“Higher Education” Without a Terminal Academic Degree

A former student who just finished her graduate degree in Vocal Pedagogy returned to resume our work together.

She asked me how I developed the combination of vocal pedagogy and somatic education she experiences in her lessons. Her words: “nobody teaches singing like this.” So her prompt gave me the idea for this post.

SO HERE’S A “SHORT” ANSWER

What did the founders of Alexander Technique, The Feldenkrais Method and other somatic education, as well as vocal pedagogy innovators, have in common?

They used themselves  as primary subjects.

Alexander was an actor who lost his voice. Feldenkrais was an engineer with a black belt in judo and chronic knee pain due to an injury. Ida Rolf,  founder of Rolfing Integrative Technique, was a biochemist who needed solutions to her own health problems and the health issues of her two sons.

Many of the current popular (CCM) singing pedagogies were developed by people who couldn’t get what they needed as singers from classical teachers, so they set out to build credible research and formulate methods which have ended up serving countless others.

Each of these people had the ability to draw connections among many observations and intuitions. They discoursed with open-minded colleagues and scientists and studied the human body and psyche with unusual depth.

TODAY, FUNCTIONAL VOCAL PEDAGOGY & SOMATIC EDUCATION…

… are partnering for freer and stronger performance, practice and life styles.

However, finding a voice teacher who combines them both well, and regularly, in their teaching is still rare.

MOVING IT ALL FORWARD

So this is my ‘shtick.’ I learned how to do this, not through any degreed program, not through certifications or teacher training, not through modeling other pedagogues, but, like those listed above, using myself as the primary subject.

Believe me, it was only out of sheer desperation and necessity born of 3 things: 1) my innate tenacity and refusal to have my pilot light snuffed out due to a long and quite severe health history, and 2) my ability to make useful connections among bits of experiences and information and 3) my desire to use the experiences to help others.

SO, HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?

When I was 24 and had just finished a 2- year grad program in vocal performance, few  practiced yoga in the United States.

Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais and other methods were not yet in the awareness of most voice teachers, international performers or performing arts’ education systems in the US.

Graduate vocal pedagogy programs were still rare.

And remember-no Internet. If you wanted information you had to dig very deep for a  long time. Using technology meant having an electric typewriter and hand-held calculator, although the first computers, which took up a small room, were being used in colleges.

In about 1979, around age 23, I began exhibiting symptoms of IBS and anxiety disorder. The American Psychiatric Society did not recognize Anxiety Disorder until 1980! -The many doctors I consulted over the next 5 years were condescending and dismissive, and gave me high doses of valium and instructions to “stop being hysterical.” My uber-sensitive system could take one-half of a dose of valium, which enabled me to sit in a corner and drool, and still have the symptoms without being able to move. I also had many invasive tests administered by sadists that did not bring up anything definitive other than health bills because I didn’t have insurance right then.

There were few alternative health care clinics, no naturopaths and information about alternative solutions was difficult to find. However, I continued to perform a great deal and made a name for myself in my 20’s and early 30’s in the niche market of contemporary classical music and chamber opera.  I also was teaching over 20 hours a week privately and as a college adjunct, as well as developing and teaching courses every semester.

But then I began missing work due to my symptoms and pain..

I asked for Divine guidance and, while I don’t remember how, was led to a beginning yoga glass taught by a young woman in my neighborhood. She was excellent, and I took her class in yoga and meditation every week for two years. It gave me practical and grounding tools to manage whatever this awful “thing” was.  I started drawing connections between yoga and singing and adapting poses to teach singing.

I read biographies of famous singers and was influenced by Robert Merrill’s struggle with allergies, diet and singing. (American operatic baritone, 1917-2004.) He ended up living on fish and vegetables in order to be able to sing. So I experimented with diet to see what seemed to trigger symptoms. I constantly drew connections between yoga, diet and the physical act of singing. Back then, no voice teacher talked about diet and life style changes. I offered suggestions to students who usually then searched for their own solutions and made rapid  improvements in their own health.

