The Deadening Effects of Tension


Being in touch with your body is extremely important for you to progress as a singer.  It is therefore important that you have a clear understanding of how your body works and how you receive specific feedback via sensations that you can use to better control your vocal technique.  In this article I will introduce some basic concepts to enhance your knowledge of how your body works and how unhelpful tension affects both you and your singing adversely.

Healthy individuals, as well as animals, reptiles, insects, etc., are born with accurate sensory perception.  Sensory perception allows us to utilize our senses accurately and feel what happens in our bodies.  It is incredibly important for us to be able to function well and survive.  We all know what our five senses are – sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch – but there is also another important sense with a long name that is less well-known called proprioception.  Proprioception is the sense that allows us to have awareness of our own bodies.  Without it even our own bodies and limbs would be completely foreign to us and the complex coordinations necessary for excellent classical singing impossible to accomplish.  We as singers need to be able to feel what is happening in our bodies and have the ability to make changes, often very subtle ones at that.  So, ensuring that our proprioception or sense of ourselves is accurate is crucial.

When we were born and as very young children, our proprioceptive sense was fantastic.  We were tuned in to everything and were extremely aware of our bodies.  For many children that begins to change between the ages of 5 – 7 years of age.  There are varying theories as to why, but sitting for long periods at school and a lack of movement and exercise are definitely contributing factors to this deadening of the proprioceptive sense.  While continuing on at school, children start to pick up habits of tension from things like ill-fitting desks and chairs, inactivity and performance and social stresses.  Without enough stretching and activity to release the tension and undo these habits, they start to become ingrained and gradually become set patterns for how they use themselves for the rest of their lives.

At first glance, this does not sound too bad.  Everyone has a little excess tension, right?  Yes, just about everyone in the West does, but tension has certain repercussions and all tensions are not equal.  Nerves in our bodies send important information about what is happening in the body back to the spinal cord and the brain, which then process the information and send out directions to muscles, etc., exactly what to do.  Unfortunately, when there is tension in a muscle, that very tension around the nerve affects the nerve’s ability to send accurate information.  Tension makes the nerve less likely to work at a 100% level.  They can even send out false information, because of tension.  The greater the tension, the less accurate the information that is sent back to the spinal cord and brain and therefore the less effective any new directions are that are sent out to the muscles, because it is based on inaccurate information.  Essentially, tension deadens our nerves and thereby our proprioceptive sense of our own bodies.  Ironically, precisely because it deadens our nerves, we are often not even aware of either the tension or the proprioceptive loss.

Understanding how the muscles and nerves work is incredibly important for singers, because singers have to have excellent control over a number of different muscle sets in the torso, neck and head for singing.  If you have excess tension in an area and are getting incorrect information via the nerves, any conscious requests you might make for specific coordinations in that area are likely to be much less effective, causing the type of struggle with technique that most singers are familiar with.  If the tension is never reduced, the struggle can continue and impede the singer’s ability to realize a healthy, balanced technique.

The good news is that it is possible to regain both the ability of your nerves to send accurate messages and your proprioceptive sense in these deadened areas.  Different modalities can be helpful for different individuals, but my best recommendation is the Alexander Technique.  It is the most effective remediation of excess tension adversely affecting vocal technique that I know of, allowing singers the opportunity to regain control of crucial muscle coordination.  The Alexander Technique directly addresses the issues of excess tension and compromised proprioceptive sense by gently and effectively releasing unnecessary tension, while at the same time enhancing your awareness of your own body – your proprioceptive sense.  It is not a miracle cure.  One Alexander lesson alone can not teach you to release long-held tensions, just like one voice lesson alone can not teach you to be a wonderful singer.  But a series of Alexander lessons can cumulatively allow you much more freedom from habitual tensions and an enhanced, renewed proprioceptive sense, taking you back toward the wonderful freedom and awareness you experienced as a child.


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