I’m lucky to have a voice teacher (Donna Reid) who, like me, is also an Alexander Teacher. In my lessons, Donna and I often explore ways to apply the Alexander Technique to the process of singing, and we are often dumbfounded at how much overlap exists between Alexander’s principles and those of singing pedagogue Cornelius Reid. (If you’re wondering about the shared surname, yes, Donna is the widow of Cornelius.)
One of the core principles of the Alexander Technique is INHIBITION. Inhibition means saying “no” to your habitual way of reacting so that you can allow something different—and probably better—to happen. The challenge of this simple concept, and the reason people come for Alexander lessons as opposed to just reading about the Technique, is that our habits are so familiar that they feel right to us. If habits feel right, then something different—even if it is better—is likely to feel wrong. (At least at first.) We are not very likely to choose what feels wrong over what feels right, so a teacher’s assistance in making this uncomfortable but beneficial new choice can be crucial.
A comfortable habit that most of us singers cling to is altering our vowels in singing. We may not be aware of why we do this; we may not even be aware THAT we do it. When register coordination is faulty, we resort to distortions of our technique, like altering our vowels, in an effort to make the notes come out. (With a big emphasis on “effort”!)
If you want to stimulate a healthy response in your vocal coordination, you have to maintain a healthy environment for the sound. This includes maintaining a free, resonant, unadulterated vowel sound. When we consciously or unconsciously alter our vowels—one version of this is sometimes known as “covering”—we interfere with the delicate mechanical adjustments that our throat muscles are trying to bring about. Our own attempts at bringing about coordination are clumsy in comparison to what our muscles can accomplish when left alone.
Which brings us back to Alexander, who advocated “leaving yourself alone” in performing movements like getting out of a chair. Leaving yourself alone entails not interfering with a reflexive muscular response by doing what we think needs to be done: most activities involve far less effort than we habitually bring to them. In many Alexander lessons, one or another of my students, upon inhibiting a habitual way of getting out of a chair, has exclaimed with delight and surprise that standing up could be so easy.
In singing, we can experience this same kind of delightfully surprising ease by getting out of our own way. One relatively simple way of leaving yourself alone is to leave your vowels alone. Maintaining a consistent [ah], for example, as you move from one note to the octave above, will allow your gloriously talented throat musculature to accomplish for you the task of perfectly coordinating. (You can hear a sound clip of the difference here: the first time through, the singer goes from [ah] on the first note to [uh] on the second note. The second time, he maintains a consistent [ah] throughout.)
Now isn’t that more fun than micro-managing every note you sing?
P.S. I’m choosing to write about the Alexander Technique today in honor of ACAT, the American Center for the Alexander Technique, where I did my Alexander teacher training and where I now teach from time to time. Today the organization’s annual membership meeting is being held in their space near Union Square. Anyone with an interest in the Alexander Technique can become a member of ACAT, not only teachers. Besides training teachers, ACAT provides introductory lecture/demos for the public and offers a rich assortment of Alexander classes and workshops. Check out their website for more information.