SINGERS, SINGING TEACHERS AND THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE
by Sandra Head
I have been a professional singer of theater and classical music for over 25 years. For the last fifteen years, I have also been a singing teacher at the post-secondary level. About eight years ago I began to notice a significant rise in tension when I sang and taught. It began with my awareness that I was stiffening my neck, and feeling increased nervousness about performing.
Within a year, I had quickly escalated the stiffness into chronic pain in my neck, head and back. Lengthy walks caused back pain. Finding a comfortable position in which to sleep became difficult. I began to wear a mouth guard during the night to prevent me from grinding my teeth. I had difficulty standing comfortably while singing or sitting comfortably at a piano bench while teaching. My stamina for singing or teaching waned dramatically.
Under the stress of a long teaching day or of a public performance, I unconsciously caused the pain and fatigue to worsen. To my ear, my voice was becoming less resonant. Breathing to sing became laborious. I started seriously to doubt my ability to communicate effectively as a singer. Finally, I developed performance anxiety. I feared what I used to love doing the most - singing for people. I also feared that I was becoming a hypocritical teacher: my body language and sound were conveying tension and pain while contradicting my verbal messages office and pleasure in singing.
My first conclusion as to the cause of my problems was that there was some recent change in my behavior or health that was negatively effecting my singing and teaching. I began seeking help. Over a four year period, the treatments I sought were extensive and expensive; pain killing pills, naturopathic remedies and change of diet, physiotherapy, traditional and neuromuscular massage, chiropractic, various exercise and relaxation methods, cranial-sacral therapy, alignment therapy, and plain therapy.
Some treatments, like physiotherapy, exacerbated my problems. Others helped a little bit. Some helped more. However, I always had a nagging feeling that I was not getting at the source of my problems. Then, in January of 1994, a theater colleague suggested that I investigate the Alexander Technique. I read a few books, such as Michael Gelb's Body Learning. In a nutshell, these books explained that the Alexander Technique was a method of re-education designed to help improve functioning in all of one's daily activities.
This re-education method centered around creating a dynamic, balanced relationship between head, neck and back, and as a result, one's whole body. The books were suggesting that all my pain had nothing to do with recent change, but everything to do with my lifelong approaches to everything I did. I was intrigued. In the Spring of 1994 I began private Alexander Technique lessons. I believe that this was the beginning of a process of positive, long lasting, and most importantly, conscious change.
In my first Alexander Technique lesson, I discovered that the teacher was going to communicate with me through touch, combined with verbal "directions", and verbal explanations and feedback. Although this sounds simple, nothing I had done in the past prepared me for the particular experience of Alexander Technique lessons. Although fascinated, I was quite disoriented. I decided to keep a journal of my lessons in an attempt to track what was happening. What follows is an edited excerpt from my first two journal entries:
"I understand almost nothing about what the teacher is doing, nor what she wants me to do. Her hands are on me a great deal, but in such a subtle way that I can barely feel them. The changes she is making in the area of my head, neck and back seem so small as to be completely insignificant. She asks me not to try to help her make the movements nor to anticipate what she is doing. She begins by giving me directions regarding my head, neck and back with some explanation as to what they mean. She asks me to think the directions, not do them, while she touches my body. Thinking without doing is incredibly difficult. As I walked out of the teacher's studio today I felt mentally buoyant and much lighter than usual, as if my legs were dangling out of my hips - an absolutely unrecognizable way of walking. I don't seem to recognize the sensations, nor the thinking pattern that goes with them."
After three months of lessons, my pain seemed to almost disappear. Long walks were no longer a problem, I could sleep comfortably, and I stopped grinding my teeth in the night. Ease began creeping not only into my singing, but also into everything I did. By the time I had completed a year of lessons, bouts of stiffness became more infrequent. Breathing while singing became much easier. Jaw tension dramatically reduced and I noticed that my jaw was moving differently while I sang.
As more lessons followed, my singing voice became more resonant, and everything I sang became easier to do. My stamina for performing and teaching was better than it ever had been. My powers of observation regarding my students, and choices of solutions to their problems seemed greatly enhanced. With rare exceptions, my performance anxiety was dramatically reduced. I began looking forward to performing engagements. I was having fun singing and teaching singing again.
The journal of my first two years of Alexander Technique lessons has been incorporated into my University of British Columbia M.Ed. paper, entitled "How the Alexander Technique Informs the Teaching of Singing".
To find out more about the Alexander Technique click here:
The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique