The following essay is included in The Modern Singing Master: Essays in Honor of Cornelius L. Reid, published by the Scarecrow Press.
An Alexander Teacher Reads The Free Voice, his Mouth Agape
To some observers, Cornelius L. Reid's understanding of the vocal registers and his ability to translate watertight theory into unfailing practice stand as the signal accomplishment of his career as a singing teacher. However impressive this accomplishment may be, I believe that it is only part of his legacy, and, indeed, secondary to an even larger achievement. For while his mastery of the vocal registers has been of capital importance to singers and singing teachers, the pedagogical context into which he places his work with the vocal registers is invaluable to all, singers and non-singers both. Reid's framework, in a word, is universal; the material with which he fills it is particular, addressing itself specifically to singers. My conceit is that, were we to strip Reid's framework of its specific (and remarkable) content, we would still be left with a glorious monument that would stand on its own.
In the early eighties, after finishing my graduate studies as a cellist in the United States, I moved to London to pursue a three-year training course to become a teacher of the Alexander Technique. A research foundation in my native Brazil awarded me a grant to pursue my studies, and my proposed research subject was, naturally enough, the applications of the Alexander Technique to music-making. Accordingly, I started spending time in a music library around the corner from my school, not far from the Victoria train station. As every book lover knows, readers do not find the right books to read; it is the books themselves who find the right readers. Among the thousands of volumes in the library, one sang its siren song louder than all others and compelled my hands to take it off the shelf: it was The Free Voice. (It ought to have been subtitled Perdition.) Crouching on the floor in between shelves, I perused its pages and immediately understood that a crucial event was taking place in my life.
For those of you familiar with Reid's work but not with Alexander's, a short introduction is in order. The Technique is an eminently practical method of solving problems. Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955) sustained that most difficulties that people face-physical or mental, health- or work-related-are manifestations of a single constant: the influence of use upon functioning. By "use" Alexander meant the way one reacts, with the whole of one's being, to any given situation. I pick up my bow to play a note at the cello: I use my whole self (from head to toes) in a manner determined by a wealth of factors, including habit, my perceptions of myself and of the world around me, my intentions as a cellist and musician, the sum total of my experiences and yearnings. My attitude and my coordination are one, and as such synonymous with my use. At the cello I may collect myself, direct my energies, and play a note without preconceived ideas about the possible results, thereby allowing something to happen and to come across through my gesture. Or I may become intent on producing a result, on fabricating a sound or a gesture or an emotion in myself or in my listener, thereby interfering with something that will not happen through me, but because of myself or even despite myself. The latter attitude Alexander called "end-gaining," which he considered the ultimate cause of all difficulties.
If I end-gain, I misuse myself, thereby putting things wrong within myself and in my relationship with the external world, including my instrument and my public. I need therefore to give up wanting to end-gain, a process which Alexander called "inhibition." He demonstrated that a certain orientation of the head, neck, and upper back allows the body to coordinated itself ideally. We see this in animals, both domesticated and wild. A cheetah spots a prey in the distance. Suddenly it points its head forward and up, and its whole body becomes taut, dynamic, ready to run and pounce. Alexander called this coordinative trigger, which is operative in all vertebrates, the "Primary Control."
To direct the Primary Control and obtain the many benefits of its healthy working would appear simple from the outside. Yet two major obstacles stand on our way to freedom. Perhaps you have had the experience of looking at a photo of yourself and exclaiming, "Impossible! I do not hold myself in that way!" The bitter truth is that there is a nearly constant gap between what you do and what you feel that you do, as demonstrated by the irrefutable evidence of the photograph measured against subjective feeling. Alexander called this gap "faulty sensory awareness," and explained it as a function of habit - we tend to ignore that which we do all the time, better to pay attention to what is new and different-as well as a function of misuse. The body contains sensors, called proprioceptors, that give us feedback on matters of bodily position, movement, balance, effort, fatigue, and so on. The neck is particularly rich in proprioceptors. If you misuse your head and neck habitually (and the photos of you at your cousin's wedding do not lie), you are most likely to receive distorted feedback from those vital sensors.
Problematic though it may be, faulty sensory awareness is not the greatest obstacle on the road to freedom. The key to mastery, according to Alexander, lies not in what we do, but in what we stop doing and in what we prevent ourselves from doing. And in our ever-present urge to do and to be seen to be doing, we find it impossibly hard not to do. Non-doing, the essence of the Alexander Technique, is the hardest thing to do in this world. (I am fully aware of the contradiction inherent in that last sentence - it is this very contradiction, of course, that causes us to go wrong again and again!)
Alexander did not invent anything; he simply articulated anew something that has always existed. His formulation may be original and, in some ways that we will discuss in passing later on, rather idiosyncratic; but the substance of what he has to say is independent of his discourse and belongs not to him but to a tradition from time immemorial. This tradition has surfaced in various guises throughout the history of humankind: Taoism and Zen Buddhism are two of its manifestations. My conceit is that Alexandrism and Reidism, to coin a couple of new sects, so to speak, are equally manifestations of this life principle.
Indeed, it was their startling coincidence that had me shaking my head in wonder as I crouched in between bookshelves nearly twenty years ago. Their main difference, which in no way puts them in contradiction with each other, is that Reidism employs the vocal registers as the mainspring of its practice, while Alexandrism employs the directions of the Primary Control. (In truth these two practices complement each other. To coordinate the vocal registers leads indirectly to an improvement in the orientation of one's head, neck, and back. And to direct the Primary Control leads indirectly to an improvement in the balance of one's vocal registers. Such a correlation is quite logical, and definitely of interest to the singer and singing teacher alike; but given the thrust of my impending arguments I shall not address it.)
Let me reiterate my case: I believe that Cornelius L. Reid's greatest contribution as a pedagogue and writer lies not in his exquisite understanding of the vocal registers, but in his fresh articulation of something greater than the vocal registers, greater than music itself. And I believe that Reid's wisdom is made all the more radiant by the way it concords with the wisdom of Alexander. To prove my assertion, I propose that we make a comparative study of the sacred texts of Reidism and Alexandrism.
Theory that is truly relevant is never dissociated from living practice, just as practice that is truly useful is always underpinned by solid theory. In other words, we might want to judge the precepts of our sect by performing its rites. Let us start our work by imagining that we shall test Reid's (and, by extension, Alexander's) theories by practicing a few vocal exercises.
"In challenging the utility of an exercise," Reid writes, "satisfactory answers must be found for the what, the when, the how and the why of its employment. Once what is to be done harmonizes with the reason why it is being done when it is done, how it is executed will determine the ultimate result in terms of success or failure. Only after the what, why, when and how coincide with a present technical need can the use of a given exercise be fully justified.
"There is ample proof to refute the contention of those who believe an exercise to have value in itself. How many thousands of students have faithfully practiced Marchesi exercises, and how few have derived benefit from them! The key to vocal development is not to be found in the exercise but in the manner in which it is performed!"
Alexander concurs. "A person who learns to work to a principle in doing one exercise will have learned to do all exercises," he wrote, "but the person who learns just to 'do an exercise' will most assuredly have to go on learning to 'do exercises' ad infinitum." You must work "to a principle," then, the principle being a web of what's, when's, how's, and why's. What might be the first strand to be woven into the web?
"In an ideal technique of singing there is no difference between the doer and the thing being done." Thus Reid expresses the intimate marriage between a singer and his voice, or, more generally, between an artist and his art. "If we grant the unity of life and the tendency of its evolution," Alexander wrote, "it follows that all the manifestations of what we have called 'the subconscious self' are functions of the vital essence or life-force, and that these functions are passing from automatic or unconscious to reasoned or conscious control. This conception does not necessarily imply any distinction between the thing controlled and the control itself." For me, this would be the most important starting point in one's quest for freedom: the affirmation of unity. Alexander wisely chose not to speak of "the body" or "the mind," but rather of "the self," which is one and indivisible, and which, when ideally coordinated, is in harmony-nay, in unity - with the world around it. All practice should aim to establish this unity and flow from it.
