Voice and the Alexander Technique

Voice and the Alexander Technique

The connections and interdependence of parts related to the voice are complex and multi-layered. The larynx is suspended from the skull in a cat’s cradle of muscle and ligament.  Thus head balance may affect the larynx, while the skull finds a balance on top of the occipital condyles, potentially affected by a multiplicity of forces: The collar bones are attached to the back of the skull (via sternocleidomastoid) and also to the ribs which in turn can be pulled upon prodigiously from below, indirectly pulling on the skull and also influencing the action of the diaphragm via the ribs. This again implicates head balance and the relationship of head and trunk. The tongue, attached to the hyoid bone, is also influenced by this relationship, as is the jaw. Even the way the shoulders rest (or not) upon the ribs again influences the neck, and the balance of the skull, which directly affects the suspension of the larynx as well as the responsiveness of the ribs to the need for air. Any particular part exists as an element in a complex ecology of balance and coordination. It is easy for things to go wrong.

How to take care of this complexity? How to know where to start?

From the outside it may all look like “posture”. But posture also relates to balance and to muscular tension. Everyone has an idea of “good posture” but usually admit that they don’t maintain it. Posture itself is judged from the inside, highly subjectively. We hold ourselves and move in ways that can be highly idiosyncratic, yet they feel completely “normal”. “Normal” may include regular pain, accepted as “normal”, breathing restrictions which go unnoticed because they are “normal”, postural issues  – “that’s just the way I stand…”, even hoarseness and loss of voice under certain circumstances. Again a question: how can I get perspective on my “normal”?

The Alexander Technique is often associated with posture, but it is often forgotten that it all started with F M Alexander’s vocal difficulties. His teaching career began in the 1890’s with actors who had seen and heard Alexander on stage, wanting to improve their vocal production and breathing. Then they began to notice other, unexpected benefits.

If we do not misuse what we have, it tends to work fine. Misuse (of ourselves) can make the difference between a performer with vocal limitations or even damage, and one without. What Alexander discovered was how to regain the simplicity and uncomplicatedness in “posture” that we had as infants. Posture is perhaps an inadequate term, since we are talking about attitude of our bodies and relationships between parts of bodies as we move through our day. It can be useful to think about this in  terms of how we support ourselves against gravity, as we move through all of our activities. We each develop a characteristic way of moving and supporting ourselves against gravity. We tend to acquire layers of misuse over the years, unconsciously creating interference with what is easy and natural. It can be seen in our posture, how we move, how we breathe and even how we sound. It can levy a hidden strain on everything we do and create apparent limits to good technique in any activity.

It is recognised that “good posture” is a good idea and that posture affects breathing and sound. What is not so deeply understood is the relationship between postural support, breathing and movement. The Alexander Technique of neuro-muscular re-education gives us a sophisticated means of unravelling and re-connecting these; gradually acquiring our maximum height with a minimum of effort (no effortful “standing up straight”), which allows us to move freely and allows our breathing to be entirely  responsive to the demands placed on it (rather than being something separate or special that we do). Under these circumstances of easy length and space with the absence of unnecessary tension, freedom and support for the vocal apparatus is a natural and inevitable part of the package.

The Alexander Technique is taught in leading Performing Arts institutions around the world as a way of both cultivating vocal skills and of ongoing care of the professional voice. Singers and actors as diverse as Emma Kirkby, Sting, Paul McCartney, Hugh Jackman, Judi Dench and Mara  have found that lessons in the Alexander Technique have helped them either to recover from vocal difficulties or else to maintain their performing edge.

The Alexander Technique provides a basis in good (body-)use, ie integrated whole-body coordination, to encourage a system that does not get in its own way, allowing  the possibility to better acquire or use vocal skills. It is a proven basis for vocal health in everyday life and for care of the professional voice.

