BodyMinded: Alexander Technique for Voice Professionals

The Alexander technique is known as a useful adjunct to training in vocal circles, however, while many people have heard about it, there is a lot of misconception. Today I hope to introduce how it works and how powerful it is when effectively applied.

To begin: Tasmanian actor overcomes his ‘hoarse voice sore throat’ problem.

F.M Alexander was a Tasmanian and an actor at a time when there was no amplification available.  After suffering a regular loss of voice while performing, he started a process of rigorous self-observation to find out what was going on.  He knew that the hoarseness and pain got worse when he performed, so it must have been related to HOW he was performing… but what was he doing?

Alexander’s solution came after a long process of experimentation, and he was surprised to discover that not only had he overcome his voice problem, he had developed a process that led to profound improvement in health and well-being.

Now 100+ years after his birth there are Alexander Technique teachers around the world, teaching people from all walks of life to find their optimal coordination.

So what did he discover?

Alexander found that natural good posture, essential to the good use of the voice, is dynamic and responsive, constantly moving, providing support against the force of gravity and organising the timing, sequencing and rhythm of the parts. While that cannot be ‘made to happen’ through effort, it can be ‘directed to happen’ naturally via conscious direction of your spatial sense…

Unfortunately for many, this dynamically balanced poise, ease and power are easily disturbed by habits of tension or collapse. Especially after years of training, or in response to stress, habits of interference can lead to a frustrating and ongoing struggle with vocal performance, as it did for Alexander.

Alexander said…
“You translate everything, whether physical, mental or spiritual, into muscular tension”

The Alexander Technique teaches people how to think about how they move, in the service of natural coordination, ease power and grace, especially while using the voice.

Try these activities:

  1. The Spatial Sense

Make a vocal sound of some kind, perhaps you are a singer and make an open sound or a non-singer and you just make an ‘AH’ sound for a second or two. Notice how it feels to make that sound… and what you are drawn to notice in your body.

Now consciously shift your attention to your head… that’s right, above your jaw, above your ear-level… up to your skull. Did you want to move it? You don’t have to move it, but you do want your head to be able to move easily… We are talking about ‘knowing where your head is in relation to your body’, that is, accessing your spatial sense consciously. Note that this is different from any direct idea of effort or movement per se. Now, while thinking of your head above your jaw, make your sound again. How was it different from the first time? What happens if you try this experiment while walking?

So, with this as the beginning let’s do the next experiment.

  1. The Direction of the Air

Alexander demonstrated that the sense we have of our own bodies and how we are moving is often inaccurate. We habituate to the way we normally feel, so changes are likely to feel strange, even wrong. With the voice, for example, it is not unusual to see people compressing down in their torso to make a sound, and it feels right to them to do so. In BodyMinded we teach people ‘conscious cooperation’ with their human design and with the physics of actions. You are probably familiar with how sound is made in the voice-box (larynx), by the movement of air up the windpipe (trachea). Have you ever consciously thought about this movement as you use your voice? Let’s combine the first exercise with the second… as you create your sound, think of the air going up to produce that sound. What happens to your voice as you do this? How does it feel?

  1. The Action Plan

Now we are going to add something about your desired sound. Perhaps you just made a sound at a volume that seemed easy and natural to you. What happens if you decide to double the volume? In Alexander’s case, he would immediately notice an increase in tension, a stiffening of his head on his neck, perhaps you even lifted your chin a little?

The way we carry out our actions is largely pre-determined by habits gained over our lifetime so far. When you add to your action plan… “I want it to be louder”, the changes that occur will depend on the idea you have of what you want and feeling of how it happens. In the BodyMinded process, we help you identify clearly, what you want, which sounds simple but can be surprising to explore.

Now we will build a ‘BodyMinded Instruction’ from these three parts… “I know I have a head, it moves easily over my spine, so I can think of air going up as I decide to make a louder sound”. Did the way you made the louder sound change?

The BodyMinded process teaches you how to generate instructions for yourself and others that are built from the relation between general or overall coordination; cooperation with human design; and a constructive action plan. Each part of this triumvirate can be ‘unpacked’ and explored over time, leading to a wonderful and effective set of dynamic tools for your own performance and your teaching.

“Unless stated otherwise, this article represents only the views of the author and not the views of the AVA”

Greg Holdaway is Director of BodyMinded: Sydney Alexander Technique, where he trains Alexander Technique teachers.  Greg has developed a unique professional training, BodyMinded which integrates up-to-date science and Alexander Technique principles for actionable practical skills for use with clients and students.

7 habits that affect your voice

7 Habits that affect your Voice

What is the definition of a habit? It simply means a repetitive behaviour that occurs regularly, based on your subconscious mind. All of us have habits, and some of them can be classified as good or bad habits. Whatever the case, changing a habit requires conscious thought and a conscious choice. And, changing habits is never easy. How many times have we thought we need to stand up straighter, only to slump a few minutes later?

