When we think of the word “health” we may also think of “happiness”. And from happiness it is a short leap of the imagination to song and celebration. And just as happiness can lead to song, so also can singing can chase away the blues at the beginning, middle or the end of the day. It re-establishes a full, easy pattern of breathing and encourages release of the muscular system, with all the attendant benefits of stress alleviation. It is a way of expressing your feelings and of linking up with other people and the world around you.
For many people who would love to sing regularly, however, the opportunity simply eludes them, the last time they may have sung in a group may have been at nursery school! And while it is occasionally possible to hear workers singing on a building site this is more often than not replaced by the ever present radio. Anyone who sings in their office is likely to attract curious glances. Attendance’s at places of worship, where fifty years ago most people could sing at least once a week, have declined sharply.
Despite all of this the U.K. is still a nation of committed singers, boasting more amateur choirs, opera and musical theatre societies than any other country in Europe. Those who want to sing can find the opportunity – even if they are a bit rusty and in need of a touch of polish before throwing themselves into the vocal deep end!
Sound familiar? Take heart- help is just around the corner! Remember this: we are all born singers! Most people assume that the speaking voice comes first and then we build a singing voice on top of it. The reverse is true- singing comes first and then we learn to speak.
A baby lies on her back making a variety of vowel sounds- ohs, oohs, ahs, eehs etc. She plays with the intensity of the sound, a bit softer, a bit louder and sometimes a hell of a lot louder! She explores a variety of different notes and pitches. As the weeks pass by she moves her tongue, lips and jaw in a greater variety of ways and begins to form consonants. At first the sounds are quite random and are only repeated “accidently”. Soon she finds herself repeating more and more of the “accidental” sound patterns and her voice becomes increasingly melodious and under her control.
The pattern of a baby’s vocal development is remarkably similar to the vocal awareness exercises that a singer or actor will go through during training. However you do not have to go to Drama or Music School to develop your voice. Everyone has a “body memory” of that original vocal exploration. All you have to do is tap into it!
Unfortunately for some people the idea of singing is not a cause for celebration. Many people have been given negative messages at an early age, often from teachers and parents, about their apparent inability to sing. This may have happened publicly. The resulting embarrassment virtually guaranteed that the child would no longer be able to sing, thus creating a self fulfilling prophecy. The effect of these negative messages persists into adult life. During family and seasonal celebrations, when others are singing, the wounded singer holds their breath and clamps their teeth or soundlessly mimes the words.
The Skeletal Cylinder
A SIMPLE ANATOMY LESSON
Imagine, for a moment, that the singing, speaking human being is like a well constructed musical instrument. From your pelvis, through your ribs, shoulder girdle, larynx (voicebox) through to your skull and jaw your skeleton is a basically tubular or cylindrical shape- all connected together by the column of your spine. This is the central, skeletal core of your vocal instrument onto which the bones of your arms and legs attach.
Your skeleton is covered in sheets of muscle which wrap around it spiralically to create a perfectly tailored “elastic suit”.
The “elastic suit”
The “elastic” of your muscles can either contract and shorten or it can release and lengthen. Together these two qualities, contraction and release, enable you to move around easily and efficiently.
BUT.. because of habit and the lifestyles that we lead nowadays, most of us are using far too much muscular contraction. Medical authorities, alternative and mainstream, warn us about the dangerous effects of prolonged muscular tension. On a mechanical and postural level this mis-directed muscular tension has a distorting effect, causing, to a greater or lesser degree, a tendency to shorten, narrow and twist natural skeletal alignment.
The elastic suit, such a perfect and roomy fit when we were young children, becomes restrictive of our movement. This all has a correspondingly restrictive effect on the voice: inaudibility, shakiness, inaccurate pitch, harsh and grating tone.
COMMON STRESSES OF THE “ELASTIC SUIT”
LACK OF BODY AWARENESS
Perhaps the most common cause of vocal difficulty lies in a lack of awareness of how we use our body in daily life. We are experts at screening out sensory information that is not directly connected to achieving our goals. This is a blessing that allows us to achieve our objectives without being swamped by irrelevant sensory information. An activity as simple as making a cup of coffee would become unmanageably difficult without this ability.
It can also become a curse. As we focus more intensely on goal directed behaviour our body can become increasingly filtered out of awareness. Day by day we accumulate small, seemingly insignificant amounts of tension without even noticing it. Just as constantly dripping water can distort the hardest stone, these small accumulations of tension have a detrimental effect on both body structure and voice.
An ‘Evolutionary Map” = Our shrinking focus From Hunter Gatherer to Smart phone user
Hunter Gatherer ‘Wide focus/ the world’s room’
‘Homo Smart phone-us’
Most people have only the vaguest of ideas about how their body is put together. And many of us simply have wrong ideas about how the body is structured. How many of us, for example, can accurately locate the full length and circumference of the spine; where the head and spine join each other; where the larynx is; where the jaw joint is; and where the ribs and diaphragm join with the spine? All of these parts, to name but a few, are part and parcel of the singers stock in trade. Misleading ideas have a direct bearing on how we use the voice. It is possible to get a sound out of a trumpet by blowing in the wrong end but the process is wasteful of effort and the sound produced is disappointing.
the startle pattern
FEAR AND ANXIETY
Many people who are confident in all other respects would do just about anything to avoid singing with or in front of other people. In situations of perceived threat a group of responses called the “fight/flight” syndrome comes into force. Adrenalin is released into the blood stream. Breathing and heart rate speed up. The muscles become more tense. The shoulder and neck muscles are among the first to contract, pulling the head down, tortoise fashion, towards the centre of the body.
The person’s face might drain of colour or they may blush. The pupils dilate heightening visual acuity and leading, in some cases, to tunnel vision. For the primitive hunter/gatherer this whole pattern was discharged by actual fight or flight after which everything returned to normal. It is not appropriate, however, to “fight” with your audience or to take “flight” and lock yourself in the lavatory, tempting as both options may seem at the time! Fortunately there are many ways of creatively channelling the energy of the fight/flight pattern to enhance vocal confidence which we will explore in depth in the following chapters.
