Sound Direction Blog

New Student Special & Referral Bonus

Would someone you know like to try out the Alexander Technique?
I’m offering a new student special for spring!
Three 50 minute lessons for $180 (a 25% savings).

And for you? A REFERRAL BONUS! If you are a current or previous student of my studio, when you refer someone to take a lesson with me, ask them to mention your name when they schedule their first lesson and you will get a credit good for 25% off your next lesson. Win-win!

Spring in your step

 

Stop. Think.

IMG_3455A 2011 article in The Onion (a “farcical newspaper”) posits that “all American problems—from stuck jacket zippers to the national debt—could be solved if citizens just stopped, took a deep breath, and thought for two seconds before they acted.”

In The Onion, it’s a joke, but it hits close to home. Can you think of the last time you (or someone else) could have used an extra pause before acting?

When we react to stressful situations by rushing forward into them, we take all of our tension with us. We literally have less room to think. Alarm causes a physical response, usually beginning with the ‘startle pattern.’ We’ve all seen it: in response to a loud noise, for example, the neck contracts, pulling the head down, the shoulders jerk up and inward, and if significantly startled, we might find our legs and arms tensed and hands raised defensively. We can be startled by news, by a loud sound, by an onslaught of emails, or by another driver weaving into our lane, but the same response may take place.

The startle response is biological, and a precursor to Fight-Flight-Freeze: the effect of the Sympathetic Nervous System getting us ready for intense action, say, fighting a bear we’ve just stumbled into, or running away from it, or playing “dead” and hoping the bear ignores us. If you’re confronted by a bear, this is a useful response! If you’re confronted by a difficult social situation or antagonism at work, it’s not.

Add that to the amount of stimulus most of us take in every day (email, social media, news, not to mention the regular happenings of our lives) and the rapid-response culture we inhabit, it starts to make sense that many people seem to be locked into a constant state of startle and fear. (Notice how we even call high-stakes situations “pressing”?)

Choices made out of fear don’t tend to have positive results.

The good news: changing your response is as simple as stopping.

The next time you’re confronted with something startling or fear-inducing, STOP.IMG_3456

As you continue to pause, notice what’s happening in your head/neck/torso. Is your head pulled down?

If yes, STOP AGAIN. Don’t try to “fix” it by pushing the head up. Instead, become aware of the muscles deep at the back of your head, where the skull connects to the spine. Release them. Take notice of the SPACE around you: above, behind, below, in front, to each side. Allow your whole self to release into that space, from head to feet.

Once you’ve released out of the startle pattern, you can choose how to respond to whatever stimulus is in front of you.

Getting out of the cycle of rapid-response, fight/flight/freeze decision making is really as simple as stopping to think. Next time you’re faced with a potentially “pressing” choice, try pausing, noticing, and thinking your way to release of tension. I would love to hear what you notice!

The Simple Pleasure of Mindful Movement

Moving furniture with mindfulness

Last week, I was cleaning the mats that my students at IU use for Constructive Rest. It could have been a chore (12 mats, two sides, lots of squirting the cleaner and wiping). I had just been presenting on some of the core principles of the Alexander Technique, including the idea of process-oriented (as opposed to goal-oriented) action, and of releasing into length (as opposed to “stretching”). Each moment of movement – releasing to fold to a kneeling squat, then lengthening through my arm and back as I made each wipe of the mat – became a moving meditation. It was simply enjoyable just to be moving freely, sensing my own dynamic poise in action.

Mat cleaning is not glamorous, and in itself, perhaps not something one would consider “fun.” But quiet attention to activity allows us peace and presence, not to mention relief from tension and strain. What do you do each day that might offer you a few moments of simple movement pleasure? Folding to reach milk from the refrigerator for your tea, or to retrieve the carrots from the crisper? Opening the curtains to the morning sun or closing them at dark? Washing a plate or bowl?

The first step is to “say no” to rushing onward to the next thing. Draw your attention to the process. I can say from experience that it doesn’t actually take any longer, but you will have more time if you’re not telling yourself you have to rush.

Then allow yourself to release into movement. This might mean letting your feet meet the floor, if you’ve been holding yourself “ready to go” to the next activity. It might mean releasing strain from your neck, back, and shoulders before you begin to move. For example, in the action of folding to clean the mats, I might observe myself in the following ways:

  • Allow my whole foot to meet the floor, including my heels.
  • Allow my neck to be free, to allow my head to lead me in movement as my back releases into length and width.
  • Fold from my hip joints and at my knees, sustaining the buoyant integrity of the torso as I lower in space.
  • Lower one knee to the floor, continuing to allow the back to lengthen and widen.
  • As I hold the cleaning cloth on the mat, release my hand and fingers away from the back, allowing the whole arm to coordinate in movement as I lengthen through the shoulder and ribs.
  • Allow the spine to be gently flexible as I draw my hand toward me in the down-stroke of cleaning.
  • Notice how my breath flows easily as I move.

