We are so accustomed to the tensions we carry with us throughout the day that we rarely notice it. Yet it has a powerful impact on every goal we set out to accomplish. Often we have strong impulses and desires to do a task or a creative act and there is something stopping us. What is this something? And is it changeable?
The Alexander Technique provides a means for understanding what this is. By becoming more aware we then can experience a new sense of freedom, improvement in overall health, alertness and performance in all activities.
Martha Graham once said: “There’s a life force, an energy, translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep the channel open.”
Am I willing to step away from all that I’ve held as true? Am I willing to meet myself afresh, no matter how dangerous it may feel. Can I challenge myself that my feelings can be untrustworthy? Can I breathe into the next moment of absolutely not being sure of anything, only my breath, and to allow the space for the next breath to come, as if stepping into a wide-open and expansive yawn. A yawn that does not have to be any kind of right. (Deborah Weitzman)About breathing:
We breathe yes, to keep us alive, but we are also holding our breath in activity that frightens us. We may not, and often don’t feel what we are feeling, the sensations are mostly unconscious. There’s something about the letting go that is inherent in singing that is scary for the system. The central nervous system that manages us (like the operating system of a computer), doesn’t like change. Like a computer can crash when too many inputs are coming at once, so it is with the body and breath. To sing freely, many co-ordinations need to happen at once: a freedom is required in the tongue, face muscles, throat, vocal chords, hard and soft palate. If we think each part, or beg it to be free, we end up interfering, and tightening. So much needs to happen with a grace of consent, and for this grace of consent, one must feel trust. And if you have ever been shamed with your voice, ever been told to shut up, or that the voice sounds ugly and false, a protection mechanism is in place.
Above all else, the nervous system – the vagus nerve, the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system, The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the body’ rest and digestion response when the body is relaxed, resting, or feeding. It basically undoes the work of sympathetic division after a stressful situation. The parasympathetic nervous systemdecreases respiration and heart rate and increases digestion. The autonomic nervous system comprises two parts- the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system activates the fight or flight response during a threat or perceived danger, and the parasympathetic nervous system restores the body to a state of calm.
We aren’t all wired the same, in that we aren’t the same sensitivity to light and sound, and to harsh criticism. As if some of us really do have that ‘tougher skin’ – which in terms of the nervous system, means a difference in our reaction (of what can feel like life and death) to a certain stimulus – like having to sing or speak in front of people. And sadly, if we’ve had any negative experience with this can also mean that even on our own, we aren’t able to ‘let go’ and just sing.
When I was young, way before I ever trained with the Alexander Technique, I was convinced I had throat cancer, so painful was it to sing, especially in front of people. I wanted to be a professional singer-songwriter as songs poured out of me and it was the only thing I wanted to do. I hated the ‘real world,’ couldn’t imagine being a banker or lawyer, or any other job besides being an artist, a singer. But in order to earn money, I had to be in front of people – especially then in the 70’s (although now, the idea of doing zoom concerts still frightens me). I even went to a specialist who after peering down my throat announced that I was fine.
“I can’t be fine!” I recall shouting. “Why does it hurt so much to sing?” The doctor had nothing more to tell me, only that he saw nothing in my throat. I recall sitting in a chair back in my apartment in New York, in a state of shock. Actually, wishing the prognosis was cancer. If it was nothing, then what the hell was wrong with me?
I’ve started many a workshop with this story, and the looks of recognition I get from the participants is quite moving. Maybe not all of them went to the doctor for a check, but they surely wondered what was making it so painful, so impossible to sing, and to speak. As the same mechanism happens in both.
I have a good ear, have always had a good ear, but that doesn’t mean I don’t sing out of tune. It infuriated me (and still does), that me with good, relative pitch, can at times be very out of tune. I’ve since learned that it is the muscle coordination doing this. That without interference – the brain receives the tone and organizes the perfect amount of tension on a specific spot on the hard palate where the vibration – that begins in the vocal chords – can resonate, thus creating the correct pitch. Again, if you think or try to make this happen, it goes hopelessly wrong and the delicate vibration gets knocked out of its place and note is heard as false. You are more concerned, I know, about your speaking voice. We’ve begun the lesson with you telling me that when you get stressed the sound of your voice is harsh and strained, that it sounds ugly. It is the same procedure with the tone—if it is forced or interfered with (literally too much muscle action), the tone becomes uglier. We think and hear ‘beautiful’ when a tone is left alone to vibrate and resonate and move.
Sound moves. And it needs to move. The good news is that by itself, sound moves rather easily. Just think of a noisy argument from a neighbor or someone you pass in the street. Think of a plane overhead or drilling in the next-door apartment. Or better yet – remember the last time a screaming infant disturbed a room, a plane, and event. That tiny being – how the heck did it produce so much sound! It’s funny, right, to think of that. Yet most of us at some point in our infancy cried hysterically and disturbed the room. We are created for our sound to be expressed and communicated. As an infant, the call to scream, to communicate is intrinsically connected with survival. We need something – and we need it now.
Let’s remember that we are all created as breathing and sounding organisms! To make a sound that matches a set tone – though also inherently in us – isn’t as urgent for survival. The infant doesn’t think of tone per se, but in fact the tone the baby will scream in, will be in a tone that can be heard above other sounds. But you get, I hope the point there, that there was something in us from the start that made sound easily and without interference.Around the age of 2, we become ‘self-conscious.’ And our reactions are no longer not interfered with. We start learning how easily we can get it wrong and lose the love of our parents. We also forget that we are ‘animals,’ and animals do not like to be away from the flock. If you watch any animal program, we witness how the animals stay together, that the unfortunate ones who stray are instantly in danger of being killed by predators.Once we are older, we have a host of reactions, habits if you will, instant responses in our nervous system that can trigger the reaction to flee, to close-down, to protect. Not for nothing, many a performer uses drugs: alcohol, beta-blockers, tranquilizers – anything to push away the first and powerful response of tightening the muscles.
I shall never forget my first lesson: the way my teacher’s fingers touched my jaw and head in such a delicate, penetrating way that all at once a voice –– surely not mine –– burst forth. If only I’d know this powerful sensation of ‘letting go,’ of letting the song sing me, it only I’d had lessons with her years before! But at last I found what I’d been desperately seeking. All my bumbling years suddenly made sense; even if I’d never succeeded in any apparent form, I could help another on the road behind me. This teacher not only taught me how to sing with a freedom I never even knew existed, but took me under her wings and prepared me to become a singing/Alexander teacher like herself. That meant training as soon as possible to learn the Alexander Technique, just as she had done.
There is so much in the body that is dualistic. Even the breath – which is both voluntary and involuntary. We are ‘breathed’ all night long while we sleep, but just ask anyone experiencing panic and they will feel they can’t breathe. This, sadly, is because the other mechanism – our nervous system is registering so much fear that the body is sent into its sympathetic response. Funny indeed to even use the word sympathetic, when it’s so connected to the fight of flight response!
If anything, the more I live and practice the Alexander technique, and continue to sing and move in some capacity, I become more and more aware of these dualities. My wanting to be seen and to hide at the same time, to live in anonymity and to be famous, to go deep into expressive communication – which has in that a sense of giving over, of trusting the whole system to give over – and a desperate need to be safe, very, very safe. That old feeling in me, who wants to crawl into a tiny drawer, or hide under the covers and never step out into life, and definitely not to be in front of people: harsh, judgmental people.