PRECONCEPTION OF EFFORT
Consider the image of someone lifting a heavy looking suitcase only to find it empty or lifting a light looking case and finding it full of bricks. If the lifter does not pause momentarily to truly consider the weight of the case, they may sustain an injury. Singing, like lifting the case, is equally a muscular activity. Taking time to pause and consider appropriate effort, during practice or before starting to sing, is one of the single most important elements in freeing the vocal and breathing mechanisms.
IMITATION AND MODELLING
How often is grown son or daughter’s voice mistaken for that of their father or mother on the telephone? Why is it that we can recognise certain individuals from a distance? Why do some dogs look like their owners? Young children, especially pre-verbal children, learn a vast amount through imitation and mimicry. The child adopts, to a greater or lesser degree, the postural, movement, breathing and vocal patterns of her carers. Models of vocal excellence are scarce, however, and only the most fortunate of children will find them in their immediate family. This book endeavours to present standards of mind/body and vocal excellence for the aspiring singing student to continuously develop.
When you are exposed to a constant unchanging stimulus you will automatically, assuming it is not too painful, screen it out of conscious awareness. If you live next to a busy road you may have to make a conscious decision in order to actually hear the traffic. The author and Aikido teacher George Leonard talks about this in terms of homeostasis:
“Our body, brain and behaviour have a built in tendency to stay the same within rather narrow limits, and to snap back when changed- and it is a very good thing they do.
… if your body temperature moved up or down by ten percent, you would be in big trouble. The same thing applies to your blood-sugar level and to any number of other functions of your body. This condition of equilibrium, this resistance to change is called homeostasis. It characterises all self-regulating systems, from a bacterium to a frog to a human individual to a family to an organisation to an entire culture- and it applies to psychological states and behaviour as well as to physical functioning.
The problem is, homeostasis works to keep things as they are even if they aren’t very good”
F.M. Alexander, the creator of the Alexander Technique, mentions a case in which he gave a lesson to a young girl who had a severe scoliosis- an asymmetrical sideways bend of the spine. After the lesson she was considerably more balanced and symmetrical in appearance. Rather than being pleased with these changes the young girl complained bitterly about feeling all twisted up! That which was habitually twisted felt normal. And that which was balanced felt twisted and abnormal.
Although this was an extreme case it is still something that we all, to a greater or lesser degree, have to deal with across the range of our activities. Given time the experiments in this book will allow you to “re-tailor” your elastic suit into a more spacious and freer fit. This re-orientation may feel unfamiliar or even wrong in the short term. A basic willingness to familiarise yourself with the unfamiliar will accelerate the ease with which you can reset your homeostats. This will encourage a freer, more confident and dynamic use of your voice and body, regardless of your starting point.
TIME FOR A CHANGE !
Find a place where you will not be disturbed for fifteen minutes. Tapping into the full potential of your singing voice will require a quality of self acceptance. Any sound that you make is going to be unconditionally acceptable! Here are my three golden rules for singing classes:
Any sound that anyone else makes is unconditionally acceptable.
Any sound that you make is unconditionally acceptable.
Remember rule 1. and rule 2. !
Application of these three rules leads to a reduction in the fear reflexes that interfere with easy singing. And this leads to increasing playfulness, curiosity and, as anyone who looks after young children knows, a continually developing sense of discovery…
Vocalising and moving from restriction.
Take a couple of minutes to remember a time when you were feeling a bit pressured and restricted. Use all of your senses to recall and relive this memory as fully as possible… what you were seeing and hearing around you and what you were feeling.
Now look around the room. Does it look any less bright or friendly than before? Walk around the room now. Do you feel taller or shorter? Do you feel wider or narrower? Are you breathing freely or are you holding your breath? Is your walking lighter or heavier? Smoother or jerkier? Easier or tenser? Indicate with your hands how wide or narrow your “personal space” seem to be.
Vocalise an “aahh” sound. How easy or difficult was it to vocalise?
Vocalising and moving from ease.
Move around the room and stretch to dissipate the effects of the last experiment.
Use all of your senses, seeing, hearing and feeling, to remember a time when you felt on top of the world. Stay fully in this place for a while longer and allow yourself to take two or three easy deep breaths with the emphasis on the out breath. Let this feeling spread through your entire body.
Look around the room again. Is it any brighter or friendlier now? Walk around. Do you feel shorter or taller? Narrower or wider? Are you breathing freely? How large is your “personal space” now? Is your walking heavier or lighter?
Vocalise an “aahh” sound. Notice in what way your voice feels and sounds different from the first experiment.
Which state, cramped or expanded, would you prefer to be in when singing?
Congratulations! You have just taken the first step in liberating your body and freeing your voice. “Embodying” a pleasant experience while vocalising a vowel sound, simple as it sounds, can make a real difference to your voice:
In a series of experiments in the early nineteen forties, the surgeon William Faulkner established that when his patients thought of something unpleasant the movement of their diaphragm became restricted, shallow and irregular. These breathing changes were accompanied by a corresponding tightening of the oesophagus. And this in turn was accompanied by negative changes in the quality and characteristics of the patients voice.
When, on the other hand, his patients thought of something pleasant the movement of their diaphragm became expansive and regular and the levels of tension in the throat reduced. All of this was accompanied by positive changes in the characteristics of the patients voice.3.
By vocalising vowel sounds in this positive spirit you will find yourself in good company:
“When I started serious study, I spent the first six months vocalizing only with the vowel sounds. Day after day I would be singing ay, eee, oh, eye, ooo… my teacher, Arrigo Pola, believed it was essential. And he convinced me. Over the years I have become even more convinced of the importance of this.”
Luciano Pavarotti- My World. Page 282
Case Study – Luciano Pavarotti
When Luciano Pavarotti sang in public he would use certain ‘tricks’ that made him feel more secure.
Pavarotti spoke about his use of a handkerchief on stage:
‘Everybody knows about my white handkerchief, which I used in my first concert in Missouri in 1973, in case I started to perspire. I find that I feel much better if I have it out there with me. It has a function but it’s also for good luck’.
If you are too young to remember Luciano Pavarotti, do a YouTube search to get a sense of his larger than life presence.
Do some vocalised ahs. Play around with the volume – a bit softer, a bit louder. Play with the pitch – higher and lower.
Experiment with combinations of volume and pitch – high and soft; high and loud; low and loud; low and soft.
