Earlier this year, I had the wonderful privilege of presenting at the Midwest American Choral Directors Association conference, with “Process, Poise, Presence: Tools from the Alexander Technique for Wellbeing in Music and Daily Life.” Teaching Alexander Technique to choral musicians — specifically choral educators — is one of my favorite things, and I’m grateful to MACDA and all of the folks who came to my session (bright and early on a cold morning in Chicago, I should say!) We had some great discussions, and I’d like to explore one of the questions that was asked during my workshop: How do you combine ideas about ease and relaxation with the energy and engagement of muscles necessary for singing? (This topic applies to all of us, whether you are a singer or not, so keep reading either way!)
One of the problems that we sometimes encounter in the learning process is when new, beneficial information seems to be in direct conflict with existing practices that are also working. We might start to see these things as opposing: “The opposite of down is up.” “The opposite of tense is relaxed…” Right?
Not exactly. Let’s talk about “relaxation.”
What direction do you think of when you think of “relaxation?” What activities?
Perhaps collapsing into your couch after a long day. Or laying on the sand on a beautiful beach. Those are both great activities, but they don’t describe what we need for singing, for cooking, or even for working at a computer.
We want to discover for ourselves a way of being open, not-tense, but energized. “Relaxed” often conveys a sense of collapse, of a low-energy, no-muscle-engagement way of using our bodies (and often a low-energy, unfocused way of thinking. Again, no problems here, but not applicable to every activity). Relaxed might mean “down” when tense means “up.”
However, we want to find a way to be “up” — poised, buoyant, open — in ourselves, without using unnecessary tension. How?
The Alexander Technique helps us learn skills to adapt to life with just the right amount of energy, always coming from a place of poise, openness, and strength. It’s not really a relaxation technique, but a dynamic way of being that changes with the moment and the activity at hand. You’re ready to sing when it’s time to sing, to shovel mulch when it’s time to shovel mulch, or to relax on the beach when it’s time for that!
I prefer a word like release, because you can release up (like a helium balloon or a kite — opposing gravity), release out (a frisbee or ball — balanced in gravity) or release down (a bag of groceries —with gravity). If tense is up and relax is down, release is neither, and both. It’s more expansive!
One of my favorite images for release in all directions — the same kind of release we use in our bodies when standing, sitting, dancing, walking, singing, or any other non-lying-down movement) is a plant unfurling. I’m a hobby gardener, nature-lover, and “plant mom,” and I love to watch plants in the process of growing, branching, budding, unfurling leaves, blooming petals…
A few years ago in an Alexander Technique Lesson, I asked a student to think of allowing their torso to “unfurl,” like a lily leaf opening. It worked like a charm, and I now use it regularly when other directions are not clicking for a person.
Pick a word to describe the movement you see in these growing plant pictures, and then apply it to yourself. Remember, plants have roots…it’s not all “up” for them. But they unfurl from that grounded relationship in gravity.
Here are some suggestions to get you started: Unfurl. Bloom. Release. Unwind. Open. Uncoil.
You Can Never Hold Back Spring…
A friend recently sent me a video of a beautiful performance by singer Lowanna Wallace, of “You Can Never Hold Back Spring” by Tom Waits. Go ahead and take a few minutes to listen if you like.
I love the idea of not being able to “hold back” spring. It’s the same with our bodies (and minds, and spirits, because we are each one, unified, whole self.)
That buoyancy, openness, and ease is available to us all the time — and sometimes we hold it back. We hold it in and restrict it.
But the most hopeful thing about this line — “you can never hold back Spring” — is that we don’t have to do a single thing to make Spring come. It will: all on its own. And it’s the same with us.
We don’t have to “make” upright posture. We get to unfurl into it.
We don’t have to “hold” ourselves up. We can expand, unwind, and bloom.
We get the actual spring in our step by not holding it back.
…even when things aren’t optimal
And if you feel like that’s all well and good if things are optimal — no stress, no work, no worries — take a look at this guy. This is a kalanchoe, an offshoot of the beautiful one I featured first in the plants above. It wasn’t doing so great, and so I snapped off most of its leaves off to use them as starts (gotta love succulents for their ease of propagation!) I left the empty stem in its dirt in the cup. Didn’t water it; just left it there. And look what it did…new leaves.
So I snipped off that part and put it in soil, and guess what it did? More!
You Can. Not. Hold. Back. the life force of this plant.
(Don’t worry, I’m giving it water again…here it is today):
That’s available to you too.
A little wish of release.
A little hope towards the sun.
A little grounding into the earth.
You have the option to unfurl, as you choose.
Whatever season it is in your world today — Happy Spring.