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.