I often teach vocal hygiene habits, which include: adequate sleep, warmups, hydration, reduction in caffeine etc. However, I had hardly considered the impact of postural habits till I learnt Body Mindedness, which follows the principles of the  Alexander Technique. Sure, I was aware of the usual stand up straight, reduced tension in larynx etc, however, I discovered loads more.  In this article, I will discuss the habits we use when we speak or sing, and how they can be detrimental to the human voice. These are based on the principles of the Alexander Technique, and research is quoted from, “Voice and the Alexander Technique”, Jane R Heirich, 2005.

1) Habits from too little muscular effort: The postural slump

This is the most common form of posture seen, especially when people work at computers, head forward, shoulders slumped and rounded back. This collapsing of physical structure results in low muscle tone and in turn, downward direction of the voice.

2) Over-arched back

Most of us have been taught to stand up straight in order to sing or speak well. Best intentions aside, that may result in an exaggerated lumbar curve, lifting of the sternum, shoulders back, as well as pelvis forward.

3) Stiffened neck and throat

One of the most prevalent tendencies when singing or speaking is when the neck muscles are overused and stiffened.  When the head neck muscles are stiffened, they result in TMJ problems. A habitually clenched jaw usually results from a habitual clenching of the head neck muscles.

4) Knee-locking habit – which results from a stiffened torso.

Sometimes, singers and speakers have been advised to ground themselves and grip the floor, and hence grip the floor with their toes, which invariably lock their knees and disallows a free voice. When not on stage or performing, this overused pattern of knee locking may start off as lower back pain.

5) Rib reserve

Any stiffening of the rib cage muscles alters our breathing. Classically trained singers are usually trained on rib reserve, where they hold their rib cage up and out after a deep inhalation, and maintaining that posture whilst singing. The diaphragm moves up, however rib cage hardly moves laterally. Rib cage flexibility is required for the singer to utilise his full vocal range.

6) Facial muscles

Speakers and singers usually learn to over-articulate vowels and consonants, in order to be articulate. The problem occurs when the singer puts in too much muscular energy in saying consonants which interferes with their vocal range. Vowels carry the element of sound and tone, hence it is worth practising saying vowels effortlessly, rather than too much energy on articulating consonants. Some teachers request their students to sing with a smile, which distorts the intended vowel sound. A good way to instruct would be to use their inner smile, or smile with their eyes when singing.

7) Talking with the whole body

In addition to using all of the excess work described above, some speakers/singers use other parts of their body when talking. Eg:  tightening shoulder girdle, holding elbows tightly when making a sound.

In conclusion, each and every one of us has different habitual ways of standing, sitting, walking, when we are not performing ( Singing or public speaking). These habitual patterns of posture then creep in, when we are singing or speaking. Habits are subconscious and we hardly notice them, till something affects our performance.

The best way to check your posture would be to stand in front of the mirror and go through those pointers. If you are unsure, you are most welcome to drop me a line or speak to an Alexander Technique practitioner, who can steer you in the correct direction.

“Unless stated otherwise, this article represents only the views of the author and not the views of the AVA”

Thila Raja is a Speech Pathologist, who specializes in voice training. She helps people recognize their vocal skills and express themselves clearly. Thila loves helping professionals communicate to their best.

Top ten tips to a healthy voice

  • Use your voice well!  Learn to optimize healthy voice  production.  If you do a lot of talking  or singing, learn to produce voice well – without strain or damage.
  • Keep your voice hydrated! Adequate  hydration is very important for healthy voice and vocal folds.  Drink at least 2 – 3 litres of water per day. Steaming helps vocal wellness.
  • Warm up your voice! (As you  would the rest of your body) if you’re going to embark on prolonged talking or  singing – e.g. Teacher, Minister of Religion or Call Centre Operator.
  • Be wary talking or singing above background  noise!  This can strain your voice so you need to recognize and avoid high voice risk situations.
  • Don’t smoke and avoid smoky environments!
  • Don’t repeatedly clear your throat and avoid coughing excessively! These activities damage your voice.
  • Consider using amplification (microphone or megaphone) where loud voice is necessary.
  • Certain medications and drinks can dehydrate your voice. These include antihistamines, cold and flu medications,  coffee and alcohol. Take these into account when talking or singing.
  • Don’t scream or shout! Using loud voice without damage requires special skills. If you have to use loud voice, get specialist training from a Voice Teacher or Speech Pathologist.
  • Especially look after your voice during  allergies and upper respiratory tract infections!  Your voice is more  susceptible to damage at these times.

Remember  it’s important to seek evaluation and advice from an Ear, Nose and Throat  Specialist if your voice is hoarse or  husky for more than a few weeks, particularly if you smoke or don’t have cold  symptoms.