Alexander Technique, Singing and Performance

Joanna Sleight

Many of the effects of practising Alexander Technique as a singer are observable to an external audience: the improvement in my posture has given me a more convincing stage presence which I hope allows an audience to have confidence in me when I stand up to perform.  It has freed my vocal and breathing mechanisms to work with a greater degree of ease. As with most singers of my acquaintance, from time to time I have had my share of technical problems associated with unbalanced muscular activity – tongue root, larynx or jaw tension, and confusion (caused by a multiplicity of breathing techniques from different singing teachers) resulting in a poorly co-ordinated breathing mechanism.  Learning AT has helped me to address these over the time I have been practising it. Any musician familiar with the idea of AT would probably not be surprised to hear this – reducing muscle tension and strain, improving posture and co-ordination, performing with freedom are the reasons so many musicians are drawn to the technique. However, the most significant effect from my perspective on my singing and performing has been less outwardly visible: the transformation of my thinking has been profound.

AT has taught me to be invested in the process not the outcome: paying attention to my intention; finding what obstacles I am putting in my own path and letting them go.  I have learned not to try to “do the audience’s job for them” and judge the sound I make, but instead to put my energy – in practice and in performance – into allowing a free and healthy sound, thinking my way into the character and musical style, finding consistency, looking after my vocal health.  I no longer aim to make a ‘beautiful sound’ (whatever that might be to any individual ear) – what I hear inside my head is nothing like what is audible to an audience, which in any case changes with the room acoustic.  AT has taught me that the feedback which I do hear and feel internally is not always reliable – it is very difficult for example to hear my own accent and having a cold can completely change what I hear and feel, so working on thinking and process is more effective and replicable for me than listening for any particular sound.

This attitude of allowing myself to do my job and the audience to do theirs has changed my feelings about performance and reduced the amount of performance anxiety that I experience – allowing other people’s enjoyment (or not) of the performance to be whatever it is, means that I judge my own performance based on how well I have executed the process which I had planned and practised, rather than by how the audience respond.  Giving up any attempt to control the reaction of the listener has been immensely liberating for me.

Joanna SleightI do still feel ‘nerves’ or rather ‘excitement’: the sympathetic nervous system response to a potentially threatening experience.  Training to be an AT teacher has improved my understanding of the body’s overall pattern of response to stress situations and that awareness allows me to utilise my body’s stress responses to enhance my performance, rather than attempting to suppress the nerves and thereby negatively affect my performance as I would have done in the past. If all else fails and I am shaking like a leaf, I have the confidence of knowing that I always have a choice available to me which will give me a focus and help me to come to my centre: I can always choose in any given moment to free my neck.

Coming to stillness and calm during performance can be tricky.  Particularly in recital scenarios, one of the hardest parts of stagecraft is learning to do nothing.  During instrumental sections of the music such as the playout at the end of an aria, it is important not to let the performance energy collapse or make extraneous movements or facial expressions, or indeed to glaze over – anything which might detract from the emotional tension created in the more ‘active’ performance of singing.  This is when inhibition and direction come into their own for me during performance – when I feel the desire to make myself more comfortable or let my gaze drop, scratch my nose or close my music, I inhibit it and allow myself to stay with any discomfort.  I give my AT directions, and particularly direct my hands so that even if they are doing nothing, they feel purposeful to me – there is nothing that feels more awkward to me on stage than not knowing what to do with my hands!  Thinking consciously about things which would previously have been driven by unconscious habit gives me more control, which in turn leads to a more assured performance.

Joanna Sleight (2018)