Slide from quiet to loud to quiet again on a single note. Repeat the same with a variety of vowel sounds.
Avoid straining your elastic suit as you do this. Continually return to a sense of ease in your vocalising. Allow your breath to return effortlessly and naturally between sounds avoiding any exaggerated sucking and sniffing of the air.
Vocalise an ah sound and then gently bring your lips, but not your teeth, together to make a humming sound. You may notice a subtle tingling or buzzing sensation spreading across your lips and face. This feeling may spread to other parts of your body – throat, chest, fingertips etc. This tingling is associated with muscular release and increased peripheral blood flow. Now sing a song. Sing several songs!
1. Faulkner, William B. Jnr., “The Effect of the Emotions Upon Diaphragmattic Function: Observations in Five Patients”, Psychosomatic Medicine, 3, No. 2 (April 1942).
YOUR CENTRE OF GRAVITY
In 1681, Neapolitan mathematician, Giovanni Borelli, made novel use of a see-saw to determine the centre of gravity of the human body. He laid a person down flat across a see-saw. The see-saw would become evenly balanced only when the person had their full weight equally distributed on either side of the pivot. Borelli determined from this that the centre of gravity was located between the buttocks and the pubic bone, just in front of the sacrum — the wide, wedge-shaped bone that comprises the base of the spine.
This principle applies when standing, too. When you are balanced the weight of your whole body is evenly distributed from left to right, from front to back, from the very top of the head, through the centre of gravity and all the way down to the soles of your feet. The shoulders sit easily on either side of this gravity line. The statues from the archaic period of ancient Greece are like this — beautifully poised, upright and balanced and consequently require very small plinths to prevent them toppling.
Statues of the later periods, Greek and Roman, are more asymmetrical and unbalanced from front to back. They require huge plinths and other props, such as tree stumps, to stop them from falling over.
Human beings do not have plinths; we rely on muscular tension to stop us from falling over when we are out of balance. We have to take responsibility for our own co-ordination and balance. Being psychologically balanced and centred is intimately related to being physically balanced and centred.
The gravity line drops from the head, through the centre and between the two feet as shown Figure A. In the Figure B, the line drops from the top of the head through the centre, through the front of the knee and through the middle of the feet. In both cases the body weight is distributed more or less equally to either side of this line.
The Gravity Line
Practical Exercise – Centring
If possible, do the following exercise while standing.
1. If you are standing make sure that your body weight is reasonably well balanced between your left and right feet.
If you are sitting, distribute your weight evenly between left and right buttocks. Place your feet flat on the floor with the weight evenly distributed – as in standing.
2. Find your own centre of gravity by placing one hand halfway between your navel and your pubic bone. Place your other hand over the corresponding area of your back. The area between your two hands corresponds to your centre of gravity. Pat this section of your body two or three times with your hands, then place your hands back the side.
3. Now turn your attention to what is going on around you. Use your eyes to notice three things – familiar or unfamiliar. And now listen – identify three different sounds.
4. Gently switch between concentrating on your centre of gravity and paying attention to your surroundings, while breathing gently through your nose.
5. Say “Keep centre of gravity”, Imagine that your voice is emanating from this centre. Repeat the same phrase internally in your mind’s ear.
Practise this centring exercise regularly. Whenever you feel the need to become more centred, place your hands over your centre and repeat the phrase ‘Keep centre of gravity’ to yourself. This will help you to reach a centred state.
Centring will give you an effective way to control your feelings of fear at the prospect of
presenting. Muscle mass accounts for 35-45 per cent of the total weight of your body. Every cell in your brain connects directly or indirectly to muscle. Centring creatively influences this mind-body system, allowing you transform anxiety into excitement.
Case Study – Robert
Robert is head of information technology for an international company. He gives regular presentations. Twice a year he speaks to audiences in excess of five hundred people. In the past this made him extremely apprehensive. Centring has changed all of that for him:
‘I find that not only does the work with centring make me feel calmer, it also helps take my mind away from the negative internal dialogue, ‘I hope I don’t forget my words. I feel faint. I hope I’m not going to keel over,’ and so on. Usually just being aware of my centre is sufficient to calm me and keep me on track. Sometimes I just repeat the phrase “Keep centre of gravity” internally. I imagine that my voice is actually emanating from my centre and radiating out to the edges of my body and beyond. This submerges the negative inner voices and allows me to focus more on my presentation and the audience.’
THE SEMI-SUPINE ACTIVE RESTING POSITION
SEMI-SUPINE POSITION BENEFITS
The semi-supine active resting position is a procedure that I positively encouraged my drama students to do on a daily basis. It’s simple and yields benefits out of proportion to the effort that one puts in. It is particularly calming and centring. It reinforces open and confident body language. It’s the ideal pre-cursor to voice-work. No wonder my students continue to practice it decades after being introduced to it!
The semi-supine position gives optimum support to your spine in particular; to your torso as a whole; it reduces pressure on the inter-vertebral discs; and it creates vocal freedom by encouraging your torso to unwind, lengthen and widen.
• Time required 5 – 15 minutes
• Loosen tight clothing- and remove shoes.
• Gather several slim paperback books to use as a headrest.
• Find space on a warm carpeted floor on which to lie down.
Semi-Supine Position Equipment
• Use a firm and warm surface, such as a blanket on the floor.
• Place 1-3 inches of paperback books under the back of your skull to serve as a headrest.
• The headrest helps release the muscles that join the top of your spine to the base of your skull. The headrest should be neither too high (your chin will compress your throat) nor too low (your chin will stick up in the air).
• Place your feet flat on the floor, about shoulder-width apart, with your knees pointing up to the ceiling.
• Rest your hands, palms down, on your torso.
Getting Into the Semi Supine Position
Look at the diagram on the next page several times to get a general idea of how to get into (and out of) the semi-supine position. The sequence may seem long – but in practice it becomes very fluid. Move into the semi-supine position mindfully, quite slowly and with awareness. The same goes for returning to your feet again.
Bullet point Alexander directions
Over the next 5 – 20 minutes you will develop your relationship with the floor, and headrest, underneath you…
Imagine the four ‘corners’ of your back ( head, shoulders and tail bone) spreading, lengthening and widening away from each other and on to the floor…
Let it be effortless. Leave it to gravity, the support under you and muscular release.
