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Theatre, Dance and Performance Training Connecting through the breath towards expressive communication in performance: an enquiry into the training of opera singers Connecting through the breath towards expressive communication in performance: an enquiry into the training of opera singers


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This article explores how poor communication in performance by opera singers can be the result of limitations in natural breathing and how, in turn, improving the breathing and awareness of the movement of the breath through the Feldenkrais Methodw can improve a singer's self-image, and become a foundation for a more expressive performance. Looking at these limiting factors – the method of teaching and learning the Feldenkrais Methodw, recent writings on brain plasticity and Kristin Linklater's work on freeing the natural voice – we see how an individual can change unhelpful patterns of behaviour and experience breathing and singing with their whole body.
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Connecting through the breath towards
expressive communication in performance:
an enquiry into the training of opera singers
Rebecca Meitlis
Published online: 25 Jul 2015.
To cite this article: Rebecca Meitlis (2015) Connecting through the breath towards expressive
communication in performance: an enquiry into the training of opera singers, Theatre, Dance and
Performance Training, 6:2, 187-199, DOI: 10.1080/19443927.2015.1043469
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Connecting through the breath
towards expressive communication
in performance: an enquiry into
the training of opera singers
Rebecca Meitlis
This article explores how poor communication in performance by opera singers can be the
result of limitations in natural breathing and how, in turn, improving the breathing and awareness
of the movement of the breath through the Feldenkrais Methodw can improve a singer’s self-
image, and become a foundation for a more expressive performance. Looking at these limiting
factors the method of teaching and learning the Feldenkrais Methodw, recent writings on
brain plasticity and Kristin Linklater’s work on freeing the natural voice we see how an
individual can change unhelpful patterns of behaviour and experience breathing and singing with
their whole body. This paper is based on four interviews with participants from the Opera
Academy at the National Opera, Teatr Wielki in Warsaw, Poland.
Keywords: opera singers, breathing, Feldenkrais, Kristin Linklater
‘A lovely voice but he didn’t move me.
The first time I realised that I could apply my Feldenkrais training to classically
trained singers was at a lunchtime recital. It was given by a young baritone;
he had excellent technique, good grasp of style, perfect diction, but I was
completely unmoved. After a bit my gaze rested on his wide, shiny tie that did
not move and there was no movement beneath it. It was like an armour plate
across his sternum. This area of the body is associated with the outpouring of
emotional feelings. Sometimes it has to be protected, but if rigidly protected
will stem the expression of deep emotion. This is what singing is concerned
with: our deepest, most intimate emotions.
Opera singers need their whole physicality, intelligence and all their
emotional resources to produce the vocal and acting skills for the art form.
q 2015 Taylor & Francis
1. Thanks to Beata Klatka,
Artistic Administrator,
Opera Academy, for her
vision in including
Feldenkrais lessons as
an integral part of the
Academy courses;
Professors Anita
a, Eytan Pessen,
Isabella Klosinska,
Matthias Rexroth, and
Paola Larina for their
insights in developing
young singers and
wealth of knowledge
and experience; the
young artists from the
Opera Academy for
their engagement,
curiosity and generosity
in sharing their
discoveries; Henrietta
Bredin, Ian Rutherford,
Anna Carlisle and Eytan
Pessen for their
valuable suggestions and
help with editing.
Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, 2015
Vol. 6(2), 2015, 187–199,
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You would expect that with their specialised breath control, amazing range of
notes, and ability to be heard by vast audiences over an orchestra without a
microphone, they would be fully aware of the potential of their breathing.
However, in the work I have done with students and young professionals I
have found this is not always the case. What then are the limiting factors? I
would like to explore how the Feldenkrais Methodw helps to develop an
awareness of breathing and consequently that the more a performer can be
conscious of their breath, the more powerful their performance will be.
It is through breathing that musical meaning, textual meaning and emotional
veracity are expressed. It is also an important way in which musicians
interrelate with each other. As Kristin Linklater says, ‘The ultimate controls
for the breath are thoughts and feelings’
(Linklater 2006, p. 64).
My background is directing opera. What I am interested in as a director is how
a performer with this phenomenon of the operatic voice can communicate
with an audience and move them. I am not a vocal teacher; I do not teach
breathing technique for singing. However, I think that the way in which a
singer experiences breathing is fundamental to how they perform.
This article is based on my work at the Opera Academy of the National
Opera, Teatr Wielki in Warsaw.
At the Opera Academy a select group of
international young soloists works intensively for week-long residencies with a
range of specialists: conductors, vocal teachers, language coaches and directors.
