Why The Alexander Technique?
Updated: Dec 7, 2019
When people learn I use Alexander Technique principles in my singing and teaching, along with Feldenkreis, Pilates and Yoga, the conversation often goes like this. “Oh yeah, Alexander Technique. That’s that technique where you relax all of your muscles and end up with good posture, right? But I don’t believe in it for singing because you have to engage muscles to sing.” (For a more thorough description of The Alexander Technique, read this article I wrote. )
Let’s untangle that idea! First, we are all born to sing! Watch any child sing and that becomes clear! When I was about 3 years old, I remember standing next to my mother in church. Everyone was holding a hymnal and singing. I wanted to be part of that, but of course I couldn’t yet read. So I picked up the book and just sang whatever was on my mind at that moment. (I believe it had something to do with Sleeping Beauty and castles.) No one corrected me or told me to stand a certain way. Fast forward to last month. I was in Israel with a large group. We were in St. Anne’s Church by the Pool of Bethesda, where people come just to sing in the amazingly vibrant acoustic. Our group sang a hymn and then had time to explore. Something let go in me and I just sang-not a song-just an exhale of pitched sound. It just came out. I had a visceral memory of the freedom I had singing when I was a child. My voice soared.
So what happened between childhood and my adult professional life? What happened since going through menopause? Like most of us, I spent 12 years sitting at desks that didn’t fit my body, I was told to stand up “straight” when I had a 4 inch growth spurt and to hold in my stomach to live up to societal expectations of the female body. My father told me to stop singing when he got home. My choir teachers would tell us things like, “Sing from your diaphragm, open your mouth widely and stand up straight!” What did those even mean? (watch for future posts where I translate some of these messages) As a result, I developed excess tension that instead of enabling a freer sound, constricted it. Then in music school, I developed all the bel canto skills prescribed to me. I sounded great! My career progressed. I was and am a perennial student of vocal pedagogy, so I thought I had everything I needed. In peri-menopause, my voice started changing. It lowered, became less reliable and fatigued easily. I started to compensate in unhealthy ways, causing more tension. I also learned to constantly compare myself to others, especially when I realized I was the oldest singer in my peer groups. My thinking had become as tense as my body, but I didn’t know it. When I experienced vocal tension, I would do all the things I was trained to do to “fix” it. But it didn’t always work.
So how does Alexander Technique come in? AT teacher Kathy Madden describes AT as “bio-psycho-physical” learning, because we humans are bio-psycho-physically whole. We cannot separate our thinking from our use. Over years we develop habits that we believe come from truth. We develop an inaccurate body map. AT helps us discover the movement patterns that are meant to help us move and sing and inhibit the ones that we do not need. AT teaches us to cooperate with the design of our true selves. Alexander himself, for example, discovered he was gripping the floor with his feet, gasping each great and pulling his head back and down leading to his hoarseness.
So does Alexander technique help us develop good posture? Yes, with posture redefined as a place of functional ease, not of holding. Does AT teach you to relax all of your muscles? No. It helps us to discover the most efficient use of our selves so that unnecessary tension lets go. Do we have to engage muscles when we sing? Of course!! But only the ones we are beautifully and perfectly designed to use.