The Potent Voice

My voice work has been through many incarnations.  When I first qualified as an Awareness Through Movement teacher and began to actually teach singing I didn’t feel I had a lot of material from Feldenkrais that suited my needs – great breathing work, a wonderful lesson for the jaw and tongue, but everything else I cobbled together from the few useful books on voice and singing I could find.

I leaned most heavily on Kristin Linklater’s Freeing The Natural Voice – her focus was on acting, but her processes were so coherent and freeing that it was easy to enfold them into a Feldenkrais-based approach to melodic voice use. I can also see from looking back at my first pre-computer hand-written notes that I got useful teaching material from Patsy Rodenburg as well. It is interesting in hindsight to see how the actors approach to vocal training chimed with my own more naturally than methods focussed on producing good singing technique. I was an “entertainer” (pubs, clubs, weddings) with the avowed dream of becoming a jazz singer – a free, fluid, authentic improvising vocal “instrument” was my goal, not a flawless classical tone.

Voicecraft

Over time I got clearer about my vocal teaching project. I continued to explore my own development as a performer, occasionally finding a good book on voice with ideas I could add to my store of teaching ‘tools’, more often buying something ‘just in case’ that didn’t increase my understanding by very much. It all seemed very nebulous and experiential, and then, in 1994, I was introduced to a system called Voicecraft, taught by Alison Bagnall, a Feldenkrais teacher who was also a Speech Therapist, and Helen Taylor, a classical singing teacher who made me aware in no uncertain terms of my vocal limitations. Thanks to these two women I learned more about voice in six days than I had in all my previous experiences of taking lessons and reading books. I found the answers to questions I had been asking for 16 years. I did the course again in 1997, this time with the original source of much of the research, Jo Estill herself. I adapted what I learned into a first approximation of Vocal Awareness Through Movement lessons, and for the first time I felt really happy about the science underlying the vocal part of my teaching work.

Estill’s differentiate-and-integrate-based teaching process was ideal for my Feldenkrais voice-work project, nevertheless I have since realised that for some of my colleagues it is a ‘bridge too far’ to focus on the fleshier elements of our anatomy, as our standard modus operandi is based around the organisation of the skeleton in motion. Joyfully, modern anatomical concepts are gradually eroding the idea that any living human consists of parts that can be easily separated into distinct structures – but that is another story I will come back to in another post. I was very fortunate that in my training the emphasis was on developing our individuality and originality as practitioners – what Feldenkrais characterised as ‘our own handwriting’ – so I wasn’t too discouraged by any negative comments.

VocalDynamix

A vocal training system that was based so utterly on science, and that included a full inventory of all the moving parts that contribute to voice production, gave me loads of material to for designing new lessons. So when I belatedly caught up with the blogging explosion and it came to naming my first website I decided to highlight my voice teaching over my Feldenkrais practice…

Singing With Your Whole Self was taken…

Freeing The Natural Voice was taken…

…so I came up with the name VocalDynamix. As a description it made complete sense – voice in relationship with movement – and although I have “rebranded” since, and am doing so again, I am still very happy with that encapsulation. I began to write more regularly about what I was teaching, producing more advertising ‘blurb’, and thus began to think more deeply about how to explain my intentions as a vocal teacher to potential students. At this stage I had not yet realised that a voice teacher and a singing teacher might sometimes be two different things…

The Conscious Voice

The concept of the ‘conscious’ voice was inspired by Alfred Tomatis and his fascinating book The Conscious Ear. The idea came while I was listening to an interview with k d lang. She spoke very openly about her awkward relationship with her exceptional voice, saying that on any particular day she would not know on waking if that voice would be fully available to her. She did not feel in control of the quality of her voice but instead more at the mercy of it in some hard to define way. I recognised this as a reference to something that had changed for me after the Voicecraft /Estill vocal training. This “evidence-based” vocal practice had helped me understand which aspects of my voice were managed by which structures, and how to improve my vocal organisation to feel more in control of my ease, my musicality, my volume, and my intonation. 

