One of the first things I do when a prospective student comes to my Marin studio for voice lessons is to get a general impression of his or her body organization and energy. Some folks are physically and energetically collapsed. Others might be hyper-tense. It’s not just physical, it may be a quality of their personality. Once my sister asked me what I meant by a person’s “energy” body and I said: “Have you ever met someone new and immediately liked them or disliked them?” She said yes. “You might not have talked to them long, but you ‘read’ their energy on some level and responded to it.”
Most voice teachers are very good at reading this energy because it is generally clearly reflected in the voice. We know when a singer or speaker is pushing on her voice or when he lacks vocal support. These are opposite sides of the coin: Two much energy congregating in one part of the body or too little effort being used. It manifests physically but often these mirror personality traits such as Type A or laid-back qualities, respectively. Of course, we are complex beings so it’s not so black and white.
The Alexander Technique is historically wonderful for helping singers find physical as well as emotional balance. Through this work we become aware of our bodies, our separate parts and how to get rid of physical interferences so we begin to experience ourselves in daily life as a whole, connected human being. We start becoming aware of the “primary movement” at the atlanto-occipital joint (where the skull sits on the first cervical vertebra) and how freeing that joint helps decompress the whole spine, freeing the ribs (the whole body, really!) That freedom is crucial to our vocal connection, affecting how we balance on two legs, breathe freely, resonate and sense ourselves in space. When we have this spinal/all body connection, our voice is grounded and, with awareness of what the tongue and jaw are doing, creates the environment for free vocal production.
I have noticed through the years, however, that standing balanced on two legs with our arms hanging at our sides is very uncomfortable for many people. It’s almost as if it’s too free, too vulnerable. So, we start to “tinker” with our alignment and organization. For example, recently I was standing with hundreds of other people, waiting for my spiritual teacher Amma to enter the hall. I noticed all manner of “holding oneself.” Many people had their arms crossed around their torso, others were standing, favoring one leg over the other, pelvis cocked. Some were leaning on a chair or wall. It was unusual to see someone balancing on both legs, arms hanging and unhindered.
For many years, I spent all my voice practice sessions holding my finger to my right ear. If I didn’t do this, I didn’t sing well. What’s THAT about? Well, I noticed that compensatory actions such as these often point to a place of weakness or interest. For a while I thought it had to do with my jaw, that my hand was somehow telling my jaw to stay relaxed. So, I started to remove the hand and tried to directly keep my jaw relaxed. Ultimately, I learned that it had to do with the position of my tongue. Once I learned to keep my tongue rolled forward and perky, I didn’t need the hand anymore. The more I learned to find a gentle balance between my tongue, jaw, breathing muscles and legs, the less physical “futzing” I did.
I call these physical habits “energy leaks” because they take away from the power of the voice. Often these habits are unconscious – until a teacher points them out and then they drive us crazy! Some examples are: dancing from foot to foot while singing (often seen in young children), pulling down into the legs and pushing the pelvis forward at the end of a phrase, curling your toes under as you run out of breath in a phrase, looking up for high notes, down for low notes, cocking the head to a favored side while singing, even supporting with your butt muscles! One of my students moves her hand round and round as a way to keep her breath moving. She’s now aware of it and laughs when she catches herself doing it.
So, as you practice, it’s always good to do so in front of a mirror. Notice: Am I uncomfortable letting both my feet carry my weight evenly? Am I comfortable balancing on the middle of both feet? If not, am I locking my pelvis or “positioning” my alignment rather than allowing balance to happen? Do you feel “weaker” letting your arms just hang? Do you want to do something with your hands simply because you don’t know what to do with them?
I do feel that these “energy leaks” give us clues to what may be amiss. At the least, they reflect our thinking about voice production. So, don’t be surprised, if you come to me for singing lessons for kids or adults, and I say: “Hey, what’s that funny thing you’re doing?” Then, together, we can say no to the habit, clarify your intention, and connect you to your true vocal power.