Bob Britton’s Voice and Movement Class

This workshop was held at AmSAT’s (American Society for the Alexander Technique) Annual Meeting. In this class for Alexander Technique teachers who work with singers, there is much that is already understood. However, there are such nice ideas that are accessible, I thought it would be good to post here.

Bob Britton’s classes are always very dynamic affairs with much getting up to practice, sitting down for notes and slides, more getting up and moving around the room, partnering with others and lots of lively discussion.

The main focus of this class was:

  • Vocal production is movement
  • Movement is a whole body system
  • Voice reflects the quality of that whole
  • Awkward organization restricts the voice

For Alexander Technique teachers, this may seem obvious, but as Bob explained, for many vocal teachers and professionals, even though this may be intellectually understood, it is not something that is practiced. This is why AT teachers are needed in singer education!

Bob demonstrated ways that singers are taught to stand “in a stance” without dynamic mobility. The focus of vocal professionals may often be on specific artistic tasks rather than on communication with the voice.

Communication with people and the environment was what began our practices in class. We all made (non verbal) sounds with the intention of communicating to each other and out into our environment. We compared holding ourselves still versus allowing our voices to surf on the movement of our dynamic suspension system: head to torso to limbs to gravity to environment.

Of course we all immediately heard and felt a huge difference. As soon as we “put the brakes on” and pulled our attention back in to ourselves, we felt and sounded less dynamic. As we practiced releasing our face and sound toward our listeners the quality of energy and sound in the room became lively and playful.

Bob explained how the quality of tension in the muscles around the larynx affect the vocal folds and can make the vocal cords slam together with too much force. Hence, vocal folds are a reflection of the quality of the organization of the whole body. That makes us (AT teachers) really well prepared to help the whole singer.

We can help a singer go for the dynamic middle—too much tension requires a little more inhibition (of automatic habit), while collapse requires a little more direction (of lively intention out into space). All muscles are built to work with the same fluidity—and every muscle reflects every other in the whole.

Our next practice was to sit on the edge of our chairs and get ready to move. We put our own hands on our own throats to feel what happens when we think of allowing the throat (and sound) to move forward and up into our environment versus sitting still or backing off, as we put our “head on top of shoulders” position. Then we released again and “turned on our awareness” of moving/singing into the whole large space.

We continued this exploration standing and noticed how completely connected are the voice and the feet! With our hands at our throat again, we tightened our feet and let our weight go backwards a bit, immediately feeling the tightness in the throat/larynx area. This was the same with the lower leg muscles, especially the tibialis anterior. As we pulled the tibilais anterior up and away from the floor, we could feel the throat tighten. As we allowed that specific muscle to flow forward and down, and our whole system to reintegrate with ease and tone, the vocal mechanisms responded.

We experimented with other fun games such as pushing hips forward noticing restriction of breath and holding ribs in place instead of allowing “fluffy ribs.” When we held our ribs down it limited our breathing, and we saw that we communicated emotions of stiffness, cautiousness or fear. Instead, if we reached our arms up to allow ribs to move a little higher and then brought arms down but allowed these un-held “fluffy ribs,” the emotion communicated was ease and connection.

The class considered stage presence, and how flowing muscle tone as well as attention of whole space contributes to vocal tone and presence. Bob pointed out an article by Rebecca Atkins, “Effects of focus of Attention on Tone Production in Trained Singers” noting that this study showed improved tone when the singer attended to large space. In contrast, if a singer “tries harder” in a static stance, tone decreases. Bob mentioned here that all of the vocal professional students he has seen have been holding their upper ribs. All of them.

When we allowed buoyancy and communicated with the environment, we created a sense “being ready to run into the audience.” Anything might happen!

During the class, Bob showed some wonderful images on power point which added to discussion, understanding and inspiration. While mostly of non-human animals, all the vertebrates showed similar movement patterns, with the head leading out into space (toward food and other desires) and the quality of movement flowing from there.

Several times during the class, Bob asked us to look around the room and notice how our colleagues looked. What we saw was definitely different from normal; such a lively engagement and presence is unusual in a group setting. What an enlivening class!