By then I had been teaching practical, neuroplasticity-informed self-development work, using the Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement process for about 15 years or so. The ‘Aware’ voice didn’t sound quite right, but the ‘Conscious’ voice did. So much of what happens when we vocalise is fully automatic. Automated structures that do the vital work of enabling us to eat without fatally choking on our food do not easily ‘surrender’ to conscious control. I knew that what I was teaching could speed up the development of that control, and for many years I used The Conscious Voice to describe the elements of my course that were specific to discovering and exploring our vocal structures in action. I began to teach a six day course over three weekends: two days on breathing, two days on conscious vocal awareness, and the final two days combining vocalising with classic Feldenkrais lessons with the title “Dynamic Stability”* (it broke my heart that nobody ever signed up for this final part of the course!). 

The unpopularity of my Dynamic Stability weekend was particularly frustrating because it had been an interesting challenge to design that part of the VocalDynamix course. Up to that point I had been cheating a little; Feldenkrais does not teach you the right way to do anything, including standing up properly. If my vocal students were to practise what I was teaching in a serious manner once the course was over, then at some point the ‘P’ word would have to be tackled. I had no expectation that these students would commit to a regular Feldenkrais practise, which is what would have been ideal. I had co-opted a delightful technique known as “The Monkey” from The Voice Book written by Michael McCallion. McCallion was an Alexander Teacher, and they do have some strategies for practising improving your standing up (I am still avoiding the P word). I was very pleased with the solutions I came up with for a continued Awareness Through Movement practice, sans teacher, so I was disappointed when I did not get any takers.

The Embodied Voice

A self-employed voice-and-movement teacher needs to market herself, no matter how little relish she may have for the advertising process. Every so often a word just catches on in a way that suits our purposes. Mindfulness, and Embodiment have both emerged as useful terms for those of us who are working with methods that aim to integrate all the various elements of the self into a better-functioning whole. As a language nerd I am uncomfortable with the way our Method has become part of the alternative Somatic culture; the term has become very popular within this hard-to-define area of human development, despite the fact that even a brief analysis of the root of the word ‘soma’ should alert most people to its presence as the more material half of the term ‘psychosomatic’ – it has been around so long as a way to imply ‘body-mind’ that I am sure it is here to stay. 

I experimented with somato-psychic in an attempt to redefine the idea, but my central aim is to find language to explain what Feldenkrais teachers do that does not in itself require loads of extra explanation. The proliferation of obscure jargon is common feature in the world of holistic approaches to wellness, and I would prefer not to make things any worse than they already are. 

…Anyhoo, that is why I started a page called Feldenkrais And Embodied Voice, on FaceBook. This wasn’t a mistake exactly, but it did turn out to be just a little too popular to be distinctive enough for my long-term plans of world-domination.

I still like this name; it melds the voice directly into the sensory-motor self in a very easy-to-understand way. Finally it did feel like I was saying something as clear and expressive as ‘singing with the whole self’, or ‘freeing the natural voice’.

And now…

Anyone with a website knows how easy it is to binge-buy domain names. I bought one particular domain despite wondering if I would ever be brave enough to use it. My favourite book about Feldenkrais written by Feldenkrais is The Potent Self.

All of his books are a complex mixture of biophysics, neuroscience, and philosophy; The Potent Self is the one that goes most deeply into his theories of human emotional development and are thus closer to a theory of human neuro-psychology. Rather than attempt to encapsulate the book here I will just share one quote that I have used elsewhere:

“Painters, mathematicians, composers, and everybody else who has ever done anything worthwhile, always had to learn to paint, think, and compose—but not in the way they were taught. They had to learn and work until they knew themselves sufficiently to bring themselves to the state of spontaneity in which their deepest inner self could be brought up and out.”.

– Moshe Feldenkrais, The Potent Self, xii

So this is a very long-winded introduction to my final incarnation…

The Potent Voice...

…which means another long blog post will be appearing very shortly.

*Dynamic Stability is a very popular term for teaching processes that are centred on well-organised human movement – I am by no means the only person who ‘coined’ the term!

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