I was on “tour” in my late 20’s, off and on for two years: Out on the road for 3-5 days then back home again for a few weeks, out and back. I added light weights to my routine and bought a book by Jane Fonda to learn how to use them. She also had an exercise book that included relaxation techniques. Once again, I adapted for teaching.

At the time, nobody in vocal pedagogy and voice science organizations discussed the interconnectedness of all things and how one will affect the other.  This is still true to a large degree.

Over the years, my health took a sinister turn and chronic patterns of surgery and illness became intrenched. I tenaciously looked for and found help for physical and emotional recovery in many out-of-the-mainstream ways.

My husband and I committed financially to my working yearly with 2-4 body workers, somatic educators, chiropractors and alternative medicine practitioners.  One extraordinary medical doctor saved my life and the lives of our children. But honestly, most of the rest of my experience with western surgeons and medicine has been quite awful. Botched surgeries, even with “the best surgeons,” resulted in complications that almost killed me, both almost taking me from our children. I refused to be taken from them.

Before the Internet developed advanced search engines, I combed magazines, libraries and bookstores for resources. My favorite early resource was “Maggie’s Women’s Book,” which you can still find on Amazon. She had exercises for post C-sections and pelvic/abdomen health which were revolutionary at the time.

I worked with a yogini privately for five years, an Andover Educator (“Body Mapping”) who was a colleague, and received Therapeutic Massage, Chiropractic, Acupuncture and Rolfing. Certainly not all at once but spread out over the years. All before the year 2000.

At a party I talked with a hip surgeon and asked him if scar tissue created its own kind of problems. He did a rare thing, perhaps because we were at a  reunion and he was into cocktail hour. He admitted that scar tissue often created more problems than the reason for the surgery. BINGO! So I began researching and tried to find someone who could somehow break up the scar tissue in my abdomen. I worked with several massage therapists and an alternative osteopath who used infrared light and facial release. (I avoided bee venom injections because that sounded crazy.)

All this was necessary to allow me to function passionately and with purpose as a parent, partner, teacher, singer and instrumentalist.

With each modality I connected what I experienced to singing and vocal pedagogy. I studied detailed anatomy of the body, not just the larynx or how the vocal folds work. Over a 30 year period I kept studying singing with 3 fantastic functional voice teachers while I attended, as well as taught, master classes, workshops and events. With each thing I attended and observed, I became more convinced of the connections between truly effective vocal pedagogy and somatic education principles. I became more impatient with how I saw voice being taught by college and university teachers.

I became certified in Somatic VoiceWork tm: The Lovetri Method, because Lovetri’s manner and functional methodology closely follows the principles of somatic reeducation–the connection of the body, mind and psyche– at its best.

There was a 6 year period in my late-30’s/early 40’s where I received talk therapy and was on anti-depressent, anti-anxiety and ADD medications all at once. They enabled me to function in the day-to-day, but absolutely killed my passion and creativity. They caused massive weight gain and just masked endocrine and emotional issues caused by endocrine dysfunction that needed to be healed. The 4 endocrinologists I saw were useless.

I relearned how effective visualizing is–part of the neuroplasticity of the brain and sensory-motor processing Of course, as a singer and instrumentalist, I had been doing this unconsciously my whole life, but with Tai Chi, Tribal Belly Dance, Alexander Technique and pilates classes over a 20 year period, I became a beginner again. It was astonishing! With each surgery and surgical complication, with an immune system disorder due to the MTHFR double gene, I had to find ways to “come back.”

I worked with Suzan Postel, who is a most brilliant somatic educator. She was a dancer and singer on Broadway, playing Tuptim in “The King and I,” opposite Rudolf Nureyev as The King. She got into this type of education due to her own injuries and is a master of explaining what we do and why.

TRAUMA CAN OPEN and STRENGTHEN INTUITIVE PATHWAYS WITH PERSONAL INTENTION FOR GOOD

I have “visions.” No reasonable vocal pedagogue admits this, but hey, clearly my path has not been “reasonable.”

One day I was writing down what I had learned about pelvic stability & respiration, and suddenly I had a vision of an elephant waving its trunk at me, balancing easily on a tiny ball with all four huge feet.

