I've been itching to be in motion since those early years when I'd glue aluminum foil strips down the sides of my pants and boogie around the basement of my family home to tracks from my parents' old records. How sad that our phones did not have cameras in the 1970s to record my solo dance recitals. Or perhaps, how lucky.
In any case, my passion for movement has been seeping into my voice teaching for years; I have accumulated a whole battery of physical movements that I call upon to help me elicit certain kinds of vocal coordination in my students. I wanted to compile these movements so that other teachers and singers could benefit from them as well. This blog post catalogs 10 of the movements that I find myself using frequently these days. I'd like to thank Joanna Fanizza, an especially amenable and exuberant student of mine, who agreed to demonstrate the movements in the video clips you'll see below.
I also wish to thank my colleagues Donna Reid (also my voice teacher) and Phyllis Kubey, both of them, like me, Alexander teachers and proponents of Cornelius Reid pedagogy. Many of these movements arose out of our collaborative work and conversations.
#1 The Clap
Cornelius Reid often stressed the importance of a crisp rhythmic impulse—I seem to remember that he used the German word Schwung (momentum) to describe this—when shifting registration in an upward leap of an octave. Our muscles respond with greater precision when the note change is effected at an exactly determined moment in time. We interfere with this spontaneity when we (even slightly) hesitate when changing pitch or when our rhythm is haphazard.
A sharply executed clap indicates a specific moment in time. If the clap is timed simultaneously with a particular note in an exercise, it will inform the singer's brain, "This is the moment for everything to shift."
A vigorous clap works best—it should sound like the report of a rifle, even if the note to accompany it is sung pianissimo. Here's Joanna employing the clap in what was a favorite exercise of Cornelius's, the octave leap followed by a descending major arpeggio:
Once the student has the experience of the clap ingrained—after perhaps a few repetitions of the exercise—she can often achieve the same results by simply thinking of a clap on the appropriate note.
#2 The Jump
The jump is a super-charged version of the clap—a whole-body clap, if you like. I appreciate the way it instills a singers' entire being with the kind of vitality that good singing requires. It's especially effective for when singers are under-energized. But it can also ameliorate an over-active technique as well. In both cases, it elicits the precise deployment of a big surge of energy.
When using this movement, I have the student do a wind-up into a jump straight up into the air, using a vigorous 2-arm swing. I sometimes have the student think of a forward momentum (as in the game of leapfrog), even though in actuality she will land in the same location that she started in.
You can jump into the air as you begin a phrase or, as Joanna shows here, time your landing to coincide with a strategic note. (Joanna is landing on the same note on which she clapped in the previous demonstration.)
Again, once the movement is in your body, you can just think of jumping anywhere in a phrase you want to impart a precise, rhythmic vitality.
#3 The Twist
The twist is the first in a series of variations on a spiral theme. All of these swivel-y movements impart an impressive ease and freedom to singing that belies their simplistic nature. When using these techniques, I have experienced in myself and heard in my students astounding improvements in vocal coordination.
Why does this work? I believe that the twist and its kin improve singing through the following mechanisms:
- The twisting motion in the neck mechanically breaks up unhealthy holding patterns in the muscles that suspend the larynx. (The simplest version of this is to have the singer look from side to side while singing.)
- The twisting motion in the abdomen makes it nearly impossible to engage in pushing with the abs or other forms of counterproductive "support".
- The degree of complexity of the "choreography" involved in these movements, while minimal, is enough to helpfully distract the conscious brain and thus bring about a more spontaneous vocal response.
- The energetic movements instill the act of singing with energy and a sense of fun.
Here is Joanna demonstrating the basic twist (arms can flop or maintain their muscle tone throughout):
#4 The Helicopter
In this variation, the singer raises the arms out to horizontal while twisting. This arm position frees up the ribs to allow for fuller breathing. It also intensifies the twist into a greater range of motion.
#5 The Helicopter with Head Looking Forward
Varying how the head relates to the body in the twist is a way to enrich the possibilities of any of these movements. Here Joanna keeps her eyes focused on a stable point to keep her head still; her body rotates at the atlanto-occipital joint where the head and spine meet (between the ears). This variation increases the torsion of the muscles of the neck/throat.
#6 The Semi-supine Twist
Lying down to twist adds some new possibilities into the mix. The singer lies on her back, supporting her head with a book if necessary, and twists her bent legs alternately to the right and left while singing.
I have found this variation particularly powerful, possibly because the horizontal position 1) is far less habitual for most singers and 2) allows for a fuller backward release of the larynx with the altered relationship with gravity. Lying on the back has countless other benefits appreciated for years by those who practice the Alexander Technique, including
- kinesthetic feedback from the floor which gives information about the back and ribs
- encouragement for the spine to lengthen
- discouragement from fidgeting
- promotion of a sense of non-doing
#7 The Semi-supine Twist with Opposing Head Turns
In this variation, the relationship of the head to the torso is challenged even further by turning the head in opposition to the legs.
#8 The Arms-Up-and-Down Movement
Here's a simple way to free up the motion of the ribs in breathing: raise the arms to horizontal on the inhale and let them float down as you sing. As a bonus, contemplate how your arms are mimicking the bucket-handle rise and fall of the ribs.
#9 The Arms-Up-and-Hold Movement
This variation gets the ribs moving and takes the abs out of the picture! There is much less tendency to push or squeeze with the abdominals when your arms are overhead. This movement also encourages singers to allow the air to come into their chest cavities (where the lungs are situated) rather than into their bellies (which contain their digesting breakfasts).
I once used this method to free up the climactic high note in Strauss's Zueignung. The note (an F-sharp in my key) came out free and easy and HUGE, and was actually a G, since I'd given myself the wrong starting pitch!
#10 The Rag Doll
The effectiveness of this simple movement has to be witnessed to be believed. It is a powerful encourager of many good vocal habits: full chest breathing, easy abs, energetic release of tone, and minimal thinking.
The rag doll sequence begins by leaning forward from the waist, as though to touch your toes. Hang in this upside-down position for as long as you like, allowing any tension to drain out of your arms and neck. Your head should flop down; release your neck muscles as completely as possible. While you're here, notice how your abdominal muscles have let go—think of allowing them to stay as easy as possible when you return to uprightness.
When you're ready to sing a phrase or exercise, come up vertebra-by-vertebra from the bottom, inhaling as you rise. Sing right as you arrive in the fully upright position. After singing, return to the rag doll position to prepare for the next breath/phrase.
You might also try singing while in the upside-down rag doll position. I have had a lot of success with quick arpeggios done this way. Non-habitual things tend to happen on the high notes; you may experience a whole new sense of "placement" of these notes. [Note: I use "placement" to refer to where a note finds itself, never as a particular place to aim for. Be willing to let it be/feel different every time and you won't as likely go astray.]
It's obvious by the fact that I'm posting here about these movements that I find them valuable, but listen to what Joanna has to say about them:
Now try these movements out yourself, and then incorporate them into your teaching. Please leave a comment about your experience and feel free to ask me about anything that comes up.
Now get a move on!