2008 (a long, long time ago....)
It was after a Thursday matinee. I was playing Jenny in Aspects on Love and we were on the last week of a year’s tour.
I had lost my voice.
It was constricted and struck, tight and weak. I’d pushed through the matinee but it just wasn’t working and Nikolai Foster, our director was in that evening. Nikolai was in, and it was the last week of the tour! It was the last week before these glory days of work ended and I’d be out of work again. Maybe never work again!
I was losing my voice and Nikolai was in, and it was the last week of the tour, and there were a thousand people of their way to see the evening show. Despite the empty auditorium, I could feel their imminent arrival crept over my body, tightening my skin, sitting on my chest, constricting my throat. They were finishing their pre-show dinners, they were meeting their friends and looking at their seat numbers.
They were coming!
And I had no voice.
I stood in my dressing room, frozen.
My costumes were laid out, ready for me to put on and go and stand in front of all those people. And Nikolai. There was my microphone, the wire neatly coiled and set, ready to be pinned into my hair, ready to amplify the notes that WEREN’T THERE.
The window lead to outside, to the sky, where normal people went about their days. Oh, how I wanted to be them at that moment. How I wanted to run from my own skin that was tightening by the second.
Yet it was time to do the show and I had to figure this out.
I had to get on top of it.
I took a breath. I tried singing.
It didn’t work. It didn't work. It didn't work.
The panic tightened, grew hotter, the knots in my guts grew, my stomach clenching and churned, acid. I wanted to scream but I had no voice.
I went through everything I knew about singing. My mind was blank. What did I know? Nothing! I knew nothing!
At that point, I had two strategies: warm up until it starts to work, or steam and pray, save my voice, stay quiet until second before I sing then jump and hope for the best.
Neither path looked good.
The half hour call was in ten minutes.
They were coming.
Nikolai was there.
This is the moment when Shona Lynsey, who was playing Rose, my mum, came into my dressing room. She saw that I was losing my mind, she suggested some Alexander technique.
A technique that changed the way I viewed singing forever.
It was a very simple practise: Lie on the floor in semi-supine and move through the body, “allowing the ligaments and muscles lengthen and allowing the joints to widen and release.’
After around ten minutes of this, I stood up.
‘How does it feel?’ Shona asked.
‘Um…’ I heard the sound slide free, unconstricted and easy, ‘Er…’
‘Better!’ I said.
It wasn’t a perfect fix but I got through the evening show.
Now, ten years on and working as a vocal coach, I can finally unpin why this practise works so well.
My voice was knackered after eight shows a week for a year, but panic was far more detrimental. The panic was inhibiting the two crucial things that have to happen for a body to make sound: breath and release!
We need to support a steady stream of air to power the chords to vibrate and we mustn’t constrict these vibrations (sound!) with muscles tension.
The panic was making me hold my breath and grip. Even if I let out enough air to make a sound, my muscles were clamping so tightly that nothing could vibrate. It’s like trying to ring a bell in a clenched fist
The systematic approach (moving through the body one part at a time) distracted my mind from frenzied panic and brought me back into my body. The semi- supine position, allowed my body to align as it 'lengthened,' and 'widened.' The verb, ‘allow,’ was crucial as it encouraged giving over into the body’s natural instincts rather than forcing effort. It reminded me that our body is smart.
It’s got this.
We breath all night long in our sleep.
Language and sound evolved to help us communicate our needs and emotions with each other.
We knows how to produce sound.
Now, in moments of heat and turmoil I still often ask singers to use a practise like this: stillness, mindfulness, observing, body awareness, in any ways that work for them (a meditation can be running or listening to music).
It’s about stilling the mind and reminding yourself that the fundamentals of singing are breath and release.
Week six of the singing course today. Next week we'll be looking at registers and range, at vocals chords and onsets and how different techniques apply to different registers/parts of your range.
If you want to join us next term, you can book here
SUBNOTE: Once your breathing is deep and easy, once you’ve brought your attention to releasing jaw and tongue tension, and once your mind is clear, then you can start to look into your tool box of other techniques you enjoy as a singer. Ie:
Singing on the open vowels.
Using the consonants for energy, support and articulation.
Engaging support with physical movements.
Acknowledging tilt and its benefits.
Using primal sounds.
Observing good and naughty vowels.
Place resonance and sympathetic vibrations.
Experimenting with onsets.
Stylistic and technical add on likes scoops.
The list goes on… and on… this is a list for another time.
Last week we spent a long time on solos, on rep and individual songs but this this week, I wanted to try something new! I asked everyone to learn, ‘She Used To Be Mine.’ from Waitress.
I was curious to know what would happen if we all took one song and worked it together, over and over, trying out as many ideas as we had time for.
After warm up, we all sung it through. I joined in, which was novel and as I spend most of my days talking about singing and not getting to actually do it! I wanted to be part of this exercise so I could really interrogate my own advice. Was this going to be beneficial?
I wondered if we’d all be able to let go of limiting self consciousness if we sung together. This was play time not 'get it perfect,' time. Would that offer a freedom to explore, learn and observe.
So we all took a separate space and went for it.
It’s a TOUGH song! There are very low notes, very quiet high notes, there’s speech quality, belt, mix, emotion, storytelling. It’s all in there and needs technical ability and muscularity, with absolute emotional and commitment and without tension!
At the end we discussed just how hard this song was, but also why it’s currently the most popular Musical Theatre song for woman.
Some people struggled with the belt section near the end, others with the quiet high notes. Some found the lowest notes a challenge. For me, I found the note ‘Mine,’ the hardest. It repeatedly sits in a place in my voice that felt unsteady, as if it wasn’t sure where to be placed.
Over the lesson we tried it in as many different ways. We used exercises to encourage ‘tilt,’ we used SOVT, we sung on open vowels, we used muscular gestures to engage support, exercises to isolate focus on a relaxed jaw, and on the tongue, on twang and on release of physical tension.
Which ones helped? Which ones didn’t?
I believe that there’s a simplicity to singing: If an exercise makes singing feel freer and easier then it’s doing you good. If it feels tense and tricky then leave it for the moment.
At the end of the lesson, we all had exercise that had helped and some that hadn’t so much and it was time to sing the song through one more time with one last rule.
'FORGET EVERYTHING EXCEPT FEELING THE MUSIC AND THE STORY'
Perhaps it was the repetition - like dancing, singing a song over and over encourages an ease of movement and muscle memory - but it certainly felt much easier to sing.
Perhaps it was pushing us out of our comfort zone? Trying techniques that we wouldn’t usually use.
Perhaps it was the freedom to sound stupid and to give over to a song in the safety of a group?
I found it helped me and I’m starting to think this is just the beginning of a way of working that I want to explore. I think that this is the way to break through our ‘shoulds’ and habits and explore the full capacity of the voice.