I have based my enquiry on interviews with four of the singers, my
observations in coaching sessions, rehearsals, and performances and my notes
from group classes and one-to-one Feldenkrais sessions. For the interviews
I selected singers who had expressed an interest in the effects of the
Feldenkrais work on their development and were confident in speaking
English. Of the interviewees, Tomasz and Diana have had lessons over a
period of two and a half years, Joanna for a year and Jakub Jo
zef for six months.
During the residencies the singers take part in daily Awareness Through
Movement (ATM) lessons and each singer has at least one Functional
Integration (FI) session with me. Awareness Through Movement lessons are
the group lessons that Moshe Feldenkrais devised to guide participants
through experiences of themselves in movement. There are hundreds of
these beautifully structured lessons. I liken them to compositions; each one
has a clear theme, there are sets of variations, a return to the original theme,
sometimes an improvisation section and often a coda. The lessons are spoken
and not demonstrated. Functional Integration lessons are one-to-one
sessions based on the same strategies as ATMs but adapted to the individual.
In FI lessons awareness is encouraged primarily by touch.
When singers perform, they are concerned with the music, the role, the
narrative, and the text, which often will not be in their native tongue so they
are also thinking of the translation and meaning. They interact with their
fellow singers, watch the conductor, and need to remember what the
director, vocal coach, language coach and choreographer have demanded.
How can all this be unified in a performance that thrills and is cohesive? How
can a singer’s imagination, creativity and intuition be freed to communicate
2. Interestingly, the vocal
coach Kristin Linklater
talks about the
formative body work
she did in the 1970s,
which includes the
Feldenkrais Methodw.
3. This is a short video
about the work of the
Opera Academy. The
section on the
Feldenkrais work starts
from 5.30: https://www.
v¼ rQq0VWxQdG4&
feature ¼
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their own interpretation and artistry? Can this be done with ease, spontaneity
and enjoyment?
How can the Feldenkrais Methodw help?
My first workshop in Warsaw was a trial session to see if the singers and staff
thought the method could be a useful addition to their programme. Anita
a, the highly respected Latvian vocal coach, observed this first session
and afterwards exclaimed, ‘I am always asking my students to have more
movement in their ribs and feel grounded, but you have shown them HOW!’
Indeed the simple 45-minute lesson helped the singers feel, with pleasure,
new spaces in the torso where they could feel the breath ‘invited in’ as they
found more mobility in the chest. When they came to standing they were
better balanced with the weight clearly through their planted feet and several
of them felt the experience of being ‘grounded’ for the first time. This is
something teachers demand of students, but if they have never had that
experience how can they know what it means? Once having experienced
‘groundedness’ it is a state of being that can be called upon.
The Feldenkrais Methodw can help discover the potential of our breathing
mechanism, and find out how it feels when we breathe completely and freely.
By observing ourselves and noticing our habits of stopping the breath, or
limiting the intake of breath by not exhaling sufficiently, or restricting the
movement of the chest, we can begin a new learning process. This exploration
of the movement of the breath encourages a fascination and pleasure in this
most basic human function. Singers are hungry for this renewed experience of
The experience of breathing
As a teenager I was confused about breathing, having studied voice and flute
and it seemed that every teacher told me something different. Which was
right? It was during my Feldenkrais training that I realised there is no ‘right’
way to breathe, but a myriad ways to breathe for different functions.
As Moshe Feldenkrais repeatedly states: ‘I would never say, “This is
correct” or “This is incorrect”. To me nothing is correct. His intention was to
explore possibilities and then for the student to be free to choose that which
is most appropriate for a particular function.
In relation to singing Elizabeth Blades-Zeller, professor of voice, says:
‘It is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that there is one right way to
breathe. Actually there are many options available for breathing. Only a few of
these are effective for singing, and for any singer there will be a best way to
breathe at any time’. (Nelson and Blades-Zeller 2002, p. 76)
How we breathe is an immensely complex matter. Luckily we rarely have to
think about it. It happens. But it happens with many different qualities in many
different ways. We can breathe fast and heavily as a result of physical effort;
the cause of this can be explained physiologically; the chemoreceptors in the
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medulla oblongata and in the aortic bodies alert the respiratory centre that
levels of oxygen have fallen and levels of carbon dioxide increased and then
messages are sent to the muscles of respiration to redress the balance. Or we
can sigh with pleasure at a beautiful view, so there has been a psychological
effect on the quality of breathing. So what is it that controls a singer’s breath?
Is it the chemoreceptors or thought? When is it a pragmatic thought: ‘I must
breathe here for this phrase’ or an imaginative thought: ‘I love you’?