I know better than to ignore these things so I sat quietly for a moment. Then I reread an article sitting on my desk on the psoas muscles being the emotional core of the body.  BAM! The “psoas” are the STABILIZERS OF THE TRUNK–hahahah! Repeated emotional and physical trauma will cause them to freeze and shorten.

And there I went, down the rabbit hole of psoas muscle research (found Liz Koch’s work) and finding body workers who could work on this with me and explain what they were doing and why. One tell-tale sign that the psoas is dysfunctional is walking with the feet splayed outward, which, at the time, I did. And the relationship to the function of the diaphragm is amazing.

I also honed those intuitive skills by working with disciplined spiritual practices to make sure I was truly reading a student’s energy clearly. I have three posts on “Clairsentience as a Teaching Tool” on this blog.

MOST RECENTLY...

Over the past 5 years I’ve delved into neurological health after being diagnosed with bi-lateral vocal fold paralysis from “unknown neurological dysfunction.” (the vocal folds are pristine.)

And, oh goodie, started up with a different set of debilitating symptoms.

So I spent a year seeing every kind of “-ologist” there is. They found nothing wrong, although it was reported that the symptoms I was suffering from were not uncommon in women of all ages.

There I went again, searching for my own solutions out of desperation. This time I added salt baths and cranial sacral techniques, herbs, veganism, created a reduced work load at a higher pay rate, committed to psycho-spiritual counseling, and read up on vagus nerve stimulation. I realized I was tolerating abusive situations and relationships, including the relationship I had with myself, and worked to get out from these habits. I worked one-on-one with Lovetri in her role as singing voice rehab specialist, all of which made me functional again over a 5 year period.

I never gave up. Sometimes your weakness becomes your greatest strength.

I’m done living like this though. I am going to learn through wellness now. Enough is enough is enough.

None of this learning resulted in an extra couple of academic degrees because you can’t earn degrees in this kind of stuff.

Sometimes the Highest Education comes out of how you’ve lived your life.

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Check out my case studies on Functional Training, Somatic Education and Singing Voice Rehab HERE.

Performing Bio

Teaching Bio

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A Singer Diagnosed With Benign Essential Tremor, One Case

 

Teresa is a vital voice teacher and singer with a full private voice studio in Pennsylvania. At age 60, she restarted her own voice lessons after not studying singing since college, although she had coached and worked with many  musicians during that time.

Throughout menopause, creativity can bloom and demands new energy outlets. Teresa wanted to earn recognition as a performer of classical and musical theater music in her community and felt she had not been able to do that because of her vocal condition.

Her speaking was absolutely fine, even with teaching for hours. But her singing was characterized by a wobble/shaking of pitch throughout a limited range,  breaks throughout the lower passaggio and great pitch instability. Her body was affected by a hip issue and she walked with a minor limp. She and I talked about healing, spirituality and singing as a foundational attitude for the journey we were about to take together.

We began working with a combination of exercises and approaches informed by voice therapy for Parkinson’s patients and advanced use of Somatic VoiceWork tm: The Lovetri Method as a rehabilitation method.  I also used many Somatic Reeducation* exercises over time to stimulate her respiratory system and core, which had weak function because the muscles of the throat were not functioning well–not the other way around as many teachers and therapists believe. 

It is also effective work to take advantage of the neuroplasticity of the brain. Essential tremor is a central nervous system dysfunction that starts with brain impulses, so slowly groving new patterns in the brain itself is a large key to healing the dysfunction.

I chose not to start with standard SLP rehabilitation tools other than identification of some life style habits to change. She started practicing yoga and renewed her commitment to physical therapy and massage for her hip.

Our hips are the ‘seat’ for the pelvic diaphragm and a source for grounded energy to come through our bodies.

The only SOVT exercises that were helpful were variations on “ung,” closing to the “ng” and sliding 1-3-1 or 1-5-1. She could not slide 1-2-1 without actually staying on the same pitch, so the larger intervals were necessary at first. I did not say “you are flat, sing that second pitch higher,” because she literally could not. It was a functional problem, not a problem with her ear.

Within 6 months she could sing a slurred 5-tone scale without wobble and on pitch, on certain vowels. She began to establish some vocal flexibility. She developed some integrated head voice function that she could use to illustrate while teaching, and students and her conductor encouraged her improvements.  Her soft palate had begun to activate, although it could not stay activated and her body response would shut down. And this is why…

…she received a diagnosis of benign essential tremor after Lovetri noted that she might have an essential tremor. And the interesting thing is, the diagnosis did not change the type of work we were doing, not because I am pig-headed but because it was the most effective work in the first place. However, it did give her enormous peace of mind that she wasn’t doing something “wrong” or was a bad singer.  It was something she could share with students and directors, and let them know that she was aware of and working to improve.

She is contemplating recommended Botox injections. This can be very effective, but the injections wear off and need to be repeated. My belief is that there are deeper levels of healing to be found, which can be supplemented with effective medical therapies. It is her belief, too.

After one year of work based on the Parkinson’s voice therapy and Lovetri’s research, I added some of the exercises for essential tremor found in Leda Scearce’s fantastic  book Manual of Singing Voice Rehabilitation.  It just goes to show how important working with the person in front of you is, and that a set of specific exercises rolled out by rote can not possibly serve each pathology patient who is a singer.

Teresa’s is also an interesting case illustrating that time is needed to allow inner psychological changes of Self when we are older. Teresa thought she was a soprano based on her college self of 40 years ago, and was singing alto in her small church choir due to her limited range. All this time, in spite of not studying, she has been evolving into a possibly true contralto of a substantial size. I would say that from the time I first mentioned this possibility, to fully embracing what her voice is becoming, was almost two and a half years! She has been excited and full of wonder, processing this change in self-identification.

This year, Teresa successfully performed the role of Jack’s Mother in Into the Woods, acted in a  production of Steel Magnolias, has stabilized her alto choral singing and has started to prepare for a community concert, singing Brahms’ Two Songs for Alto, Viola and Piano!

Life isn’t about inventing yourself. It is about releasing yourself. And menopause is the time to do this with courage, humor and tenacious grit. And with a voice teacher/SVRS who takes you seriously and helps you accomplish small goals, one step at a time.

If you found this post helpful, please like, share or comment. Each post takes hours to write, I want to know that others found it valuable! Thank you.

*Two books to help introduce you to somatic reeducation concepts are

Body and Voice by Gilman

Singing With Your Whole Self: The Feldenkreis Method by Nelson and Blades-Zeller

 

 

 

Broadway Christmas Songs

This year I have an unusual number of wonderful dancer/singers in my private studio who’ve graduated from college and are making their way in the world.  They’ve asked for help finding repertoire from musicals for the holidays for Christmas gigs.

My first inclination is to say “do your research.” But then I thought that I’d like to know for myself what’s out there, other than the handful of songs I recalled off the top of my head. I tried to include easy tunes that singers can learn quickly but also threw in some things that need more time to put together. Some items have karaoke accompaniments available and some would do better with a live accompanist playing an original arrangement.

Plus, I just found a used CD for 50 cents at a recent joy ride through a Used Book Store and used it as the basis for this list. The producer was Bruce Kimmel and it came out in the 1990’s.

New Deal for Christmas from Annie (Strouse, Charnin) Music starts about :45

Be a Santa from Subways Are for Sleeping  (Styne, Comden, Green)

Christmas Eve from She Loves Me (Bock, Harnick)

Pine Cones and Holly Berries from Here’s Love (Wilson) Paired with It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas

Also from this musical, That Man Over There

Turkey Lurkey Time from Promises, Promises (Bacharach, David)

Christmas Gifts from A Wonderful Life (Raposo, Harnick)

Hard Candy Christmas from Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (Hall)

I Don’t Remember Christmas from Starting Here, Starting Now (Shire, Maltby, Jr.)

We Need a Little Christmas from Mame (Herman) –

Lovers on Christmas Eve from I Love My Wife (Coleman, Stewart)

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas from Meet Me in St. Louis (Martin, Blane)

At Christmas Time and Toys Medley from Song of Norway (Wright, Forrest) This one will need some arranging, but keep it in mind, especially if you are looking for an early legit musical with hymn-like part writing.

Surabaya Santa and Christmas Lullaby from Songs for a New World (Brown)

Please add your suggestions in the comments list.

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Vocal Pedagogy and Creativity, Part II

Part I in this series was well-received and lays out the groundwork for Part II–

Introduction

In this post, I’ve gone academic on you–just to have a framework to discuss broad topics.  I’ve highlighted three elements that are part of a larger concept that psychologist Benjamin Bloom identified for his learning model widely known as Bloom’s Taxology.

Anyone who wants to teach or to transform information into a useful body of personal wisdom would find his work very interesting. However, you certainly don’t need to consciously know this stuff to have the same outcome. I have operated in the following “mode” most of my life and didn’t know any of this.

Our culture does not allow for the following kinds of developmental learning, starting as early as age 5. Yet, we are all capable of it!

Bloom identified three “areas” of Learning as:

I.   Cognitive Learning (Mental skills and Knowledge)

II.  Affective (Growth in Feelings and Emotional Areas)

III. Psychomotor (Manual or Physical Skills)

According to Bloom, collecting information and remembering data are considered the beginning, or bottom rung, of Cognitive Learning.

And Creating is the top rung.

And here’s what the Cognitive Domain looks like in Bloom’s pyramid:

bloom-taxonomy

Some teachers teach from the place of collecting and remembering information, and then maybe have stepped up onto the level of Understanding what it means to them. This is a good start.

But as an exceptional teacher, you need to  eventually get to the top 1-3 parts of the pyramid.

There is obviously some overlap of all three domains because we each are unique individuals who find our own ways.

For the purposes of this article, I would like to highlight THREE aspects of learning, one from each domain, for you to consider.

Cognitive Domain

1. “Divergent Thinking” means generating multiple ways of taking information and finding new ways to address a topic or find solutions to a problem. This kind of thinking has become a hot topic for the study of brain function in creativity.

Divergent thinking occurs in a spontaneous, free-flowing, ‘non-linear’ manner. It does not move from ‘a’ to ‘b’ to ‘c.’

It prefers to zig when everyone else is zagging. It thrives in solitude, uncertainty and the imagination. It makes useful connections among unrelated pieces of information. The manner in which divergent thinking takes place is unique to everyone and everyone has to discover their own ways to develop and allow it.

“Convergent thinking”, on the other hand, is the ability to apply rules to arrive at a single ‘correct’ solution to a problem, such as an answer to an IQ test question. This process is systematic and linear.  Both styles of thinking are important and are meant to work together.

Psychomotor Domain

1. Somatic Re-Education of the Body and establishing the realization that your body carries its own wisdom!

This connection has been severed in our culture, but has revived among singers, dancers, actors, athletes, healers and physical therapists because our art is the stuff of which this connection is made.  The reason I place such fundamental importance on learning through somatic re-education is that western culture is still imbued with the notion that all worthy learning takes place in the brain and “higher realms.”

Oh my goodness, no. no no no! The physical body learns and holds information too, and is an equal with the brain and heart center. Sometimes the heart needs to heal before the body can heal. Sometimes the body needs to heal before the brain can work well. Somatic Education helps us reestablish how our bodies and minds are meant to function together, and is especially important as we age.

Alexander Technique, Feldenkreis, Yoga, Rolfing, Nutrition etc., and other modalities are all methods of somatic re-education.  But the effect it has on you is directly related to the kind of teaching you receive.

Affective Learning

1. Development of Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence can be a natural gift which seems to be more hard-wired in women that in men.  But it can be developed in anyone. It is the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically. E.I. is now being taught in business schools like Wharton and Case Western Reserve as a necessary tool in what is called “Resonant Leadership.”

Other ways of developing this part of Affective Learning are through counseling and modeling behavior of other emotionally intelligent people.  Time Magazine published a recent article which, at the end of an article on drugs and depression, lists drug-free ways that have all been scientifically proven to have transformative effects on emotions and in handling interpersonal relationships well: Exercise, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Behavioral-Activation Therapy, Mindfulness Training and Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation.

(I totally understand the need for the right drugs in the right doses, monitored by a health care professional.)

