Swings & Roundabouts

Swings and roundabouts

We swing into action.

This describes a psychological state and directly a physical state too, a perfect phrase to consider when developing breath exercises that connect emotional responses to instrumental understanding (technique).

However as adults we often simply swing with (principally) our arms. If we realize the connection between the release of weight and subsequent push off from our feet, to our outstretched (swung) hand, we begin to experience a swing fully, and the use of our breath becomes a much bigger experience. If we encounter resistance in that swing, (for example in water or very strongly in the impanct of a tennis ball) and we are fully engaged with our body and not just our arms/shoulders, we engage strong support muscles that enable big singing.

However the swing can be looked at as a gentler action that encourages weight release and shift. The swing can be taken forwards- and backwards, which are two vital experiences of breath, the breath we keep, the breath we send – Barefoot exercises explore this in multiple directions and velocities.

Can we separate our bodies from ourselves?

Can we separate our bodies from ourselves?

I can give or sell a book or a plate of food, but I cannot dispose of my body in the same way. It’s true that I can ‘sell my body’ in the traditional manner, but then I am commodifying my body and therefore myself, as I cannot give my body without going with it.

This seems obvious but it has many implications.

A singer’s body is their instrument, and a singer’s sense of self is so intricately entwined in this instrument-body that learning singing ‘objectively’ and ‘scientifically’ has limited value. Of course all information has some utility. But we are an information driven culture, Information is Fact, and we confuse Fact with Truth. We are in thrall to the men in white jackets. What if we turn this on its head?

Let us study our voices with the tools of subjectivity!

How do I communicate? How do I feel anger, tenderness, humour, rage? How does my body express myself?

This study when refined and observed becomes true technique.

‘Technique’ divorced from this study is inadequate.

From professional chorus to soloist- an investigation

After participating in my last workshop which has run under the above title, Helen, an experienced professional chorus singer, sent me these words and kindly agreed for me to print them here:

The  workshop with Jenny Miller was, for me, truly a revelation, literally a ” breath of fresh air” in the sense that the exercises helped me reconnect with the instinctive, the embodied, the very primitive feeling we get which makes us love singing in the first place. I’m sure that the relaxing exercises helped me breathe more deeply and efficiently – no breath holding or fixing. I left as if “floating on air” because I’d allowed my breathing to become freer, less rigid and controlled. I had so much more energy and was on a high for days – high on oxygen and freedom of artistic expression. I loved the new feeling of my lungs expanding around my back and felt as if my centre of gravity was lowered; much more centred – akin to how one feels after a Yoga session but more relevant because of being always married with vocal sounds. When it came to the singing of Violetta’s Act 1 scena – I realised that my reliance on high heels to keep my body upright had actually only provided me with a false feeling of support. It was at first scary singing in flat shoes but became liberating – Jenny guided me skilfully in visualisations of Violetta in a Wedding Gown with Alfredo, to help me in how to start forming my subtexts for the Recitative. I felt as if I stopped being a singing machine, and started creating – or as I should say re-creating.

When I tackle new audition arias in the future or any solo music, I shall incorporate these exercises, so as to sing more freely in this quite new way. The workshop helped me re-discover the physical joy of singing. I’d often wondered why when one has to run around in an opera, almost to the point of being quite “out-of-breath” one still manages to sing, one doesn’t need to be rooted to one spot, perfectly poised – but poise often denotes rigidity. My quest for future singing will be the natural, free poise of singing “on the body”, and “on the breath” from an active, flowing body energy.

Yin and Yang, Space and Time

To communicate, we call each other.

Our breath has to travel, to be propelled forward, it travels in Space.  This breath swings out, it moves on, it has impetus, it communicates with urgency.  Borrowing from China, call it the Yang breath.

However our communication, however brief takes Time.  We have to keep breath to keep the communication alive as we call. This breath is a retaining, a keeping of space, a maintaining of opening through the torso and throat, often described by singers as ‘feeling as if you are inhaling when you start a phrase’, the classic bel canto adage: ‘inhalare la voce’, vividly descriptive of the sense of using and building on the breath we have summoned for a communication.