The process
In my work with singers I do not teach breathing technique lessons. I have
collected a constellation of ATM lessons that together allow the breath to flow
freely and responsively. These lessons lead to exploring breathing and help the
student to have a gestalt experience of themselves, breathing freely and
effortlessly, at ease with themselves, and in a state of readiness to perform.
To have this experience of breathing, a number of physical conditions need
to be in place, these include: being in a state of balance; a sense of support
from the ground and your feet; freedom in the pelvis; flexible, well-articulated
spine, mobile ribs and sternum. As Feldenkrais explains:
the skeletal structure should counteract the pull of gravity, leaving the muscles
free for movement. If, on the other hand, the muscles have to carry out the job
of the skeleton, not only do they use energy needlessly, but they are prevented
from carrying out their main function of changing the position of the body, that
is, of movement. þ (Feldenkrais 1972, p. 68)
As the function of the skeleton becomes clearer to the student, parasitic
movements that might limit the freedom of breathing can be identified.
Feldenkrais coined the phrase ‘parasitic movements’ to explain unconscious
movements that not only are not necessary for a function but also impede
this function. For instance, clenching your fist when singing can limit the
movement of the chest, curling the toes can cause imbalance, or a slight
raising of a shoulder cause tension in the throat. After this, students learn how
to use appropriate tonus of the muscles of the abdomen, ribs, neck,
shoulders, jaw and tongue, for their breathing and voice.
There is no linear way to learn all of this. The order in which I deliver the
lessons depends on the group’s needs. There are many lessons that can
address these related issues. The following selection demonstrates some of
the basics to experience greater freedom of breathing:
. Feeling balanced in standing or being grounded, e.g. Co-ordinating the
flexors and extensors (Feldenkrais 1972, Lesson 5, p. 109) or the Pelvic
Clock (Feldenkrais 1972, Lesson 6, p. 115).
. Lengthening the spine, and feeling the breath along the spine (Arlyn Zones
London training).
. Releasing unnecessary effort in the shoulders and neck (Ruthy Alon, The
Grammar of Spontaneity, Audio set, 1978).
. Freeing the shoulder girdle from the rib cage, such as the Chanukia
(Feldenkrais 1994, vol. 1, part 1, p. 103).
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. Sensing the movement of the ribs in relation to the shoulder blades,asin
Breathing and mobility in the shoulders and the entire side (Beringer, 2009.
Embodied Learning: Focus on Breathing , audio CD).
. Finding flexibility in the sternum (Feldenkrais 1974, vol. 5, #217).
. Freeing the jaw and exploring the mouth cavity (Variations from Feldenkrais
practitioners, Livia Calice, Gu¨nter Bisges and David Zemach-Bersin based
on several Alexander Yanai Lessons).
. Carriage of the head (Feldenkrais 1972, Lesson 7, p. 123).
. Finding movement in the ribs, e.g. Mobility of the chest (Mary Spire audio
CD series; Five Awareness Through Movement Lessons for Musicians/
Computer Keyboard Users, 2004).
Through these lessons the student can experience changes in their physicality
and psychological state that can lead to freer breathing and a new image of
themselves. To complete this learning cycle and help students take back what
they have learnt in Feldenkrais classes to their coaching sessions and
performances, I suggest that they use their own images or phrases to recall
their newfound kinaesthetic experiences. We also discuss how they can
create their own mini ATMs to use when needed.
Teaching and learning in the Feldenkrais Methodw
It is not only what is learnt but also how the teaching and learning happens
that is significant. Essential to the way Feldenkrais is taught is to obser ve
yourself non-judgementally as you are at that moment in time and space.
This in itself can be a challenge to musicians whose whole training is
towards perfection and excellence achieved by unrelenting self-criticism.
Once students notice differences in themselves throughout a lesson they
can then learn how to change habitual patterns of behaviour.
For the
performer it is also an exercise in being present, and that invaluable feeling
of being comfortable with yourself in the here and now. The experience of
your ‘self throughout a lesson, whether it is an ATM or FI can be thought
of as a lesson in phenomenology. The only chance to move forward,
according to Merleau-Ponty in Phenomenology of Perception is ‘by being
unrestrictedly and unreservedly what I am at present’ (Friedman 1964,
p. 148).
As a teacher I often question the role I play in this process of change. I am not
teaching knowledge, facts and opinions but rather, creating an environment in
which learning can happen, something Feldenkrais frequently expounded.
The way Carl R. Rogers, the humanistic psychologist, wrote about learning
change in On becoming a Person helps explain this process.
No approach which relies on knowledge, upon training, upon the acceptance of
something that is taught, is of any use ... The most they can accomplish is some
temporary change, which soon disappears ...
