Nature does not work in parts; she treats everything as a whole – FM Alexander
As a third-year student of the School for FM Alexander Studies in Melbourne, you are asked to run an anatomical presentation.
I chose the voice phenomenon because of my background as an actor and a voice teacher in various theatre schools in Chile.
For many years it has been a topic of recurring interest for me. I collected valuable information from different schools and master teachers over the years, but definitely the Alexander Technique brings them all together to a new place where they coexist in harmony.
What I initially learned in regard to the human voice was the complexity involved in the event of producing sound. When any of us open our mouths to vocalise, it is because we have good reasons, and those reasons shape our sound in multiple ways.
In order to create sound, the intention to communicate activates a whole body response. A simplified picture of this phenomenon would be: We breathe in, generating good oxygenation of the body, having the intention to communicate, while exhaling, the muscles at the level of the larynx start vibrating. Those muscles, the vocal cords—commonly mistaken for strings— create sound waves that are amplified in the mouth and nasal cavities, producing what we know as the human voice.
The evolution of human sound still has mysterious elements. Originally the larynx was just a sphincter that helped to control breathing and swallowing. Sometime, between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago, the human larynx evolved, creating the precise perfect angle for us to develop the voice’s full potential for expression and language.
The phenomenon of producing sound covers much more than just the action in the larynx. The intention to communicate is interconnected with our emotions, systems and functions throughout the body. It has a lot to do with who we are and how we process information in life. In Voice and the Actor, Cicely Berry best supports my understanding of this phenomenon:
“The voice is the most intricate mixture of what you hear, how you hear it, and how you unconsciously choose to use it in the light of your personality and experience.”
Berry recognises four factors that can condition our voices: Environment, Ear, Physical Agility and Personality. For Berry, when talking about the human voice it is crucial to acknowledge the place where we grew up.
The geography, rhythm, sounds of the environment and the people around us during those early years are the first influences on our voice. Then how we perceive the sounds around us and how we hear them, are other elements that can shape our voices.
Your education and how you respond to the stimuli plays an important role also. Berry writes: “The less you wish to communicate in speech, the less firmly you use the muscles, and this of course has much to do with confidence … You have to relate the mental intention to the physical action.” So, the voice, for Berry, is a complex event that takes place in the whole physical body and an action that contains someone’s entire life experience.
Our voice is our sound, and one of the ways that we use to communicate as a species. I consider it important to recognise our voice as a sound and not a mere noise for several reasons, the most significant: “Noise is sound that results when objects vibrate in chaotic, irregular, unpatterned motions”. (Bodymind & Voice) In healthy vocalisation, the sound waves produced by our vocal cords are a constant flow of vibrations that are amplified by the spaces above the larynx.
“Natural conditions in the human being cannot be present unless the different mechanisms of the body are working in unison with adequate activity.” (FM Alexander)
I would like now to come back to what F.M. Alexander wrote in “Introduction to a new Method of Respiratory Vocal Re-Education” about what is required in the vocal act. Alexander said that there are three main factors in vocalisation: (i) Motive power, (ii) Vibration of reeds and (iii) Resonance cavities. Alexander also adds one more factor where re-education takes place: (iv) Correct mental attitude. Lets explore in more depth these factors.
By motive power, Alexander means breathing. As Blandine Calais-Germain explains in her book Anatomy of Breathing, this mechanism has the constant and unchanging goal of oxygenation of the blood. According to Calais-Germain, there is the internal respiration that happens at the level of the organs producing a chemical interchange of gases, as well as the external respiration or breathing, which is the process of inhaling air into the lungs and then exhaling.
“Breathing thus becomes an interface between two levels: the level of the organs and the level of movement… The act of breathing also permits interaction between these two levels. On the one hand, it is mostly unconscious and automatic. It influences our actions and our emotions and at the same time is influenced by them. On the other hand, it is an action that one can influence in a conscious, voluntary manner, by changing it in various ways, with consequences on many different levels.” (Blandine Calais-Germain)
Breathing then, has three different stages: The inhalation, which is the process where the phrenic nerve innervates the diaphragm that together with the ribs and its musculature, create a vacuum effect for the lungs to receive the air.
In other words, our rib cage expands allowing the air to come in.
The exhalation is the process where the rib cage and diaphragm return to their original place, an action that expels the air from the lungs through the airways— this action is highly developed by singers, actors and public speakers. The last stage, and commonly forgotten, is the apnea, the simple pause in between each of the stages. On Jessica Wolf’s website you can watch an excellent animated film showing this process in action.
The capacity of breathing varies from person to person, and could be changed and trained in many ways. In humans, four different types of volumes have been identified. To explain this, I would like to invite you to follow these instructions:
- While you are reading this, observe your breathing. Probably by bringing your attention to your breath you already have altered it slightly though it is still quiet. This is called tidal volume, “…an automatic movement that is constantly determined by the body’s need for oxygen” (Calais-Germain).
- Now, initiate your inhalation, and at the point of feeling that your lungs are at their full capacity, think about expanding your rib cage further to inhale a bit more air. And rest. You just tested the expansion of your pulmonary alveoli inside of your lungs. This is called inspiratory reserve volume, a conscious way of going beyond the tidal volume.
- This time, start exhaling, and when reaching the end of your natural exhalation, think about reducing a bit more the space in your rib cage so you can exhale more air. And let go of the activity. Here you experienced the expiratory reserve volume, which is the potential for contraction that your pulmonary alveoli has inside of your lungs.
- Although you thought that there was no more air to exhale, the pulmonary alveoli always keep a fraction of air inside. This is called residual volume and prevents the pulmonary alveoli from completely deflating that would make inhalation almost impossible. So let’s not try this one!
Phonation, or sound production, is fundamentally linked with, and based on, the ability to breathe. (Ted Dimon)
The second element that is required for the vocal act, according to Alexander, is the vibration of the reeds, which are the vocal folds present in the voice box or larynx. The vocal cords — commonly mistaken as strings — are found inside of this cartilaginous structure. The cords are muscles that in coordination with the intention to communicate and the air pressure of the exhalation start vibrating to create sound waves.
The larynx is a vibration mechanism that contains first, the vocal folds, which are the actual vibrators; second, a housing for the vocal folds; and third, muscles that can move the vocal folds together so that when we want to communicate, they will vibrate to create sound. (Ted Dimon)
The primary function of the larynx is to keep us alive by protecting the delicate tissue of the lungs. If something solid or liquid tries to enter to the body via the larynx, that is the freeway to the lungs, you will start coughing. This is a protective reflex present in the respiratory system where the larynx is a primary actor. A secondary function of this apparatus is making sound to facilitate communication.
Structurally speaking, the larynx is below the pharynx and above the trachea. It is held in place by two main cartilages and muscles that suspend it between the jaw and the chest. Those cartilages are the thyroid cartilage —or Adam’s apple—, and the cricoid cartilage. Muscles from the jaw and the skull pull the larynx upwards, while simultaneously other muscles pull it down connecting it with the sternum, clavicle and scapula. I like to think of the larynx as a tensegrity structure, a model of construction “… where the tensile members distribute the strain evenly throughout the structure. Tensegrity structures are lightweight and can easily support the solid components of a structure without the need for stacking.” (David Moore)
The vocalis muscle or vocal folds, form a “V” shape, which is attached to the inside of the thyroid cartilage through its pointy end, while the other extremes are attached to the arytenoid cartilages that are sitting on the top border of the cricoid cartilage. The laryngeal nerves which branch off the vagus nerve innervates the human larynx.
“The human larynx does not have the type of sensory nerves that ‘report’ spatial location and movement to conscious awareness. Your hands have an abundance of such nerves, but not your larynx.” (Bodymind &Voice)
In healthy vocal folds, three major movements are observed: when we breathe, the glottis (space between the vocal cords) remains open to let the air pass through. When we vocalise, the vocal folds come together to vibrate and create sound and a third movement is when whispering: here the arytenoid cartilage moves the vocal folds in a different motion creating the whisper. This is especially interesting when we take into consideration Alexander’s whispered “Ah” exercise, knowing that the purpose of using it is to improve breathing, vocalisation and an overall coordination.
Practising the whispered “Ah” can create a new pathway to establish correct use of the vocal mechanism, probably by stimulating a use of the vocal mechanism that is free from the speaker’s habits.
The third elements that Alexander states as crucial in vocalisation are the resonance cavities. Personally, the idea of resonance was a sort of mystery, because in my training as an actor, I was asked to resonate in the chest or in the head, and that was an idea that I kept for long time.
Resonance is vibration; the English word comes from the Latin resonare meaning to sound again or resound. Lets have a look at the definition of resonance present in Bodymind & Voice: Resonance is a re-vibrating, re-sounding or echoing. So, when a physical object begins vibrating …, and any nearby gas, liquid or solid responds to it by vibrating, “re-sonance” has occurred.
Resonance to occur, we need a contained space where the initial vibrations hit the walls and get amplified. A resonator will be therefore: a cavity that facilitates the amplification of the vibration or the sound waves. We have three major resonance cavities: nasal cavity, oral cavity and pharynx. It is in these cavities where the sound is amplified, where we resonate.
Because vibration can travel through hard surfaces such as our bones, we can feel the vibration in other parts of our body. That doesn’t mean that we resonate in other parts but we can intentionally let the vibration travel to intensify the quality of the sound. We can do that the same way as we rehearse our directions, by having the idea of sending the vibration towards certain areas of the body, generally a more bony area like the chest, head or pelvis.
We all resonate and have resonators, but every human sound is different. There are certain elements that condition our sound and have a lot to do with the way our resonators are built. Our individual internal bony structure determines the distinct characteristics of the sound we produce. The size, including length and width, the shape and the degree of density are all factors that create the unique qualities in our voices.
Something of special fascination to me is thinking about the support of the voice. If the reader is a singer or an actor or has been somehow connected to those activities, support is a concept that ‘must be’ included in using the voice.
Well, for me, during many years, support meant effort, tension or push in order to create a good foundation for the voice and its projection. I used a lot of tension, especially in the abdominal area to support my voice to create a bigger sound.
I came across the book Anatomy Trains, in which Thomas Myers explains the fascial connection within the body. Myers describes the Deep Front Line that travels from the basilar portion of the occiput bone, passing through the front of the spine, including the tongue, the hyoid bone and the diaphragm, and through the psoas muscle connects with the legs and travel down to the sole of the feet. A head to toe connection that helps us to understand how the vocal apparatus, which is not a system itself, can operate using the majority of the systems in the body.
We cannot create sound if we don’t use our respiratory system, or if the musculoskeletal system doesn’t get involved in the activity or if we don’t have the intention to communicate. The act of sound making is an integrated activity of the whole body.
Those are the basic requirements for the act of making sound according to FM Alexander. What Alexander also includes as a fourth element is a correct mental attitude, and in this case I will share the mental attitude that this study has brought about in regard to my understanding of the voice phenomenon.
I consider the voice as a sound and not noise, and it is something to be shared with others. History has shown us that the voice was developed by the need to communicate, so it is a human tool to express ourselves and connect with the environment.
Our voice is sound that is meant to be heard, so our voices are created not for the individual, but for a companion or a community. Your voice is meant to exist, to be heard and to be shared with others. Whenever creating sound, is the whole of me vibrating and cooperating with the process? And knowing about the internal connection within the entire body, I can let my sound be supported by its design.
Our voices are sculpted by every experience we have in life. There is no other one like yours though. Your voice is unique, the same as your fingerprints.
Berry, Cicely., Voice and The Actor, New York, Wiley Publishing, Inc., 1973
Alexander, F.M., Articles and Lecturers, London, Mouritz, 2015
Calais-Germain, Blandine., Anatomy of Breathing, Seattle, Eastland Press, Inc., 2006
Dimon, Theodore., Your Body, Your Voice. The Key to Natural Singing and speaking, Berkeley, CA, North Atlantic Books, 2011.
Myers, Thomas W., Anatomy Trains, Third Edition, China, Elsevier Ltd., 2014
Thurman, Leon., Theimer, Axel., Welch, Graham., Feit, Patricia., Book Two. How Voices are made, and How they are ‘Played’ in skilled singing and speaking, in Bodymind & Voice, Foundations of Voice Education, USA, The VoiceCare Network, National Centre for Voice and Speech, The Voice Centre of Fairview Fairview Arts Medicine-Center.
Moore, David., Yoga and the Alexander Technique: Intelligent Injury-Free Yoga, Australia, Einstein’s Moon, 2015.