Sensing the support underneath you…
under your feet, your arms, your hands…
the headrest underneath your head…
the support under the length and width of your back…
With one big, broad, easy sweep, spread your attention to encompass
your whole body…
from top to bottom…
from side to side…
Continue sensing the support as you spread your attention to encompass your whole body.
Thinking of your whole back spreading and lengthening and widening onto the support underneath you…
your head releasing away from your tail bone…
as your tail bone also releases away from your head…
your whole back widening onto the floor.
Thinking of widening across your shoulders…
observing the length from your shoulders to your elbows…
observing the length from your elbows to your wrists…
and from your wrists to your fingertips.
Returning to your back – lengthening and widening and spreading…
finally thinking of your knees releasing up to the ceiling…
as your feet spread, lengthening and widening, onto the floor.
And, when you are ready, slowly and mindfully return to standing… Slowly, easily, with awareness.
Simply enjoy standing still for a moment – being on the ground, effortlessly occupying your full length and width.
Quietly, receptively, be aware of what you hear and see around you.
BALANCE AND GROUNDING
Our feet are structured like tripods consisting of the heel and the inner and outer balancing pads, or balls, of each foot. When you stand in a balanced way, your body weight is equally distributed between the left and right feet. Approximately half of your total body weight drops through the heels. The remaining half is distributed between the inner and outer balancing pads. This distribution is not static, of course. There will always be some slight oscillation and adjustment in even the most quietly balanced standing.
Pictures of ankle and balance tripods
Have you ever noticed people who are physically off balance when they are presenting? Leaning their weight habitually on one leg? Leaning too far forwards or backwards? Legs too far apart, too close together or crossed? More importantly, keep an eye out for the presenters who naturally seem to have a balanced quality. They will almost certainly have a more confident and easy presence.
What upsets your balance?
Have you ever noticed that the sole of one shoe wears out more quickly than the other or that the heels wear quicker than the toes? This is usually the result of habitual weight distribution, for example leaning on a particular leg when standing. You may also notice this favouritism if you cross your legs when sitting.
And why is it that a bag, even a light one, hangs so well off one shoulder but so badly off the other? This could be because that particular shoulder hitches up habitually to provide a nice hook shape. You might be paying a price, in muscular tension, for your handy hook. The heavier the bag is, the more your whole body will compensate by either leaning toward the bag or away from it. This compensation continues to a lesser degree after you put the bag down.
Analyse your weight distribution and day-to-day movements and try to remedy anything that throws you off balance. If you carry a bag, put it down whenever you can — let the train, bus or ground take its weight, rather than your shoulder.
Stop, analyse and correct your movements and posture for a few minutes, throughout each day. This will help you to become more grounded and centred, and will allow many muscles to release unnecessary tension.
In the appendix we will explore the Alexander Technique semi-supine resting position which is a fantastically simple and effective way of re-establishing conditions of balance.
Practical Exercise – Footprints in the sand
1. Imagine that you are standing with bare feet on warm, slightly damp sand. Imagine the shape of your footprint in the sand — the roundness of the heels, the outside edge of each foot as it runs up to the little toe, the balls of the feet and the toes. There is virtually no indentation from the inside of the foot where the arch is.
2. You are going to leave two perfect footprints in the sand by ensuring that your body weight is well distributed. Do this by gently swaying your weight from left to right and then from front to back with small subtle movements.
3. As you continue making these left/right and front/back adjustments allow your knees to be soft and responsive to the movements.
4. Now focus your attention on your centre, then on the world around you.
5. Gently shuffle your attention between your footprints, your centre and the world around you. Build up a sense of the unity of these interconnected parts.
REDUCING FEAR & INCREASING CONFIDENCE
‘It’s a matter of ABC: When we encounter ADVERSITY, we react by thinking about it. Our thoughts rapidly congeal into BELIEFS. These beliefs may become so habitual we don’t even realize we have them unless we stop to focus on them. And they don’t just sit there idly; they have CONSEQUENCES. The beliefs are the direct cause of what we feel and what we do next. They can spell the difference between dejection and giving up, on the one hand, and well-being and constructive action on the other. The first step is to see the connection between adversity, belief, and consequence. The second step is to see how the ABCs operate every day in your own life.’
Sir Walter Scott
‘Belief is a matter of customary muscle tension.’
I love the above quote by Sir Walter Scott – it’s so modern! Walter Scott really practised what he preached – he was a master at transforming his own personal adversity into abundant opportunity. As a little experiment, try putting the key words into Google and see what you come up with. You might find quite a few modern versions of ‘ABC’ out there but to my mind, none of them quite as succinct and pithy as Sir Walter Scott’s.
The second quote is by F M Alexander, the originator, of the Alexander Technique. It was considered to be quite a provocative statement in the 1930s. Some people have suggested that he said it in order to shock. I, however, believe that he was perfectly serious about it — in Alexander’s experience a rigidity of mind corresponded to a rigidity of body.
Try buying into the two quotes. Decide to treat them as if they were true. Believe that by changing your muscular reaction to adversity, or to the pressures of everyday work and life, you will also change, for the better, the consequences that arise from adversity.
How can you change your muscular reactions? How can you weaken the hold of a limiting belief? There are many possibilities.
Keep your head
In situations of real or imagined threat, a group of responses called the ‘fight or flight’ syndrome come into force. This syndrome acts by releasing hormones, including adrenaline, in the bloodstream. These hormones make the muscles more tense and speed up both breathing and heart rate. The muscles that connect shoulders, neck and head are often the first to contract in the fight/flight pattern, causing the head to be pulled back and down towards the body’s centre of gravity. Blood flow is diverted from the surface and the core of the body to the muscles, with a consequent rise in blood pressure. In this situation a person’s face will often drain of colour as the blood moves away from the skin surface.
Fortunately there are many ways of reducing and creatively channelling the energy of the fight/flight pattern to enhance your performance and communication skills. You will already be familiar with some of them from the previous chapter. We shall look at some additional, related strategies in this chapter. We shall also look at how these quick and effective personal resource boosters can massively enhance the use of your voice and body during presentations. If you are one of the lucky few that do not experience nerves, do try these techniques anyway – they are foundation techniques for using your voice and body to maximum effect.
