The Alexander Technique is the study of human response. Many of our habitual responses to stimuli are tightening and compressing, which strangle the voice. The more unnecessary tension you carry, the worse your voice quality.
Alexander lessons help us to notice our unhelpful habits and to let them go. It is a technique of subtraction, a sculpting away of unnecessary muscular holding patterns.
I have many students who work in film, television, and theater and they find that the tools they learn in their Alexander lessons help unleash their best performance.
Alexander teachers will help their students identify habits which interfere with the free functioning of the voice, and through both verbal and skilled manual guidance give them the experience of using the voice and the whole body in a much easier and more coordinated manner. One of Alexander’s insights was that the free use of the voice is dependent upon the free functioning of the whole. He noted that a stutterer stutters with his whole body. This is an observation which anyone who has talked with a stutterer will be able to clearly observe. With other voice problems this may be less obvious, but an Alexander teacher is trained to observe and diagnose less obvious patterns which are not immediately obvious to an outside observer.
The teacher brings the impeding aspects of the student’s manner of vocalizing to her attention and asks her to consciously stop doing those things. It is only by stopping the old reaction to the use of the voice that allows for the possibility of a changed way of vocalizing, and the teacher’s skill in manual guidance is essential in showing the student a different possibility, which she would never otherwise have come to.
As the child of an accomplished public speaker, I was always insecure about my voice. It was tight, strained and squeaky. I got the nickname “Squeakin Deacon” in high school for performances like this:
During my years in radio news, the more anxious I got about my voice, the worse it sounded.
My father worked with me and tried to teach me abdominal breathing and voice projection but I couldn’t get it. He gave me books to read on voice but I couldn’t understand the teachings. I couldn’t incorporate the good advice.
The more I tried, the worse I got. I started getting closer to the mic because my voice was weak and I tried over-enunciating my words and on the air it just sounded like I was drowning in saliva.
While I was study Economics at UCLA in 1989, I heard voice teacher Morton Cooper interviewed on KCRW. I was mesmerized and I bought his book, Change Your Voice, Change Your Life. I tried his various voice exercises and got some short-term benefit, but nothing permanent. After a minute or two, the pitch and tone I developed from doing his patented voice press and “ahas” went away for me and I was back to my messed up starting point.
At least I had hope, however. I had intimations of what my great voice could sound like. For a minute or two, I heard something of mine that was powerful and strong. More importantly, I knew how to get to that place where I sounded good. I just had to do Dr. Cooper’s voice press and ahas and bam! My power voice returned.
I noticed from my work that when I lay down, my voice became more resonant. I was picking up clues on my road to wellville.
One day in 1989, I thought about this girl I knew in high school who had moved to Japan, so I lay down and did my voice exercises and made my voice super deep and resonant and made my apology tape from the floor and mailed it to her. When she replied, forgiving me for being a jerk, she noted that my voice sounded really deep. But nothing came of it.
Between 1998-2007, I made many appearances on radio and TV. I noticed that when I could lie down and do the interview over the phone, my voice sounded fine. When I was enthusiastic about what I said and really meant things with my heart and soul then I sounded better even if I was vertical, but I still wasn’t happy with my voice. I felt the strain as I pressed to be more powerful. The more I tried, the worse I sounded. I had the painful failure of my radio years always fresh in my psyche.
A few years ago, my friend Kate Coe wanted to interview an expert for a TV documentary she was shooting. I was qualified to speak on the topic but she knew I was stiff on camera, so she chose someone else.
I got it. I knew I was stiff. It was a hard habit to break. I was just all strain and nerves and anxiety.
I ended up doing a lot of television (60 Minutes, ABC News, Entertainment Tonight, etc), but I was not happy with my voice and with all my tension that went with it.
In the fall of 2009, I took a ten-week writing class with Terrie Silverman. The tenth class was a public performance at the Workmen’s Circle. For the days preceding, I practiced my public speaking with the assistance of my Alexander Technique teachers, but the more I tried to project my voice, the tighter I got and the worse my voice sounded.
Arriving an hour early with my girlfriend that night of December 4, 2009, I tried to do all the Alexander Technique I knew but the pressure of performance, despite my best efforts, was tightening me up. While standing in the back, Terrie had each of us go up front and read our first and last line to see if our voice projected across the room. Mine didn’t. It couldn’t fill this crappy little room. After a year of Alexander Technique teacher training, I was as tight as a drum and as loud as church mice.
“You’re an Alexander teacher,” Terrie said to me after the test. “You know how to do this.”
When my turn came to read in front of the audience, my voice started out weak and inaudible. Then a couple of sentences in, I put one hand in my pocket and that relaxed me and filled me with confidence. As I let go of unnecessary tension, my voice soared across the room.
So what exactly had gone wrong with my voice and how did the Alexander Technique fix it? What was wrong with my voice and with my life was an excess of tension. If you have needless compression anywhere in your body, even in your little toe, that’s going to negatively effect your voice. Tight muscles don’t feel and don’t transmit well. In particular, my neck was tight and my head was usually tipped back and down in a permanent fight or flight reflex (a common reaction to trauma), compressing my neck and consequently my torso. As there are more joints in the neck than anywhere else in the body, when the neck is tight, that transmits tightness throughout the body. You can’t have a tight neck and a free voice and a graceful body.
When I learned to let go of stiffening my neck, when I learned to let go of unnecessary compression throughout my body, my larynx was no longer strained and my lungs had more room to expand and everything started working better, including my voice.
Have you heard of the startle response? You hear a loud noise and you unconsciously react by the head jerking back and down on the neck and forward, with the torso contracting.
Research has shown that the startle reaction takes place within milliseconds of the stimulus, in a way that is designed to protect the body from attack. Frank Pierce Jones (1951) showed that the reflex starts with the head which jerks as the neck muscles contract and the eye muscles tighten and blink. Then the response moves down into the torso which flinches; the shoulders raise and arms stiffen, the abdominal muscles contract and the chest flattens, then the knees flex – all this in around one second. Alongside these external changes, breathing and blood pressure levels change and the heart rate accelerates. Interestingly, ‘the response begins with extension’ and immediately changes to flexion.
Whilst the muscular changes that take place in the startle reaction can return to normal fairly quickly if the danger recedes, breathing and the vascular system take rather longer to calm down, as the Parasympathetic Nervous System, PNS, begins to take over to bring back a state of calm to the whole system. If the perceived danger continues, then the fight/flight response may develop.
People can also react with the startle response to other milder stimuli, such as a phone ringing. The more anxious and stressed a person is, the more frequently they tend to over-react to situations with this pattern of flinching and contracting. This is very much the case in people who suffer from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD and they can display an exaggerated startle response, or hyperekplexia.
Most people go into a mild form of startle response every time they sit down, speak, or even breathe. Over the years, these thousands of patterns of clenching and unnecessary tension place a person in an ever-tightening strait-jacket of damaging habits so that the tasks of ordinary life become increasingly onerous. How are you going to feel happy when getting out of a chair or reaching into the frig or driving a car becomes difficult?
I am not exempt from these tightening tendencies, but my practice of the Alexander Technique has helped me to reduce my layers of unnecessary tension. I’ve learned that when I smile, my jaw tends to release unnecessary tension and move down and forward, increasing my resonance and vocal range. Also, my face softens and becomes more alive to the moment. One downside of the Alexander Technique is that it becomes easier for people to read you.
I charge $100 per lesson (which usually lasts 45 minutes or longer). Bring a friend or two at no extra charge. Call me at 323-528-5814 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am located half a block from Beverly Hills.
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