The notion of coordination is central for both Reid and Alexander. Broadly defined, it will include all reactions of the self, from the most mundane gestures of daily life to the most skillful acts of virtuosity on the concert stage and beyond. To be well coordinated is to be whole. Leaving aside an attempt to define coordination more precisely, let us accept that one of its elemental characteristics is an interplay of tension and relaxation.
"Perhaps two of the most used and least understood words found in the vocabulary of the teaching profession are tension and relaxation," Reid wrote. "Tension is used so as to consistently imply wrong tension, without regard for there being such a thing as right tension, while to relaxation is imputed a state of being in which the attainment of absolute passivity is assumed to ensure correct activity.
"Wherever there is muscular movement there must be tension. … Tension is an integral part of every coordinative process, of equilibrium and tonus. … It is correct affirmative action, i.e., tension within the coordinative process without interfering tension, which gives the appearance of relaxation and ease of execution. …
"The prime offender in this situation is often the teacher. By counseling his students to 'relax' during the act of singing, he is not solving a technical problem but perpetrating and even inducing new wrong tensions. …
"All visible, external signs of effort reflect a condition in which muscles are relaxed when they should be in tension. If the muscles of the laryngeal and pharyngeal tract are not properly engaged, the energy used in singing must be directed elsewhere and, as a consequence, the muscles of the jaw, neck, shoulders, and chest will come into tension when they should be relaxed. These muscles can only be made to relax, however, when the coordinative process is reversed. Successful reversal of a faulty technique will cause interfering tensions to disappear without their ever having been made a matter of direct concern."
Reid's sagacity is twofold. First, he understands that tension is useful - indeed, it is essential to life itself. Second, he understands that the relationship of cause and effect between tension and relaxation is such that right tension leads, indirectly and more or less automatically, to right relaxation, and not the other way around. Further, his view of tension and relaxation illustrates two of the defining aspects of his teaching. On the one hand, his understanding of cause and effect is unassailably logical. On the other hand, here as elsewhere Reid stands diametrically opposed to accepted wisdom-not a comfortable place in which to spend one's entire life. But we all know that the prophet that espouses accepted wisdom is no prophet at all.
Alexander's approach to tension and relaxation is, as we may expect, consonant with Reid's; it addresses the issue at large rather than as it pertains to singing. "Let us take for example the case of a man who habitually stiffens his neck in walking, sitting, or other ordinary acts of life. This is a sign that he is endeavoring to do with the muscles of his neck the work which should be performed by certain other muscles of his body, notably those of the back. Now if he is told to relax those stiffened muscles of the neck and obeys the order, this mere act of relaxation deals only with an effect and does not quicken his consciousness of the use of the right mechanism which he should use in place of those relaxed. The desire to stiffen the neck muscles should be inhibited as a preliminary (which is not the same thing at all as a direct order to relax the muscles themselves), and then the true uses of the muscular mechanism, i.e., the means of placing the body in a position of mechanical advantage, must be studied, when the work will naturally devolve on those muscles intended to carry it out, and the neck will be relaxed unconsciously."
The notion of coordination has led us to this brief discussion of tension and relaxation. It might have led us just as easily into a study of control, for what is a well coordinated person if not one who displays control of his gestures? Here, too, Reid and Alexander depart in tandem from accepted wisdom. We let Reid speak first.
"Attempts at vocal control … must never be instituted at any period of training. The right kind of control will ultimately manifest itself! … It cannot be repeated too often: controls must never be imposed from without, they must grow from within! … [T]he only control over which [the singer] can have any knowledge at all is the very control he should be trying to discard!"
"I wish it to be understood", Alexander wrote in turn, "that throughout [my writings] I use the term conscious guidance and control to indicate, primarily, a plane to be reached rather than a method of reaching it." "Control", he said elsewhere, "should be in process, not superimposed."
This seems the appropriate time for me to open a little parenthesis and, as I promised earlier on, touch on the idiosyncrasies of Alexander the thinker as communicator, idiosyncrasies that I believe Reid (not surprisingly) shares with his fellow prophet. His-their-style is marked by a mixture of eagerness and certitude that calls for an abundance of italics, underlining, capitals, and exclamation marks when thoughts become printed words. We can imagine a dialog between these two teachers. It would go something like this:
-I wish to make it clear…
-One absolutely must…
-It would be impossible to overestimate…
And although Alexander and Reid would interrupt each other constantly with all manners of jabs and hooks, they would leave the boxing rink in glowing admiration for each other. How could you fail to admire somebody who thinks and talks exactly like you do?
