Here’s a treat for all of us as we begin 2017: An interview with master Somatic educator and performer, Suzan Postel, of The Body Sings. I have had the opportunity to work with Suzan as her client, by Facetime, and am looking forward to continuing with her this month. We have referred students to each other and find ourselves in some similar life stages right now, which is why I so appreciate who she is as a person as much as her professional experiences. Enjoy!
Cate: Please give us a brief overview of your background and how you came to somatic education.
Suzan: The exploration of body, mind, and creative self-expression has always been an integral part of my life. I started dancing at age 4 and have been singing and playing music as long as I can remember. I grew up in NYC, in an extended family of practitioners in the arts and sciences. My father was the rare breed of surgeon who believed that being a good doctor meant being involved in all aspects of his patients’ healing, not just being a good technician; my mother is a painter, who also loves playing music; and my brother is a singer/ songwriter/ guitarist with whom I’ve enjoyed a lifelong musical collaboration. I grew up as a modern dancer, and sang everything from classical art songs to Joni Mitchell.
I entered the music theatre world somewhat by accident when I attended an open chorus call, solely as an exercise in performance practice, and was offered the leading role in Pirates of Penzance. At the time I was in workshops for a dance company being developed by my favorite teacher from Alvin Ailey’s American Dance Center, but he encouraged me to do the show, saying ‘it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity – take it!’ That experience presented an answer to my dilemma of choosing between singing and dancing, and I went on to perform on Broadway and around the globe.
I began practicing Pilates as a young dancer and was offered a part time teaching job just after 9/11, when the climate of uncertainty impacted NYC theatre. Despite my initial concern that teaching would conflict with my performing career, it quickly became yet another passion and afforded me the freedom to pursue new creative paths.
Suzan with Rudolph Nureyev in The King and I. Postel as Tuptim.
Postel as Maria in West Side Story:
I’ve always explored numerous modalities to maintain my physical and vocal health, including Alexander Technique, Feldenkreis, The Franklin Method, Ideokineses, Yoga, Continuum, Thompson Bodywork, Physical Therapy, and Mindfulness Meditation. I eventually learned that many of the healing methods I was drawn to were forms of ‘Somatic Education’, a term coined by Thomas Hanna in the early 70s, when the view of physiology and psychology as separate entities was increasingly being challenged by the holistic movement. Derived from the Greek word “soma”, meaning body, Hanna described “Somatic” as “the body experienced from within”.
“Somatic Education” is the process of bringing awareness to what is happening unconsciously in the body in order to develop more efficient movement patterns. I incorporated elements of all of my somatic training into my Pilates teaching, and tailored my approach to the individual client. Working extensively in studios and gyms before moving to private practice also exposed me to a wide variety of both traditional and mind/body approaches to training; and the deeper, more transformative effects of the latter further confirmed my inclination towards somatic education.
Fundamental to my development as a somatic practitioner was my nearly 20-year relationship with the innovative bodyworker Cathy Thompson, whose holistic approach to the voice, body and mind taught me that what I experienced as vocal issues were almost always in my body. When I started teaching Pilates we traded sessions every week until her untimely passing in 2008. In addition to the immeasurable wealth of knowledge Cathy imparted to me both through her hands and her ideas, teaching someone with such heightened body awareness freed me to rely less on my analytical brain and more on my intuition. This came strongly into play during her illness when, using micro-movements, guided breathing, and visualization, I was able to relieve her pain and, during a period of paralysis, help restore mobility. I was also involved in various ways with the writing of her book, which was recently completed by her brilliant daughter Tara, who continues to evolve her mothers’ work and remains my lifelong friend and collaborator. The book will be published in Spring 2017.
Cate: When did you discover Somatic Voicework™: The LoVetri Method, and why did it resonate with you?
Suzan: One night after seeing a performance in Brooklyn I rode the subway home with the wonderful artist Theo Bleckmann, and we got into a discussion about singing and the quest for vocal freedom. I explained that I had stopped taking lessons and was exploring on my own to find the more intrinsic connection between body and voice; starting with body release, transitioning to increasing the air stream, to adding sound on the air, all without introducing extraneous tension. Theo proceeded to tell me about his voice teacher, Jeanie LoVetri, describing the magical transformations he’d experienced and observed through her teaching, and I knew I had to try a session.