Conclusion to a long blog post…

These aspects  of turning information into something useful are true for anyone in any field.  Many life-long learners and some of your favorite teachers are using these steps to teach, even though they may not be consciously aware that Learning Theory has names for the processes.

Are there any Vocal Pedagogy graduate programs out there including Bloom’s theories in the coursework? The steps can be cultivated and are incredibly rewarding. Those EUREKA moments and connections are the stuff of ecstasy!

Life is about experiencing ALL the aspects of learning, not just running around devouring and acquiring new information and others’ ideas. And don’t panic. You have Time to realize learning is life long and no one is ever finished.  I started teaching music when I was 13 years old, had my first paid singing gig at 18, and am now 61. It sure did not happen all at once and is on-going.

Please like, comment or share this post if you found it useful. Thank you for being here!

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Also check out this video by Sir Ken Robinson

 

Vocal Pedagogy and Creativity, Part I

I once had 4 voice lessons with an expensive and well-known singer who had sung opera many years in Europe. After returning to the States, she developed a method of voice teaching based on 15 years of her personal research into voice science.

I sought her help after seeing an ENT (supposedly he worked with singers) who completely missed the fact that I was developing bi-lateral vocal fold paralysis. (!) Neither the teacher or the ENT helped me at all and both sets of information were actually harmful both physically and psychologically. GRRRRRR

So here were two learned professionals, WHO COULD NOT SEE or HEAR THE PERSON IN FRONT OF THEM. Did they need more information so they could have helped me? NO. What they both needed was to get outside of the information they had collected and turn it into something useful.

One of the main differences between intelligence and creativity is that the creative person has the ability to draw connections among bits of information and imagine various paths and outcomes. And this is the missing ingredient with many voice teachers who run around collecting information, certifications and degrees by the boat-load.

Read How to Make Connections Like a Creative Genius.

These are all valid ways to learn and perhaps start to assimilate experience, but one vital thing we are not taught in our school systems, academia and general culture is how to turn information and book learning into something useful. Has it occurred to you that the information presented in the learning environment is just an INTRODUCTION to understanding? Just the tip of the iceberg?

Information, by itself, is not the stuff that enables you to be effective.

Chances are good that you are getting information from someone who is also consuming information without turning it into their own Experience. When you teach, you are teaching who you are as well as whatever it is you teach. So inability to turn information into something useful is passed on in your manner of working. Rather a vicious circle.

The transformative and alchemical process to turn information into a creative experience requires time, self-acceptance, effort, and in many cases, more money. And this inner process is different for everyone.  It has its own time-table to follow and does not give a hoot about you being productive, “an expert,” and a reliable cog in society.

A personal note from my own voice studio: I work with voice teachers who are certified in 2 or 3  methods of vocal pedagogy. They are good teachers and wonderful human beings who at some level, feel that a few lessons going over the exercises that they learned in the certifications will turn them into the singers they want to be or help them with their students. So when they have not reached where they want to go after 4-6 lessons, or even 6 months, they stop. I understand. It is expensive and time-consuming. And who has the time to practice, experiment, observe, and at the same time learn how to ALLOW the process of the slow change of muscle fibers and neurological connections? And do this year after year after year? After year?

Yet, that is exactly the kind of creative process necessary, whether you do it yourself or reach out for guidance, to transform learning into useful experience.

Information continually changes, BUT SO DO OUR BODIES and EMOTIONS. Especially for women because of our life cycles and hormonal effects on the voice. But it is true for men, too, and for anyone who has survived physical or mental health crisis. If you are coping with a chronic issue that doctors can not solve, it is doubly true. It is a constant creative act to experience, assimilate and present information to others.  What you learned as a 21-year-old will no longer serve you at 25, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70+

Guess what. Life is continually about transformation into something new until it is time to transform again.

THIS IS THE SECRET THAT NO ONE TALKS ABOUT. We are taught that having a magic degree or certification or studying with that Broadway star can lead to wisdom and effectiveness.  While learning is a wonderful experience, having a personal value system that allows you to assimilate the new process is something that I have observed many teachers do not have.

