A small but increasing number of vocal coaches are incorporating Feldenkrais into their teaching. What is it? And how can Feldenkrais help singers?
If you haven’t heard of Feldenkrais you’re not alone; even though this method of movement training has been around since the 1950s it still has a relatively low profile.
Feldenkrais was developed by Israeli physicist and martial artist Moshe Feldenkrais, who recognised the importance of focusing on the whole body to achieve radical change. It aims to improve human functioning by increasing self-awareness through movement. It focuses on the barely perceptible movements we make and how these affect us. Those who champion the method say it improves posture, flexibility and coordination, reduces stress and boosts vitality.
Anita Morrison is a soprano, singing teacher and certified Feldenkrais practitioner. She has taught choristers of Westminster Cathedral and students at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. To mark International Feldenkrais Awareness Week, she spoke to iSing.
What drew you to Feldenkrais?
I first heard about it when I was a student at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in the early 90s. My flatmate was rehearsing for an opera and it was being used as a warm-up before rehearsals. At that time, I was a great advocate of the Alexander Technique and was also beginning to explore Tai Chi so I didn’t look into it any further. Then about 13 years ago I had a student with significant tongue tension issues who began attending Feldenkrais classes. He told me about the book Singing with Your Whole Self by Sam Nelson and Elizabeth Blades. He thought it might be of interest as it contained a lesson exploring the movements of the tongue. I bought a copy and worked through the lessons, experimenting with some of them in my teaching albeit having never actually experienced a class at that point. In 2008 the British Voice Association’s Choice for Voice Conference included an excellent Feldenkrais session exploring breathing for singers and actors and my interest was sparked again. At that point I was searching for something that would enhance my work as a singing teacher. I met Feldenkrais practitioner Günther Bisges and attended a workshop with the title “Exploring the Shoulder-neck-girdle”. At the end of the day my sternum had found a new place to be at rest and was where many singing teachers and coaches had told me it ought to be, that “noble” sternum and open chest, a concept I knew intellectually but had not internalised as part of my self-image. This was a real “light bulb” moment. When I had tried to do as I was asked in the past it had just given me backache… My body, by exploring odd tiny movements, lying in some extraordinary positions had discovered something new. I now know that it was my nervous system doing the learning.
When and why did you incorporate it into your singing teaching?
As my singing teaching developed I became more and more frustrated that, although I could diagnose postural problems which I knew were restricting my students vocally, I didn’t possess the tools to help them myself. As I read more about the method and attended regular classes I began to incorporate more of the ideas into my teaching but was keen to deepen my knowledge. Soon after I had attended Günther’s workshop it was announced that the first Feldenkrais training course in London since 1990 would begin in 2010 and I decided to apply. For the next four years I trained as a practitioner, gradually incorporating the principles and strategies into my daily singing teaching. Since graduating in 2015 I now teach regular Awareness Through Movement classes for the public, give one-to-one Functional Integration lessons and run workshops for singers. A number of other musicians of varying disciplines were on my training and we have set up a group to work together to bring the Feldenkrais Method to musical performance and teaching.
What are the benefits of Feldenkrais for a singer?
As singers our whole body is our instrument and any restrictions, unnecessary tension or misalignment can have a major effect on the vocal mechanism. The Feldenkrais approach enables students to notice habitual “holding” patterns and address them through methodical experimentation. These structured explorations (Awareness Through Movement lessons) use various strategies to discover more options as the nervous system searches for the pathway of least resistance. This approach is non-judgemental and process orientated. It creates the opportunity for students to clearly map themselves from the “inside out”, sensing changes rather than imposing what might be perceived intellectually to be “correct”. There are so many theories and so much imagery used to help and teach singers. Each one is perhaps grounded in good science or sound pedagogy yet what works well for one person may not work at all for another or may even set them back. An approach based on Feldenkrais principles seeks to individualise the learning experience working to find options which are right for that individual and giving the opportunity to “learn to learn”.
What common singing-related issues can Feldenkrais help to address?
I’ve not yet found an issue that Feldenkrais can’t help. Feldenkrais’ definition of “good posture” is the ability to move in any direction, at any time, without hesitation or having to make a preparatory movement. Adopting this way of thinking about posture and alignment in my mind is beneficial as there is no thought of being fixed in a particular “correct” position. Singing is movement. Being able to move in any direction means that you will always be somewhere in the middle and is something that can be considered in any activity, task or physical orientation. There are specific lessons to soften the ribs, find the balance of the head, release and map the hip joints, free the jaw and tongue and even a specific lesson which explores resonance called “equalising the nostrils”. Every Feldenkrais lesson I have ever been party to has had a positive effect on my breathing, whether or not this is the theme of the lesson. Taking time to focus mindfully on movement can help to quieten the nervous system, promote relaxation and help reduce performance anxiety.
If a singer is interested in learning more about Feldenkrais where should they start?
I highly recommend two books that specifically look at Feldenkrais and singing, Singing with Your Whole Self by Samuel Nelson and Elizabeth Blades (the 2nd edition has just been published) and Body and Voice – Somatic Re-education by Marina Gilman. They both contain theory and background to the method, lessons and case studies. The UK Feldenkrais Guild’s website has information on the method, free short lessons and a search facility to find practitioners, classes and workshops in your local area.
Several websites offer good, free recorded lessons. Some of my favourites are openatm.org/, kinesophics.ca/ and sharonstarika.com/ Ryan Nagy is passionate about sharing his work as affordably as possible and has some very reasonably priced lessons to download on his website
Feldenkrais Resources, a company run by the educational director of my training, Elizabeth Beringer stocks most of the available books, dvds and recorded lessons. Also check out Feldenkrais Resources for Musicians which is run by a group of UK practitioners, all of whom are either professional musicians or work with musicians. My website wholeselfsinger.co.uk has details of my classes and workshops as well as links to other resources including recommended reading.