The Alexander Technique can help singers perform with freedom, confidence and creativity, writes Laura Long.
Several years ago a friend and fellow singing teacher had some Alexander Technique lessons, and was astonished by the results they produced. Excited and curious by this, I took lessons myself and was immediately struck by the far-reaching possibilities of the technique – in particular, the profound effects it can have on the singing voice.
As I delved further into the Alexander Technique, I soon came to see why it was used in all the most prestigious music, performance and drama schools. Top institutions used it as a way to help students establish a strong sense of natural ease, function and full expression in their spoken voice, in singing, in playing an instrument and in addressing the very particular demands of performing on stage.
The Alexander Technique helps us to realise that mind and body are truly one and the same thing, not unlike yoga in that sense. Holistic and “psychophysical” in nature, lessons take us through very simple everyday (but highly considered) movements, under the guidance and support of a teacher’s hands. It is through these slowed-down movements (and quieting of the nervous system) we begin to understand how physical stimuli (what we do with our body) relates to our thinking and emotions (our behaviour).
For example, the teacher might lead us, step-by-step, from a seated position in a chair to standing. During this, we have the opportunity to witness all manner of things that went previously unnoticed. Perhaps an overriding desire to rush forwards, “get the job done” as it were, owing to over-readiness and too much (nervous) anticipation. Or maybe we feel the engagement of unnecessary muscles to perform the action – that in actual fact we are designed to use our feet and legs and the ground a lot more, instead of clenching in the torso, head and neck, and using momentum to thrust ourselves forwards and up.
These kinds of new perceptions enable us to see the habitual (and unconscious) patterns of behaviour that prevent us from becoming fully at ease with ourselves, and that permeate all areas of our life. As singers and performers, we really start to recognise how they hinder the source of our creativity. If we tighten and constrict ourselves during a simple everyday movement, then what might we be doing to ourselves when the stakes are much higher, for instance, when stepping up to a microphone, or out onto stage? For one thing, all that unnecessary tension in the upper body is going to seriously compromise our ability to sing and perform well.
But what can we do about all this once we’ve noticed it? Well quite simply, (and this is the best part), nothing! All we need to do is notice what’s “wrong”, and the “right” will automatically step in and assert itself; ie., self-correction will occur without us having to instigate anything directly. It is a gradual process though, as it does take time for this re-education of self, until new and more healthy habits become second nature. Bit by bit, we notice how seemingly tiny adjustments become deeply significant and affect positive change in all sorts of ways. We begin to feel greater confidence and gain a stronger sense of physical presence and a feeling of freedom in the new association between body and mind – all of which help the voice to flourish.
With the body more open, and “available” as it were, in greater balance and alignment, we are in a much better position to produce rich resonant vowel sounds as a full sound requires the participation of the whole body, not just the larynx and mouth. When singing and spoken vowel sounds are dull and lack lustre they are basically “squashed” – squeezed into a reduced physical space within the body. They are paralleled with a similar lack of space and freedom in the mind, under the tyranny of self-limiting beliefs and ideas.
In order to make vowels more expansive, specific vocal exercises (that simultaneously encourage “release” and “connection) carried out alongside the Alexander Technique, allow this more instinctive open space to be liberated, and the voice naturally gains in tone. We then find that these richer warmer sounds also underpin the meaning of words/lyrics in a much more dynamic way, and this, in turn, gives melodic phrasing and delivery a whole new lease of life. Performances transform, not just technically, but something else starts to happen. We witness something that we can’t quite put our finger on, but it wakes us up – we get goosebumps that signal a deeper connection to something more electrifying.
Since the Alexander Technique is unique to each person, it supports their own individual creative journey. There is no blueprint or agenda to follow, just an opportunity to discover oneself in a safe, supportive non-judgmental environment. In singing, it’s a chance to learn through our voice, ie. the voice actually teaches us.
Among the many other areas to explore are the following: identifying the self-sabotaging aspects of the ego versus building confidence; crippling self-consciousness versus feeling relaxed and engaged in the actual experience of singing and performing in a direct way. This means no more “how does my voice sound”, “is it good enough”, “am I good enough” kinds of questions that throw us off course. We experience what it feels like to become “more present”, and in turn gain more “presence”, both on stage, and in life generally. In songwriting and performance we understand the meaning of the lyric more, and our ability to tell a story through song is greatly enhanced. We feel more assured of our vocal abilities generally, and more alert to the life-force of music, rather than getting swamped in technicalities.
Key to the Alexander Technique is the fact that it is “experiential”, that it’s not something that can be fully understood through words and the intellect alone.
It’s a grounded, organic process that offers a pragmatic yet incredibly soulful way to overcome fears and fully enjoy doing what we love – singing!
Laura Long’s forthcoming publication Mastery of the Natural Voice explores what has been outlined in this article in more detail.