OT A KINK in your neck? It could be from the “uncertain times” (aren’t you sick of that phrase?) in which we’re living. But there’s also a good chance it’s from singing, conducting, or playing the organ.
We musicians are notorious for misusing our bodies. We’re probably as bad as athletes in that regard. And although athletes may end up with much more spectacular injuries than we do—bulging discs, torn rotator cuffs, ruptured patella tendons—we musicians ache, too.
One common place for musicians to feel wear and tear is in the neck—specifically, the A/O joint.
What is the A/O joint? It’s more formally known as the atlanto-occipital joint. It’s where the top of the spine articulates with the base of the skull. In our eagerness to control our sound—or the sound of our choir—many of us church musicians put unnecessary pressure on this joint. A few seconds of pressure here and there probably won’t hurt us and may even be unavoidable. But constant pressure on the joint can leave you in serious discomfort at the end of a Mass.
You can avoid this common mistake by learning and applying the principles of the Alexander Technique.
Alexander Technique for Church Musicians
Developed by F. M. Alexander more than 100 years ago, the Alexander Technique teaches people how to use the body in the way God designed it. There are no exercises or workouts involved—it’s simply a set of principles for preventing ourselves from holding the tensions that, over time, can lead to discomfort or even injury.
The core concepts of the Alexander Technique can apply to nearly any profession—even the sedentary ones. But they’re particularly useful to people whose work relies heavily on the body: musicians, dancers, actors, painters, manual laborers, and so on.
Some Catholic musicians, however, shy away from the Alexander Technique due to an abundance of caution about anything that may contain traces of New Age thinking. This fear is understandable, but it’s not rooted in fact. There is absolutely no spirituality associated with the Alexander Technique. There are no mantras to chant, no goddesses to invoke, no stated or implied spiritual benefits promised to those who practice the technique. Anyone who incorporates such elements is adding his or her own (highly unnecessary) spin to the method.
If you really want to benefit from Alexander Technique, it’s best to find a qualified teacher. I am no such thing; I’m merely a student. But I’ll share two quick Alexander tips that I’ve found useful for relieving physical stress:
Relax your gaze. Look straight ahead at a particular spot. Now, without moving your eyes, simply relax your gaze. Notice how much of the room you can see in your peripheral vision: the walls, the ceiling, the floor.
Now, what could the eyes possibly have to do with physical relaxation? Well, when you stare intently at one spot, you’re likely to hold your breath and develop little pockets of tension in the body. But when you relax your gaze, you put yourself in a relaxed mindset. You may also notice that the position of your head shifts ever so slightly, which leads to my second tip.
Let your neck be free. Alexander practitioners like to remind themselves, “Let my neck be free….free to let my head go forward and up….free to let my back lengthen and widen.”
That sounds like a lot to think about—but it’s a nearly instantaneous process. Try it: simply allow your neck to be free. Notice that I didn’t tell you to free your neck, because then you would be doing something, and doing is often the first step towards holding tension. Rather, you’re allowing your neck to be free. By doing so, you’ll release tension in two directions: your head will feel as if it floats upwards by a millimeter or so, and your back will feel as if it’s suddenly six inches longer and two inches wider.
These two tips go hand in hand. You really can’t free your neck completely if you’re holding significant tension in your gaze—and the more you let your neck be free, the more relaxation you’ll feel in your gaze.
Incorporating Alexander Technique Into Your Practice
So, how does all of this apply to choral singers? In their zeal to take a good breath, many singers inadvertently tilt the head back slightly and shorten the neck. If you do this hundreds of times in a rehearsal or Mass, you’ll really be stiff and sore by the end. For those of us who sing and conduct at the same time, the tension is only magnified because we also tend to tighten and shorten every time we lift the arms to begin conducting a piece of music.
Incorporate a few minutes of Alexander Technique into your daily practice. Try taking a series of breaths—good, deep singing breaths—while remaining highly aware of your A/O joint. Are you pulling down? Don’t do that! Simply drop the jaw to take in the air you need. For conductors, it’s helpful to stand with good body alignment—erect but not tight, head perched on top of the spine with no pulling down, relaxed gaze—and then slowly raise the arms in front of you without shortening the neck or spine.
Of course, the more and better we practice, the more quickly we can change our habits. So don’t limit your Alexander Technique work to when you’re making music. Take a few moments here and there throughout your day to relax your gaze and let your neck be free. I think you’ll soon find that you feel a little more ready to face anything life throws at you.