Voice and the Alexander Technique - Active Exploration for Speaking and Singing
by Jane Ruby Heirich
Review by Andrea Matthews
First published in the ATI ExChange, vol. 13 no. 2.
When I taught my first opera workshop at Wellesley last year, I assigned Kelly McEvenue’s The Actor and the Alexander Technique as one of the texts. It’s an excellent book, but certainly not one specifically geared to singers and their issues. One of the students (who also happens to be my voice student) rather pointedly asked me, “Isn’t there a book on Alexander Technique and the voice?” I had to admit there wasn’t - at least not one that really fit the bill. Well, at last there is.
Drawing on her 30 years of experience as a voice teacher and her training as an Alexander teacher, Jane Heirich has succeeded to a remarkable extent in presenting and integrating the viewpoints of classic bel canto vocal pedagogy and Alexander Technique. She has distilled the potentially overwhelming details down to key points and illustrations without excessive simplification. In so doing, she has produced a readable, engaging volume of great value to voice and Alexander students and teachers alike. She manages to touch, directly or indirectly on almost all the issues that arise in vocal training for singers, actors and public speakers, in a manner succinct, yet comprehensive.
The book is thus ideally suited as a foundational textbook for beginning and serious vocal students, either in a class or private situation. Many of the exercises are designed for partner work, but can be adapted to work with a teacher or on one’s own.
In its nine chapters, the book covers the nature of habit; the “Australian story” and an introduction to the principles of the Technique; a voice “primer” on how vocal sound is made, and made well (“8 Steps to Vocal Perfection”); postural and vocal problems (including the sometimes thorny issues of breath control, support, and “open-throated” singing); and four chapters of “Games and Explorations,” including Constructive Rest, Whispered Ah, Monkey, and the Dart Procedures, especially in relation to voice. Along the way she brings in relevant quotations and insights from such Alexandrian authorities as F.M. Alexander, Frank Pierce Jones, and Marjorie Barlow, and renowned vocal pedagogues Frederick Husler, Cornelius Reid, Ralph Appelman, and Edgar Herbert-Caesari (among many others).
This well-designed book has many appealing and thoughtful features: Clear and attractive illustrations accompany the discussions of anatomy and use. The oversized format (12” x 9”) with its wide margins enhances the readability of the text, and turns out to provide convenient space for notes (or Post-its), if you want to remind yourself to pursue a topic in more detail with your students. The appendices cover “hands on the back of the chair”; an introduction to the International Phonetic Alphabet; contact information for societies (including ATI, I’m glad to say) and ordering books; and a removable chart correlating pitches on the grand staff, piano, and guitar. There are helpful endnotes, a glossary, a bibliography, and an index. There’s even an accompanying CD of the 13 vocal exercises suggested in the book.
It seems to me that for a book that touches on such a vast range of topics in only 171 pages, this one is remarkably comprehensive. Of course, we all have material we feel is key. Because I have found it so critical to understanding and explaining the “anti-gravity reflexes” discussed on p. 98 (and thus the necessary elastic, suspensory support for the vocal mechanism), I would suggest that readers explore the concept of “tensegrity” in relation to use, which is so well developed in David Gorman’s series of articles “In Our Own Image” (republished in Looking at Ourselves, available from www.learningmethods.com). The drawing on p. 63 (or those on pp. 108-9) of Ms. Heirich’s book, showing the laryngeal suspension, would be a perfect lead-in to discussing tensegrity with students.
I do have a few minor suggestions for the next edition (which should be warranted by sales!). Ms. Heirich goes into a good bit of useful anatomical detail along the way, and I was sure that she cited Body Mapping (and William Conable’s invention of it) somewhere in the text, but try as I might I couldn’t find it when I went back to look. If it’s not mentioned, it should be; if it is, it would be good to include the topic in the index. Similarly, Barbara Conable’s book, How to Learn the Alexander Technique is cited in the endnotes, but not in the Bibliography, where it would also be helpful to people wanting to know more about Body Mapping. Adding “anti-gravity reflexes” to the index wouldn’t hurt, either. The two major suggestions I have, though, would be to add a couple of illustrations to the section discussing the head-neck relationship (“Interlude,” pp. 76-79); the joint of the skull and C1 is beautifully depicted, but the text goes on to describe the equally important atlas-axis joint, and later the psoas/diaphragm interaction. It would be great to have an illustration of the C1-C2 joint, and a side view of the psoas/diaphragm linkup, with the extension of the psoas down to the leg, which anchors the breath and, by connection, the larynx itself to the legs. The truncated view from below, of the mushroom-shaped diaphragm, is useful, but doesn’t tell the whole story. (In the meantime, there is room on p. 79 for readers to paste in copies of those illustrations from other books.) Finally, it would be great to have an illustration of the excursion of the ribs in breathing to accompany the discussion on p. 68.
Of course all of these things can be found in other volumes, but the book is so already handy as a reference, one gets a bit greedy. It’s actually a testament to Ms. Heirich’s judgment that she managed to avoid overstuffing it, given the complexity of her subject. Many thanks to her for taking the time to give us the book on Alexander and voice that we’ve been waiting for.
And once again, we have Jerry Sontag and his Mornum Time Press to thank for another beautifully produced addition to the Alexander literature.
© AndreaMatthews. Reproduced with permission.
Andrea Matthews is a graduate of the Alexander Technique Center at Cambridge, in Massachusetts. She is also a Certified Teaching Member and past Corresponding Secretary of Alexander Technique International. A graduate of Princeton University and a critically acclaimed soprano, she also continues to appear in opera and orchestra concerts around the world. Website: http://www.andreamatthews.com
Voice and the Alexander Technique - Active Exploration for Speaking and Singing can be ordered at the Alexander Technique Bookstore (USA and Canada) and the Alexander Technique Bookshop (UK)
The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique