COMMON STRESSES OF THE “ELASTIC SUIT”
LACK OF BODY AWARENESS
Perhaps the most common cause of vocal difficulty lies in a lack of awareness of how we use our body in daily life. We are experts at screening out sensory information that is not directly connected to achieving our goals. This is a blessing that allows us to achieve our objectives without being swamped by irrelevant sensory information. An activity as simple as making a cup of coffee would become unmanageably difficult without this ability.
It can also become a curse. As we focus more intensely on goal directed behaviour our body can become increasingly filtered out of awareness. Day by day we accumulate small, seemingly insignificant amounts of tension without even noticing it. Just as constantly dripping water can distort the hardest stone, these small accumulations of tension have a detrimental effect on both body structure and voice.
Illustrations (to be added)
An ‘Evolutionary Map” = Our shrinking focus From Hunter Gatherer to Smart phone user
Hunter Gatherer ‘Wide focus/ the world’s room’
‘Homo Smart phone-us’
Most people have only the vaguest of ideas about how their body is put together. And many of us simply have wrong ideas about how the body is structured. How many of us, for example, can accurately locate the full length and circumference of the spine; where the head and spine join each other; where the larynx is; where the jaw joint is; and where the ribs and diaphragm join with the spine? All of these parts, to name but a few, are part and parcel of the singers stock in trade. Misleading ideas have a direct bearing on how we use the voice. It is possible to get a sound out of a trumpet by blowing in the wrong end but the process is wasteful of effort and the sound produced is disappointing.
the startle pattern
FEAR AND ANXIETY
Many people who are confident in all other respects would do just about anything to avoid singing with or in front of other people. In situations of perceived threat a group of responses called the “fight/flight” syndrome comes into force. Adrenalin is released into the blood stream. Breathing and heart rate speed up. The muscles become more tense. The shoulder and neck muscles are among the first to contract, pulling the head down, tortoise fashion, towards the centre of the body.
The person’s face might drain of colour or they may blush. The pupils dilate heightening visual acuity and leading, in some cases, to tunnel vision. For the primitive hunter/gatherer this whole pattern was discharged by actual fight or flight after which everything returned to normal. It is not appropriate, however, to “fight” with your audience or to take “flight” and lock yourself in the lavatory, tempting as both options may seem at the time! Fortunately there are many ways of creatively channelling the energy of the fight/flight pattern to enhance vocal confidence which we will explore in depth in the following chapters.
PRECONCEPTION OF EFFORT
Consider the image of someone lifting a heavy looking suitcase only to find it empty or lifting a light looking case and finding it full of bricks. If the lifter does not pause momentarily to truly consider the weight of the case, they may sustain an injury. Singing, like lifting the case, is equally a muscular activity. Taking time to pause and consider appropriate effort, during practice or before starting to sing, is one of the single most important elements in freeing the vocal and breathing mechanisms.
IMITATION AND MODELLING
How often is grown son or daughter’s voice mistaken for that of their father or mother on the telephone? Why is it that we can recognise certain individuals from a distance? Why do some dogs look like their owners? Young children, especially pre-verbal children, learn a vast amount through imitation and mimicry. The child adopts, to a greater or lesser degree, the postural, movement, breathing and vocal patterns of her carers. Models of vocal excellence are scarce, however, and only the most fortunate of children will find them in their immediate family. This book endeavours to present standards of mind/body and vocal excellence for the aspiring singing student to continuously develop.
When you are exposed to a constant unchanging stimulus you will automatically, assuming it is not too painful, screen it out of conscious awareness. If you live next to a busy road you may have to make a conscious decision in order to actually hear the traffic. The author and Aikido teacher George Leonard talks about this in terms of homeostasis:
“Our body, brain and behaviour have a built in tendency to stay the same within rather narrow limits, and to snap back when changed- and it is a very good thing they do.
… if your body temperature moved up or down by ten percent, you would be in big trouble. The same thing applies to your blood-sugar level and to any number of other functions of your body. This condition of equilibrium, this resistance to change is called homeostasis. It characterises all self-regulating systems, from a bacterium to a frog to a human individual to a family to an organisation to an entire culture- and it applies to psychological states and behaviour as well as to physical functioning.
The problem is, homeostasis works to keep things as they are even if they aren’t very good”
F.M. Alexander, the creator of the Alexander Technique, mentions a case in which he gave a lesson to a young girl who had a severe scoliosis- an asymmetrical sideways bend of the spine. After the lesson she was considerably more balanced and symmetrical in appearance. Rather than being pleased with these changes the young girl complained bitterly about feeling all twisted up! That which was habitually twisted felt normal. And that which was balanced felt twisted and abnormal.
Although this was an extreme case it is still something that we all, to a greater or lesser degree, have to deal with across the range of our activities. Given time the experiments in this book will allow you to “re-tailor” your elastic suit into a more spacious and freer fit. This re-orientation may feel unfamiliar or even wrong in the short term. A basic willingness to familiarise yourself with the unfamiliar will accelerate the ease with which you can reset your homeostats. This will encourage a freer, more confident and dynamic use of your voice and body, regardless of your starting point.