Both these breaths are vital and need to be simultaneously available, just as the yin and yang symbols are enclosed in a circle and have each other’s eyes.

The Yang breath is our urge to communicate our response to our environment- (or our embodying of the composer’s response). The Yin breath is inevitably evoked because our response takes time. Even the shortest staccato response takes measurable time, so we are always retaining and keeping as part of our sending out, our calling, our communication.

As singers we are in constant motion. We are responding, via our music and text, to the world as conveyed in that music, and we articulate our response, which provokes new responses, new phrases, and so on. If we find our two breaths working together, we achieve an equilibrium through motion, again, nicely encapsulated in the implied dynamism of the yin-yang symbol.

In this way every gesture, response, communication we make, has an immediate, living, vital and whole relationship to our environment. Truthful communication is from the inside out and the outside in. How can we observe the movement of these opposite patterns? How can we readily gain access to them? The exercises I am developing for Barefoot Opera explore this issue.

Case Studies

“Only Connect! …Live in fragments no longer…” EM Forster

A practice-based research between singer, teacher and director Jenny Miller and dance artist, movement analyst and teacher Alexandra Baybutt 2014

Introduction

“‘Come on, sound more like a mezzo’ – (My teacher) was very big on ‘support’ without clarifying what that meant, and ‘colour’. I remember saying ‘My neck really hurts’ which she didn’t think mattered.”

Chrissy had come a long way from the above quoted music college experience when she agreed to be a guinea-pig for six exploratory one-hour sessions Ali Baybutt and Jenny Miller set up in the Spring of 2014. She had acquired a variety of both useful and unhelpful information, and during a previous year’s work with Jenny had shown enthusiasm and an understanding of the principals Jenny was aiming at in her highly movement-based exercises. By working together, Ali and Jenny hoped to develop more insight into organic, human communicative responses to inform the learning of the highly stylized art form that is Western classical singing.

With her sister, Evelyn Miller, Jenny had already developed a body of work for her company, Barefoot Opera, which had embraced some Labann/Bartenieff principals. To quote Ali on Laban Movement Analysis:

“This practical and analytical framework differentiates aspects of body, space, dynamics and relationship to provide a highly sophisticated tool kit for the observation of movement and the creation of intervention strategies. Analysis and synthesis of movement is specifically experiential by definition.”

The approach

As a singer, voice is an instrument constantly in motion, and like movement, is responsive to outer and inner stimuli. Jenny felt that working on voice, body and breath together with this approach would be beneficial for Chrissy. In short, the hope to ‘only connect’ in EM Forster’s famous phrase, was always at the forefront of practice so that emotional response, breath, movement and vocalization could be immediately accessed together and not in fragments. This surely is the goal of all performing artists.

You can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink is an effective statement to emphasize how people need to experience and learn things for themselves, from the inside out, for the learning to have a lasting effect. A student can obediently swallow the medicine of numerous exercises without actually shifting the profound responsive habits that inform all our attempts at human discourse and communication.

Ali and Jenny took a heuristic approach with Chrissy, one of deliberate testing and experimentation. Exercises offered and modified to her individual needs were offered over the session. It was hoped that this process would facilitate her own discoveries and for her to become an observer of her new psycho-physical connections to expand tools and technique for her classical sound.

“…live in fragments no longer…”

Chrissy

Chrissy presented herself as a highly intelligent, excellent musician with a lovely basic vocal quality who was, however, physically very unself-aware. She had little sense of her whole body as an active totality, rather a collection of parts with little to no sensation in them other than stiffness. There was little through-body connection to the floor; instead she was holding herself off the ground as much as possible and not allowing her feet to support her through a release of weight. Her knees were hyper-extended in standing and walking, and Chrissy described herself as ‘clumsy’ and ‘unable to balance’. Her lower body didn’t have a clear relationship with her upper body, indicating minimal spinal flexibility, and she exhibited a lot of neck and jaw holding/tension.