When I was finished cleaning the mats, I was more present, calmer, and happier. As an added bonus, the mats were clean, and I felt free in my body, with no residual tension from over-working. And it only took a few minutes: I didn’t move slowly, but I did move presently.

If you added a few spaces of moving meditation to your day, how much more would you enjoy your self? What benefits would you discover?

 

 

 

Space Clearing with the Alexander Technique

BoxesI moved earlier this year, and there is one room in my home that had accumulated all the “extra” boxes of things that I wasn’t quite sure what to do with. Today, I decided to start tackling that mess of boxes. It was hard to walk through that room, hard to get to the closet, hard to put things away…you know. It was amazing to me how one hour of sorting, putting a few things away, emptying boxes to send to recycling, and moving some furniture around gave that room a whole new energy.

There are disciplines that teach us about the arrangement of spaces (Feng Shui, for one) or about how to clear out unnecessary things and re-organize your physical environment (KonMari being a recent popular example). Now, anyone who has ever lived with me or even visited knows that I am NOT a particularly organized person when it comes to my ‘stuff.’

But it IS important how I am organized within my Self.

The Alexander Technique is a process of neuro-muscular space-clearing. We practice awareness, so that we can identify places of “clutter:” physical tension, mental tension, collapse, holding, unnecessary stress and strain. We take a moment to pause, with attention that allows us to undo and release the clutter…like putting that empty box out in the recycling. Then, we learn direction, a way of organizing our neuro-muscular system and our thinking in any activity…perhaps like moving items of furniture in ways that allow energy to flow freely in a space.

The metaphor does break down. Rooms are mostly static, with furniture that we don’t move often and less dramatic regular cleaning necessary to keep the space clear. We humans are living, breathing, changing beings, not a room of furniture to be arranged and maintained. But the process of awareness, attentive pause, release, and direction gives us tools to continuously and consciously reorganize our Selves for an optimal flow of energy, allowing us to live with ease and meet the challenges that come our way with freedom and poise.

If an hour of space clearing can make such a difference in a room, what benefits would you notice from an hour of Alexander Technique for your Self?

 

Recalibrate and Restore

I got a flat tire on my car earlier this year. I had driven over a screw in the road going past a construction site, but I didn’t notice until a sensor light in my car told me the tire pressure was low. I parked, checked the tire pressure, but couldn’t find the problem. I even put a little air in the one that seemed low, but the light stayed on. tpmsIt was a new car to me, and I was unfamiliar with the tire pressure alert system. I then learned that after refilling the tires, I had to hold down a certain button for a certain length of time to recalibrate the tire pressure system; otherwise, it would sense that something was still amiss. I did this, and at first all seemed well, but then the light came back on…and I tried again, and the tire got lower, but I was busy, so I kept refilling it but didn’t take the time to do anything more permanent about it… until the tire was so flat that it had to be replaced. I’d been driving on a flattening tire for most of a week, damaging the inner tube material and the tire itself…all because of a measly puncture AND my lack of response to the tire pressure warning light. I’d gotten used to it, had decided it’s just the way things would be for a few days – I was SO BUSY, remember? I’d ignored my car’s request for recalibration, and I ended up replacing a 6-month old tire.

When we study and practice the Alexander Technique, we are learning to recalibrate our own neuro-muscular system. We’ve gone for days, weeks, years, perhaps, with slowly flattening spinal discs, or compression in the joints, or tension that causes pain and strain. Headaches, jaw tension, and even flustered thinking are also signs of a system out of balance. At first our bodies give us warning signals, but often we are too busy and preoccupied to do much about them. Our sensors (neuro-muscular sensory system) get used to this state of affairs and start to malfunction, no longer telling us that we aren’t in optimal working order. Pretty soon, we may have chronic pain or repetitive motion injuries, and we take it for granted that “it’s just how life is.”

Let me tell you: it’s not!

Since we are not replaceable in the same way the parts of a car can be interchanged, it is vitally important that we learn this recalibration of our own systems, to stop the injury before it starts, and to get our lives moving toward poise and freedom. The first step to pushing the reset button?

Just Stop.

Pause.

