From Classical Singer Magazine
by Julia Caulder
The relationship between a classical singer and his or her body is defined by and dependent upon delicate subtleties, both environmental and cognitive, which most instrumentalists, composers and conductors-let alone relatives, friends and laypeople-are unable to appreciate or accommodate. The demands on a singer extend beyond the stage. Our bodies are our instruments and everything we expose ourselves to in our personal lives directly affects the quality (and therefore quantity) of our performance and our presence.
Following the lead of programs like Juilliard and the Aspen Music Festival, many training programs are gradually including the Alexander Technique, and young singers are learning it as a matter of course. But the Alexander Technique should not be limited to those of a certain age or education. The benefits of understanding and applying the technique far outweigh the cost in time and commitment required for its study. And although this is applicable to anyone regardless of age, body type, or profession, it is of special value to the singer, who already understands the extraordinary responsibilities of sacrifice and daily regimen.
The technique itself is often misunderstood, and much of the time it is confused with something else entirely. What it is not is a massage, a movement workshop, or a chiropractic adjustment. It is not yoga or breathing exercises. It does not have anything to do with the healing powers of crystals, pyramids, or magnets. What it does do is to teach a student to release unnecessary tension, to free him or herself of the bad habits that are unconsciously practiced daily. These habits gradually tear at the body, eroding its ability to move with ease, to breathe freely, to stand, sit, or lie down without pain. The Alexander Technique trains a student to recognize and to release negative habits and to attain a freedom from which a body’s natural poise, balance, and ease will flow.
The father of the Alexander Technique, F.M. Alexander, was a performer himself. His career as an Australian stage actor with a passion for Shakespeare began with enormous potential. However, onstage he found that his voice simply gave out. Countless visits to doctors and voice trainers yielded a frustrating and ultimately fruitless journey through lubricating sprays and vows of silence starting weeks before a performance. Still, no relief came.
Enough was enough. He reasoned that since the only situation in which his voice abandoned him was during a performance, he himself must be doing something to affect it. The next nine years were dedicated to empirical observations of himself with a remorseless eye for self-criticism. His conclusion was profound, simple, and effective: He determined that as he was preparing to speak, he was both compressing his neck and spine as well as gasping, the cumulative result of which was his inability to speak. Moreover, he discovered that the way to alleviate his problem was not to do something. In fact, it was to stop doing something namely, the habit he had developed of compressing his neck and back. And with that, the foundation of the Alexander Technique had been laid.
What Alexander illustrated was what singers instinctually know, that how we use our bodies directly affects our voice. In his case the effect was severe and acute. In most cases observed day to day, the effects are subtle, and sometimes hidden. Unfortunately, the advice given by teachers and coaches sometimes does more to compound the problem than to correct it. The idea of standing up straight does more to increase tension and hinder resonance than to help a singer’s voice. Additionally, focusing on the maintenance of a rigid posture prevents a performer from singing freely and easily. In short, though the observations may be appropriate, the corrections do more harm than good.
The average human head weighs approximately the same as a bowling ball. Since a good portion of our musculature, our skeletal system, and our senses are dedicated to keeping us upright, that “bowling ball” has a significant bearing on how we carry ourselves, and ultimately, how we feel. Imagine a bowling ball balanced on top of a golf tee. If it’s balanced, the ball will remain there, stable. If, however, the ball is slightly off-center, and no compensating force is exerted to reinforce its stability, the ball will fall, the tee might even splinter. Granted this is merely an example, but it is not so different from the way our head, neck, and spine interact with our bodies and our environment. If our head isn’t balanced atop our neck and spine, something is compensating to keep us upright-usually back muscles, neck muscles, shoulder muscles, etc. This unequal force is distributed differently through different people, but it is a constant, and over time it will take a toll on anyone, usually with back and neck pain. But in a singer the affect can be immediate. Gravity is a force acting on our body, and our body is constantly fighting it as tensely and resolutely as it can. While this strain eventually causes physical pain, for a singer what suffers the most is how it upsets the delicate balance of the voice. As Alexander discovered, and as the eponymous technique teaches, we can correct these habits by simply and efficiently removing them, instead of by piling on exercises in an attempt to strengthen ourselves.
The first step in the training is to become aware of your habits. In many cases the simple act of recognizing that you are unnecessarily tightening your shoulders, back, or neck allows you to release and to let go of the tension which was subtly attacking your body and mind.
The hours spent practicing every day, week, month, and year, can be sabotaged if the rest of the time our instrument is lightly, but continually, damaged by compressing our neck and spine to watch TV, take a walk, or breathe. By learning to pay attention to our bodies we can learn to let go of these debilitating habits, to free our bodies, and ultimately, to maximize our vocal potential.
By teaching singers how to be aware of their own unconscious and habitual tensions, and how to let them go, the Alexander Technique helps singers find a freedom and poise. This not only helps vocal quality, but also benefits a singer’s stage presence through a relaxed confidence that comes with the ability to get out of their own way. The tools a singer develops through the Alexander Technique won’t eradicate stage fright or performance anxiety, but will help to alleviate them, and stop fear reactions from interfering, or, worse still, from controlling a performance. It is the awareness which is the key. By learning how to be aware, a singer can regain and maintain control. The awareness reconnects the body and mind, so that instead of feeding negatively into one another, creating a cycle of stress and tension, they can work together to stop the cycle and encourage the release of tension.
By necessity, this release of tension works across the whole body, and the results are, therefore “whole body” results. By first freeing the neck, the freedom flows through the body like falling dominoes, affecting all the muscles, and allowing the breath to be free. Although there are as many breathing exercises as there are criticisms of breath support, trying to release your breath without first allowing the rest of your body to release is like trying to start a car by throwing the keys at the pedals. Focusing solely, or at least intently, on one aspect of your singing, like your breath, means that some other part of your body will pay the price. And ultimately any price you pay is too high. The force exerted simply cannot be sustained indefinitely, and sooner or later, something will give.
This is exactly why the Alexander Technique is so effective. Rather than forcing something to act on something else, it teaches you to take away your unwanted habits, all of your forced exertion, everything you are doing within your body and mind which simply forestalls an inevitable collapse. It is designed to take all of that away and leave your body the way it has evolved to exist naturally, as a system that is balanced and supported without effort.
But like singing itself, the Alexander Technique cannot be learned in a weekend seminar. It won’t be fully explored in a six week summer workshop. It is an ongoing education which, in theory, is never over. Like learning any instrument, the more you study, the more progress you will make. It is a lifetime commitment. But it is not a limiting commitment which seeks to restrain, rather it is a lifelong commitment to freedom from tension, stress, and pain. And if there was ever a group of people who didn’t shy away from a commitment, it would be the classical singer.