Posture, Impact and Confidence
Your posture shapes your visual impact, modulates your voice and has a profound influence on how you think and feel.
How to ‘wear your head’ skilfully
People ‘read’ other people through eye contact and through scanning their facial expression. The relationship between head, neck and shoulders powerfully frames the facial expression – for better or worse. The easier and more expanded your head, neck and shoulder relationship is the more positive will be the impression you impart to others. It will also allow you to ‘keep your head’ and behave with greater calmness and assurance.
How to keep your head
The critical moment of starting to speak brings into play many inappropriate habits associated with the fight/flight reflex. The most common vocal habits are associated with audibly sucking or sniffing in a breath before speaking. This sucking or sniffing action is associated with a tightening and narrowing of the airways.
This causes a dramatic increase in the contraction of muscle groups that have nothing directly to do breathing – the neck and throat muscles, shoulders, upper arms, upper chest and back – which leads to a visible displacement of head balance at the moment of breathing in. A more general awareness of balancing the head easily and efficiently on top of your spine in the non-demanding moments of day-to-day life will help you to keep your head during the more pressurised times. Because the head is so close to the voice box and the mouth, a better balance of your head and alignment of your spine will positively affect the way that you speak.
Practical Exercise – Breathing
Listen for any audible sucking or sniffing that you make while inhaling during normal speech. This habit will almost certainly be more exaggerated when you speak publicly.
Centre yourself and recite Sonnet 18 (Page 34) or another poem. Allow your breath to return as smoothly, easily and quietly as possible between phrases. As an experiment try closing your lips between phrases – allowing the breath to return quietly and smoothly between phrases. Closing your lips between phrases is unrealistic for live presentation but extremely useful as an exercise.
The Weight of your Head
Consider that an average adult human head is about 10% of the total bodyweight – say 12 to 15 lbs. That’s the equivalent of between two and three 5lb bags of potatoes balancing on top of your spine.
When I taught at the Arts Educational Drama School we had a lecture from a medical voice specialist. He told us that they were seeing an increasing number of patients with the combined symptoms of inflammation and hoarseness – symptoms more normally associated with heavy voice users such as teachers and actors. The difference was that these patients hardly spoke at all during their working day. Who were they? Computer operators with badly set up workstations. This was in the early 1990’s.
Nowadays, we are all familiar with the sight of people peering into their laptop screen. The head, a tenth of the body weight, is pulling forward and downwards exerting pressure on the throat and compressing the ribcage.
It was clear that changing the workstation and the working posture was going to be an essential component of the voice therapy.
Rocking stones or Logan rocks are found throughout the world. Some of these large stones weigh more than 90 tonnes. They are so delicately balanced that the least touch causes them to gently rock. They are a fascinating natural phenomena.
Natural head balance is no less of a fascinating natural phenomenon.
Atlas Supports the Occiput
Your head balances on two tiny bony surfaces called the occipital condyles. Each condyle is roughly the size of your little fingernail and they are situated fairly centrally on the baseplate of your skull.
The top vertebra of your spine is called the Atlas, after the classical Greek God who was said to support the globe of the planet Earth. The globe of your skull, via the occipital condyles, balances delicately on the very pinnacle of the Atlas vertebra.
Because the skull is so beautifully balanced it doesn’t require bulky muscle to either balance or to move. Your head is balanced and moved by groupings of slim muscles that work together to keep your head poised on top of your spine with a minimum of effort.
Trace around the base of your skull until your fingers come to the soft, hollow-ish area just behind your jaw joint. Point your fingers, through your neck, towards each other. About 2.5 cm before your fingers would meet (if they could) is the approximate location of the atlanto-occipital joint, the place where the top of your spine joins the base of your skull.
The spine is longer and substantially thicker than most people realize. Its weight-bearing parts are located deep in the core of the torso. Understanding this fact significantly contributes to an enhanced sense of inner support. The lumbar section of the spine occupies at least a quarter of the depth of the body. The spine occupies at least a quarter of the depth of the ribcage and up to half the depth of the neck. By the time you add spinal muscles to the picture, the spine looks even more substantial, The spine is like a supremely well-jointed and muscular ‘fifth limb’, that stretches up from the tail-bone to support and balance the globe of the head within space.
The ‘Through Line’
American artist Todd Kline balances rocks on top of each other. His highest sculpture has been 17 rocks high. The resulting sculptures are often improbably asymmetrical. And yet they stay upright and balanced in winds of 15 miles an hour. Kline attributes this ability to create balance to perceiving the “Through Line” that runs straight through every object.
The top-heavy human body is also a masterpiece of the improbable art of balancing. With more than 200 bones and 600 muscles piled on top of a small foundation, we too manage to stay upright not only in high winds but also on very uneven and unstable surfaces.
To put this in a practical context, think of a puppet string attached to the top of your head that initiates the release of the neck muscles and the easy balancing of the head on top of a lengthening spine. If the puppet string is placed too far forward, your head tips back. Place the string too far back and the head tips forwards. If the puppet string is placed directly above the area where the spine joins the skull, the head will tend to come into an easy, level balance on top of the spine, which will encourage the spine to lengthen.
Practical Exercise – Your Puppet String/Through Line
With both hands, trace up from your atlanto-occipital area, directly past the ear-holes, until your fingers meet at the top of your head.
Tap gently on this spot for a minute. Now bring your hands down to rest at your sides. You will probably still feel the sensation of the tapping for a few moments. This area, directly above the top of your spine, is where your imaginary puppet string attaches.
With the help of the imaginary puppet string, guide yourself into a state that is more balanced around your line of gravity (See Chapter 3 page 45). Do not make any muscular effort to change the way you are standing – let the puppet string do it for you.
It is useful to do this exercise with the help of a friend, or a mirror, as you might try at first to tilt your head forwards or to the side to meet your hand.
Keeping it Simple – Centre, centre, centre
Research from the University of Western Australia (Gucciardi and Dimmock) suggests that golfers who focus on holistic single word cues perform better under competition pressure than those who focus on the more complex instructions associated with a typical golf lesson. We can apply the same thinking to preparing for a presentation. Try saying the following phrases out loud:
I’m nicely centred
I’m beautifully grounded
My head is exquisitely poised on top of my spine
My shoulders are wide and open
My vision is wide and receptive.