Finding your own creative path is never easy in a culture that says it values creativity but does not value the time, solitude and continuous experimentation to develop a creative thing or thought and turn it into experience. As far as singing and teaching singing goes, you are more apt to do this if your personal values match up with these commitments.

I just finished watching the tv series “Genius” about the life and work of Albert Einstein, produced by Ron Howard. I recommend this series as a way to illustrate my point.

And here’s the KICKER–our personal values are shaped by our culture, religious traditions and the hive mind. What is required to live creatively and turn information into a body of deep personal experience?

I am not talking about work experience. I am talking about a deeper knowing that often comes from our deepest, most vulnerable places.

In Part II, I’ll outline some of the counter-culture elements that are needed to walk this particular path.  A good book to read, in the meantime, is The Courage to Teach, by Parker Palmer.

Please comment, like, share or subscribe if this post interests you!

“Transformation” abstract study by Cate Frazier-Neely

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A Singer With Muscle Tension Dysphonia (MTD)–One Case

This is my first blog post as a singing voice rehabilitation specialist.

It is important to state that I do not work in a clinical setting, but privately, on referral from Speech-Language Pathologists and other Singing Voice Rehabilitation Specialists. This is one case, one approach. For every singer recovering from MTD, there will be different needs, different reasons for the condition, and different exercises.

If you’d like a good article on MTD and solutions, read “Collaboration and Conquest: MTD as Viewed by a Singing Voice Specialist and a SLP,” by Goffi-Fynn and Carroll. (PubMed) Communicating in a unified medical language can be important, so that the team of an otolaryngologist, speech-language pathologist and voice teacher can communicate about their patient-student.

However, translating my quick-as-lightening intuition to speaking quantifiable medical language with others is my weak suit and, even after almost 10 years as a SVS, I am constantly trying to learn how to do it. Different parts of the brain are responsible for speech and for language processing. Evidently my Broca’s Area is not as strong as my Wernicke’s….So, what follows is an accurate, but unclinical, account of working with Roz.

Roz is in her late 20’s and has already experienced more than her share of vocal pathology and vocal issues. She holds a BM degree in vocal performance and is a professional chorister with excellent musicianship and a beautiful voice. She loves to sing early Western choral music and was employed at a large cathedral as a soprano in their octet. She is an event photographer as her day job.

She recently left her church job to seek medical help when her voice started skipping pitches. She also was not able to phonate the beginnings of phrases that started with vowels. Then her singing became breathy and cut out at about C-5. Her speaking voice seemed ok but she was afraid that would start to be a problem, too.

Roz’ SLP  forwarded me her diagnosis and history, which included treatment for reflux, pre-nodules, partial paresis of the left vocal fold, vocal fold scarring and a non-vocal surgery. This history had left her ultra-aware of when to seek help.

Right now, the suggested standard medical protocol for a singer with vocal fold dysfunction is to first see a qualified otolaryngologist who truly understands a singers’ needs. This is still a rare thing.

Many otolaryngologists and ENT’s do not have this sub-specialty, and even those who say they work with singers often are inexperienced and just making guesses or don’t use the right equipment to view vocal fold behavior. Then a speech-language pathologist, usually associated with the voice clinic, sees the patient for “voice rehabilitation.” Some speech-language pathologists are singing voice specialists, and many are not. (Just like some voice teachers are singing voice specialists and many are not.)

I had been teaching singing for about 27 years before I began to move in this direction, and it became a way to turn lemons into lemonade after I was diagnosed with bi-lateral vocal fold paralysis in early 2013. My singing voice specialist is Jeanie Lovetri, founder of Somatic Voicework tm: The Lovetri Method and The Voice Workshop in New York City.

Roz’ SLP saw her for one session, during which Roz was shown how to do neck massages  to begin to unwinding her tension responses. After this session, she began her work with me and I took the work deeper: I introduced her to Vibrant Voice Technique and the use of a vibrator to help make the manual massages more effective. We studied neck muscle anatomy so she could become knowledgable about how to apply the massage and began to understand her own throat. The wise use of a vibrator helps relax muscles that do not belong in the singing process, and allows “the right” muscles to begin to work before strengthening them.  In pathology patients, it is not an instant fix but improvement is seen and felt almost right away. After her session with me, the SLP felt she had improved enough to discharge her.

