From the category archives:

Performance & Potential

In the last post, I outlined the 4 steps that F.M. Alexander developed and documented in Man’s Supreme Inheritance for applying conscious control to the learning or re-learning of a skill (in our example, the skill of singing).  Here I would like to example the first step as it relates to
singing.  The first step, you recall, is to get a “detailed and accurate idea (a concept in mind) of what movements we have to make.”  It means we must have a clear idea of what is not needed.  The idea is Ease in singing.

When I work with someone on singing, I am clear about what Ease in singing is and I seek to communicate that sense.  I give examples that compare the sound of strain to a free sound.  Listen for yourself.

Here are recordings of Cecilia Bartoli and Von Stade, two mezzo-sopranos singing the same aria.

Ease is what Cecilia Bartoli does not have, and Ease is what Frederica Von Stade does have.

And here, compare two sopranos, a modern singer Beverly Sills, trained in a forced way of singing, with Maria Ivogun, who used a very “old” approach.  They sing the same aria.

Again, Ease is what Beverly Sills does not have, and Ease is what Maria Ivogun does have.

These examples give you the idea, the concept of ease.

Cecilia Bartoli, Beverly Sills, and so many other modern singers produce a horrible, choppy, pushed, wobbly, ugly, and out of tune sound.  This is the model that most people have for what classical singing should sound like.  We need a different model!  For you cannot sing what you cannot imagine.

Ivogun and Von Stade studied the method of Manuel Garcia (1804 -1906).  Garcia discovered the laryngoscope and wrote his Complete Treatise on the Art of Singing in 1846.  He was the foremost voice teacher of his time and taught at the Royal Academy in London until his death in 1906.  His teaching method was the study of the means whereby the voice would become free of all extra efforts.

What you hear when you listen to a singer who studied his method are the 3 basic elements of great singing: steadiness of sound, beauty of timbre (tone), and irreproachable intonation.  Ivogun studied with Mathilde Marchesi, who herself was a pupil of Garcia.  Von Stade studied Garcia before she became well known.

Garcia’s approach, like Alexander’s, encourages the freedom of Use that leads to mastery.  I use the Garcia method when working with singers, and in the next post I will take you through the remaining steps outlined in Man’s Supreme Inheritance, moving from idea into practice, utilizing Garcia’s work.

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How do we go about becoming more consciously directed, not only in terms of general living, but in the acquisition of skill?  Let us select a skill as an example: singing.  We want to learn to sing or improve our singing and we have gone to a teacher for help.

In Part II of his first book, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, F.M. Alexander sets out a process very clearly and in great detail.  (If you have not read this book I urge you to do so. But go slowly and take much time.)  He gives us 4 steps to follow consecutively.

1.  We must have a detailed and accurate idea (a concept in mind) of what movements we have to make.

In singing this means that we have to know the simplicity and ease of singing as an idea.  This is a very tall order because if we had a clear and accurate idea of singing with ease and simplicity we would be already miles ahead of beginner status, which presumably we are not.  The teacher must know what ease in singing is and is not.  The teacher must know that ease in singing is singing with no unnecessary muscular movements.

2.  We must put a stop to any old subconscious habits we have built up that do not serve us.

This means we have to tell ourselves that we don’t know how to sing with total ease and simplicity.  If we knew we would do it.  So any ideas we have about singing and what is needed we must put entirely aside.  This means any idea we have of “taking a full breath” for example, or making a “beautiful sound” we must disregard.  We inhibit that thinking and we inhibit acting out on the idea of “make a beautiful sound” and “taking in the air.”  This step is even more important because if we are to get the right idea about singing, and make that idea whole and real for others to hear, we have to stop (inhibit) any wrong headedness we have held dearly in mind.

3.  We must continue inhibiting those old ideas while at the same time setting up improved conditions for new means-whereby.

These new and improved conditions will allow the breath to enter the body freely and provide space from the old clumsy forced habits that we
believed were absolutely necessary.  Improved conditions and means-whereby will let the muscles coordinate spontaneously for a new (and to us, novel) way of singing wherein the voice unites with the breath in a free manner.

4.  In the last step, under the skillful guidance of the teacher we must give consent to allow their muscles to contract and expand in this newly directed way.

This process must be repeated over and over again until new habits and new ideas have been formed.  It is only with repetition and time that we learn to trust these new sensations of freedom and ease.

This, my friends, is how FM first taught himself and then us “how thought becomes an activity.”  His genius was that he changed his frame of reference from one of “I know” to one of “I do not know.”  Nothing new happens if we keep on going about it in the same old (habitual) way!

Read the book.  He wrote if for you.

In the next entry we will explore in greater detail how these steps apply to the study of singing.