The failure of any such approach through intellect has forced me to recognise
that change appears to come about through experience in relationship. (Friedman
1964, pp. 479480)
4. Gregory Bateson,
anthropologist and
husband of Magaret
Mead who was a
student of Feldenkrais,
develops this idea of
learning through
difference throughout
his works specifically in
Steps to an Ecology of
Mind (1972).
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Rogers describes his approach as based on his own ‘transparency, empathy for
his client and openness to his potentialities’. He cites Martin Buber’s phrase
‘confirming the other’:
He [Buber] says, ‘confirming the other means ... accepting the whole
potentiality of the other ... If I accept him as a process of becoming, then I am
doing what I can to confirm or make real his potentialities. (Friedman 1964,
pp. 479480)
I have previously thought of myself as ‘witnessing’ the student’s journey but I
find this idea of Buber’s of ‘confirming’ is much more true to the experience of
relationship in a lesson.
It is through this ‘experience in relationship’ of Feldenkrais lessons that I am
constantly surprised by the effect a lesson might have on an individual. Each
student will have their unique discoveries arising from their previous
experiences and image of themselves.
What are the limiting factors of easy breathing?
I have chosen to look at the following three interrelated limitations to easy
. Misinterpretation of breathing technique.
. A lack of understanding of anatomy.
. Incomplete or restrictive self-image.
Misinterpretation of breathing technique
The breathing technique itself, or rather a misunderstanding of the technique
being taught, can cause problems. In some cases the singer over-develops the
muscles of the torso so that elasticity is diminished. This limits ease of
breathing and the capacity of breath.
Over-developed, muscular rigidity
detrimentally affects the voice, causes discomfort for the singer and like
armour curbs expressivity. The musculature must be ready to respond to the
physical and emotional demands of the music.
Recent developments in understanding brain plasticity, which is how the
neural pathways continually change and develop through thought and activity,
help to explain how Feldenkrais lessons are effective. Although Freud
proposed this concept as early as 1888, it is only in the last decades that these
changes can be perceived because of technological innovations in imaging the
brain. Norman Doidge (2007, p. 208), in his overview of these developments
cites the neurologist Pascual-Leone, explains that the brain is so plastic that
it is changing all the time. However, plasticity can create rigidity through
repeated behaviours. Doidge (2007, pp. xvi, 242243) terms this ‘the plastic
paradox’. This concept can help a singer understand how they have created
their own limitations, such as rigid musculature and how they can choose to
change. Feldenkrais lessons help recognise such unhelpful behaviour patterns
and develop new, more beneficial options.
5. Mabel To d d , author of
The Thinking Body, has a
full description of
breathing in Chapter
VIII and specifically
about this problem on
page 231: ‘Wide and
too full breathing brings
into play the upper
accessory muscles,
before the diaphragm
has made its fullest
possible vertical
excursion ... The
result of this type of
breathing if taken to its
extreme, is to tense all
muscles of the shoulder
structure, neck and jaw
and to reduce the
longitudinal diameter of
the chest cavity by
increasing the
horizontal diameter.
If the vertical depth is
attained, to the full
extent of the stretch of
the thoracic spine, the
expansion horizontally
will accompany it in
extended breathing’.
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A lack of understanding of anatomy
Singers are often unaware of the anatomy of breathing. They might not have
an accurate idea of the size of their lungs, or realise how much movement
there is in the ribs, both at the sternum and spine connections. They might
not feel the movement of their breath in their spine, or realise how breathing
connects to their pelvis, legs and locomotion. There can be a mismatch
between what they have seen in illustrations and videos and what they actually
feel in their own body. Two-dimensional representations of anatomy cannot
convey the information a singer needs. Personal testimonies of how
Feldenkrais lesso ns, both individual and ATMs, can help with these
misunderstanding of anatomy are given in the following extracts from the
singers’ interviews.
RM: In your first individual session we investigated what you thought about your
breathing capacity. How big did you think your lungs were?
JO: They were small [pointing to the level of his nipples to the bottom of the
sternum], maybe 10 15 cm long. Now I feel my lungs from here [pointing
below his navel], to here [pointing to under the clavicle] and starting very
deep. I feel the length now is half a metre or even more! After the group
session today
I felt the same and if I remember this feeling in performance I
am really comfortable. Now I know how deeply I can go with my breath,
how far down and how wide my ribs can be.
I feel my whole body is filling
up with breath.
I am curious how Jo
zef takes this experiential learning into his artistic life:
RM: Are there any contradictions between what you are doing for break-
dancing and for singing?