Now condense the instructions:
My head is poised
My shoulders and vision are wide.
Condense the instructions still further:
And still further:
Centre… centre… centre.
EMOTION, BREATHING AND YOUR VOICE
In the early 1940s, the surgeon William Faulkner carried out an experiment in which he measured his patients’ physical responses to both stressful and pleasant thoughts. When his patients thought of something unpleasant, he noticed that the movement of their diaphragm became restricted, shallow and irregular. These breathing changes were accompanied by a corresponding tightening of the throat and negative changes in the characteristic of the patient’s speaking voice. Conversely, when his patients thought of something pleasant, the movement of their diaphragm became expansive and regular and the levels of tension in the throat were reduced. All of this was accompanied by positive changes in the characteristics of their voices.
In the following exercise you can compare the effects that stressful and pleasant thoughts have on you and your voice. You will be recalling and reliving an example of each emotional state in turn. So please do make sure that the unpleasant one is quite mild. The pleasant one can be very pleasant indeed!
For more information and practical procedures about breathing, please see Chapter 13, ‘A Word About Breathing’.
ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE HISTORY & BACKGROUND
‘Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.’
‘It has helped me to undo knots, unblock energy and deal with almost paralysing stage fright’
William Hurt, actor from STAT website
‘I find the Alexander Technique very helpful in my work. Things happen without you trying. They get to be light and relaxed. You must get an Alexander teacher to show it to you.’
What is the Alexander Technique?
Thirty years ago, when I qualified as an Alexander Technique teacher, there was nothing I hated more than being at a social event and someone asking me “What is the Alexander Technique?”
I’d launch into something like this:
“The Alexander Technique teacher uses their hands to lengthen your spine; they coax you into moving lightly and easily; this induces a sense of calm and well being; the teacher accompanies these wonderful experiences with careful verbal directions!”
The hapless questioner would look longingly across the room for more mainstream company…
It’s easier now. Many more people have heard about the Alexander Technique, specifically in relation to back pain and posture, since it was recognised by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE).
Nowadays, when someone asks “What is the Alexander Technique?” I’m much more likely to respond with something basic like “People find it really useful for dealing with bad backs, stiff necks and assorted stresses and strains.” or “Actors and singers find that it frees their voice and reduces stage fright.”
Mostly this just leads on to general conversation like “Have you worked with anyone famous?” At which point I look knowing and smug and reply “Oh I couldn’t possibly say. Confidentiality and all that!”
If the questioner is genuinely curious and asks “OK but how, exactly, does it help back backs; free the voice; reduce stress?” I will then probably give them a potted history of F.M. Alexander and his discoveries.
The Alexander Story
Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869 – 1955) was an actor who suffered from career threatening vocal and breathing difficulties. He specialised in a one-man show, in large provincial theatres, requiring a spirited and powerful delivery. A popular actor, Alexander could be on stage six evenings per week plus several matinees. This took its toll in the form of hoarseness, an audible rasping inhalation between phrases and an inflammation of his throat. The whole symptom picture was known as ‘clergyman’s sore throat’.
Medical interventions were largely fruitless, so Alexander pursued his own approach. He concluded that his symptoms were less to do with over-use and more a case of misuse. Alexander embarked on a painstaking period of self observation stretching out over several years. To aid his self-study Alexander set up a three-way system of mirrors in which could observe himself while reciting.
As a result of this self observation Alexander realised that he was, unconsciously, throwing a spanner in his own works. Through observation and reasoning he stopped sabotaging his own efforts and consequently freed up the functioning of his voice, breathing and general well-being. I will describe this in fuller detail in the following section.
Alexander was able to return to the stage. Soon after this he was inundated with actors and singers wanting lessons in his method. Alexander found it difficult to pass on his insights verbally. He developed a method of gentle manual guidance and verbal coaching and gave his pupils an experience of using their voice in an easier, more efficient and poised way.
It became clear to Alexander that his approach could have a beneficial effect not just on the voice but on all-round functioning and well being.
Into the Looking Glass
“Breathing, standing, walking and sitting, although innate, along with our growth, are apt, as movements, to suffer from defects in our ways of doing them… The faults tend to escape our direct observation and recognition… To watch another performer trying the movement can be helpful; or a looking-glass in which to watch ourselves trying it. The mirror can often tell us more than the most painstaking attempt to introspect” Sir Charles Sherrington – Nobel Prize for medicine
As he gazed into his mirrors Alexander noticed nothing unusual in his manner of reciting – in the first instance. Gradually he became aware of a tendency to stiffen his neck, pull his head back and compress his larynx when he anticipated reciting a difficult passage. This pattern was associated with effortful inhalation. If the initial contraction was strong enough it could affect the whole balance of his system from head to toe.
From these initial observations Alexander brought about a complete change in his way of breathing, using his voice and in his general day to day functioning. It wasn’t all plain sailing – there were several blind alleys.
The method he settled on revolved around three main principles:
Alexander noticed that pulling his head back and down was linked with his voice problems. So he tried physically moving the position of his head – putting it ‘forwards and upwards’ via direct muscular effort. This didn’t help. The mirrors showed that instead of putting his head forwards and upwards he was either pulling it back and down, as before, or that he was pulling his head forwards and downwards – a different kind of badly.
Back & down Forward & down
It became clear that there was a gulf between what he felt he was doing and what the mirrors reflected back to him. To use Alexander’s terminology – his ‘sensory appreciation’ was unreliable.
Pre-school children, unconsciously, have this quality that Alexander teachers’ call ‘direction’. Easy, upright and poised in stillness and activity.
Forwards & upwards
As adults we can consciously develop ease and poise in our daily activities. It doesn’t come from exhortations to “Sit up straight!” or “Stand up straight!” and the increasing strain and, eventually, deeper slumping that this causes.
Alexander formulated a series of what he called his ‘directions’ which took care of the critical relationship between the neck, head and torso. Alexander repeated the directions silently to himself:
Neck to be free
Head to go forwards and upwards
Back to lengthen and widen.
He ‘projected’ these directions without trying to physically impose them and without even caring whether they took seed or not. Gradually his mirrors demonstrated that the directions were beginning to take seed and slowly grow spreading through his entire frame.