Ten minutes into our first lesson I realized that not only did Jeanie perceive exactly what was happening in my voice, but she was bringing the same level of deep release I practiced in my bodywork to my throat and singing. Afterwards we talked for over an hour, and discovered much common ground in our experience as singers, our backgrounds in dance and somatic modalities, and our teaching philosophies. We began trading voice lessons with Pilates-based bodywork sessions, continually noting parallels between our approaches to the voice and body. Jeanie’s process-oriented, intuitive, and holistic method affirms my belief that somatic awareness is key to stopping the cycle of recurring imbalances, tensions, or injuries we experience in performance and in daily life.
Cate: Yes! I totally agree. Can you describe some of the things you do in a session and what happens to a client’s practice and awareness. Why is this important and why should it matter to them?
Suzan: Let’s start with why it should matter. Over time our repetitive movements and postural patterns lead to muscular imbalances, and the resulting compensations take us further and further away from the optimal function of our bio-mechanical design. When certain muscle groups are over-worked and tight, there is a weakening in the antagonist muscles, which are designed to work synergistically. In addition, emotional traumas and physical injuries can be held in the tissues unless we bring them into conscious awareness and release them. Life imprints on the body, as well as the mind.
Cate: Hoo-boy, that is so true. Worth saying again “Life imprints on the body as well as the mind.”
Suzan: It is the nature of the mind and body to default to their familiar pathways; so changing an embedded unconscious pattern takes time and patience. Have you ever wondered why you can experience immediate relief in a session with a good massage therapist, but it’s only a matter of time before the issues return? Similarly, you may achieve wonderful results under the guidance of a talented teacher, but until you feel and can reproduce what happened in your own body, the temporary change will give way to your conditioned default. While this is frustrating, it’s actually embedded in our survival instinct to take the path of least resistance (what’s more familiar feels ‘easier’, even if it creates imbalance, physical pain or emotional discomfort). Simply “trying harder” will engage the same pathways unless we develop our sensory awareness of tension or holding patterns, learn to release those areas, and then wait to re-discover the experience of less effortful, natural function.
Suzan: Therefore, whether a client’s interest is in singing, fitness, or rehabilitation, I start by bringing more consciousness into the process of restoring more efficient, healthy function. After performing a movement or releasing unwanted tension we take a moment to check back in with the body so the brain and nervous system can assimilate what has changed. Once that becomes more familiar, the default will gradually shift towards this new, more desirable state, and we can progress from there. If instead I started with a bunch of exercises, while you may increase strength, flexibility, range, etc, you would perform them the same old way, increasing imbalances and the potential for injury.
For example, one of the first things I address with most clients is core strength and stability. ‘Core’ work is a current trend in the fitness world, but it can be poorly taught. If I gave you an abdominal exercise your body would likely default to the surface (rectus) abdominals and hip flexors, leaving your back vulnerable to strain. So we must first locate the deepest (transversus) abs, which are largely underutilized and can therefore be hard to feel. With increased awareness we can consciously deepen the work to develop strength, control and stability.
The transverse abdominals are also important in singing, as they connect directly to the diaphragm and act as secondary breathing muscles. Drawing on this support below the lungs helps maintain breath pressure without engaging muscles higher in the body that constrict the voice.
Another fundamental of all body learning is experiencing posture not as a fixed, static pose, but rather as a dynamic relationship of parts within the whole structure, both at rest and in motion. The primary ingredient in the somatic process is being willing to be a beginner, allowing yourself to rediscover the innate experience of free movement and sound making. Be patient with yourself, as your body will revert to old patterns; but those moments of noticing are golden. You can’t change the body without first changing the mind.
Cate: Thank you, Suzan, for sharing your journey in Somatic Education!
Please contact Suzan directly HERE if you are interested in deepening your somatic experience via her workshops or online. Every somatic educator must embody the work themselves before trying to pass it on or help others–it is the nature of the discipline and why all the great innovators of somatic education found their work through attempting to help themselves or their loved ones first.
Suzan Postel is a master educator for The Lovetri Institute for Somatic VoiceWork tm: The Lovetri Method fantastic Summer Program at Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio. July 22-30, 2017.
To find out more about Singing Voice Specialist/Voice Trainer/Somatic Educator Cate Frazier-Neely, please go HERE.