JO: Yes, you have to learn how to use your body so you are not so tight when
you are doing those movements and to keep the breathing really flexible and
deeper for singing. In singing you have to be ... I don’t want to say
relaxed ... not relaxed but conscious of how the muscles need to be flexible,
but in breaking there are a lot of specific moves like ‘figures’ where all the
muscles have to be really tight. This is really interesting. This is a challenge I
am working on.
RM: Here in the Opera Academy you have the opportunity to work with
wonderful vocal coaches. Is there anything that we have done in your sessions
that connects with what they are asking you to do?
JO: Yes most of all in the Handel cantata I am singing. There are extremely
long coloratura phrases. Before I was breathing ever y two bars, but now I
am singing the whole phrase on one breath and with dynamics. I was
impressed with myself, it was really surprising that I can use your method
for what Eytan and Matthias are asking because my body is prepared to do
6. Jakub Jo
zef O. is a
countertenor and is
finishing his studies at
Frederick Chopin
University of Music.
As well as training as an
opera singer he is a
dedicated break-dancer.
He was interested in
Feldenkrais lessons to
help him find a way to
use his body in such
contrasting ways. The
following videos show
his remarkable
challenge. Here he is
singing Ruggiero in
Handel’s Alcina at the
Aachen Theatre: http://
The following extract
shows him in a break-
dance battle: https://
v¼ NeZvMzgu7LY
7. The lesson was The
Chanukia, see the
section on the
Feldenkrais work
starting from 5.30:
v¼ rQq0VWxQdG4&
feature ¼
8. This relates to the idea
Body Mapping, your
mental representation
of your body’s size,
structure and function
and how the individual’s
concept of their body
map affects their
potential in functional
movement. For a full
description of Body
Mapping for singers see
Malde et al. (2009).
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And with Joanna:
RM: We’ve done a lot of work together on breathi ng a nd t he
movement of the ribs. Can you describe what you thought about breathing
JM: Before I started Feldenkrais I thought I had no problem with breathing
but you showed me how I wasn’t using the back of my chest, my back was
just like a stick, and my ribs were just moving in the front but in the back,
nothing was working. Now I can feel that as I am breathing, I am breathing
with the whole of my body. I now have a really long breath when I’m singing,
so that’s useful!
Here Tomasz speaks of his experience of discovering his potential breath:
TK: Before I think I used 2% of my breath and 2% of my body. My breath now is
longer than two years ago, and I think this is not only a technical problem, or a
vocal problem but it was also my body problem. Now I have discovered many
spaces in my body not only down to my abdomen but up here [pointing to his
upper chest, behind and above the clavicle] and now I can use these spaces. It is a
big support ...
RM: Do you need a lot of breath to make a big sound?
TK: I use all my body better to take a small breath, it’s better because when I
take a big breath it is like a cork coming out of a bottle, but if I take less breath
and use it all, it is better. It helps because I have opened these new spaces. Before
my warm up I take my breath high up, not down, it opens the space and opens my
body. When I have an open body the singing is simpler. When I close, everything
is closed, my muscles are closed, my legs are closed, my neck is closed and it’s
not good.
Anatomical knowledge and kinaesthetic experience
This experience that Jo
zef, Joanna and Tomasz have had of breathing with the
whole body might not be thought to be anatomically correct, in textbook
terms the respiratory system includes the air passage ways, lungs, diaphragm
and intercostal muscles. However, for the opera singer ‘breathing with your
whole body’ is a helpful image, for it unifies the voice and body, singing and
movement. As Joanna explains:
JM: I learnt that my legs are connected to my head, actually with my whole
body and that when I’m walking my ribs are moving. That is really
interesting for me because it means that my whole body is moving
together. Every single part of my body is connected, I just realised that
they have to be together, its not like that my legs are moving and that my
hands are somewhere in the universe! They have to be together because
my body is my whole body. I have to be self-confident with my body and
treat it well.
9. Joanna M. is a mezzo-
soprano; she is
currently a soloist with
Bialystok Opera and has
her debut at Frankfurt
Opera in 2015 in
Weinberg’s opera The
10. This is how Elizabeth
Blades-Zeller (2002,
p. 75) explains this ‘long’
breath that Joanna and
zef describe:‘The
lungs open in 6
directions, forward,
where the ribs and belly
expand; backward
where the spine
lengthens and the
viscera move back, and
the ribs expand, to the
left and right where the
ribs and belly expands,
upwards lifting the
scapulae and clavicle
and down into the
pelvic girdle. Should any
of these movements be
impeded there will be a
restriction in the flow of
11. Tomasz K. is a baritone
who finished his studies
at Frederick Chopin
University of Music, and
has recently sung in
Lohengrin at the Teatr
Wielki. He has joined
the Atelier Lyric at the
Bastille Opera in Paris.
