It's been about a month since I began incorporating David Ley's vibrator techniques into my teaching. While I'm eager to write about my results and observations so far, I'd first like to share some of my early background as a singer and teacher. It will provide some context for my great enthusiasm and optimism for what this technology can potentially do for singers.
If you follow this blog, you know what a fitness junkie I am. I love exercise for the ways it enhances singers' instruments and keeps us feeling energetic, but I also find it fun and satisfying.
I certainly wasn't always this way. As a kid, I reserved a special loathing for gym class. I spent most of my time either with my nose in a book or making music. I was a clarinetist, not yet a singer. I had always wanted to sing but my voice was shallow and shrill, whereas I was able to develop a beautiful sound and a good deal of virtuosity on the clarinet. My body served well enough to carry my brain and my clarinet around from one place to another. Aside from that I had little use for it.
Towards the end of my college years I realized living solely in my head was making me miserable, so I got into therapy with some skilled bodyworkers. The method they practiced is called Bioenergetic Analysis. One of its major tenets is that psychological and emotional trauma causes us to physically shut down and "armor" our breathing and bodies as a means of coping with intolerable levels of emotional pain. This results in chronic muscular tension that limits movement, feeling, sensation and creativity. The therapist employs massage and movement techniques to restore vitality throughout the body, simultaneously promoting psychological well-being as trauma lodged in the musculature is processed and resolved.
The work fundamentally changed my relationship to my body. Over time I became much more grounded and energetic, began to take great interest in physical and athletic activity, and started focusing more on the world around me and less on the concepts in my head.
It also fundamentally changed my relationship to my voice. It alleviated tremendous rigidity in my breathing, throat and jaw. My shallow, shrill voice grew in range, power and resonance, and I decided to see if I could develop it into a viable instrument.
I was thus in my mid-20s when I began to explore vocal technique. I worked with several voice teachers, first privately and then at Peabody Conservatory and Music Academy of the West. From the beginning it seemed to me that there was something missing. They used vocal exercises to train and coordinate the instrument I came in with, but I knew from my experience with bodywork that these exercises would never have ameliorated the chronic muscular tension that had kept me from singing beautifully before, that my resonance and breathing were still somewhat limited by lingering chronic tensions, and that if this were true for me then it must be true for all singers.
I frequently saw talented friends and colleagues hit a plateau with their technique and/or careers, and I suspected that more often then not they had just reached the limit of what their instruments could do without the sort of intervention I had been fortunate enough to experience. As I wrote in a previous post, "Everyone develops a certain degree of chronic muscular tension, or armor, in response to their life experiences. Trying to learn to sing with an armored instrument will keep you from realizing your full potential, and in most cases will greatly limit your success."
However, when I raised the topic with my voice teachers they generally looked at me as though I were nuts and then changed the subject. Some had heard of the Alexander Technique and Feldenkreis, but they had no context for what I was suggesting. One teacher confronted me about how someone had told her I was into Primal Scream Therapy*, and she stated emphatically that I did not have her approval.
I was determined to investigate the problem for myself. I applied to doctoral programs in search of support for researching a means to address chronic tension issues within the context of my own teaching practice.
Here's the Statement of Objectives I submitted with my doctoral application to McGill University. I wrote, "In addition to seeking excellent technical training, singers must also learn how to recognize and address the tensions and blocks they have developed that can interfere with free vocal production. My doctoral studies will focus on incorporating a method of helping singers to let go of these unconscious habits and postures into a system of traditional vocal teaching."
That was 18 years ago.
McGill gave me a full scholarship and a generous stipend to pursue my doctorate, but about a year into the program I began to realize that they weren't really committed to helping me accomplish my aim. Their DMus was still an ad hoc degree, the University was not very well equipped to facilitate interdisciplinary work at the graduate level, and no one on my committee really understood what I was after. In all honesty, I probably was as yet lacking an adequate foundational knowledge base in vocal technique and anatomy to effectively pursue my goals, which is why I didn't fight harder for the support I would have needed. I gave up my research project in favor of a more traditional lecture/recital and gave McGill what they wanted: their first doctoral graduate in voice.
I'm still very proud to have earned my doctorate from McGill, but it was terribly frustrating to enter the profession with all these questions remaining unanswered. The knowledge of practical anatomy I gained through working as an athletic trainer has helped me to diagnose chronic muscular tension in my students, and the principles I inherited from W. Stephen Smith have enabled me to teach a highly effective technique that channels authentic expressive impulses.
Until recently, though, I was never able to provide my students with a means of addressing and alleviating chronic muscular tension so that they would no longer be constrained to building their technique around armored instruments.
This is at the heart of my process as I incorporate David Ley's vibrator techniques into my teaching. It's the crucial piece that has been missing from what I have always wanted to offer in the studio.
Some of my students and colleagues still look at me like I'm nuts when I first explain the concepts behind what I'm doing. Then I demonstrate what I'm talking about. These techniques are so effective that even if someone doesn't grasp the concepts right away, the results speak for themselves and make instant converts out of even the most skeptical.
You can hopefully now understand why I have been so giddy about a viral news story that had most everyone else laughing up their sleeves.
I'll follow up shortly with a discussion of how I've been making use of my new "neurotransmitting devices," as one of my students euphemistically refers to them. In the mean time, I invite you to ask yourself some questions:
- Are your range, resonance, flexibility, intonation and/or volume compromised in ways that could be due to physical limitations rather than technical prowess?
- Do the singers you admire seem to enjoy an ease of vocal production when they perform passages that you can execute only with great effort?
- Do you fatigue sooner than it seems as though you should?
- Do you find it difficult to sing without a sense of pushing?
If you answer "yes" to one or more of these questions, consider the possibility that you've hit a plateau because you're dealing with some chronic muscular tension that you've been carrying around since before you even began to study singing seriously.
I'm really looking forward to demonstrating how freeing yourself from habitual tensions will make your singing much more satisfying and effortless.
* It seems to me that there is indeed some overlap between Bioenergetic Analysis aims and techniques and those of Primal Scream Therapy. However, channeling a great deal of emotional energy through an armored voice can cause strain or injury, whether you're screaming or just muscling your way through a Verdi aria that you aren't quite ready to handle, so Primal Scream Therapy may in fact not be a good match for singers.