In my voice lessons for kids and adults, I like to introduce, early on, one of the Alexander Technique’s greatest gifts – the concept of Inhibition. No, it’s not psychology’s use of the word, as in “he was very inhibited.” It has to do with how we react or respond to the world.
First, we must understand that, as singers, our bodies are our instrument and an ever- moving one at that. You wake up in the morning and perhaps you’re a little tired and physically collapsed. Or you inhabit the Amazon body, physically armored and shielded against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Or you may start out feeling flexible, soft, and dynamic, only to end the day all tight and stressed. Most of the time we just accept that that’s just life. We accept that “My back just gave out” or “My neck is always tight. That’s just the way it is.” In the Alexander Technique, we learn that we play a huge role in moving from Point A to Point B, from fluid and free to tense and tight. It is not aliens swooping down from space and making us this way. We create this by how we respond psychologically and physically to each stimulus that comes our way.
There’s a very fun book called “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” by Robert M. Sapolsky. In one of the first editions, he describes a zebra at the watering hole. She’s all nice and relaxed until she hears a noise in the bushes. A lion? She is alert, tense, ready to flee. It’s the classic “fight or flight” choice. Then she sees it’s only a rabbit. She relaxes and goes back to drinking her water. Well, we are no different – except that when we perceive danger we tense up – and stay that way for 40 years!
Inhibition is the second principle of the Alexander Technique, after Awareness. In a lesson, first you notice what is. Using your senses, you acknowledge what is present in a non-judgmental way. Perhaps you are standing there and you notice that your neck feels tight or your lower back hurts. You are encouraged to eventually move (always helpful rather than staying static.) However, often you will move in a way that promulgates or even aggravates the pattern that creates pain. This is a habit. Enter Inhibition. Before you move, you are asked to pause, breathe, and open yourself to an unknown movement. Then, as best you can, you begin the movement while continuing to inhibit. It’s at this moment of choice, when you decide to “go,” that you either move in a new way or fall back into your unhelpful habit. If you’ve inhibited successfully, you will move in a way you’ve never moved before.
How does this play out in singing? I’ll give you an example from my own singing lessons. My teacher has pointed out that when I inhale, my larynx elevates ever so slightly. It’s reflexive, even when I breathe deeply and quietly. Cues such as “imagine that with every inhale your larynx is dropping to your belly button” 😊 are very helpful. However, the force of habit is strong. I must bring my full attention to the restfulness of the larynx when I practice. This means that EVERY BREATH I take must be a mindful one, one that doesn’t disrupt the larynx. If I’m not fully attentive, habit takes over and the larynx lifts. You can imagine how much energy goes into such focus, especially when one takes inhales for granted or one is singing a fast song. That is the process of inhibition: Allowing oneself to respond to a stimulus (in this case, the act of inhaling before singing) rather than just reacting quickly and unconsciously. But the good news is that when you do this kind of slow work, your cherished result takes hold and becomes the new habit.
There are many stimuli in singing – just moving from pitch to pitch is a chain of continued stimuli. My favorite stimulus is a high note. There is something truly thrilling about not “reacting” to a high note by clenching, that “fight or flight” reaction. When you become good at inhibiting, you can enjoy being present with your body as the sound soars through you. Sports people call it “being in the zone,” merging action and awareness.
When I teach voice lessons I have fun teaching inhibition, especially since as Americans we are so conditioned to move fast and furiously. The practice of Inhibition can take many forms. Here’s another way of looking at it: When I vocal directed “Pirates of Penzance” at a local theater many years ago, the fellow who had a most difficult “patter song” – “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” – was very concerned that he would forget his words under the stimuli of lights and audience. (They’re called “patter songs” because they are non-stop wordy!) So, in rehearsal we played a game where he had to sing his song while the whole cast was doing all sorts of crazy things to distract him. He had to “inhibit” in a major way (no pun intended!) – stay peaceful within himself, breathe and gently focus on his words and singing. It didn’t mean that he didn’t see what was happening, shut out the cast completely or tightened his body. He was just gently returning to himself and not allowing himself to get frazzled. I don’t recall him ever stumbling on his words in 14 performances.
Inhibition is a beautiful practice.