The other day, as I was working with a new Alexander Technique student, I encountered (again) a fairly common habit that many musicians have that usually leads to trouble. Allow me to share.
My student is a singer who came to see me because of problems she’s been having with vocal strain and intonation. As she told me: “I seem to start out okay (actually, she sounds very good), but after about 5 to 10 minutes of singing my voice becomes strident, kind of thin, and my intonation gets difficult to control.” She sang for me for a few minutes and confirmed her own assessment.
It wasn’t hard for me to see how she was creating these problems for herself. As she’d start singing I’d see her stiffening her neck as she thrusted her face upward and forward. This pattern of tension manifested itself through her entire body: shoulders pulled back, lower back arched, knees locked, unyielding ankles and feet.
So I began to work with her with my hands to help her find an easier state of balance as she was standing (without singing). She was very responsive to the directions I was giving, and was really beginning to release much of her habitual tension: freer neck, widening shoulders and back, neutral pelvis, softening knees, flexible ankles. She said she felt like “a whole new person”. All good stuff.
In Alexander slang, I’d say she went from doing too much, to a nice state of non-doing (leaving herself alone, to allow for a natural, virtually effortless balance).
I explained to her that this state of non-doing was a very good place from which to start singing. It was like starting with a blank canvas, and could help her see how much tension she was creating when she sang. So I asked her to sing.
She went immediately from a calm, pliable, free state, to one of immense tension (same pattern as before: head thrusted forward, narrow shoulders, etc.) I asked her if she could sense all that tension she created as she began to sing, and she replied (with a certain amount amazement) that she could:
“Wow! I had no idea I was doing so much in my entire body to try to sing. Working way too hard…”
So I asked her to sing again, but with the thought of not going into that tense pattern, of leaving herself alone. But as she sang again, there was little, if any difference. She’d go right into that tense pattern again.
(This isn’t uncommon when encountering performance habits. They can be quite stubborn. Yet if addressed effectively and consistently, they can be changed. That’s what the Alexander Technique is all about.)
As we proceeded to work more with her singing, my student suddenly came to a great realization: “You know, I think I’m making all this tension in myself as an attempt to hear my voice.”
And she is absolutely right.
You see, to her (and to so many musicians) the sound is more than what the ear takes in. It can involve other senses (feeling resonance, for example), beliefs (often also about what should be felt), and other expectations.
In the case of my student, she was trying to feel the sound a specific way. She said that’s how she was gauging her intonation. Yet by her own admission, her intonation was dubious as she created this tension.
So we worked on getting her to change her thinking. We shifted the goal from trying to sing well, to leaving herself alone as she sang: no face thrusting, no shoulder raising, no back arching, no knee locking. The aim was not to sing in tune, or even with a good sound. Rather, it was to begin to sing without going into her habitual tension. It would be a bit of an experiment.
In fact, I told her that if she sounded bad, even worse than she’d ever sounded, that she could consider herself successful in this experiment, because it shows she did something differently. She liked that idea.
Well, after a few takes, she finally had a moment when she started to sing without her habits. I had my hands on her, and could tell that she was leaving herself alone very nicely. She continued to sing for about 5 minutes. Her voice was clear, beautiful, consistent…and her intonation was spot on.
She was thrilled, to say the least. “That was hard. I don’t know if I could do that again”, she said. I assured her she could, perhaps not consistently at first, but eventually she’d be able to with considerable consistency.
I asked her, “How was your intonation? Did you notice it?” She replied, ” Oh yes, I could her my pitch so clearly and easily. But the strange thing was, I wasn’t trying to hear my pitch. I could just hear it, and knew it was fine.”
I explained to her that it was this “trying” to hear her pitch that was tempting her to create so much bodily tension, and that this excess tension was interfering with her ability to truly hear herself. That seemed to make sense to her. I’m excited to meet with her for her next lesson to see what else she’ll discover.
As I stated above, so many musicians I teach are struggling with the same habit: trying to feel their sound, both color and pitch, through excess bodily tension. Besides being counterproductive to the goal of a good sound and good intonation, it also carries with it the risk of strain, injury, poor technique and fatigue.
But there’s also something that comes with it that is equally negative. All that tension leads to a kind of physical and artistic prison when making music. You can become so dependent upon feeling your tension that you’re not free to experience the possibility of the unknown, the possibility of discovering something new in yourself as you make music.
So how are you when you play? How much tension do you create as you get ready to play your first note? Remember to allow your neck to stay free so that your head can balance easily on top of your spine. Let your shoulders widen. Don’t lift your chest and arch your back. Don’t lock your knees. Let the weight of your body travel easily into your feet as you let your ankles remain free and mobile.
Leave yourself alone as you play, and you’ll hear yourself so much better. To paraphrase F.M. Alexander, “If you stop doing the wrong thing, the right thing will do itself.” My experience as a musician and as a teacher (and student!) of the Alexander Technique affirms this every day.