freedom for life

The Edinburgh Alexander and Therapy Centre has been offering Alexander lessons and workshops since 1994.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015 17:58

How To Sing Upside Down

I am awe of the athleticism of opera singers generally, and Wagnerian singers in particular, although not because of the popular misconception that they are loud. Wagner operas are conversational in style and he scored them so that the orchestra gives room for the singers to be heard. So the idea of singing upside down suspended from the set by a wire, leaves me somewhat amazed. Yet it is what Robert Lepage asked one of Karen Carghill’s colleagues to do in his production of ‘The Ring’ at the Met.

She was talking about this at an SCO study day on Wagner and in speaking of the technical challenges her colleague faced, I was delighted to hear her mention the Alexander Technique as the way to meet the problem that allows you to get back into your back and give you the ‘strength’ that allows you to breathe freely. For Karen Carghill, ‘breath is petrol for singing’ and you could easily adapt that to say that breath is petrol for life and it is useful to know how to co-ordinate things well to make the most of your natural capacity to breathe.

Rather than focusing on the mechanics of breathing though, I would rather talk about direction and the relational nature of Alexander’s work. Alexander was very clear that it was the relation between head, neck and torso that mattered and not the position - which is how most people approach postural problems and Alexander’s work. The trouble with thinking in terms of position is that it invariably involves trying to fix things by holding yourself somewhere, interfering with breathing and dynamic movement.

Breathing is something that starts when we are born and continues throughout life. It starts before we master activities such as sitting or standing which are foundational achievements for making progress with all skilled activities which human beings undertake. It also starts before we learn to co-ordinate and control sound for speech. It is useful to note that babies are capable of crying for long periods until they are heard, without any harm to their voice. They do not lose their voice, or become hoarse, they just cry. They have not learned to interfere with breathing by articulating sounds or being upright.

It is only as these things are learned that we can talk of good or bad use, although personally I prefer to keep such terms out of the whole thing when teaching and think in terms of better or worse and what is helpful in a given situation, including singing upside down. Which brings us to the problem of how to stay in you back while hanging from a wire. Well the answer is to think up even if your head is pointing down and here is a relationship that we have within ourselves that is often hidden, one that goes to the deepest layer of muscles that allow us to extend, that attach to our spine, at our core. These muscles allow us to lengthen and for that to happen the head needs to go in a certain direction, which would be described as ‘up’ in terms of our normal orientation and relationship with external space. The ‘up’ though in Alexander is always in relationship to how our heads, necks and torso are connecting and that means in swimming front crawl, up is towards the end of the pool to which we are swimming, or in semi-supine, to the wall behind our head. Remembering this facilitates much more dynamic movement and of course will help you, should you ever be faced with the challenge of singing upside down!

Published in Lessons from the Chair
Friday, 16 May 2014 15:42

Singing and Dancing in High Heels

When I started teaching twenty years ago, I think it fair to say that most Alexander teachers, or at least the ones I encountered, were prejudiced against high heels and would have recommended something more ‘sensible.’ I was happy to go with that and tended to recommend ‘sensible’ shoes, flat shoes. This suited me, shoes for me are for walking in, I have always hated buying them and once I get some that work for me, I will keep buying them, until the shoemaker changes them or stops making them. That though is me, and not everybody, thankfully, is like me, something that was vividly brought home to me when I attended a workshop, some years ago, run by Viv Burr who was at that time researching how people construed their footwear. Viv had us elaborating how we all construed our footwear in small groups and while my constructions were very limited, the two young Italian women I was working with had elaborate and detailed meaning worlds for the shoes that they and other women wore.

Since then heels have got taller, more commonplace, and I am beginning to see a lot of women out in town in the day with reasonably flat shoes on who are significantly distorting their frames from walking in high heels at night. It is a growing problem that is creating a series of functional problems that can only get worse with time. This is a pity, as it is easy to learn how to walk in high heels, providing you pick the right heels and keep them off during the day.

The right heels are heels that do not rock if you gently push them, if they do, you are much more like to fall over. (Chyna Whyne demonstrates the rocking test here.) Once you have got the right shoes on it is a matter of trusting the heel to support you as you lengthen up and then it is easy to walk and from walking you can easily get to how to dance in high heels. Or even dancing and singing as I was teaching a couple of professional singers to do at a workshop this weekend. They wanted to be able to dance and sing in high heels without pain, so we looked at application of the technique in relation to high heels, dancing and singing, so they can put it all together like Beyonce. It was a great workshop as their singing became much more emotionally connected and moving, while being able to stand and dance in their high heels.

If you want to see how it is done, it is worth checking out this video of Chyna Whyne, a former backing singer to, amongst others Eric Clapton, and Alexander Technique teacher, who now specialises in teaching women how to walk in stilettos. Chyna demonstrates how it all goes together. In doing so she makes the point that Alexander made about chairs when asked about what sort of chairs he would recommend. He answered that what really matters is your use and it is the same with heels, once they pass the rocking test it is up to you, and with a little bit of learning and application, you can save yourself a whole lot problems later on.

Published in Lessons from the Chair