The Australian Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (AUSTAT) is the largest professional organization of teachers of the Alexander Technique in Australia. AUSTAT-certified teachers have completed a minimum three-year full-time training. Email: info@austat.org.au Phone: 1300 788 540

 

Michael Stenning, mps@freedominaction.com.au

© Canberra 2013

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The Art of Skiing

The Art of Skiing

The Art of Skiing

As one beginner skier complained, “My brain understands the instructor’s directions, but my body won’t carry them out!”. Recognizing that the way we approach anything is going to affect the outcome, the Alexander Technique pays great attention to how we’re doing what we’re doing. Discovering that not “trying so hard” can mean not only learning more easily, but also actually skiing better and with less effort, often comes as a pleasant surprise to many people.

The Alexander Technique is about improving self-awareness. We can learn self-mastery through gaining conscious access to the very delicate and precise mechanisms that control our balance, posture and coordination in everyday activities as well as, for example, in skiing. It is an approach which can be applied to learning or improving any skill, from playing a sport, or playing a musical instrument to dancing, just sitting in a chair, or meeting a complex emotional situation.

Recognizing that the way we approach anything is going to affect the outcome, the Alexander Technique pays great attention to how we’re doing what we’re doing. We quickly discover that we often have very little idea of our underlying mental or physical attitudes to activity or to learning new activities or to the way we express ourselves.

So not only do we need new knowledge, but we also need a means of putting that knowledge into practice. As one beginner skier complained, “My brain understands the instructor’s directions, but my body won’t carry them out!”.

The Technique is a way of becoming more aware of balance, posture and movement in everyday activities as well as, for example, in skiing. This can bring into consciousness tensions previously unnoticed, and helps us differentiate between necessary and unnecessary (appropriate and inappropriate) tensions and efforts. Put in other words, the Alexander Technique is a way of developing the skill of looking inside, checking our inner environment, so that we take care of the instrument through which we are achieving whatever we do in the outer environment.

The Alexander Technique is popularly supposed to be concerned with posture and relaxation but, of course, posture is far more complex than just standing or sitting up straight. It could be described as how we support and balance our bodies against the ever-present pull of gravity while we go about all our daily activities.

From Alexander’s own observations, since confirmed by scientific research, it has become apparent that there are natural postural reflexes to organise this support and balance for us without any great effort, provided we have the necessary degree of relaxation in activity to allow these reflexes to work freely. This has obvious practical application for skiers.

Most of us learn to ski on a more or less trial and error basis. Even when we have lessons it is clear that some people are simply more apt than others. These are the people in whom, unconsciously, those “postural reflexes” or “mechanisms of support and balance” are working relatively well (typically in younger people).

The mechanisms of support and balance (for which poise is a useful term) can be seen working beautifully in most small children, but they are very delicate mechanisms and are easily interfered with. The emotional and physical stress accumulated through life can soon become fixed into the body in the form of chronic muscle tensions and patterns of distortion throughout the physical structure. These patterns in turn restrict the workings of the natural postural mechanisms. Common language expressions such as “things are getting me down ” or “I’m feeling uptight” suggest a feeling for how our relationship with gravity is disturbed.

On the snow we are not only coping with these ongoing interferences to our postural mechanisms, which give us our “base line” of tension, but also with further interferences engendered by the unfamiliarity of the situation e.g. the fear involved in learning to ski.

In watching beginner skiers one is sometimes struck by their stiffness which, of course, severely impairs their ability to balance, and they fall over very easily.

Ease and poise on skis, as anywhere else, is characterised by an easy, upright carriage of the head which facilitates engaging the postural reflexes as a whole. Integral to this process is the quality of contact of the feet on the floor (skis, ground). If the feet or legs are tense, it will be much more difficult to have a real ease in activity.

Learning is often associated with anxiety and tension (this need not be the case, but that’s another story). In learning a balancing skill this is often more so, at exactly the time when ease of balance and an absence of tension would be most desirable. For anxiety-tension interferes not only with our balance and coordination, but also with our perception both of our inward environment e.g. failing to notice that we are tightening our legs or holding our breath, and our outer circumstances, so that hills appear steeper, or speeds higher.

Enhancing kinaesthetic awareness (awareness of one’s inner environment), and learning greater control of one’s mechanisms of balance and coordination is thus an enormous help to beginners.