Alexander realised that his habits (neck stiffening, pulling his head back and down, shortening and narrowing his back) felt, if not exactly right, then at least so overwhelmingly familiar that he tended to revert to them at the critical moment of actually reciting. Change doesn’t always feel right. What we sense physically can be unreliable.
A little girl with an extremely twisted stance was brought to see Alexander. Alexander, using his expert touch, gently brought her into relative balance and symmetry. The result? She complained to her mother “The nasty man’s twisted me all up!”
We all need a little time and tolerance to get used to new, unfamiliar, but ultimately healthier conditions.
When Alexander eventually noticed his habit – neck stiffening, pulling his head back, shortening his spine and narrowing his back – he wasn’t surprised that it took him so long to observe them. They were small, subtle habits. Tiny tensions. Like water dripping onto granite, year after year, and gradually changing its shape, we don’t notice the build-up of misdirection through our system, until the pain or stress makes us take notice. And even then we only notice the effects, not the causes.
Alexander continually brought himself up to the point of reciting. Up to the point of almost stiffening his neck and pulling his head back. And then, so to speak, he would step back, be still and refresh his directions, “Neck… head… back.”
And so Alexander navigated himself into that little known area that lies between stimulus and response. He found that he was able to maintain a more poised use of himself whilst reciting. He recited without stiffening his neck, pulling his head back and down and without shortening and narrowing his back. The results were from hoarseness to vocal clarity, from audibly rasping his breath in to smooth, quiet, efficient breathing – minimum effort and maximum effect.
And so he returned to the stage, briefly, before embarking on a career of teaching what he called “The Work”. Until his death in 1955, he continually developed this method of gentle manual guidance and verbal coaching and gave his pupils a way to improve their functioning throughout the range of their day to day activities. “The Work” brought him to London in 1904 where he taught the top people from theatre and the arts. People from all walks of life (including politics, science, medicine, the aristocracy) were drawn to the work which made such a significant difference, mentally and physically, to their daily lives.
Alexander used observation and reasoning and through this gained a new experience of using himself in daily life. We tend to do it the other way round. We get an experience directly from the hands of an Alexander Technique teacher and understanding slowly follows.
So what does a contemporary Alexander Technique lesson actually look like and sound like?
It can be difficult to describe an activity that has such a large sensory component. Here are some photos, with comments, so you can at least get a fly on the wall perspective of what a typical Alexander Technique lesson might look like.
The upright work focuses on activities such as:
• using the arm and hands.
These activities work beautifully within the relatively small working space of most Alexander Technique teaching studios – they are also at the core of daily life for most people.
As a general rule, Alexander Technique teachers tend to work from the core of the body – neck, head and back – out towards the extremities, i.e. the arms and legs. They will also tend to divide the session into two phases – upright work and semi-supine with the pupil lying on a comfortably firm couch.
The upright work will usually consist of activities like standing, sitting, bending, walking and breathing.
The work in the semi-supine position reinforces the expansion throughout the core of the body – neck, head and back. It also allows an opportunity for exploring a more sensitive use of the arms and legs via passive, teacher guided movement.
“Allow your neck to be free”
“… so that your head can go forwards & upwards”
“…allowing your back to lengthen & widen”
“…allow your knees to go forwards and apart.”
In practice, most Alexander Technique teachers do not recite the directions parrot-fashion. The words and language tend to be naturalistic and tailored to fit the individual.
Arms & Legs – Although there are specific directions for the arms & legs often the teacher will ask the pupil to continue focussing on their neck, head and back relationship as they work with the arms and the legs.
The major muscles that move the limbs have their origins in the torso. So working with the neck, head back relationship automatically influences the movement of the arms and legs.
The converse is also true – working with the arms and legs will reinforce release and expansion through the neck, head and back.
I was fortunate to be trained as an Alexander Technique teacher by Paul Collins – Canadian marathon gold medallist, principal orchestral violinist, Director of Alexander Technique teacher training, veterans’ super-distance running world title holder.
Alexander teachers frequently abbreviate the term ‘Alexander Technique’ to ‘AT’. Paul Collins used to insist (slightly tongue in cheek) that ‘AT’ should more correctly be ‘Application Technique’. This was very much reflected in his approach to training teachers where we applied Alexander Technique to singing, running, playing an instrument, mind-mapping, etc.
Nowadays it is possible to attend a wide variety of courses that feature the ‘Application Technique’ – Alexander Technique is applied to swimming, running, singing, dancing, public speaking, acting, horse riding, playing musical instruments, martial arts etc.
For many years, I specialised in teaching Alexander applied to the Japanese martial art Aikido. The small female student in the pictures below is applying the principle of ‘minimum effort maximum effect’ (a principle common to both philosophies) to diffuse my 15 stone attack. I am using the same principles to land on the ground safely. After which I returned to my feet, dusted myself off, ready to deal with the next engagement!
And that, I believe, is the main reason why people keep coming back to the Alexander Technique – it is extremely calming and centring. It’s not just a great way of adjusting posture. It is a psycho-physical technique that encourages increasing resourcefulness, poise, resilience and cheerfulness in dealing with the events of daily life.
A WORD ABOUT BREATHING
‘“Yes, they are elves,” Legolas said. “and they say that you breathe so loud they could shoot you in the dark.” Sam hastily covered his mouth.’
TAKE A DEEP BREATH?
Singer and songwriter, Jo Maultby, is famous for being able to hold a note for more than forty seconds and at considerable volume! Audiences find this impressive. What makes it even more impressive is that Jo is a diminutive five foot in height and has a correspondingly small ribcage. Jo maintains that she can sing these long, loud notes even if she starts with a small amount of air in her lungs.
I also know a folk club singer who sings at operatic volume on one functioning lung. My sister sings and talks effectively with one and a half lungs. Volume of sound is not ultimately dependent on volume of air. Sometimes if you take too deep a breath the air will fly away that much quicker and leave you gasping for breath.
Still it has to be said that efficient and economical breathing can do much to enhance comfort, confidence and expressiveness. By using the postural, emotional and spatial landmarks we’ve explored in this book you will do much to enhance the efficiency of your breathing and of your speaking voice. How you use your spine in relation to breathing and voice is a critical factor.