"It cannot be stated too emphatically," one of them wrote, "that as neither the muscles which the stretch the vocal chords to the desired length and tension to establish pitch, nor those which set the cavities of the laryngeal and postnasal pharynx into a position favorable to resonance, can be controlled in a constructive way by any act of willful volition, all acts designed to obtain direct control over the vocal organs are uselss.
"If this is recognized to be so, the problem met with in developing a secure vocal technique is somewhat more clear. First and foremost, a legitimate means must be found for achieving volitional control over muscular processes which are by their very nature involuntary without recourse to overt movement or prepared positions. To state the proposition again, voluntary control must be instituted over muscular responses whose participation is purely involuntary without recourse to mechanistic controls. This involves learning how to permit movement without moving."
"So many people, I find," the other one wrote, "seem to regard the principles of conscious control as a kind of magic which may be worked by some suitable incantation. They appear to think that we may obtain conscious control of, say, the secretive glands, that we may be able to give an order to secrete more or less bile or gastric juice by a command of the objective mind. If such a thing were possible, and if I could endow any person with such power tomorrow, I should know perfectly well that I should, by so doing, be signing that person's death warrant." "On the other hand," he wrote elsewhere, "there is great danger in underrating the power of conscious control, which, if it must not be prematurely forced and made to intrude on automatic functions, must in no way be undervalued or delimited." In sum, "I [cannot] enable my pupils to control the functioning of their organs, systems, or reflexes directly, but by teaching them to employ consciously the primary control of their use I [can] put them in command of the means whereby their functioning generally can be indirectly controlled."
Coordination, tension and relaxation, control, volition, functioning-he who utters these words will inevitably spurt out, before long, "Breathing!" And here too Reid and Alexander speak as one, and as no one else. Reid wrote, "Perhaps the best example of what is meant by first doing 'nothing' and then learning how to assist that which is being done, is breathing. Breathing is both voluntary and involuntary. By removing all disciplines affecting the way one breathes, the act of inspiration and expiration will proceed naturally on an involuntary basis." "While it is true that there are good and bad methods of breathing, no transformation of the vocal technique can be hoped for by the employment of either one means as against the other. It would be much closer to the truth to say that when the vocal mechanism is working efficiently very little is demanded of the breath, because all of the energy used is being directed into functionally constructive channels. Therefore, as the breath is not being dissipated the singer discovers that he has more at his disposal than his needs require. Correct function husbands the breath, incorrect function wastes it."
"The act of breathing", Alexander would reply, or rather, concur, "is not a primary, or even secondary, part of the process. … As a matter of fact, given the perfect coordination of parts as required by my system, breathing is a subordinate operation which will perform itself."
Very well, then. You have yielded to the wise exhortations of Reid and Alexander, and you have thought through questions of coordination and control. You have gone through the requisite steps to put yourself in a perfect balance of tension and relaxation. You have taken a non-breath, as it were. You are finally ready to open your mouth and sing perfectly. Or are you? "It is well known", Alexander wrote, "that different people will get a different conception of the same word, spoken or written, and from the same gesture, showing that conception is dependent upon the nature of the impressions taken through the sensory mechanism which controls the functioning of the cells (receptors and conductors) of the eyes and ears, etc. The conception likewise of what is happening within ourselves is dependent upon impressions which come to us through the sense of feeling (sensory appreciation) upon which we must rely for guidance in carrying out our daily activities. When our sensory appreciation is deceptive, as is the case more or less with everyone today, the impressions we get through it are deceptive also. The extent of this deception depends largely upon the extent to which our manner of use has been put wrong and the nature and degree of the faulty guidance of deceptive feeling. When a certain degree of misuse has been reached, the deceptiveness of these impressions reaches a point where they can mislead us into believing that WE ARE DOING SOMETHING WITH SOME PART OF OURSELVES WHEN ACTUALLY WE CAN BE PROVED TO BE DOING SOMETHING QUITE DIFFERENT. This is equally true of the things we believe we think, which more often than not are things we feel."