Jenny proposed Chrissy for this research because Chrissy was trying to tackle an array of subtle vocal issues that had nothing to do with her intelligence or musicality, and everything to do with entrenched body habits developed over her whole life up to this point in time: habits that would reassert themselves unless strong shifts in movement awareness were achieved, and habits which would always create limitations to her vocal development.

In our debriefing with Chrissy after the six sessions she summed up her experience:

“I enjoy practice more- I feel better during and after practice.

“I am enjoying singing more than I ever have done, ever”

And even better:

“I have had very good feed-back with people who hadn’t heard me in a while and are now booking me again”

What exercises did we do?

 First of all,we should make it clear that virtually every physical exercise was linked to vocalisation. It is not uncommon in physical exercise and current dance/movement disciplines that attending to breath is given strong significance. But simultaneously connecting breath and movement to pitched vocal exercises is less common. Adding any sound to an out-breath radically changes the sensation of the breath, and of physical presence as experienced through heard feed-back and in the sensation of the sound. Readers familiar with the ‘Accent Method’ will recognize a similar approach to the work undertaken in these sessions. As with the Accent method, we place high value on gravitational pull, weight shifting and unifying rhythmic impulse with breathing patterns, and with Chrissy we sought to extend those principals in the exercises we chose.

 Heel Rock

 A fundamental exercise from Irmgard Bartenieff’s work is the Heel Rock. It is an exercise that activates kinetic chains through the whole body, supports the mover to feel their full axis of length, is only possible if you activate then make passive your weight in a rocking rhythm and identifies areas of unnecessary tension-holding. It can be explored in different orientations to gravity (lying on your back with legs extended is the classical way, but it’s also beneficial in sitting and lying in the supine hook position where your knees are bent with feet flat on the floor) and in different qualities, speeds and levels of intensity to discover different aspects of movement habits and breath.

Jenny added to the Heel Rock experience by inviting Chrissy to sing short arpeggios up and down the scale, with a jellified loose torso and her back fully supported by the floor.

This went really well. Chrissy could sense the ease of her top notes popping out without extra effort.

Chrissy began to discover what it feels like to have a free neck as the heel rock helped her to become aware of her neck and fed her new sensations. Additionally she stopped trying to make or control the pitches with her jaw, as this is uncomfortable whilst activating heel rock. To increase Chrissy’s sense of the anchor of her heel as the initiation for rocking her whole skeleton, Ali also gently held her heels in place to encourage greater grounding. Chrissy’s comment:

“I became much more aware of the flexibility in my body as opposed to tension – I really felt the floor work was remarkable”.

Heel rocks are part of a series of floor-based exercises where the deliberate choice to be as near to the floor as possible means so Chrissy could learn to relinquish more weight to gravity, and not try to ‘help’ her skeleton carry her.

Chrissy’s comment:

“It was good to discover that there is a concept of ‘support’ and a sensation of ‘support’ that can exist without stress and fraught sensations”

Push-offs, jumps and swings

 We took this work further when Ali invited Chrissy, still on the floor, to push-off from a starting position of knees bent up with feet flat on a wall. Again, this activity supports increasing sensation in the feet, activates the strength of the legs and accesses one’s axis of length.

Again Jenny added sound which was particularly effective as it helped Chrissy to feel a really free in and out breath.

Ali observed from our first session with Chrissy that she was able to access the pliancy of her hips, knees and ankles more as the session progressed, though still with a tendency to lock her left knee when other parts of her body could take over. It was particularly satisfying to see how she increased her sense of mobile stability and reported experiencing balance. For someone who presents quite a lot of anxiety about physical balance, working to integrate further of breath/voice and to use of base of support (her feet to ground) hopefully will start to shift that perception of herself. Of course it takes much practice to integrate this to become immediately accessible, or even present all the time, but it was really great to witness the shift in just one session.