Let some breath out.

If you can, find a place to lie down for 5 minutes in semi-supine, and practice some constructive rest.

Doing this repeatedly will begin your journey to recalibration! You’ll recognize your stress, strain, and pain more easily. But to unlearn the habitual tension that’s holding you back, stop in for an Alexander Technique lesson. When you’ve returned to optimal functioning order – the way we all start as children! – you’ll feel so much better, you’ll have more choices, and you’ll be in a place of freedom to enjoy life more.

Curious how it works? Please contact me for a lesson! Mention the code RECALIBRATE and receive $5 off your first lesson.

Free Your Neck: First Aid for Stressful Situations

Everybody has something that “pushes their buttons.” When your “buttons” get pushed, what happens? You feel frustrated, maybe angry. I sometimes feel caught up in a whirlwind, a little out of control. That’s when my training kicks in. See, we don’t have just an emotional reaction. We respond with our whole selves, and I learned early in my Alexander Technique journey that there was a “physical” reaction right along with whatever I was thinking and feeling. F.M. Alexander called this “psycho-physical,” because the self really can’t be easily divided into two parts – we are unified, work in unison, and our psycho-physical selves can be mis-used in unison, too.

Many people acknowledge that the Alexander Technique helps to lower stress. As your overall coordination improves, and your level of background tension decreases, you may notice a decrease in stress. But can the Alexander Technique help in intensely stressful situations?

There’s a story I often tell in my workshops about an experience I had not long after I began taking Alexander lessons. I was in grad school in Ithaca,  NY, where (in the grand scheme of things) there really isn’t a lot of traffic. But when there is…it can be intense. Like some other eastern US cities, Ithaca’s downtown is a web of one-way streets, and because of the hills surrounding downtown, there was only a narrow neck to get from my home up to campus. And I was LATE. I started feeling really frustrated, angry at the situation, at the traffic lights working against me, at the other cars and drivers taking up the road, and I noticed something key – I was tensing through my whole neck, shoulders, and back, and pulling down, contracting through my spine. It didn’t feel nice at all. Since I was stuck at a red light, with no where to go, I tried an experiment: what would happen if I freed my neck? I did… and my rage simply evaporated. I was suddenly free to choose how to respond, and I realized that creating more tension in my body and feeling angry about something over which I had no control just didn’t make sense. I was still late, but I was now much more poised in the midst of my lateness, and would be more ready to meet whatever challenges lay ahead.

This experience isn’t isolated. I’ve used my Alexander Technique skills myriad times over the past ten years to come back to center in a whirlwind of frustration, and it never involved me telling myself to “calm down.” There are times when anger or frustration is justified, of course, but we don’t have to be pulled into a spiral of tension and collapse. We have “fight or flight” responses to many stressors in our modern lives that don’t require actual fighting or actual fleeing. I may be angry over a situation, or afraid – but I don’t actually have to defend myself against, say, a bear, so I can release all of that unnecessary muscular tension that was preparing me to wrestle the bear when I’m only faced with a person… or a computer screen!

So here’s an experiment for you: Next time something pushes your buttons, take a moment to become aware of your whole self. Don’t “try to relax,” just notice. Are you contracting or holding your neck? Raising your shoulders? Tensing your arms or legs? Then:

  • Release whatever breath you have in your lungs, then allow some air to return. Maybe you were holding your breath, too! If you have learned how to do a “whispered Ah,” this would be a great time to do one!
  • Give yourself some Directions: Allow my neck to be free, so that my head can balance forward and up, my back to lengthen and widen, my knees to go forward and away. Arms releasing from the torso, legs extending from the back.

Repeat as necessary, noticing your “state of mind” in the process. Is your frustration still as intense?

It may be, and you can move on to other tactics to work with your emotions (and about which I am unqualified to give advice. I’m not a mental health professional.) For me, physical activity is key when dealing with a “big” emotion, but I always try to sustain awareness of my whole self in the process.

I’d love to hear from you if you try this experiment. Drop me a line or give me a call. If you tried it and it didn’t work as well as you hoped, please know that the skills involved are learned over time, and that type of learning is what lessons in the Alexander Technique are all about. You can find a teacher near you at www.amsatonline.org/teachers.

Hands On, Online

Calling all actors!

The Balance Arts Center in New York is offering an online/live class, “Freedom for Actors,” this spring. Check out the details at http://www.acting-alexander.com/online-classes/ I will be participating as a local resource teacher for private lessons – you receive a 30% discount coupon as part of your registration for the course.