The phenomenon about which Alexander shouts - the uppercase letters are his-is the dreaded faulty sensory awareness I mentioned earlier. It is universal; you suffer from it whether you can tell it or not. Therefore you may not be ready to sing even when you feel certain that you are. Reid thinks so too. "It was Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes who once said, 'We are all of us three persons: The one we think ourselves to be, the one others think us to be and the one we truly are.' This seems especially true of the singer.
"Every singer justifiably looks upon his voice as an extension of his personality. In this sense he can, through familiarity, know his voice and, to a degree, control it with some effectiveness. This is subjective knowing. In contrast to this there is objective reality, and these two do not always agree. Only too often a singer thinks himself to have created an effect he has not succeeded in creating at all. He may believe his voice to be free when it is only free within limits, and he will often accept a quality as being attractive and functionally correct when it is quite the opposite. Being objective about subjective matters is not easy." Faulty sensory awareness-and this we cannot possibly overemphasize! - is a major impediment to self-realization. "The confusion existing between the thing believed to have been done and the actuality immediately places the performer on shaky ground," Reid writes. "He is caught in the illusion of reality present in the phonative process and is separated from a true sense of what is happening when he sings. … Objectivity is lost through tension. As every singer experiences some element of interfering tension, true objectivity is impossible. To the extent that the wrong tensions exist, therefore, a blockage of self-awareness and self-perception also exists. Restoration of lost objectivity can only be accomplished by achieving consonance among conceptual attitudes, bodily responses and the functional needs of the vocal mechanism."
You had better sit down, my friend. It might be a while before you open your pretty little mouth and sing a vocal exercise. Faulty sensory awareness goes deeper than you suppose. Remember our working principle, that web of what's, why's, how's, and when's? Inevitably, it encompasses thought, opinion, and taste. "Knowledge freed from prejudice", Reid writes, "can only be gained by seeking to learn that which is true by means of trained observation, and a willingness to discard personal preferences as to what the voice ought to sound like. … Most expressions of taste in the form of 'like' and 'dislike' are bound to be prejudicial almost by definition." … "[A]esthetic judgment is a major obstacle to the removal of vocal imperfections. How easy it is to offer judgments which are no more than opinions representing an expression of personal taste!" That faulty sensory awareness goes well beyond bodily states or positions is only logical. All our conceptions-of ourselves and of the world around us-are fashioned from experience, which is continually monitored and interpreted by the senses. If the senses give us misleading information, we are bound to form misled conceptions in our minds. "We have to recognize", Alexander wrote, "… that our sensory peculiarities are the foundation of what we think of as our opinions, and that, in fact, nine out of ten of the opinions we form are rather the result of what we feel than what we think." Alexandrism and Reidism, then, require not only that you walk, sit, stand, and breathe differently, they also require that you think and talk and discern differently too.
A few paragraphs ago, Alexander made a point, almost in passing, which I consider of fundamental importance: "different people", he wrote, "will get a different conception of the same word, spoken or written," depending on a number of factors. This can make dialog-and consequently communication, understanding, and learning-very difficult indeed. It is as if two people exchanging ideas spoke two diverse languages without knowing it; the mix-up of words would necessarily create a mix-up of ideas. "In general, contemporary teaching practices are based on a misconception of the natural," Reid argues. "There is a vast difference between 'natural and habitual' and 'natural and correct.' When a student is instructed to sing naturally he is really being told to sing, not correctly, because no principle has been applied to establish this as a functional reality, but in a way that is merely 'habitually natural.' …What the singer has really been told when instructed to 'sing naturally' is to go along with habitual faults which have become natural to him. … Constructive vocal training cannot proceed effectively as long as 'natural' is confused with 'habitual.' Nor can the student hope to change a faulty technique by any method based on this error."