 

Standing upright again, we sought to help Chrissy to keep her sense of gravity through increased buoyancy. Jenny encouraged her to use big arm swings with soft, unlocked knees and vocalizing on in and out breaths. There is an enormous amount of material available in arm swings as it is almost impossible to do a big swing without at least some released muscular sensation, and there are two ways, both highly relevant to classical voice training, to experience the swing simply by reversing one’s breathing pattern.

So Chrissy first did both arms together swinging forward and back together in parallel, and then in opposition, as in walking. Time was taken to experience each variation sufficiently before different patterns and timings of inhale and vocalization were offered. One example was to have the inhale on the swing and the vocalization on the moment of suspense before the next downward swing. This gave Chrissy the chance to experience for herself, and with her own timing, the sensations of breath being sent out in the first model, and breath being kept, without undue force in the second model.

Chrissy’s comment: “I realized that I needed to understand that you can have energy that isn’t fraught…”

As with the philosophy of practice of Bartenieff Fundamentals and other person-centered models, any exercises is free for modification and variation so that a simple body action takes on new relevance and meaning with different aspects of movement and intention taking priority at different times. We gave Chrissy numerous ways of increasing her sense of connection to the floor and ‘allowing gravity’ to give her vocal leverage. For example

– doing the above swinging exercises on one leg, swapping legs as desired.

– changing pace, imaging a ball of energy as a propulsion, then adding a pause at any point, a kind of suspension

Other Bartenieff Fundamental movement exercises employed to increase grounding and ilio-femoral rhythm (thigh bone/pelvis relationship) included Knee Drop and Thigh Lift, which became a leg swing. Adding in pitch and air flow changes created the conditions to recognize the whole body as active, identifying how the supporting leg is as important as the free one.

Spinal mobility and strength is necessary for many reasons, including redistributing the force of gravity on the human form. A forward flexion of the spine, attempting to isolate each vertebra at a time to carry the skull and torso over the legs is a common movement exercise in many disciplines. When explored as an action that increases flexibility, core-support, flow and weight-sensing in service of vocal technique, the spine can be experienced as a mobile support. By giving specific patterns of when to inhale, exhale, pause motion, sense ground and body parts, especially feet and skull, vocalizations found here give extremely concrete feedback to the singer. Such specificity in a relatively simple task enables them to register where the breath creates pressure in their torso, all the while allowing gravity to help to release and therefore lengthen the spine.

Visualizations frequently resonate with individuals’ imaginations, and offer a quick in-road to achieving a specific quality. We asked Chrissy to turn her legs into water bags, working up from the ankles through the joints to her hips. Then we asked her to find her tail bone and feel a stretch growing progressively from and through her tail bone and up through her spine. This was associated with an out breath and/or vocalization. This connects lower body to torso, but to include the arms, as branching from the spine, Ali suggested visualizing a connection from Chrissy’s little fingers to her tail bone, thumbs to her head and middle fingers to solar plexus. Integrating the periphery of the body, the distal ends of hands back to spine to ground helps to generate a sense of the whole body in the participation of singing, and how the whole body can be supported by gravity and ground as a support for singing.

This aspect of the whole body, the space it occupies and reveals, was of great interest to movement researcher and pioneer Rudolf Laban. He coined a term Kinesphere, the sphere ones movements take place within, the centre of this sphere being the centre of the body. Chrissy often had a very inner attention with her eyes, and in Laban’s terms, could be described as near-reach. Her use of her gaze was a mode of concentrating on an instruction and carrying it out. However, through gazing down or fixing her gaze on one single point not far from her nose, there was subtle and unnecessary tension holding occurring through her neck and face, and limiting the capacity for spinal fluidity. By inviting her to side wide into the horizon, beyond the reaches of her kinesphere, she was able to find space as a resource for locating her body and sound.

