New York City — and it seems my neighborhood of Chelsea in particular — is in a perpetual state of renewal. To exercise my dogs, I walk around a lot and am continually amazed by the number of scaffoldings and construction sites to be seen.
I’ve noticed that a “construction” site usually starts out as a demolition site. Before a new, glitzy building can be built, the old, decrepit structure must be destroyed and the debris removed.
For example, this hideous monstronsity housing a useless opera company
was fortunately destroyed so that the good citizens of Chelsea could fill their bellies with cheap, hormone-enhanced poultry, deep-fried onion flowers, and neon-blue cocktails at Dallas BBQ:
Let’s return to yesterday’s example of relearning how to walk. Many of my Alexander students, when initially experiencing a more easeful way of walking, lose their balance or trip over their own feet or bump into my furniture. I interpret this phenomenon to mean that their brains, used to managing their walking movements in a physical environment of tension, are initially unable to accurately process the sensory information coming in because they are still compensating for tensions that no longer exist.
Fortunately, our brains are very “plastic,” or receptive to change, and very soon learn to accommodate to the new conditions. In the case of walking in an Alexander lesson, students are normally enjoying steady balance and increased gracefulness within minutes. We had to destroy their old tension-based system of balance in order to allow a new, improved, ease-based balance to come about. Perhaps this transition occurs so quickly in the case of walking because most of us walked freely at some (early) stage of our lives. The neural pathways for free walking already exist. They just became obscured over time, and are easily re-established once the tense-walking pathways are eradicated.
Since most people have never sung with a free technique, the transition from the destruction phase to the new, improved, ease-based technique phase can take longer to accomplish. After tearing down the undesired tension-based technique (metaphorically — there is no violence involved!), there is no underlying correct technique to reassert itself. We have to start building your new technique from scratch.
Having no technique, albeit temporarily, can seem even worse than having a bad technique, but only if you take the short view. In the long run, once you discard your tension-based technique and address yourself to the process of discovering how to make sounds healthily, you will eventually enjoy an effortless production, an increased range, and a more beautiful sound.
It takes a lot of fortitude in the meantime to refuse to sing according to the “old way.” But each time you strain for that high note, you are re-establishing an undesired neural pathway. As Cornelius Reid used to quip, “Practice makes permanent.”
Or in the words of Terry Laughlin, the founder of the Total Immersion swimming method, “Don’t practice struggle.” You’ll do yourself the most good by committing to ease in every phrase, in every note you sing.