You will not be surprised to learn that Alexander, too, pondered the difference between "natural and habitual" and "natural and correct." "One of the most remarkable of man's characteristics", he wrote in italics, "is his capacity for becoming used to conditions of almost any kind, whether good or bad, both in the self and in the environment, and once he has become used to such conditions they seem to him both right and natural. This capacity is a boon when it enables him to adapt himself to conditions which are desirable, but it may prove a great danger when the conditions are undesirable. When his sensory appreciation is untrustworthy, it is possible for him to become so familiar with seriously harmful conditions of misuse of himself that these malconditions will feel right and comfortable."
But would it not be able for something to feel and be right to me even though it might be wrong to you? (Those italics are terribly contagious.)
"[A] man's beliefs and acts are largely the outcome of his upbringing and circumstances," Alexander stated, "and therefore should not be judged by any fixed standards of right and wrong. Acts which are held to be right by one race and at one period are often condemned by other people or at other periods. …
"But where the use of the self is concerned, there is a standard which can generally be accepted, for it can be demonstrated that a certain manner of use of the mechanisms is found in association with certain satisfactory standards of functioning and with conditions of health and well-being. We are surely justified in considering a manner of use that is associated with such desirable conditions to be 'natural' or 'right' under all circumstances."
Alexandrism, then, holds an absolute truth on the use of the self. This may well strike you as too prescriptive, hence inimical to the realization of your innermost individuality. You would be mistaken in thinking so; although healthy use must spring from a single source, its expression can know infinite possibilities of thought, gesture, discourse, and action. You can be uniquely yourself even as you abide by universal principles.
"In learning to arrive at a correct estimate of a performer's technical ability, therefore, all considerations such as personal preference, or qualities of musicianship and communicative warmth must be set aside," Reid explains. "Of greater interest to the teacher is the quality of the physical skill displayed by the singer, for it is to this one must look for insight into technical problems.
"The fact is, a truly beautiful tone finds its expression not only in qualities of sheer loveliness, but in a complete vocal, i.e., functional, freedom. It is almost self-evident, granted a musical personality, that all tones truly free are either beautiful or legitimately expressive. Deeper insight into this phase of the vocal problem will be gained if a new type of equation is set up. This equation must enable both teacher and student to recognize the intrinsic healthfulness of tones toward which they may be drawn qualitywise, and to discover their true value as expressed in terms of comparable vocal freedom.
"A simple formula would be developed as follows: taste must be made to correspond to correct tone quality, and correct tone quality must be recognized as the equivalent expression of a freely functioning technique. One of the immediate goals in teaching, therefore, is to reconcile aesthetic concepts growing out of taste, experience and prejudice, so that they are brought into agreement with nature's law."
My long-delayed conclusion is now within reach. Reid's beautiful book, The Free Voice, was not subtitled Perdition after all, but A Guide to Natural Singing. Reidism and Alexandrism alike are but branches of Nature's Law. "When an investigation comes to be made," Alexander said, "it will be found that every single thing we are doing in the work is exactly what is being done in Nature where the conditions are right, the difference being that we are learning to do it consciously." Their chief advocates are feisty, disputatious, all-seeing and all-knowing. The road upon which they shine their lights is strait and narrow, and exceedingly thorny even to the most exalted of converts. Absolutists though they may be, Reid and Alexander are absolutely right to think that their convictions should be shared by all. Let us stand up now and open our pretty little mouths and sing ninety Hosannahs to Cornelius and his acolyte. I am sure neither man would object.
Books by and about Cornelius L. Reid
- Bel Canto: Principles and Practices. Boston: Coleman-Ross, 1950; Patelson, New York, 1975.
- The Free Voice. Boston: Coleman-Ross, 1965; New York: Patelson, 1975.
- Voice: Psyche and Soma. New York: Patelson, 1975.
- A Dictionary of Vocal Terminology: An Analysis. New York: Patelson, 1983; Huntsville, Texas: Recital, 1995.
- Essays on the Nature of Singing. Huntsville, Texas: Recital, 1992.
- Funktionale Stimmentwicklung Zweck und Bewegungsablauf von Stimmübungen. Mainz: Schott, 1994.
- The Modern Singing Master: Essays in Honor of Cornelius L. Reid, edited by Ariel Bybee and James E. Ford. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2002