It is currently well understood in vocal pedagogy that singers, being walking instruments, need to understand how their bodies work, and therefore most classical voice teachers encourage their students to study various movement disciplines. In their work with Chrissy, Ali and Jenny continued to explore directly beneficial connections between movement and voice work as part of an ongoing interest in holistic approaches to performance practice.

“…Only connect…Live no more in fragments…”

A bit about Alexandra Baybutt

As a movement coach, Laban Movement Analyst and dance artist, I work one to one and with groups of makers and performers of dance, theatre and music, as well as members of the public, all with different needs and goals. My practice articulates a fundamental set of paradigms concerning our physical selves moving in the world prior to specialisation, but applicable to any situation. I have been working with classical and electronic musicians collaboratively as an artist, coach and researcher since 2009. These have taken place with students in BA and MA educational contexts (Guildhall and Trinity in London and ZZT in Cologne), independently with professional singers and guitarists, and with Jenny Miller of Barefoot Opera.

The fundamentals of movement I refer to stem from the work of movement pioneer Rudolf Laban (year of birth/death) and dance artist, physiotherapist and researcher Irmgard Bartenieff. Their work is coalesced posthumously into a system known as Laban Movement Analysis. This practical and analytical framework differentiates aspects body, space, dynamics and relationship to provide a highly sophisticated tool kit for the observation of movement and the creation of intervention strategies. Analysis and synthesis of movement is specifically experiential by definition. I teach on modular certification programmes in Laban Movement Analysis and Bartenieff Fundamentals in Edinburgh and Belgium, on weekend introduction courses nationally and occasionally for the Laban Guild. I have a one to one practice in London.

Key points that come up in this research:

Thoughts on teaching one to one

Teaching and learning one to one provides an intimate context for experiencing and supporting the unique details of an individual’s process. It requires a high level of attention on the part of the teacher to track student’s needs and progress, both throughout a session and over the arc of a working relationship. It also requires a solid personal practice and regimen of self-care in order to maintain health and sensitivity. Whilst one comes as a teacher with various skills and tools, the attitude with which these are deployed in transmitting and facilitating various values and methodologies is crucial to effective learning. Working from a holistic approach to learning, Jenny Miller starts from a perspective that the whole system is involved in singing: the body, mind and emotions. This attitude acknowledges the whole person. In her particular work of teaching classical singing, much like my practice as a movement coach, the person is heard and seen, and not the person’s voice is heard or the person’s body is seen. To separate these in language splits what is inherently connected into problematic entities. Technique in this context therefore involves the premise that to change the whole you can explore a part, but any change of a part has an affect on the whole.

Bringing movement and sensation to the foreground

Jenny and I share a similar pedagogical outlook that values creating a context for students to discover and observe their sensation and their responses to different activity, for example, specific movement tasks, breathing and creating sound. Through prioritizing conscious awareness and attention through tasks and exercises, we aim to equip individuals to take those discoveries further in their solo practice whilst also adding to their kinaesthetic memory to be called upon when needed. Accessing sensation is not mysterious or elusive: the body is in a permanent dialogue with gravity and a base of support, constantly affected by changes within (processes of homeostasis), and without (the environments we live and work in), sending and receiving signals all the time. The body is a constant process of movement of cells, and consequently of ongoing change. In gaining familiarity with patterns, rhythms and preferences that stabilize oneself within flux, individuals are able to both acknowledge resources, expand choices and gain greater mastery of their instrument.

Tension-holding, active/passive weight

When I think about blocks to learning and progress, I think about tension. When I think about tension, I think about it as a continuum of holding on and letting go, muscularly as much as ideologically. This can explored directly at the level of physical sensation. You can catch a bird without killing it (Ariane Mnouchkine, theatre director). Too much tension results in a lack of ability to sense, whilst too much flaccidity or passivity similarly gives rise to lack of sensation. Working to increase sensation through conscious awareness of movement offers an individual opportunity to monitor their own experience of tension, relative to their ongoing experience of themselves in the every day and as musicians.