When I was 5 years old, we lived in a house in the woods just above our family cherry orchards. My buddy, Henry, lived in the closest house down the road. In the field between his house and our road, were yards of tangled, prickly raspberry bushes. We couldn’t wait until the green hard beads became supple, juicy and sweet. At the time, my dentist had put me on a low carb diet. (something about too much lactobacillus in my saliva) This meant no sugar, milk, bread and of course, berries. My older siblings would taunt me with the new cookies Mom bought. One day as Henry and I were playing in the field, he excitedly brought me over to the berry patch to taste the first ripe berries of the season. Oh they were so good!! I ate them like a starving child. As the sun started to lower on the horizon, I ran back up the hill for dinner, my face stained from bangs to chin and ear to ear with the verboten berry juice. My mother looked at me and said, “Lisa, have you been eating berries?” (How she kept a straight face, I’ll never know!) I felt my breathing become fast and shallow, my belly tightened and my voice squeaked out, “Oh no Mom, I didn’t eat any berries.” To this day I have a visceral memory of that lie.
By the time I was about 12 years old, I was singing and playing piano all the time. We had moved several times, but always came back to our house in the summer. The former foreman on our farm, Stacey, asked me to go out to his garden and pick raspberries for dessert. I dutifully brought them in, placed them in a strainer and began to rinse them. I shrieked as a little black worm started crawling out of its little comfy pocket. My breath became fast and shallow, my belly tightened and my voice squeaked out, “Eek!!” I couldn’t bring myself to eat any berries for months, for fear there were more worms hiding. In fact, I avoided raspberries well into adulthood!
Little did I know, I had half of an Alexander Technique lesson in those experiences! I noticed. I became aware of the tightness in my belly, the shallowness of my breathing and the squeezing in my throat. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the tools to move through these reactions.
In middle school, I auditioned for the talent show, accompanying myself on piano. I was excited to show what I could do and sang with abandon. I got in, but was asked to only play the piano and not to sing for the show. I found out later that the teacher had told my mother that the text of the song was too sophisticated for a 12 year old. (She was probably right) But I thought it was because she didn’t like my voice. So the next year I auditioned with a new song and started to notice, my breath was fast and shallow, my belly tightened and my voice didn’t squeak, but was tight and uncomfortable. All of these experiences were carving a map in my system. The symptoms became a habit-a habit that continued throughout my professional career. The only way I could get through the performance anxiety was to just soldier on and call upon all the vocal technique strategies that I had been taught. When I received praise, my body would calm down, but it was only temporary.
Do I still get performance anxiety? Yes. But now with my AT thinking, I can recognize it and notice it as excitement for something that I am choosing to do. I can ask myself where I notice ease in my system. I can ask myself to coordinate, so my head can be free, so that my body can follow, so that I can sing freely, so that I can communicate to the audience and invite them in. These are all steps in what AT teacher Kathy Madden calls “a studied rehearsed plan.” I can practice this thinking throughout my day, away from singing. Eventually it generalizes into everything I do, including my singing. I now recognize that when I lie to myself by following a habit that isn’t true to my design, my breathing becomes shallow, my belly tightens and my voice squeaks. And not all raspberries have worms!