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)

For three years, while training as an Alexander Technique teacher, I commuted by train from my home in Medway, Kent, to St Pancras Station where I would then have a 25 minute walk to City Alexander Technique School near Old Street, North London. As I made this journey throughout my first year I would become quite proud at how much better my posture and movement was compared to the general public. With my head held effortlessly high on top of my spine I admit I felt like I had more confidence and enjoyed it. So many people moved like they had the weight of the world on their shoulders and their movements were slow and cumbersome. They heavily trudged while I floated along.

During my second year I would get slightly irked towards what I could only vaguely say was people’s lack of awareness of their surroundings. They looked preoccupied with their own thoughts as if they were bored of using their eyes to see the world and people around them. I became a bit overconfident as my movements gave off a sense of purpose and intelligence.

But come my third year, I forgot my bravado and would simply be a little sad by what I saw as I walked across a reasonably busy part of London. Because now when I looked at people I not only saw ‘bad posture’, as I had in my first year, nor people whose thinking was preoccupied with other things, as I had in my second year, but I saw many of the general public as being almost as if they were in a trance, rigidly walking along an imaginary groove in the path as if they were a Scalextric slot car, without the freedom to choose a different way of moving or engaging with the world and it’s occupants. I guess the drudgery of their daily routine meant they were on autopilot and controlled by habit, under too much stress to think about a better way of moving. And, like a slot car, there was an accident waiting to happen…

On one occasion I saw a delivery man walking with a trolley crossing the road without even looking at the traffic. He came to the cycle lane, and, owing to the fact that he simply didn’t think to look left or right, clattered into an oncoming cyclist sending them both sprawling. The saddest thing is that the poor cyclist, who had done nothing wrong, came off worse as he hurt himself by falling off his bike. Not a serious injury, but the accident simply shouldn’t have happened.

When I arrived at the training course I looked at a picture of F. M. Alexander on one of the walls. I had always liked the picture but couldn’t say why. Now I realised what it was that I saw. He was standing in a way in which he could respond rather than react.

What do I mean by this phrase? Well, I see the words reaction and response as describing what type of movement or activity a person has available to them at any given time. By reaction I mean that there is a learnt behaviour or muscular pattern that is so ingrained it cannot be countermanded easily. It is a habit that the person has little control over. By response I’m describing a state where our movements can be chosen and performed at whichever speed we choose, in the present moment, and usually with the greatest efficiency.

Applying this to the picture of Alexander then, consider that most people seem to have to undo a number of self-imposed muscular knots and locking at joints before initiating movement. Think of those people you sometimes see standing at traffic lights with one leg crossed over the other so that the legs are arranged in an X shape. If they had to move suddenly they would have to rely on a reaction; there would be no control, no opportunity to respond effectively. Alexander on the other hand seems prepared for any interaction with the world. If someone came in and spoke to him you sense he would just raise his eyes or head slightly to look at them and then has choice whether to walk towards them or not as separate decisions that can be made quickly. You sense his initial movements could be as quick as he chooses. In fact, he looks as if he can respond at whatever speed he chooses. Certainly a stillness full of energy!

Applying this to my own emotional response I feel that my intent is more successfully carried out by the body than is achievable by habitual reaction. My upbringing meant I felt it was frowned upon to show anger. The Alexander Technique has enabled me to acknowledge there is nothing wrong in being angry at times. Walking through crowds I get frustrated by some people’s lack of awareness, irritated at how they are ignoring the world around them. I don’t use the Alexander Technique to judge whether or not it is appropriate for me to get angry or not at what I realise is a trivial thing. Instead I use it to choose how I respond or perhaps I should say what I choose to do with my anger in this situation, in relation to how it can inform my movements. For example, do I use it to move more purposefully, to think more purposefully, to give more presence to my movements, to give more confidence in myself? Can I let my voice and choice of words respond to and convey my anger? In this way the Alexander Technique stays interesting and allows me to avoid any sense of prescriptive behaviour which would not allow me to respond how I wish.

So responding rather than reacting is not a superimposed calmness, it is not moving with deliberation or talking with long pauses before each sentence to gain control of your breath, but a way in which our intent is more likely to be performed accurately, very much as we intend it to be. In this way we can gain a greater sense of control and wellbeing by using the principles of the Alexander Technique.

Utilising lightly poised positions which enable us to have a mechanical advantage in everyday activities means we have freedom to respond to the busy world around us with an efficient movement always available to us.

David Orman (2018)

Get in touch with your spine. When the spine is allowed to function as an integrated whole it gives us strength. It’s an interesting fact that the only parts of ourselves we cannot see without the use of a mirror are the head and the back. So we need to develop a different kind of awareness and trust in this inner core structure. Developing freedom of movement along the whole length of the spine, allowing the head to be poised by directing the spine to rise up through the body.

The spine is the true core or ‘inner comfort’ of the body which gives it strength. The word comfort comes from the Latin ‘com’ and ‘forte’ which means ‘with’ and ‘strong’.