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Through her Feldenkrais sessions Joanna discovered the source of her
breathing deep in her pelvis.
Kristin Linklater (2006, p. 14) expands on this:
The anatomically accurate fact is that breath goes in and out of the lungs and the
lungs exist in the space between the collar bone and the bottom of the ribcage.
But when the imagination extends the dwelling place of the breath to the pelvic
floor or even to the legs, the actual lungs respond with an expansion of their
capacity. Even more impor tantly the image of the breath entering and filling the
spaces of the pelvic basin ... stimulates deep and involuntary breathing
musculature and connects the mind to primal energy sources in the sacrum
nerve plexi.
Joanna learnt this through self-observation of her experience, not through a
didactic process. Often it is helpful to have a physiological interpretation of
what is happening,
but the memory-image of such an immediate experience
of connectedness is more useful for the singer to integrate in performance.
By such a process of discovery this knowledge is theirs.
A singer’s self-image
The examples above show how these singers changed their understanding of
their breathing mechanism and so their self-image.
Moshe Feldenkrais explains his idea of ‘self-image’ in the following extract:
If while lying on your back, you do a careful mental survey of your entire body,
you will notice that some parts of your body are more easily sensed than others.
The parts that are less easily sensed are not part of our conscious actions .. .
indeed, some areas are almost never present in our self-image. (Feldenkrais
We have seen how an improvement in the somatic self-image can help a
singer. However, limitations in self-image can also be from an internal,
psychological image that has become embodied. Singers work hard, as do all
serious performers, and often they have worked hard at imposing corrective
and limiting patterns on themselves in response to criticism from their
parents or teachers.
The following examples illustrate how well-intentioned ideas about
‘correct’ behaviours can be implanted in childhood and become deeply
ingrained patterns that can limit performance another example of Doidge’s
‘plastic paradox’.
This is Joanna’s story:
JM: When I was little , I was a fat girl, my grandmother told me that to be a lady I
had to be very straight, because it looks nice and it would be ‘nice’ for me not to
be like a little ball! I tried to be very straight, but it wasn’t good for me on stage
because I was like a column, like a stick, and my ribs weren’t moving and
they were in a st range position. Now I am straight, but not in an
abnormal position .. . Straight means my spine is straight, I am tall and long,
but flexible.
12. Explained in Experience
Bryon’s book the
Integrative Performer:
‘When working from the
perineum is done
correctly it will allow an
exact engagement with
the iliopsoas muscle
system ... allowing the
release of superfluous
tensions in an
economical use of the
skeletal, muscular, and
fascial systems in the act
of moving and voicing
(Bryon 2014,chapter5,
Working from the
Integrative Centre,p.101).
13. For a clear explanation
of how the pelvic floor
is involved in breathing
see Malde, Allen, and
Zeller (2009) What
every Singer Needs to
Know About the Body,
p. 63.
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Tomasz had a habitual pattern from his upbringing that inhibited his
breathing and looked uncomfortable on stage. He could be very flexed in the
upper chest area while also holding his legs close together in standing. This
compromised the space in his chest and the connection between the lower
lumbar vertebrae and breathing, through the diaphragm.
RM: I remember one of the coaches saying you stood like a soldier on stage, has
this changed?
TK: I was like a soldier inside, I am like soldier, because, I don’t feel comfortable
in my body, sometimes it’s not free, this is when I feel like a soldier. This is in my
mind but shows in my body, I come from a family of soldiers, my father, uncles,
grandfather, it is in my character, I never think about it, but maybe not now ...
[after an FI session] Now I feel like a boy who is 15 years old!
Through several one-to-one sessions we explored this pattern through
various different strategies, and after one session Tomasz came up with the
powerful image that he had discovered another room for his breath, like in a
dream where you imagine there must be a hidden room in a big house , a
house that you often find yourself in, in your dream-world and suddenly you
find a way into this new space, this new room. He discovered this on both
Figure 1 Joanna doing ‘Balancing the flexors and extensors’ lesson. Photo from the archives of
the Polish National Opera, Tietr Wielki, Warsaw.
Figure 2 Joanna in standing after a lesson feeling her length and flexibility. Photo from the
archives of the Polish National Opera, Tietr Wielki, Warsaw.
R. Meitlis
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sides of his upper chest. After one Feldenkrais lesson Tomasz smiled gently
and said, ‘I am in paradise!’
