal cords themselves, as well as the tongue, soft palate, mouth and nasal cavities. Additionally, it bring crucial awareness of the coordination of the vocal mechanism and how all of the parts work together as a whole. With awareness, more accurate felt sensations while singing allow for better self-monitoring during practice and performance. This is extremely important for singer to develop, so that they are not overly-reliant on their teachers.
Inhibition is another skill taught by the Alexander Technique, but uses the scientific and neurological definition of stopping or pausing a reaction. Let’s look briefly at how inhibition works in the brain. In order to initiate (start) movement, the brain uses cells call neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters line up, communicate with each other via chemicals and form streets that send a “move” request from the brain all the way to the particular muscles involved. But this street of neurotransmitters isn’t a highway. It is a city street with intersections and stop lights. The intersections are called synapses and there are two types of synapses – excitatory and inhibitory. The excitatory synapses are the green lights, which say, “Keep going!” The inhibitory synapses are the red and yellow lights that either stop or slow down the reaction.
Here is an illustration of how inhibition in the brain works in real life. In April 2011, I adopted two kitten sisters, who were 4 ½ months old. I named them Audrey (after Audrey Hepburn) and Paro (the name of a character in a famous Bollywood film – Paro means “beautiful” in Hindi). They were both adorable and very sweet-natured, but it didn’t take long to notice a huge difference between the two of them. Kittens are hard-wired in their brains to play. In order to survive, they need to be great hunters and playing gives them practice to learn hunting skills. Both kittens loved to play, but Paro always had to be the one playing. She couldn’t stand back and let Audrey play for more than a couple of seconds. Audrey, on the other hand, had learned that she didn’t like being jumped on, run into and hurt by her sister, so she usually watched while her sister played, patiently awaiting her turn. This pattern continued for months, along with other strong indicators that Paro could not control her impulses – she always had to be the one getting petted, eating, etc. Then I realized that Paro’s brain was not working exactly as it should and that her ability to inhibit her reactions had been effected. Audrey’s brain was normal and her inhibitory ability had actually been enhanced through the practice of dealing with her sister.
We tend to think of all individuals as being born with the exact same levels of everything in the body, but that is far from true. There can be wide variations in every organ, including the brain. Some people lack the ability to inhibit their actions. Humans with damage to their frontal cortex can exhibit disinhibition or a lack of control, particularly in social situations. This is also possible with animals, as Paro’s life illustrates. However, the brain has amazing recuperative powers and can build new pathways to help with existing problems. Paro had improved as she has matured into an adult cat and now is able to allow her sister to play some of the time, especially when it is with the toy they have mutually agreed is Audrey’s toy. She will never be a completely normal cat, but is all the more lovable for her naïve, open impulsiveness.
Inhibition is considered by many to make up approximately 70% of the function of the synapses and excitation only 30%. That means that we stop or slow down twice as many responses as our brains allow through. Interestingly enough, a famous Alexander teacher believed that inhibition is 80% of using the Alexander Technique, making it of primary importance.
The subconscious mind controls most of the body, including the vast majority of our motor functions and it does a fabulous job at it. We don’t need to interfere. Instead, we need to let the subconscious do its job and get out of its way. The vocal mechanism is quite delicate. The vocal cords are much smaller and more prone to be damaged than, say, a pianist’s hands or a trumpeter’s lips. Because of that, it is important to encourage the right coordination to happen through good vocal technique and not add any additional tension through our idea of what is “right”.
So, how does inhibition apply to singing? Inhibition is a crucial neurological function that can also be enhanced by conscious thought and applied directly to any physical movement, including vocal coordination for singing. Inhibition can be learned and used by students to have a more neutral, relaxed body, allow the breathing reflex to operate unimpeded and release specific tensions in the vocal mechanism. Just like with awareness, inhibition is transmitted from the Alexander teacher directly to the student through hands-on contact, calming nervous system down automatically, which increases the function of the all-important inhibitory function of the brain. The skills to learn to inhibit on one’s own using conscious thought are practiced and developed over time and a series of AT lessons, reinforced by the felt sensation of it from the teacher’s input. Inhibition has both immediate and long-term effects, because the body and mind instantly feel calmer after hands-on with a teacher and the nervous system, including the brain, learns a new baseline of calmness over time, which is a crucial benefit for singers.