Sayings like “He has no backbone” or “Don’t be so spineless” are expressions that describe an attitude showing a lack of aim or direction, a lack of presence in the now. When teaching groups I sometimes get them to walk around the room thinking that they don’t have a spine and head, that they are simply arms and legs. They end up walking slowly, without energy, heavily and don’t like it one bit. I then ask them to imagine that they are just a spine and head walking around the room. Now they flow along, peacefully, happily and with lots of energy. Try it yourself.

Did you know that the cartilage discs between the vertebrae in your spine are largely made of water, especially the inner nucleus. During waking hours spent most of the time in an upright position, standing walking or sitting (and admit it, often slumped), these discs become compressed and lose moisture. Normally it is only during the night when we lie down in bed that the pressure is sufficiently reduced so the discs can again soak up lost moisture. This is one reason why we are a little taller when we wake up in the morning and gradually become shorter as the day goes on.

Alexander Technique teaches you the perfect remedy for this. Taking 15-20 minutes lying down in semi-supine the Alexander way once or twice during the day allows this re-plumping up of the discs and may help prevent unnecessary wear and tear.

Your Alexander teacher will show you the best way to do this.

Find a quiet space, ideally on a slightly cushioned hard surface, e.g. a mat on the floor. Put a few paperback books or a yoga block to support your head (not the neck). You want to have enough support under the head that your chin isn’t tipped up but not so much that it is tucked down on your throat. Have your knees bent with the feet flat on the mat, about shoulder width apart. Allow your arms to release away from the shoulders and fold the forearm and hand back to rest gently on the front of your body. Gravity will do the work for you to help let go of excessive tension and holding in the body, gradually allowing your spine to lengthen and your whole body expand. Let your eyes stay open if the light isn’t too much.

If you haven’t got 15 or 20 minutes do it for 5 or 10, but don’t put it off. This is a great way to unwind and allow mind and body to work as one.

David Orman (2017)

Fascia is the ‘new muscle’. Everybody is talking and writing about it and working with it.

Fascia is the connective tissue that envelopes and interconnects every part of our body. It is the thin sheath of stuff that covers each muscle, each muscle fibre, every organ, blood vessel – well everything actually. You may know it as a tendon when it becomes thicker at the end of a muscle and connects it to a bone.

I first came to understand about it when I was training in the early 80’s and I still remember some descriptions of it that made me understand the amazing interconnectedness of this extraordinary part of us. One image was that if you could take away everything except the fascia you would be left with a ghostly 3D image of the person, a bit like the ghostly outline of a stick insect after it has shed its skin, except it isn’t just the outside but it makes an internal outline as well. The other was something an osteopath said: Imagine that when the human being was made, with all the skin, bones, muscles, blood vessels, nerves and organs. And just when you thought it would be ready to go live you realised that all these parts would rub against each other. What a painful mess that would be. So you open up a little hole in the top of the head and pour in a thin film which would seep in between every little part of the body. This film would make the parts move and glide smoothly over each other.

Fascia is strong, elastic, moist and kind of slippery so it can move about easily when we move, breathe or eat. So that we can move about freely and easily!

It doesn’t act like muscles. Muscles get direct instruction from the brain via the motor nerves. You can talk directly to them asking them to contract or you can stop sending a contracting muscle and allow it to release. The way I like to think of the fascia is that it behaves as if its one and only purpose is to hold you together in whatever shape you make, whatever limit you put to it. So for example, if you are slouching at the desk for 8 hours it shrinks to that shape, if you use too much muscle effort to do everything or you over-tighten muscles with intense strength exercises without the release element, your fascia will hold you in that tight muscle bound shape.

Over time these habits of misuse will make the fascia, the tendons, shorten and that is why you might have a great Alexander lesson but the effects wear off. You have managed to let go of tension and feel longer, wider and freer after the lesson, but later you feel that you are ‘getting pulled back’ into the shrunken, tighter shape again.

That is because fascia takes time to change. It can be released by deep tissue massage of various kinds, and stretching and keeping mobile will help too. But as we know if we do these activities with the old habit pattern we will simply revert to the status quo. Alexander Technique aims to re-educate the way you co-ordinate your muscle use so that gradually you will free the fascia and prevent it tightening. As you learn to stop slouching down and to stop over-shortening muscles, the fascia will be stretched and gradually be longer as it get the message that this is the new limit you put on it.

An elastic stretchy fascia is wonderful for everyday life as well as for running, playing sports, working out, singing or playing any instrument!


Hand Writing 2

Our handwriting is an expression of our use. Obviously if we use a lot of excessive tension then we might be pressing harder with the pen, or we might having difficulty in controlling the outcome and have a sprawling handwriting, or the tightness in the hand and arm and neck might make us write in tiny tight letters.

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CityATS new website

I hope visitors to this website will find it easy to use and that they like the fresh and spacious look.

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I have always thought that one day I would like to run my own Alexander teacher training school and this is now becoming a reality. City Alexander Technique School has been approved by STAT (The Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique) and we are now accepting applications with a projected start in September this year.

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