When you take voice lessons with me in my Marin studio, you will be introduced to the Alexander Technique. In an Alexander lesson, you learn about “the primary movement,” a tiny release at the atlanto occipital joint – or what we sometimes call the head-neck joint. This release is a small but powerful movement that allows the spine to decompress and lengthen, thus awakening the body into bigger movement in space. The head, which is heavy, balances atop the spine but often we clamp down on this joint, creating a downward pressure, like closing an accordion. This compression creates lots of problems for our hips and legs, which then must bear the burden of our weight. Check this out the next time you are standing in line at the bank or are on a laptop computer at a desk. Are you letting the head balance or are you letting the heavy occiput pull down and crunch the back of your neck (cervical spine)? This is the beginning of the full spinal “slump.”
In Alexander Teacher lessons, you learn how to “direct” your head off the top of the spine in a non-doing way. Going further, you learn that your whole body, when you learn not to pull down on it, organically expands multi-directionally without our telling it which way to move. Yes, we have “form,” but we begin to trust this ever-moving form and stop trying to micromanage our alignment, which only creates more problems.
I was thinking about this work in my own singing lessons this week because my teacher was telling me to lengthen my spine to create the breath compression needed for my operatic sound. When she showed me, it looked as if she was lifting her rib cage, which to me is a red flag that she might be shortening her lower back. (Try this: When you lift your ribs in front, it’s very easy to arch your back, which compresses the spine. This is the opposite of slumping.) However, when I put my hands on her, I noticed that she wasn’t arching her back. She was getting lots of good breath in the back ribs. I then showed her what “lengthening the spine” in an “Alexandrian way” looks like. She said that “looked right.” More important, I felt that when I was engaged in this way, the breath was free to do its work and I didn’t feel any work in my throat when I started a phrase. It felt like I had no head and my voice was resting in my torso. I also sensed nasal resonance. However, singing with this kind of engagement was much more “athletic” than I am used to.
This is where it gets tricky for me and I think for many singers. There is a big difference between allowing length to happen and pulling up on your spine. One is indirect, the other direct. The indirect approach is more fluid and reflexive. There definitely is a sense of activation, movement and tallness throughout your whole self but you’re not holding yourself that way, which is what would happen if we directly try to lengthen. The direct method is muscled and can lead to stiffness. I am at a place with my Alexander work where I am experienced enough with “direction” that all I have to do is bring awareness to direction and this organic flowering happens. But way back, when I was starting singing, any kind of spinal manipulation was partial and led to increased tension all over.
This engagement and lengthening of the spine and expansion of our whole self also awakens the ribs, their floating and slight lifting motion. At the same time (Alexander used to say, “one after the other, all at once,” direction happens so fast) a deep, reflexive breath in the lungs occurs and the breathing muscles (the diaphragm, around the belly, waist and below the back ribs) respond to the lungs’ request for space. Once I start my phrase, I notice that my sense of breath flow – whether it’s through held vowels or chit-chatty singing – is unhindered when my tongue is forward, and the jaw is soft. I also notice that certain consonants break that flow and need more care and perhaps more support.
How we sense support varies from person to person and style to style, but I feel that this spinal connection is key to a firm, free clear sound in whatever style you sing in. This support takes the pressure off the throat, allows for flexible articulation and is a more holistic, all-body singing. In my voice and singing lessons for kids and adults, we first study how you organize yourself to walk around this earth. Then we see if that alignment is efficient or not for the activity of speech or song. When we remind ourselves, through the Alexander principles, that we are moving, balancing beings, stepping lightly on this earth, we can undo years of tension and redirect all that energy toward a vibrant vocal expression.