MTD’s pathology is not life-threatening and can be solved, but is insufficient to explain the degree of dysphonia is causes. There are many reasons why someone can develop this frustrating condition. In Roz’s initial consultation with me, she shared that she had been singing in an abusive situation. She knew that she was reacting to, and recoiling from, the abysmal choral conducting and not-so-subtle emotional abuses of the church organist who was also the choral conductor at the cathedral where she sang.

Singers who have not had an opportunity to learn how to deflect this kind of negativity will have it reflect in their bodies and throats. In her case, over time, her effective vocal technique became unable able to respond to the glorious music, collaboration with other singers and the conductor. She also was stiffening and collapsing muscles in her throat to create the stylized “no vibrato” sound and was anxious because she could not follow the director’s waving and stabbing of his fingers in the air as he played the organ. And she was cowing under his constant criticism of the sopranos, of which she was one of two. While it is possible to sing in the musical style she loves with minimum vibrato, it becomes impossible under this kind of conductor unless you can focus solely on what you need to do and block out everything else that does not serve your goals.

“Learned vocalization for speech and song is developed by auditory input of one’s environment but not in the mammalian system.  In many people these two systems are often disassociated.”  (Christy Ludow, Communication Sciences and Disorders, James Madison University.)  I based all of Roz’s initial vocal exercises on sounds that come from our limbic system. (involuntary sounds made when we have not been severed from the spontaneous expressions of anger, fear, desire, surprise, etc.)

In Roz’s case, her muscles were in hyper-function, but this masked hypo-function. Her voice stopped speaking somewhere along the line so she kept forcing vocal fold closure in order to get sound, which eventually led to the dysphonia.

In her case, the exercises were kept very short, often on whatever pitch came out as opposed to specific pitches, using the syllables “thack” or (thae.) Roz had a great deal of anger and disappointment left over from her experience, so all the exercises were preceded with physical expression of those emotions by punching a pillow for a minute, or punching the air, etc, followed by one sound of emotional expression on that specific syllable.

A week later we removed the “th” and went through a similar procedure. Every single time, she phonated on a vowel when she allowed it to come from her emotional motor system! (limbic part of the brain.)

Pacing of the lesson was important to ensure she didn’t get tired or discouraged and she used the vibrator off and on all through the lessons. After about two lessons she was able to phonate short pitch patterns, moving up and down the scale, stopping for frequent short breaks. She could sing certain vowels over short intervals, which enabled her to really feel her progress.

After 3-4 lessons, the tongue attachments to the hyoid bone and  were sufficiently released that we could add tiny squeaks and squeals to help activate the cryco-thyroid muscles. This had to be done slowly, with her using the vibrator and me manually massaging the back neck muscles to watch for a return to hyper-function of the neck muscles, but she progressed. Then we moved from one tiny squeak down an interval of a third. Then we moved to exercises involving more than one syllable like “ihi-(eehee)-ihi-ihi-ihi” on one pitch or a pattern, coordinating with conscious use of transverse abdominals to get things going.  She had no trouble accessing and isolating various abdominal muscles, which was a testimony to her former technique.

From there we moved to a sustained (i) over short traditional vocalize patterns. When the voice skipped, she’d rest, repeat all the patterns in sequence. and take off again. She is almost ready to move into the standard voice therapy exercises (Stempler, semi-occluded variations, straw bubbling in water, etc.) We absolutely could not start with those.

Slowly her beautiful voice is reemerging, and she realizes she will sing again before the year is out. But now she will look for a choral situation that is what she knows the experience can be!

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Interview with Suzan Postel of “The Body Sings”

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.

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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.

I moved to LA in 2013, where I have been singing with many artists including Ben Harper, Michael Buble, and my brother Steve Postell’s all-star band, Night Train Music Club. I maintain my teaching business in my private studio, at clients’ homes, and worldwide via Skype and Facetime.”

 

Suzan with Rudolph Nureyev in The King and I.  Postel as Tuptim.

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Postel as Maria in West Side Story:

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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.

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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.

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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.

Cate: !

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.

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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.