This course is focused for actors, teachers of acting, and coaches. Here’s why it’s going to be great:

  • It allows actors to be introduced to the Alexander Technique in the context of movement, voice, acting, and performing
  • It allows actors to deepen their study of the Alexander Technique and how it directly relates to their craft
  • It gives coaches, movement and voice teachers information to add to their toolbox when working with actors
  • While the course is online, in-person contact with an Alexander Technique teacher is vital, and I’ll be providing that on the ground here in central Indiana.

Please be in touch to book your lesson. I look forward to working with you!

Space for Change

The turnings of the year are times that I relish for reflection. Some people make resolutions, some don’t, but I have a few words to toss into the fray about how we approach our intentions to change…

“I Resolve.” To me, this wording has a head-strong feeling about it. To make a change by will-power alone. And it’s true: our wills are immensely powerful. But there is a place where our habits meet our will-power and it can start to look like tug-of-war between two evenly matched teams… or maybe our habits have been practicing longer and are just that teeny bit stronger. So we leave the sink full of dishes, or don’t exercise, or we do whatever it is that we’ve resolved to change.

I love this quote from Viktor Frankl (1905-1997): “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” It is when we give ourselves space – physical, mental, spiritual space – that we have power. Space for Change - The Alexander TechniqueThe power comes not from striving and straining toward the goal. The power comes not from pushing and denigrating ourselves when we fail. This type of stress just doesn’t help! The power comes from pausing, making space and taking time where we thought there wasn’t any, freeing up our selves to release our power into the decisions we make.

For me, the Alexander Technique has been an invaluable tool in this process of releasing into change. I have found, personally and professionally, that the possibility afforded by allowing the process (rather than striving toward the goal) is much richer than the goal I had in mind to begin with! I can open to these possibilities as they unfold, and then make conscious choices about how to proceed.

There is so much ahead of all of us in the new year! I will be here, doing my best to release with mindful and joyful energy into the possibilities around me. Stay tuned! I have a newsletter – you can sign up right over there in the side-bar – and a facebook page you can follow if you’d like to be notified when something new happens. I anticipate an article series on Alexander Technique and the Choral Musician as I look forward to some great opportunities in store throughout the year.

Happy New Year, friends! I look forward to seeing what will be possible for you, too!

(This article was originally titled ‘On Resolutions, Habits, Change, and Possibility,’ and was posted on January 1, 2015).

The Layer Cake of Singing, or Training the Whole Singer

I had the great privilege this past week to teach a workshop at the Sister Singers Network Festival in Urbana, Illinois, hosted by Amasong. It was amazing to connect with so many incredible women, and sing, talk about singing, talk about music, listen to music… a wonderful time. My workshop was titled Training the Vocal Athlete, and focused on using the warm-up period of a choral rehearsal as a space to strengthen the body, voice, mind, and music. It ended up as a crash course in voice education, with a few specific examples of vocal exercises and how to teach them most effectively. As I prepared for the workshop, I looked through notes and rehearsal plans from the past several years, and returned to an organizing theme that I first used when I was a graduate student, teaching class voice:

The Layer Cake of Singing

The five layers are (from foundation to top):

1. Supportive and energized body

2. Efficient, and actively released breath

3. Active resonance and conscious vowels

4. Free articulators and streamlined diction

5. Thoughtful registration

The Layer Cake of Singing: You have to imagine the candles and frosting roses on your own...

When you cut a slice of a layer cake, you usually cut down through the whole cake, getting a wedge that includes all the layers and frosting. But when you construct the cake, you have to build each layer individually, connecting them with frosting, to create a whole. It’s the same with singing. When you sing a song,  you are using all of your self: your body – the way you stand and move, the way you breathe, and the interior and exterior shapes you make with your mouth; and your mind – thinking and attention in the moment, engagement with the text, rhythmic and melodic phrasing, active listening. With the caveat that I don’t like to talk about the mind and body as separate (we embody our knowledge and ‘think’ with our bodies), I represented the ‘thought’ components in the diagram with the frosting (green). You have to imagine the candles and frosting roses yourself.

Without the base layer of a supportive body, free from harmful tension but full of energy and poise, the cake would fall down. The breath cannot be fully used unless the singer is balanced and generally using her whole self well. Breath “support” is a supportive, thinking body. Likewise, the vowels and freedom of articulators depend on the free flow of this supporting, buoyant breath. Each layer relies on the one beneath it, and on the thought and attention that makes it all work together.

