Alexander Technique & the Choral SingerOctober 22, 2008
F.M. Alexander (1869-1955) was an actor who suffered from recurrent hoarseness and breathing difficulties. Having unsuccessfully tried the medical treatments available at the time, Alexander studied by himself, over a period of seven years, in a three-way system of mirrors to find out what he was doing that caused him to lose his voice.
He noticed a tendency to stiffen his neck and pull his head back and down. This habit initiated a pattern of misdirected effort through his whole body. He eventually developed an approach that involved momentarily pausing and releasing his habitual tension and then ‘directing’ himself into an easier, co-ordinated state.
Alexander went on to teach, using a combination of gentle manual guidance and verbal instruction to give his students a direct experience of using their bodies in a more co-ordinated way.
Alexander and the singer
The singing/Alexander Technique teachers I worked with said nothing about my voice. Instead they said things like, ‘Allow your shoulders to release and widen’;’release the back of your neck’, etc. Over time this gentle approach increased the resonance, range and flexibility of my voice.
most of us accumulate muscular and mental habits which, to some extent, shorten, narrow and twist natural skeletal alignment. These things interfere with easy singing, and changing such habits will, in turn, change your voice.
The way we stand and sit has a profound effect on the way we sing. We become so familiar with our habits which restrict our posture that any attempt to change to a freer state can ‘feel’ wrong and unfamiliar. One of the advantages of doing Alexander Technique with a choir is that any change is reinforced by the immediate feedback of an improved sound.
Take a seat
Is there a conspiracy afoot amongst the designers of institutional furniture to create chairs that are at odds with everything we know about the healthy human structure? The typical rehearsal room posture tends to follow this pattern: the arms feel too heavy to hold up the score, so we rest it on our lap (with one leg crossed over the other) and sag down to peer at it (see below). Then, to turn an already bad situation into a disaster, the choirmaster requires our attention, so we tighten the backs of our necks to look up. At this point we try ‘straightening up’–pulling the shoulders back, raising the breastbone and arching the lower back. This requires considerable effort, creates fatigue and is difficult to sustain over even short periods of time–hardly a conducive state for singing!
Many people do not open their mouths to sing. They open their heads–by tightening the muscles around the base of the skull, lifting the nose in the air and keeping the jaw fixed (see left). This causes excess pressure to bear down on the larynx, ribs and diaphragm and leads to vocal strain. By releasing the muscles that suspend your jaw you can open your mouth more easily.
Look in a mirror – preferably the three-way sort, like an old dressing table mirror. Let your lips be softly together. Think of releasing your jaw muscles, from your temples along the old-fashioned sideburns area (see right). Without tipping your nose either up or down, let your lower set of teeth drop away from your upper set. Open your lips and vocalise an ‘aahh’.
Place your hands under your buttocks and find two bony knobbles: these are your sitting bones. What happens to your sitting bones:
a) When you slump? (How does this affect your head, neck and body relationship?)
b) When you pull your shoulders back and chest up, military-style?
With your head leading, rock back and forth on your sitting bones until you find the point where they are pointing down directly into the chair. Think of directing your knees away from your sitting bones and slightly away from each other. How does this affect your body as a whole? Now sing!
Arms and eyes
Imagine that you have puppet strings attached to your elbows, wrists and fingers. The puppeteers raise your arms with minimum effort on your part. Repeat this experiment holding the score. Using only your eyes, alternate between looking at the score and looking at an imaginary conductor (below).
An Alexander Technique expression for using excess effort to achieve a given end. Think of the poor old sopranos and tenors, noses and shoulders up in the air, trying to achieve their high notes.
In the bass and alto sections chins are compressed into throats as thev strive for that low note. These habits may feel right at the time but the end result is rarely satisfying.
Easy does it
There are singers who make the most demanding roles look and sound effortless. Although we may not all become Pavarottis, this quality of ease is learnable: imagine you have an octave mapped out along your spine and head. The lowest note is on your bottom, then your lower abdomen, upper abdomen, breast-bone, neck, base of skull, forehead and finally the crown of your head. Sing up the octave to your crown; and down to your bottom again.
Many singers squeeze up to ‘end gain’ the high notes and pull down along the front for the low notes (right), so try it the other way round – the highest note at your bottom and the lowest at your crown. This can lead to greater ease and appropriate effort in your singing.
A word about breathing
Associated with the habit of stiffening the neck, singers often suck in what feels like a large chestful of air (watch a choir just about to sing). In doing so they become like an over-inflated balloon and the air rapidly rushes away. If you take care of your posture in the ways outlined above, your breathing will tend to take care of itself. During warm-ups allow time for your breath to return unhurriedly between phrases.
‘Is there a special Alexander way of feeling calmer when you are in a hurry?’ students often ask. ‘Yes,’ comes my reply, ‘leave home five minutes earlier than usual’.
Take five leisurely minutes to warm up before choir practice. Remember a favourite time and place–an experience in which you had plenty of time and space. Relive what you were seeing, hearing and feeling. Stay with this experience for a little while longer. Now vocalise an ‘aahh’ or sing.
During busy rehearsals it may feel as if there is insufficient time to warm up, but being physically relaxed and mentally alert will pay dividends in choral singing. Current research suggests that people learn faster when they are in a calm and collected state, and one way of preparing for rehearsals and performances is to use the Alexander ‘active resting’ position (below). This gives maximum support to your spine– feet flat on the floor, knees pointing up to the ceiling about shoulder-width apart–alleviating pressure on the lower back.
The head-rest (some books will do) encourages release in the muscles that join the back of the neck to the base of your skull. It should be neither too high (or your chin will compress your throat) nor too low (or your chin will stick up in the air). Imagine the four ‘corners’ of your back–head, shoulders and tail bone– spreading and lengthening and widening away from each other and on to the floor. Use the active resting position for ten minutes a day or before rehearsals.
About The Writer
Alan Mars has been a STAT qualified teacher of the Alexander Technique since 1982. He has taught Alexander Technique and voice-work at many leading performing arts institutions including – the Arts Educational Drama School, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Royal College of Music. Alan has taught Alexander Technique based presentation skills to staff from many top public and private companies including Abbey National; General Electric; Sainsbury’s; Lloyds of London; Comet; the Royal Pharmaceutical Society; BNFL; the Probation Service to name but a few. Alan regularly coaches at senior management level. He is the author of a book on presentation skills “Presenter” published by Hodder & Stoughton.
Alan Mars, Brighton & Hove Alexander Technique,
26 Ventnor Villas, Brighton & Hove, BN3 3DE
Tel: 01273 747 289 or 07930 323 057
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Web: http://www.thetechnique.co.uk/
The Lychen Choir – a growing collection of community singing with lyrics and MP3 soundfiles
Choral Links and Resources:
Choral Public Domain Library – one of the world’s largest free sheet music sites.
Musica.Net – Virtual Music Choral Library