HIS WEEKEND WILL BE GRUELING for choir directors, singers, and organists. Even amidst the Christmas joy, our work is hard work. Singing and conducting are already physically demanding activities. Add in some extra adrenaline, and you have a recipe for tension and pain.
This is when I lean on the Alexander Technique lessons I took years ago. The Alexander Technique gives musicians, dancers, and other performers a method for using the body more efficiently. I find it extremely helpful—unless I forget about it for a while.
The Alexander Technique isn’t about doing exercises. In fact, there aren’t any Alexander exercises, per se. Instead, it’s about recognizing our unhealthy habits, inhibiting them, and then doing something else instead.
We should focus first on the atlanto-occipital (AO) joint, where the spine articulates with the base of the skull. Performers—and many other people—abuse this joint when we’re under pressure. We pull down on it by shortening the back of the neck. This mistake limits our range of movement in the neck and our freedom and flexibility throughout the body. It can subtly hinder our breathing, our phonation, and our gestures.
There’s no magic release for this tension because it’s the result of a host of bad habits. Alexander Technique helps us replace those habits with healthy ones by reminding us of how the body is supposed to work.
There are five easy Alexander-based techniques you can use to start changing your habits in ways that free your AO joint.
1. Relax your gaze
This may sound farfetched, but you won’t achieve relaxation in the rest of your body if you’re holding tension in your eyes. So, don’t stare. Instead, use a relaxed gaze.
Practice by looking across the room. First, stare intensely and notice how tight your extraocular muscles feel. Then, remind yourself that your eyes don’t need to grab the image; they only need to receive it. To achieve even greater relaxation, notice how much you can see in your peripheral vision.
2. Give yourself a command
Whether you’re standing or sitting, say to yourself: “Let my neck be free. Free to let my head go forward and up. Free to let my back lengthen and widen.” This is a common saying among Alexander Technique practitioners and students. It’s simple yet powerful because it addresses the root cause of much of the tension in the body.
Remember, though, that we shouldn’t push the head forward and up. We just want to release any pressure on the AO joint so that the head can find where it belongs. Your head may only move a millimeter, but that could completely change the way you feel. Take the same approach to letting your back lengthen and widen. Rather than trying to manipulate your back, let it fall into a more natural position. You may notice a major release in your trapezius muscles, which run from the base of your neck to your shoulders and down your upper back.
3. Do floor work
During an Alexander session with a certified teacher, you’ll often do “table work” while lying on a padded table. Since you probably don’t have one, find an open stretch of carpet. (A bed or couch won’t be firm enough, and a tile floor will be uncomfortable.)
Lie flat on your back. Put a slim paperback book under your head. Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor. Let your lower back sink into the ground. You will soon notice a wonderful feeling of relaxation coming over you. You may even fall asleep. While you’re down there, practice breathing deeply, singing a few easy notes, and even making conducting gestures.
Do floor work daily for as long as you need. When you’re ready to get up, try to maintain the freedom in your neck and the length and wideness of your back by rolling over sideways into a crawling position and then slowly standing upright.
4. Nod and shake
Here’s a relaxation technique you can use with your choir. We do it at the beginning of most of our rehearsals.
Place your two index fingers on either side of your head just in front of your ear canals. This spot aligns with your AO joint. Imagine an axis between your fingers. Gently nod “yes.” Notice how much range and freedom of movement you can have when you’re completely relaxed.
Next, place one index finger in the center of the top of your head. This spot also aligns with your AO joint. Picture an axis between your finger and the joint. Gently shake “no,” again noticing how freely your head can move when you relax.
5. Be a lighthouse
This last technique is also a good one for choir rehearsals. Ask everyone to gaze straight ahead and try to see as much as they can in their peripheral vision. Tell them they’re lighthouses, and that their face is the lamp. Ask them to shine that lamp slowly across the harbor by rotating the head gently. Not only will you all relax, but you’ll also gain awareness of the whole space around you in the rehearsal room or choir loft.
What About During Mass?
Now, these techniques are fine before or during rehearsal, but what can you do when you realize you’re pulling down on your AO joint in the middle of a long Gregorian chant during Midnight Mass? On your next breath, remind yourself to relax your gaze and free your neck. It may surprise you to find out how much you can free yourself with this one simple adjustment.
Above all, don’t get hung up on doing things “right.” Alexander Technique isn’t a quick fix; it’s designed to help you make lasting improvements. If you start changing your habits today, you’ll feel a little better during Christmas 2022—and you could be a whole new man or woman by Christmas 2023.