Building the layers of the cake as part of an ensemble warm-up period can always support the work of the chorus, especially when exercises promoting ensemble unison and improvement of listening skills are included in the mix. I tend to find that as each singer discovers individual vocal freedom and dexterity, the chorus is able to be more responsive as a whole, and ensemble unity improves. Each singer enjoys singing more, and can contribute her own voice more freely to the choral sound.

One thing I really enjoy as a voice educator is working with choruses to give them to tools to grow their sound and their enjoyment of singing. Whether that’s through an introduction to the Alexander Technique, or in a Sound Direction workshop that focuses on the intersection of Alexander principles with vocal training, I strive to address the unique needs of each group of singers to support each singer and the work of the conductor. For more information, please contact me. I would love to discuss what a Sound Direction Workshop might look like for your ensemble!

Contra Dance and the Alexander Technique

An American folk dance form beloved around the US and the world, contra dancing is enjoyed by people of all ages and from all walks of life. If you’re familiar with contra but don’t know much about the Alexander Technique, please feel free to peruse the pages here at Sound Direction: Alexander Technique – Skills for Life, Is the Alexander Technique for You?, and Lessons in the Alexander Technique.

Some people contra dance because it can be good exercise: you’re taking about 2 steps a second for the length of each dance, generally working up a healthy sweat. It’s also good for your brain: learning dance sequences (do-si-do, swing your partner, circle left, allemande right, etc.) and responding to the caller’s instructions keeps you mentally alert. Contra dancing really allows a person to use his or her whole self, thinking and moving in harmony. Most people, though, would probably say that they enjoy contra because it’s fun: you’re moving to lively music, engaging in friendly social interactions through dancing. (Here’s a great article about Indianapolis’ contra dance community at Sky Blue Window).

So, why would contra dancers use the Alexander Technique?

Three main reasons:

  • preventing dance-related pain

  • being able to dance longer

  • enjoying the dance more!

When I began contra dancing, I usually ended the evening with a sore neck and pain in my knees. I enjoyed dancing less because I was in pain. Learning balanced coordination and centered movement is key to dancing with more ease, especially when dancing with a partner. All that swinging and spinning? I was collapsing, fixing my neck against the centrifugal force of a swing, allowing my spine to be compressed as I moved. What about a dance I’ve never danced before, with complicated sequences and a fast pace, where I’m barely hanging on? Startle pattern, or fear reflex, causes the shoulders to hunch, head to pull back and down, increasing strain and tension in every move I made.

There’s also the issue of fatigue. The average contra dance is 10 minutes long, and an evening of dancing is about 3 hours. If you fatigue quickly, you increase the tension in your muscles as you try to fight the fatigue, getting tired even more quickly. If you move with more ease and less strain, not only will you avoid pain, but you can dance longer!

Another issue particular to dancing with partners is ‘giving weight,’ or the physical connection with your dance partner. In contra, you have a single partner for each dance, but you may be dancing with numerous neighbors. When you have balanced and centered poise, you can more easily connect with a dance partner, and retain your poise without being pulled ‘askew’ as you dance with different people up and down the set.

Photo: Trish Finn

Photo: Trish Finn

This picture shows a contra dancer in a spin, probably coming out of a swing. Notice that her head is balanced gracefully on top of the spine, and her back is lengthening and widening, allowing the spine to support all her movements, and freeing the muscles of her arms and legs for the next action. Looks like fun!

How can you apply principles of the Alexander Technique in your dancing?

1. Stop and Tune In. Take an opportunity to become aware of your body before you dance, and throughout the dance. Notice if you are holding tension and/or collapsing. Are you breathing freely?

2. Direct your movement. Think of not only what move comes next (do I walk forward? join hands?) but how to move with freedom (how can I lengthen as I walk? How can I join hands with ease instead of grasping?) Allow the neck to be free, so that the head can balance forward and up, allowing your whole torso to lengthen and widen. Allow your feet to make full contact with the floor, but don’t pound them down with every step. Allow your arms to extend from back to fingertip without losing the integrity of your spine.

3. Work less hard. As you tune in to your movement, notice where you could use less effort. Take some opportunities to do a ‘lie-down’ or constructive rest in a semi-supine position. Lie on your back, with your feet resting on the floor, knees up, and your head resting on a paperback book. This allows the head to go ‘forward and up’ while your back rests, lengthening and widening in contact with the floor. Notice points of contact in your pelvis, shoulders, and feet. Notice your breath. When you go back to dancing, take this sense of ease with you.

Using the Alexander Technique can allow to you dance with more ease, more focus, more spontaneity, and ultimately, more joy!

 

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