In addition to the following chapter, take some time to review the material in Chapter 6 about head balance.
The postural tendency to contract, shortening and narrowing, the torso influences breathing significantly. The breathing mechanism is thus surrounded by converging forces which hem in and impinge on its natural rhythms of expansion and contraction.
The muscles that connect the top vertebra of the spine to the base of the skull shorten through over-contraction or collapse, and pull the head down onto the spine.
The resulting pressures travel down the spine and over-compress the discs (inter-vertebral cartilages) that lie between each vertebra.
Ribs and Cartilages
The ribs radiate out from the spine at the back, with the top ten pairs attaching either directly or indirectly to the breastbone in front. The bottom two pairs of ribs are known as the floating ribs because they have no connection to the breastbone in front. At the point of attachment into the spine, the head of the rib spans the level of the inter-vertebral disc, touching both the vertebrae above it and the vertebrae below.
When the head is pulled down onto the spine, it compresses the vertebrae, discs and the head of the rib where it joins the spine. All of these factors contribute to restricting the efficient movement of the ribs and the breathing mechanism as a whole.
When someone breathes heavily through emotion or physical effort, it is usually accompanied by alternating postural rigidity and slump – a heaving upwards of the breastbone (front of the chest) on inspiration (in-breath) and a downward slumping of the breastbone on the out-breath. The head will mirror this movement by bobbing up and down to a greater or lesser degree. This elevation and depression of the breastbone is frequently present in ‘normal’ breathing
Expansive directions and managing the out-breath
It’s helpful to think of maintaining a firm but unfixed position of the upper chest on the expiration – the out-breath. How can you help this to happen? This would be a good time to review the material in Chapter 4, starting with ‘Posture, Impact and confidence’ up to ‘Emotion, breathing and your voice’.
Rather than sagging or slumping on the out-breath it really helps, paradoxically, to expand both spatial and postural awareness on the out-breath…
• Think of your feet on the ground…
• your head poised and balancing on top of your spine…
• your shoulders and peripheral vision widening.
Think of these landmarks while simply observing your out-breath or whilst whispering, vocalising or singing an ‘ah’ sound. Allow the in-breath to return as silently as possible.
This approach encourages your spine to lengthen and will facilitate lateral breathing by allowing the ribs tend to naturally move in a ‘bucket handle action’. The ribs will move ‘medially’ – down and in towards the mid-line of the body during expiration, i.e. the out-breath. The ribs will move ‘laterally’ up and away from the spine during inspiration, i.e. the in-breath.
The bucket handle action of ribs during breathing –
Shaded ribcage representing the out-breath.
Un-shaded ribcage representing the in-breath.
Much is said about the diaphragm in vocal circles, yet my own informal surveys strongly suggest that more than 95% of professional voice users have a hazy or downright inaccurate idea of where it is located, its size and how it actually works. Perhaps this is not surprising – it’s difficult to find a really clear drawing of the diaphragm because its dome like shape is obscured by the ribcage to which it attaches. It’s an excellent idea to clarify where the diaphragm is actually located.
This illustration of a skeleton (with classical ruins and grazing Rhino!) by Albinus, 16th century professor of anatomy, represents one of the few clear and accurate pictures of the diaphragm available.
The diaphragm is a large dome-like muscle that divides the upper and lower torso. It attaches to the breastbone at the front, the cartilages of the ribs as they sweep down from the breastbone, the two lower ‘floating’ ribs and, finally, to the spine at the back.
The diaphragm is intimately linked with the psoas muscles. The psoas muscles span from the lower spine to the top of the thigh bones. They cross the pubis en route.
The dome of the diaphragm looks rather the body of a jelly fish. The psoas muscles look the tendrils of the jelly fish. How you plant your feet on the ground and how you use your legs has a direct effect on how you breathe.
Find, approximately, where the circumference of the diaphragm attaches to your ribs:
Use your fingers to trace from your breastbone down and out along the ‘costal arch’, the arch of your ribs, as they sweep back towards their connection with your spine.
The area shaded in bold is the costal arch
You may find that you are able to feel the two lowest floating ribs that attach to the spine but have no direct connection to the breastbone.
Finally, point from your navel to the corresponding area of your spine. This area of your spine is where the diaphragm anchors into your spine.
The action of the diaphragm cannot truly be considered independently of the action of the ribs. During the in-breath, the diaphragm drops lower, flatter and wider as the ribs simultaneously swing up and outwards. During the out-breath, the diaphragm rises higher, becoming more domed and narrower as the ribs drop down and in.
Practical exercise – Breathing in the semi-supine position
When you are in the semi-supine position observe how the contact and pressure of your lower back on the floor changes as you breath – increasing as you breath in and decreasing as you breath out.
Using your navel as a landmark you can slide your fingertips slightly under the corresponding part of your lower back to help you sense this. You may also notice your sides widening as you breathe in and narrowing as you breathe out.
Although the breathing movements may be quite low in your torso they can also be gentle and minimal – there is no need for particularly deep breathing when you are lying down quietly and peacefully.
Practical exercise – Breathing in the prone position
From the semi-supine position roll yourself gently over onto your front. Turn your head to one side, resting your cheek on the floor. Place the backs of your hands on the sides of your lower back. Feel your sides widening as you breathe in and narrowing as you breathe out. Be aware also of the rising of your lower back as you breathe in and falling as you breathe out.
Now transfer that awareness of breathing in the back and in the sides, to the upright positions of standing and sitting.
Place your hands gently along each side of your ribs. Radiate your attention through your postural, spatial and emotional landmarks. Simply be aware of the movement of your ribs, however large or small that might be. Place the backs of your hands on your lower back and feel the breathing movements there.
Try it in the sitting position – think of balancing delicately on the sitting bones as you do.
• Take care of the out-breath and the in-breath will take care of itself.
• Volume of air doesn’t equate to volume of sound or length of sound.
• Expand to breathe out.
• Breathe in quietly.
Note: You may be surprised to hear that a comprehensive moving model of the breathing system including diaphragm doesn’t yet exist. Jessica Wolf, Alexander teacher, has joined forces with animator Marty Havran to create the first three-dimensional animation that exhibits all the muscles, bones and organs of breathing. (See References)