Do what moves you. Tension is a singer‘s greatest enemy. It disables the very areas of the body we need open to resonate sound in. Tension is generated mentally; anticipating threat or danger, or unconsciously, manifesting as postures and movements we develop to survive. It’s the body’s way of guarding against injury and pain.
With sudden onset stress, muscles tense, then release once the stress passes. Chronic stress, anxiety and PTSD, cause our musculature to be in a constant state of guardedness, we hold our breath, we shut down. For many, the mere thought of singing creates tension – in the throat, neck, head/face, chest, tummy, back, jaw, tongue, hands, knees, macrocosmically. As an uptight blind woman, tension sabotages my entire life.
Most is unfortunately generated subconsciously and unconsciously, so in order to release it we may need some radical action and a pretty deep emotional dive. This column is about finding ease, effortlessness, openness, and freedom in singing again.
When tense, we can’t think straight, move, breathe, live without pain, experience joy, love, relate, be present, or… sing.
Tightening with the perceived threat of danger, we’re so accustomed to constriction we don’t realise we’re constantly bracing against life. The survival brain tries to protect our vulnerability, fixating on the future and habituating the expectation of peril and disaster. Our mind wishes to control, locking into overdrive with misplaced over-protection and defendedness/defensiveness. Things that frighten us contract the mind, leading to avoidance, blaming, obsessing, forcing, over-controlling, denial. A body scan at the end of yoga (savasana) often reveals tension we didn’t know existed.
Singing in public, especially singing originals, makes us feel extremely vulnerable. Subsequent tension manifests posturally as rigidity, hunched shoulders and spine, tight chest, expressionlessness. These postures attempt to protect our hearts, and use as little space as possible, pretending we’re not even there! (This is the opposite of a baby, or Joe Cocker at Woodstock = expansion and openness.) Extreme tension locks our muscles, we’re paralysed and cannot move. Have you noticed how facial muscles freeze in performance?
We develop harmful coping strategies to mask or dampen emotional overwhelm and discomfort experienced through unfelt and unprocessed emotions. These maladaptive numbing behaviours, like excessive alcohol and/or drug use, try to ease tension from the outside, with limited success.
The voice is the sound of our soul coming through the vessel of the body. Obviously, we shouldn’t inhibit this. We want to connect with our bodies, but often feel disconnected, even disassociated due to trauma. Freeing tension and relearning what it’s like to sing openly is something I found Feldenkrais Technique immensely useful for.
Feldenkrais is centred around the skeleton, getting down to the bones of ourselves. Our musculature is way more malleable than we think. Without musculature or nervous systems, we wouldn’t have embedded traumatic memories (e.g. habitual constrictions and contractions inherited from our environment, physicality or copying our caregivers/peers). How would we carry ourselves without our history or habitual way of using our bodies? We’re reminded and relearn what it’s like to connect with the ground, giving us access to our skeleton through touch to feel grounded and using the ground as we used to as babies.
Muscles relax when they feel safe and secure. We must understand and feel into the interconnectedness and integratedness of the whole body, dropping into our bodies and hearts from being so ‘in the head’ and thought-based. Being aware of the connection between jaw and pelvis, where freeing one miraculously frees the other, is revolutionary.
Getting clarity in the pelvis allows other overworked muscle groups to surrender their mahi. So too with freeing the ribs which helps to allow breath expansion into the upper chest and back that some vocal pedagogy discourages. Sensing a softening in the cartilage of the ribs no longer ‘cages’ the breath and feels delicious. So does using balanced alignment, letting the body show us how it would move without our perpetual tensing.
We tense against feeling discomfort emotionally, creating physical symptoms that necessitate the use of painkillers to numb out what tension produces. We tend to look outside ourselves for the causes of suffering. How we react to trauma creates our experience of tension.
Living ‘uptight’ disconnects us from our bodies, rather than feeling more embodied. Understanding the mind/body nexus better, we’re able to more effectively release tension.
Furthermore, we tighten our throats when suppressing our truth. Blocked, repressed, unvoiced emotions get caught in the throat, with tensions radiating out into the rest of the torso. Singing is an emotional expression. There’s often conflict between wanting and not wanting to be heard or to express our Truth. Imagine singing without restriction, as Joni would say “unfettered and alive”… letting it out rather than holding it all inside.