Applying the Alexander Technique to Singing
It is the combination of awareness and inhibition that gives singers an incredibly important toolkit for working on vocal technique. Below are some examples of how it can be applied, using two fictitious singers, Richard and Deb. Richard has had no Alexander lessons, whereas Deb has had 25 – 30 Alexander lessons.
Richard and Deb are beginners and both have breathing and support issues. Neither knows how to expand the torso to breath. With very little body awareness and no ability to use his conscious thinking to inhibit excess tension, so that the breathing reflexes (operated by the subconscious) can operate freely, it will take Richard quite a while to learn how to breathe and even longer to learn how to use breath resistance correctly. Deb has much more of a sense of awareness in her torso and can experiment around right away and learn to expand it. She also can inhibit excess tension and learn to allow the breathing reflex to work freely. By being able to learn to expand her breathing mechanism quickly, she is able to move on to learning breath resistance quite soon. Awareness gives her the ability to notice how much muscular effort she is using and adapt to find a more balanced support. Inhibition helps her from doing too much excess work. Both help her find the necessary coordination required for healthy singing.
Richard and Deb are intermediate singers. Both sing too heavily with too much cord mass and suffer from performance anxiety. In their separate voice lessons, they are introduced to the use of the thin edges of the vocal cords. Richard tries the exercise, but without awareness and inhibition, has difficulty with the finesse required and over-sings consistently, thereby negating the effectiveness of the exercise. Because he was not able to do the exercise correctly in the studio, he practices it incorrectly in the practice room, reinforcing his old vocal habits and building up unhelpful vocal habits in the exercise. When he goes back for a voice lesson, he is able to follow the teacher’s instruction better and with get closer to how the exercise should be done, but can’t replicate that experience in the practice room. Therefore, it takes Richard a long time to learn to use the thin edges in the exercise and apply it more broadly in his vocal technique. Richard has difficulty controlling his performance anxiety and without inhibition, lacks the tools to help him. He regularly gets so nervous that it interferes with his technique and he does not sing his best.
Deb has the finesse through inhibition to do less work and achieve the true thin edge function quickly, as well as the awareness to feel the difference between when she is doing it and she isn’t. This allows her to practice much more effectively on her own and reinforce positive, new habits. She is able to incorporate that function into her technique and then move on to other concepts. Deb has performance anxiety, but actively uses inhibition beforehand, which helps calm her mind and body significantly. As a consequence, she is able to perform effectively and her anxiety does not affect her singing detrimentally.
Richard and Deb are advanced singers. They both sing in small opera houses in Europe. They are both required to sing repertoire outside of their optimal fach and need to be able to cope with the additional vocal stress under heavy rehearsal and performance schedules. With less awareness, Richard does not notice the subtle indications that he is singing too heavily. He continues on, without stopping to focus on technique can make sure that his singing is as healthy as possible. He assumes that his voice lesson in six months will be enough keep his voice in good running order. Soon, Richard is experiencing hoarseness and vocal problems that could potentially end his singing career.
With more awareness, Deb is able to feel the subtle indications that her technique needs some additional reinforcement. She returns back to doing reliable vocaleses and old repertoire with great habits, implementing inhibition to help her release excess tension. She also schedules a voice lesson with a reliable voice teacher in a nearby city within the month. This attention to her technique keeps her voice healthy under challenging circumstances.
The combination of awareness and inhibition as taught by the Alexander Technique is of tremendous help for any singer. It is applicable both to the learning process, as well as to the maintenance of a healthy technique. It is particularly a wonderful tool those singers who do not get a lot of sensory feedback when singing. Sometimes, the Alexander Technique can make the difference between a talented singer being able to share his or her gifts with the world versus quitting singing altogether. The Technique is not a substitute for a healthy vocal technique – only a qualified voice teacher can help a singer learn that. But it is a tremendous adjunct in offering the tools needed to help learn a solid vocal technique in a faster, more comprehensive and more organic way. I know I am extremely grateful to have had all that the Alexander Technique has to offer at my disposal for so much of my own vocal journey. I cannot imagine having been without it.
Take-home exercise – Semi-supine (or Active Rest)
This is a wonderful way to practice the Alexander Technique at home without the help of the teacher. This is part of every Alexander lesson and how Alexander teachers themselves practice the technique. A full description of the procedure can be found in the article at the following link. Please make note of the medical disclaimer.
For more articles and information, visit my website, http://www.thebricelandstudio.com