When people find out that I am a singer, voice teacher, choral conductor, and Alexander Technique teacher, it sometimes isn’t immediately clear how all of it connects. Some musicians who have heard of Alexander Technique see plainly how the work can help instrumentalists avoid repetitive motion injuries and play without strain, but as players of “the invisible instrument,” it might be less obvious how singers benefit.
So how can the Alexander Technique help singers?
First, let’s be clear on three things:
- You – all of you, your muscles, bones, thoughts, emotions – are an indivisible unity that we might call the “Self.”
- Singers: your Self IS your instrument (yes, all of you – not just your larynx, mouth, and breath, but your legs, back, toes, shoulder blades AND your thoughts, expectations, and judgments.)
- The Alexander Technique is uniquely qualified to help you learn to mindfully coordinate your whole Self, unlearning harmful habits and finding ease and freedom in whatever activities you do.
So it follows: Anything that helps you use your whole Self better – both mind and body – will help you sing better, and will give you skills to care for your voice and your self in even the most challenging vocal situations.
What does this look like?
Here’s my story.
I’ve been singing since I was a young child, though I started first with piano as my primary instrument, beginning to focus on voice in high school. I sang fairly freely, getting roles in the school musical, scoring well at competitions, and getting into the college I wanted to attend as a voice performance and music education double-major. I had this nagging problem of jaw tension, but at that point in my career, it wasn’t holding me back.
In college I continued to do well. Between my junior and senior year, though, things began to shift. I reached a technical plateau in singing that my old, un-mindful coordination and tension couldn’t help me get past. Because I wasn’t singing as well as some of my peers, I chose to distinguish myself by singing “hard” music, and using a whole lot of strain to produce my sound. I loved intellectually challenging music (still do!) especially music written in the 20th century, and I had no patience for what I considered “simple” music. (Truth is, those “simple” pieces were too difficult for me to sing well and freely, so I avoided them whenever possible because they exposed my technical flaws.)
In spite of solid technical instruction from an experienced and creative teacher, I was making my own problems worse, not better, by efforting my way through singing. I overcame difficulties in all the other areas of my life by “working hard,” and my habit was to do the same with singing. My vocal production was tense, my sound was often heavy and inconsistent. No matter how adventurous and avant garde my programming was, or how unusual my audition pieces were, during my last year in college, I didn’t make the choir I had planned to sing in, and then I didn’t get into the graduate schools I had hoped to attend.
What to do?
I did end up getting my master of music in voice performance, but these experiences of failure showed me that there were a bunch of things I needed to change. A good bit of that change was in my thinking. I was finally ready to work on my technique and sing the “simple” music I’d avoided. (Spoiler: I really love a lot of this music now. It can be elegant and glorious.) I worked with another teacher who is an excellent vocal technician, and who also sympathized with my desire to sing challenging music, but still made sure I learned to sing well. For the first time in many years, I started to enjoy the act of singing all by itself.
But importantly, another piece started to fall into place: during my undergraduate career, I had been exposed to the Alexander Technique. I was fascinated that the same process that helped me learn to “float” up stairs without strain also helped me sing with more ease. I did some research into Alexander Technique and some other somatic modalities, like the Feldenkrais Method, and found that my learning style really matched the AT. I loved the idea that I could practice it anywhere, any time – while washing dishes, going for a walk, singing, or simply sitting and thinking. So I started taking private Alexander lessons, in conjunction with voice lessons.
Things started to shift.
A few years later, I began training to become a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique. My voice improved more over the three years of Alexander Technique teacher training (with no “voice” lessons) than it had in several years of vocal study in school. Why?
In addition to vocal and emotional maturation (I was 15 years older than when I started, after all), this is what I think: I learned how to use my whole Self well. I unlearned my reliance on the tension that had been the base of my technique since I was a teenager. When I learned balanced coordination in my whole Self, my breath was more powerful, my vocal tract was more free. I had a mental library full of the great technique that my undergrad and graduate school voice teachers had given me, and I FINALLY HAD THE COORDINATION TO USE IT. At the end of Alexander Technique teacher training, a fellow trainee (who was also a classical singer) and I did a vocal recital together. It was thrilling to get to use so many pieces of my life-work at one time! I sang well, and enjoyed myself, not getting so bogged down in the struggle. I sang music that was melodically simple and music that was quite complex, but I had learned how to navigate each challenge by coordinating the use of my whole self.
Side-by-side comparison: It’s subtle, but you can see the change from my junior year of college (left, in the purple gown) to about half-way through my Alexander Technique teacher training seven years later (right, in the black). I’ve always had what appears from the outside to be “good posture,” but the balance in my head-neck-back is more held and compressed “down” in the picture on the left, and more freely “up” in the picture on the right.
While it’s a visually subtle difference, it was a monumental change in my ability to sing freely, using my breath efficiently and powerfully, allowing the whole vocal tract to ring without effort.
Does this story sound familiar? Every singer has a different path, and every road has bumps. But the Alexander Technique, rather than trying to fix a specific bump, gives you the skills to navigate over and around the bumps, or even stop and decide to take a side road.
When your Self – your instrument – is in tune, you’ll be on the road to realizing your potential, and making the freest, most enjoyable, and most artistically gratifying music you can make.