As a teacher that gives singing lessons to adults and children in Marin County and San Francisco, I often get puzzled looks when I say that I am also a teacher of the Alexander Technique. Often, prospective students have never heard of it, or they ask me if it is the same as the Feldenkrais method.
The Alexander Technique has been around since the early 1900s, when F.M. Alexander, an English actor, lost his voice and found his way back to health by taking a good look in the mirror. What the mirror showed was that every time he would go to speak or recite, he would create all sorts of strange tightening in his head, neck, and chest. Slowly, through years of scrutiny, he developed a way of working through this habitual compression, which was deeply linked to how he “sensed” himself. When he succeeded in stopping his reflexive and habitual response to speaking, he revolutionized the way he spoke, moved and existed in his body.
Lessons in the Alexander Technique go well beyond the body because of just that: We experience ourselves as who we are by how we sense our bodies, our relationship to the ground, sensations like lightness, tightness and, unfortunately, pain. We even may see ourselves different from others because of how we sense ourselves and perceive the other person. For instance, I remember a specific Alexander lesson, when a teacher helped me to effortlessly lengthen my spine. I felt like my mother, who, always bigger than life as a singer, would walk into the room like a queen. She was, in short, a “presence.”
And, “presence” is indeed Alexander’s realm. Presence goes beyond alignment and that dreaded, static word “posture.” It is an expression of our life force, energy, psyche, and emotions. During an Alexander lesson, we certainly do begin with the body – spinal and neck compression, unbalanced alignment, habitual “holding” of such parts as the ribs or pelvis. Many students come to the technique because of pain or balance issues. However, when you start to “undo” some of this unnecessary tension by increased awareness, learning how to stop reacting to the world in your usual way, the deeper aspects of the work may reveal themselves. Am I habitually holding my breath and locking my ribs because of anxiety regarding a situation in my life? Does my shyness make me always look down at the floor (thus creating an ingrained curvature in the upper spine? Am I a warrior who bulls my way through my day, lifting my chest like a shield, creating lower back compression? Physical? Yes, but much more complex. They are indicative of ways of being and reacting.
I remember a Charlie Brown cartoon that showed Charlie Brown all hunched over, looking sad. Lucy told him to “straighten up, Charlie Brown. You look awful.” Or something like that. But Charlie said: “If I straighten up, I’ll feel better and right now I want to be sad!” How true! We may go into a yoga class all tired, and then after having breathed and stretched feel so much better. The Alexander Technique, which I use as a template when I practice yoga, is a way to mindfully go through the day noting, when we can, the stuff that “gets us down,” “gets our back up” and other responses to the world. We cultivate, through what Alexander called “inhibition,” the physical equanimity in the face of difficult life triggers.
In my voice lessons in Marin, I always start with Alexander work to center a student and help them undo the misalignments of the day. We work to connect the sound from the head-neck joint deep in the skull down to the tailbone. I view this as our “sound post.” And the lengthened (or compressed) spine has a huge effect on the ribs and how the breath enters our body and is released through a singing phrase. I remember before taking Alexander lessons, going to a master class taught by a Metropolitan Opera soprano. I was singing “Deh Vieni, Non Tardar” from “Le Nozze di Figaro.” She kept saying, “drop your jaw, drop your jaw.” I was dropping it. Yet she was very puzzled because the sound was still stuck. I understand now that from the outside I looked relaxed but on the inside, I was tight as a rock. My jaw, root of the tongue and spine weren’t at all soft. I had major work to do.
Reversing tensions of a lifetime takes lots of patience and is an ongoing practice. But it’s hugely worthwhile and exciting to get at the nut of one’s vocal tension. The Alexander work is definitely not for everyone, especially in this “quick fix” society. As my voice teacher said, you can’t really know the size of the voice until you’ve released the jaw. I’ll add that you can’t really experience your whole voice until you’ve released and integrated the spine. My mission, which I’ve decided to accept (LOL), is to help combine the therapeutic power of the Alexander Technique with traditional singing lessons for both adults and children in Marin. I hope you’ll come visit me and experience this special work.