There is still misunderstanding on the part of the classical singing community regarding the Alexander Technique and what it has to offer singers. Some have a vague idea that it would be helpful, having heard or read it, whereas others deny the need for any help other than technical work from a voice teacher. In order to have a clearer idea why the Alexander Technique directly affects the main concerns of singers, let’s think about an important part of the vocal mechanism – the larynx.
The larynx or voice box houses the delicate vocal folds that enable us to sing. The larynx is suspended from the hyoid bone by a web of membranes and therefore moves up and down vs. being fixed in one position. This is extremely useful for us singers, because a released, lowered larynx increases vocal quality, size and color. It also means that its function can be affected adversely by excess tension or misalignments that could keep it from working exactly as it was designed to.
F. M. Alexander, the founder of the Alexander Technique, discovered several extremely important new principles, one of which was the main pattern of tension that all humans and many other animals exhibit. It is the pattern of tension in the relationship between the head, neck and back that he called “down and back”. In this pattern, the muscles at the base of the back of the head connecting to the neck tighten and shorten, which rotates the head back on its axis. This brings the weight of the head directly on top of the spine, compressing it. The muscles at the back of the neck also shorten and tighten, along with the connecting muscles between the neck, back and shoulders. The end result is a compressed, tight neck and excess tension in the upper back.
F. M. astutely observed that this pattern was pervasive in many people in various degrees and also seemed to be the key to unlocking other patterns of tension, so much so that he named it “the Primary Control”. When this tension pattern was released, the coordination of the whole body improved. So, the Alexander Technique is designed to focus very much on this head-neck-back relationship and encourage more freedom and ease there.
Back to singing now – because the larynx is not fixed in place, but is instead suspended, its functionality is vulnerable to anything that changes the structure or function of the neck. Since this down and back pattern creates tension and compresses the neck, it has an impact on the functioning of the larynx and, as a direct consequence, the voice. And the larynx is just one example of the vulnerability that is inherent in the delicate vocal mechanism. There are many ways in which down and back and subtly and not so subtly affect the optimal functioning of the vocal mechanism.
Here’s the rub. Because we are not consciously aware of this excess tension in the head-neck-back relationship, we believe everything to be absolutely fine and assume that our larynx and other important parts of the vocal mechanism are functioning normally. However, that might not be the case! It is entirely possible for singers to have various degrees of tension that would take a good voice teacher many years to address, but which could be released through studying the Alexander Technique. It frees physical tension that creates vocal blocks, resulting in a significant improvement in vocal technique.
An Alexander teacher uses a gentle hands-on touch to send messages to the nervous system, calming down the muscular system and relaxing unnecessary tensions. By releasing the tensions in the head, neck and back and suggesting a healthier, more coordinated relationship between the parts, the teacher helps the student experience what it feels like to be rid of that chronic, habitual tension. Just like in voice lessons, with repeated experiences and the right tools, the student gradually learns to be able to release those tensions him or herself.
This is why the Alexander Technique is clearly an amazing tool for singers. It deals directly with releasing tension in precisely the place that singers need to be the freest! Singing with excess neck tension is like swimming upstream – difficult and not very efficient. Sometimes, all it takes is turning around and going with the flow. Developing one’s vocal technique is of course crucial, but if the functionality of the vocal mechanism is compromised by unnecessary tension, it will work at the optimum level required by the rigors of the performing classical singer.
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