TK: Now I want to discover many places in my body that I don’t know now,
maybe my hands, and my legs ... Because I remember Anita Garanc
a said ‘Your
body must sing, not only your head, not only your neck, not only your torso, all
your body must sing!’ Also I want to discover my breath everywhere, because
this is my resonance.
How is freeing the breath linked to expressive communication in
It is common that people are not aware of their backs in their self-image.
Diana G.
had the opposite experience. She had studied ballet as a child and
when she trained later as a singer she was told her back was too arched and to
lower her sternum. So in an attempt to stand ‘straight’ she pushed her chest
backwards and had erased her front from her self-image. At the time of her
breakthrough she was deeply upset because a director had said she couldn’t
communicate, that she was cold and unfeminine. I noticed that her sternum
Figure 3 Tomasz after a lesson experiencing the openness of his upper chest: ‘I feel in paradise!’
Photo from the archives of the Polish National Opera, Tietr Wielki, Warsaw.
Figure 4 Tomasz demonstrating to the class his more familiar habit of standing with legs like a
soldier but with flexed upper chest. Photo from the archives of the Polish National Opera, Tietr
Wielki, Warsaw.
14. Diana G. is a soprano,
currently at the Queen
Elisabeth Chapel,
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was immobile and the ribs in the upper chest also did not move. By working
on her extensors, that is working with her old pattern, she began to
experience movement in her front and she felt ‘so big’, her breath felt
‘enormous’ and it ‘clarified her experience of breathing in and breathing out’.
Not only that, but in performance her natural passion and warmth became
The link between the Feldenkrais work I have done with singers,
particularly with breathing, and their ability to communicate more effectively
in performance would not be possible to ‘prove’. It is in Kristin Linklater’s
work with actors that I have found a convincing explanation of what is
happening. The basis of her approach is that ‘The power of the imagination
properly used, can stimulate breathing on a profound level and enhance the
function of the voice to maximum effect’ (Linklater 2006, p. 14). In her analysis
of how the voice works she interprets physiological events in terms of
function. So, if the beginning of voicing is said to be an impulse in the motor
cortex of the brain, she suggests that this impulse is ‘the need to
communicate’. This impulse from the motor cortex stimulates breath to
enter and leave the body through electric impulses which in turn stimulate the
complex organisation of muscles that move the diaphragm, the intercostal
muscles, the inner abdominal muscles, and so on. The amount, or voltage of
the impulse depends on what is being communicated, so the intention of
singing a baby to sleep would produce a different muscular effect than
declaiming revenge.
Linklater has developed a series of exercise where after
noticing the natural rhythm of your breath you ask yourself to have a sigh of
relief. If you try it, you can directly feel how the thought-feeling stimulates the
breathing mechanism in a par ticular way. ‘The sigh of relief is the first key to
unlocking the doors to those primal impulse centres and reopening the
primary neuro-physiological routes between brain and body’ (Linklater 2006,
p. 15).
However, if the breathing is limited, as in the examples we have looked at,
by non-elastic musculature, inaccurate concept of the anatomy or restrictive
self-image, then the neurological pathways of thought to breath are hindered
or blocked. As Linklater (2006, p. 22) explains, ‘Defensive musculature
programming develops habits of mind and muscle that cut off the instinctual
connection between emotion and breath. The voice cannot work to its true
potential if its basic energy is not free breath’.
Linklater teaches that the actor’s muscles must be ready to respond to the
imaginatively created state of being for the expression to be ‘truthful’. This
state of being enables the spontaneous connection of thought to muscles. She
suggests that conscious control of the breath as in opera singing, yoga and
professional swimming is developed so that it is not disturbed by these
thought-feeling impulses. I believe that a singer must also have that receptivity
to respond to these impulses at the same time as using their breath in such a
specific way. However, the thoughts and emotions are not only textual and
dramatic, but also musical. If a singer does not hold the complete musical and
textual phrase in their imagination before singing, the breath taken might not
be sufficient and the communication empty of meaning. There is a clear
connection between the musical and dramatic imagination informing the body
that allows the appropriate movement of the breath and meaningful
expression of the text, music and situation. A singer who is brave enough to
15. ‘It is the same impulse
that simultaneously
activates the vocal folds
and the rest of the vocal
mechanism’ (Linklater
2006, p. 15).
R. Meitlis
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let the emotional impulse sound in their breath and voice might disturb
purists, but will touch hearts.
For the four students discussed above, the Feldenkrais work that focused on
freeing the breath helped find new inner connections, so integrating the whole
self. Learning experientially what is limiting freedom of breath and feeling
afresh the ease of breathing in your whole self, mind and body channels are
open for the spontaneous flow of thought and emotion that leads to the
expressive communication of the singer’s own unique personality, under-
standing and musicality. Finding these connections within develops the singer’s
self-image and self-confidence and is a firm foundation on which to develop all
the aspects of performance.
Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.
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... An integral component in developing an understanding of the somatic nuances of singing we wished to convey to other bodies was to hone our understanding of how the act of singing occurs within the body, and afects our breathing, and whole body. Singing is a profoundly somatic skill demanding a nuanced understanding of one's physicality, an artistic or creative sensibility in making music, and a sharing of one's inner expressive self [75]. Vocal trainingregardless of the musical genre or style in question -is typically focused on the training of micro coordination skills [115] such as regulating the air pressure system, manipulating resonance chambers, and often involving a relearning process of otherwise habitual or unconscious physical actions such as breathing and posture [99]. ...
Integrative Performance serves a crucial need of 21st-century performers by providing a transdisciplinary approach to training. Its radical new take on performance practice is designed for a climate that increasingly requires fully rounded artists. The book critiques and interrogates key current practices and offers a proven alternative to the idea that rigorous and effective training must separate the disciplines into discrete categories of acting, singing, and dance. Experience Bryon’s Integrative Performance Practice is a way of working that will profoundly shift how performers engage with their training, conditioning and performance disciplines. It synthesizes the various elements of performance work in order to empower the performer as they practice across disciplines within any genre, style or aesthetic. Theory and practice are balanced throughout, using: Regular box-outs, introducing the work's theoretical underpinnings through quotes, case studies and critical interjections. A full program of exercises ranging from training of specific muscle groups, through working with text, to more subtle structures for integrative awareness and presence. This book is the result of over twenty years of practice and research working with interdisciplinary artists across the world to produce a training that fully prepares performers for the demands of contemporary performance and all its somatic, emotive and vocal possibilities.
Gregory Bateson was a philosopher, anthropologist, photographer, naturalist, and poet, as well as the husband and collaborator of Margaret Mead. With a new foreword by his daughter Mary Katherine Bateson, this classic anthology of his major work will continue to delight and inform generations of readers. "This collection amounts to a retrospective exhibition of a working life. . . . Bateson has come to this position during a career that carried him not only into anthropology, for which he was first trained, but into psychiatry, genetics, and communication theory. . . . He . . . examines the nature of the mind, seeing it not as a nebulous something, somehow lodged somewhere in the body of each man, but as a network of interactions relating the individual with his society and his species and with the universe at large."—D. W. Harding, New York Review of Books "[Bateson's] view of the world, of science, of culture, and of man is vast and challenging. His efforts at synthesis are tantalizingly and cryptically suggestive. . . .This is a book we should all read and ponder."—Roger Keesing, American Anthropologist Gregory Bateson (1904-1980) was the author of Naven and Mind and Nature.
The Grammar of Spontaneity. Audio set
  • R Alon
Alon R., 1978. The Grammar of Spontaneity. Audio set, Dolphin Tapes ASIN B00YETKP4O.
Embodied Learning: Focus on Breathing
  • E Beringer
Beringer E., 2009. Embodied Learning: Focus on Breathing. Audio CD Label CD Baby ASIN BOOB2TWFYC.
Awareness Through Movement: Easy To Do Exercises to Improve your Posture, Vision, Imagination, and Personal Awareness
  • M Feldenkrais
Feldenkrais, M., 1972. Awareness Through Movement: Easy To Do Exercises to Improve your Posture, Vision, Imagination, and Personal Awareness. New York: Harper Collins.
The Feldenkrais Method; Awareness Through Movement Lessons, Dr Moshe Feldenkrais at Alexander Yanai. 1950-70
  • M Feldenkrais
Feldenkrais, M., 1994. The Feldenkrais Method; Awareness Through Movement Lessons, Dr Moshe Feldenkrais at Alexander Yanai. 1950-70. trans. A. Baniel 1994; ed. E. Soloway. Paris: IFF.
Embodied Wisdom: The Collected Papers of Moshe Feldenkrais
  • M Feldenkrais
Feldenkrais, M., 2011. In: E. Beringer and D. Zemach-Bersin, eds., Embodied Wisdom: The Collected Papers of Moshe Feldenkrais. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
The Worlds of Existentialism: A Critical Reader
  • M Friedman
Friedman, M., ed. 1964. The Worlds of Existentialism: A Critical Reader. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Freeing the Natural Voice: Imagery and Art in the Practice of Voice and Language
  • K Linklater
Linklater, K., 2006. Freeing the Natural Voice: Imagery and Art in the Practice of Voice and Language. London: Nick Herne Books Ltd.