The Alexander Technique and Singing

Lelia Calder

The Alexander Technique and Singing
Learning to cooperate with the Body’s Design


Let us suppose there is no one RIGHT WAY to sing.  By this I mean that your body is unique in size, shape, muscle strengths and weaknesses, injuries, habits and all the rest.  Furthermore, both you and your environment are constantly changing, so “getting it right” is never a once-and-for-all thing.  It is a moment-by-moment happening.  What does this mean for us as singers?

It could mean freedom; the real freedom of being fully awake and aware in this moment-to-moment reality, of being conscious of our process as we sing, and of letting go of our attachment to the results.

Consider this: by the time we hear our own sound it is past and another is being created.  Judging and attempting to fix what we are hearing is rather like looking the rear view mirror as we drive down the street.  The only opportunity for change we ever have is right now, right in the middle of the note if need be, and the means of change is our thinking because our minds and our bodies are one organism, a psycho-physical whole.

What kind of thinking would it be that doesn’t take us into the past or the future?  It is an open attention that invites information, a staying with our bodies as we do these complex things that require great skill and refinement.   It is cooperating with the body’s design so that our art appears effortless and the end result takes care of itself.

The Alexander Work addresses all of this by a process of cultivating awareness and learning to think in activity.  The first step is to really observe and gather information about ourselves.  Habits must become conscious before we can choose something else.

As you read this, notice what is going on in your body.  Is there a tightness in your neck or your shoulders, or somewhere else?  Can you release it as you become aware of it?  We all have patterns of tension that are with us constantly, sometimes even as we sleep!  As we ask our bodies for more flexibility or stamina, we need a way to neutralize the destructive habits that would interfere, the unnecessary effort that comes with overdoing.  Our very trying can be a trial to us!

Having observed ourselves closely, bad habits and all, and having realized that more “trying to get it right” merely compounds the problem of excess effort, we are ready for the next step.  This is the concept of “non-doing” which is unique to the Alexander Work: the idea that thinking, not doing, is the means by which change occurs.

Habits are by definition unconscious and, therefore, inaccessible to our best efforts at change.  How many times have we been told to loosen our jaws?  We each have our favorites, but Alexander found a nearly universal tendency to contract the body which he described as “downward pull”.  This begins with the neck and disturbs the poise of the head, which then compresses the spine thus compromising the coordination of the entire system, including the breathing which is not separate from the whole organism.

This head-neck-back relationship, so critical for freedom of movement, Alexander called the “primary control”.  It is something we are all born with, but most of us lose and must relearn.  It is easy to recognize.  When it is present there is a state of balanced integration from which specific and appropriate movement comes, spontaneously and freely.  We all have those moments and struggle to recapture them, but great artists have more of them.  We don’t need the habitual, extraneous, nervous, unconscious movements that distract us and our audiences and drain our energy.

Learning to be aware is a process in itself.  At first, it is very occasional and we notice our habits only after the fact.  We hear ourselves say, “I did it again!”  But notice what a step forward this is from the place of not knowing at all what we do.  When we begin to notice the habit as it is happening then we are almost at the point of choice.

Meanwhile, we are learning to put our intentions clearly into words, giving verbal instructions to the nervous system, which Alexander called directing.  The body then responds by giving up its habitual contraction and allowing the lengthening and widening that occurs naturally when there is no interference.  My Alexander teacher used to say, “The body is like a child.  It needs to be told clearly what you want of it.”  At the same time, we must not forget that body and mind are indivisible.  It is time to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again so that art and the artist are one.

Lelia Calder