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Human Excellence

April 14, 2011

“There is an ideal of excellence for any particular craft or occupation; similarly there must be an excellence that we can achieve as human beings. That is, we can live our lives as a whole in such a way that they can be judged not just as excellent in this respect or in that occupation, but as excellent, period. Only when we develop our truly human capacities sufficiently to achieve this human excellence will we have lives blessed with happiness.”

 Aristotle

 I contend that FM Alexander managed to offer us a pathway to develop this very human excellence.  By overcoming our shortcomings and the traits that block us, we can learn to more fully realize our potential and enjoy a greater measure of happiness.  What is demanded of us is a great deal of self-examination.

 But how does the practical work of an Alexander lesson relate to human excellence in the general sense?  How do we possibly connect standing and sitting in a chair (with some gentle “adjustments” along the way) with an excellence that leads to happiness in life?  What on earth has one to do with the other?

 Think of it this way.  If we are habitually distorting ourselves just in order to stand on the planet, if we’re constantly contorting ourselves as we move, and slumping to sit, if we go about the very basic tasks of life while simultaneously pushing ourselves down and lifting ourselves up, then we are in a bad fix.

 In this condition, as we set about to master any specific trade or occupation or any avocation with specialized demands, we bring all of our habitual baggage with us.  In the process we can make an even bigger mess of things.  We pressure ourselves to excel, practice longer and harder, and get better and better at distorting and blocking ourselves.

 The process of learning that FM Alexander discovered, offers us a way to change this condition, because it offers us a way to change our habits.  With the help of a good teacher we can have a new experience; we learn to Stop/ Think/ Observe/ and Allow change.  This leads to self-possession and toward self-mastery.  This is the kind of excellence I believe Aristotle had in mind; excellence that can help us to “have lives blessed with happiness.”

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The Need to Be Right

March 6, 2011

By Stella Weigel

The King’s Speech, based on events from the life of King George VI of England, has taken the world of cinema by storm.  The film shows “Bertie” struggle to overcome his stammer and find his voice, in order to rally the free world to resist Nazi aggression.  The film illustrates how a “need to be right” can have crippling effects on speech and deed.

Bertie’s father has the highest expectations of his son, as does an entire nation.  Lionel Logue, an expert in speech disorders, encouragers Bertie.  He is able, with some pushing, prodding, and a little manipulation, to help Bertie break through some of the habitual defences that he has used to suppress himself, and suppress his voice.  When Bertie starts to own his authority as a man, he starts to become the leader that his country needs.

Alexander understood that the “need to be right” was a root cause in many of our troubles.  In fact in many ways, Bertie is no different from Alexander’s golfer who cannot keep his eye on the ball, or the stutterer (both found in The Use of the Self), or you, or I.

The pupil attempts to please the teacher, and becomes, therefore, nearly un-teachable.  The teacher is not able to provide an improved “means whereby.”  And the pupil tries harder and harder to correct himself, “to be right.”  This circle of failure leads to a loss of self-confidence and to a renewed fear of always being “wrong.”

Alexander Technique lessons encourage us to go out of our comfort zone and be willing to be “wrong.”  We will most certainly be wrong, since from the outset we have faulty habitual use, and faulty kinaesthesia.  The lessons help us tolerate being wrong, as we stop, reconsider and perhaps choose a new direction governed not by habit, or how others think we ought to be, but how we wish to be.

Guest Blogger, Stella Weigel, is an Alexander Technique student at The Constructive Teaching Centre, London, the world’s oldest and largest Alexander Technique training school.  She had Alexander Technique lessons from 2006-2009 before embarking on her training in April 2009.  She lives in the city of London.

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FM Alexander figured out that our thinking shapes our feelings and our feelings shape our thinking, so if either of those two inputs is warped, both will become warped, and lead to a “debauched kinesthesia.”

Most people will rely on their own kinesthetic sense as their guide in every decision in their lives, whether it be reliable, unreliable, or somewhere in between.  Every decision we make in life, whether in matters of how we will live, who we will marry, how we deal with pressures and stress, etc., will be affected by the state of our kinesthesia.  That’s one reason it is so important to examine premises upon which we base our reasoning, to see if our thinking (or feeling) is contributing to an accurate kinesthetic sense, or a faulty one. 

Since most of the time we are striving to be right, and most of the time we are not right at all, it is a safe bet that we all can benefit from better overall Kinesthesia.  We can develop it through stopping, through self-observation (with the help of a lot of mirrors).

Be willing to examine your thinking.  Be willing to say, “I don’t know,” or “I thought I knew, but when I look at what I am doing habitually to get what I want… Maybe, just maybe… I can do this with more efficiency if I go about it in a new way.”

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