“In helping a person increase functionality, it is important to follow the logic of human development. You can not expect someone to run who can not walk.”
–from “Singing With Your Whole Self–The Feldenkrais Method and Voice,” by Samuel Nelson and Elizabeth Blades-Zeller.
Val is a 64-year old retired business woman who grew up in a multi-lingual and multi-cultural home, studied piano, and has sung her whole life. She is in good health. After her husband passed, she decided to renew herself by studying singing and exploring jazz standards in several languages.
Val routinely “held” herself very carefully. Her voice has a lovely timbre, is tuneful, and her Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Italian are impressive. She shared with me that her mother always told her she couldn’t sing and frequently made fun of her attempts to take lessons as a young adult. She had no parental support for her singing and felt she did not deserve to be heard. She sounded as if it had a “veil” over her voice which had the effect of muffling her tone, and she had a limited vocal range.
I could see by the way she carried herself that she had no kinesthetic sense of the length of her spine as supportive or flexible. She said she often had lower back pain, but as far as she knew, there was no medical issue. So I chose to start with exercises I learned from Andover Educator, Dr. Sarah Adams Hoover. Dr. Hoover introduced me in 2000 to the study and practical application of Body Mapping, a phrase coined by the founder of Andover Education, William Conable. Here is one exercise that Sarah taught me that has since then become a regular part of body-based, functional vocal work:
I asked Val to drape herself, stomach first, over a 55 mm Pilates ball and gently roll back and forth until she became comfortable and more relaxed. After asking her permission to touch her back, I placed one hand on the center of the back of her head and the other on her tail bone. (essentially the length of the spine.)
We worked with slow, targeted functional exercises, such as 1-2-1-2-1 on the vowel (ae) as in “cat” with her tongue sticking out of her mouth easily. We also used mindful breathing exercises and mental images stimulated by spinal animation videos on the web. She became aware of differences in sensation between holding herself in her habitual rigid pattern and being able to feel her spine slightly contracting when she inhales, and lengthening on the exhale. The reason this is important is that if the spine is not freely moving on inhaling and exhaling, there will be incomplete movement anywhere else, including the larynx and vocal folds and all “support” muscles.
With time, this awareness was transferred to sitting and standing, allowing for the change in gravity with each. Her new awareness needs to be reenforced as she sings.
Dr. June Wieder, author of Song of the Spine calls this natural movement “…a standing wave between these curves in order to maintain the structural and neural integrity of the nervous system.” The freedom of our singing is dependent on the function of our central nervous system.
Functional Voice Training
Thanks to the baby boomers and those who came of age in the late 1940’s, 1950’s and ’60’s, there are more senior singers than ever working to stay vital and sing longer. When working with older singers you must understand what happens to a body and voice as it ages. Also know that it is possible for new neural pathways from brain to body to be forged with the right kind of physical and mental exercises in voices that have functional problems.
If I was to work with Val according to how she sounded, I would have started with breathing and brighter vowels, “getting the sound forward,” trying to relax the tongue, relearning vowel formations, activating the soft palate, etc. She would have improved for a time, maybe 3 months, then tapered off improvement, because the issues did not stem from how she sounded.
They were the result of what her vocal folds were not doing. They way she sounded” were symptoms of atrophied vocal folds and general largyngeal muscle weakness. which caused all these other things.
Also, ossification of the larynx (cartilage turning into bone) actually starts in a fetus, but the process continues and amplifies as we age. There are vocal advantages to this, but it does make it impossible to “have your voice feel, sound and act like it did when you were younger.”
In spite of Val’s singing entirely in her low register, it was a weak ‘chest voice-Mode 1- function’ which was a surprise to her. Our process, once a week for the first 3 months, focused on targeted exercises from both vocal rehabilitation and vocal pedagogy, based on pitch, pattern and dynamics, to coax response from those weakened laryngeal muscles, then strengthen them in balance with her newly found head voice-Mode 2.
Only then could we start to entice a more enjoyable and effective breath and breath management system! We worked about 8 months before she was ready to do the popular straw exercises.
In the second 3 months, we added a few traditional vocalize after the functional technical work. I could not move faster than Val was ready to go functionally AND emotionally. She began personal therapy which has enabled her to move through her study with more purpose and happiness.
She was awesome to work with; disciplined with a great sense of humor and very musical. We worked for two years solid to build her basic vocal instrument. She and I also worked with materials written by vocal jazz educators Bob Stoloff and Steven Zegree. She went on to study with Bobby McFerrin and Rhiannon in the vocal improvisation and jazz fields, and is now leading her own vocal improv group.