More advanced skiers can also gain from this approach. Experienced skiers often have trouble improving past a certain point. Their initial learning may have taken place in a tense manner and this tension has become a fixed part of their skiing technique, limiting further improvement.

Discovering that not trying so hard can mean not only learning more easily, but also actually skiing better and with less effort, often comes as a pleasant surprise to many people.

The Alexander Technique gives us some simple ground rules through which we can observe ourselves, in order to achieve a gradual general improvement in balance and coordination, as well as simultaneously supplying ourselves with conditions most conducive to the acquisition of a new skill.

© M Stenning Canberra 1997

Exercising but getting injured?

Exercising but getting injured?

Would you like to be able to perform your choice of exercise with efficiency and grace?

Would you like to ensure good “form” whether in the gym, jogging, swimming, stretching, walking or even in martial art forms?

Would you like to avoid strain on joints or other tissue when you exercise?

What have summer and winter Olympic athletes, marathon runners, hammer throwers, elite equestrians including Australian Olympian Mary Hannah and the entire British team, multi-disciplinarian Daley Thomson and many others in common?

They have all used the Alexander Technique to improve some aspect of the way that they function – breathing, freedom or efficiency of movement, balance, dealing with stress, aches and pains or injuries.

In the early l950s, Percy Cerutty, the celebrated and sometimes controversial athletics coach, wrote in a letter to his Alexander teacher, “Alexander is a “must” for all competing athletes. You have taught me a lot of interesting material about the correct use of the body which I have passed on in my training with marked results eliminating bad use.”

The Alexander Technique is being increasingly adopted by recreational and competitive Sports people. Athletes involved in sports as diverse as long-distance running, dressage, swimming, X-C skiing and hammer-throwing recognise the benefits that come with a training in the Alexander Technique. For Sports people these can be divided in to three categories:

  1. General fitness (how to avoid wasting energy);
  2. Technique (ensuring that you’re actually doing what you think you’re doing); and
  3. Avoidance of or recovery from injury (not using yourself in a way which imposes unnecessary stresses on joints or other tissue).

Economy of effort

The Technique is particularly relevant because it is directly concerned with the working of the “postural reflexes”, i.e. the mechanisms that enable us to support and balance our bodies against the ever present pull of gravity while we go about our daily activities. It addresses how to move with an economy of effort and maximise poise and balance.

How hard are you making it?

The tensions and distortions that most of us, over the years, build into our habitual way of being and which have thus slipped below the level of our conscious awareness, provide an on-going restriction to the working of these natural postural mechanisms. This restriction renders movement more effortful and less efficient than necessary and can predispose us to injury. In our sporting activities, we are coping not only with these on-going interferences, which give us our “base line” of tension, but also often with further interferences engendered by the situation, e.g. the challenges involved in learning a new skill or the pressure of competition.

In other words, we’re making hard work out of simply standing upright, before complicating things with moving.

“My brain knows what to do but my body won’t do it”

In training or competition this is often more so, at exactly the time when economy of action and an absence of tension would be most desirable. This interferes not only with our poise and coordination, but also with our perception both of our inner environment, for example failing to notice that we are tensing our shoulders or holding our breath, and of our outer circumstances, so that for example, distances seem greater, or it feels as if we have insufficient time.

Enhancing kinaesthetic awareness (awareness of one’s inner environment), and learning greater control of one’s mechanisms of balance and coordination are an enormous help in any activity.

It is not just the elite who can learn to optimise their way of working with themselves to gain that competitive edge. Sports people who have trouble improving beyond a certain level can also gain. Technical imperfections can easily be unwittingly established as part of one’s basic modus operandi, limiting further improvement. Who at some time has not said to themselves, “My brain knows what to do but my body won’t do it”?

Discovering that not trying so hard can mean moving further, faster and with less effort, often comes as a pleasant surprise to many people.

The Alexander Technique gives us some simple ground rules through which we can observe ourselves, in order to achieve a gradual general improvement in poise and coordination, as well as simultaneously supplying ourselves with conditions most conducive to the development of a skill and reducing the risk of injury.