A perfect calibration of engagement and freedom

More like a king

I’ve just been writing a reflection on my journey so far with the Alexander Technique for which we have one group session once a week. I thought you might be interested, and you’re not getting anything else out of me this week, amidst chant transcription exercises, transcribing an interview on the practice of Kirtan chanting, learning my new chant Lilium Floruit, reading about the respiratory muscles, attending my first vocal masterclass and heavens, drinking a well-deserved pint.

The Alexander Technique (proudly Australian) “doesn’t teach you something new to do. It teaches you how to bring more practical intelligence into what you are already doing; how to eliminate stereotyped responses; how to deal with habit and change. It leaves you free to choose your own goal but gives you a better use of yourself while you work toward it.” (Frank Pierce Jones)

NB. “Semi-supine” is a relaxation posture used in the Alexander Technique where you lie on the ground with a book about three finger-widths high under your head, and your knees bent, feet flat on the ground.

* * *

Tomorrow will be our fifth class of Alexander Technique and we are in our sixth week of practice. It’s quite wonderful to look back upon my early reflections and to notice where I am now. There are a whole lot of things I’m aware of that I didn’t use to be. I’m more aware of how my head sits on my neck and what the feeling is when it is fixed, rigid, held in place, and what the feeling is when I am allowing it to be free, even to a small degree. And I’m more aware of how this pattern of control, of self-protection, this fearful and defensive reaction to life manifests in my neck, but is actually an inner attitude that plays out in my whole physicality, thoughts-actions, and in my being itself. To allow my neck to be free is such a simple directive and I watch myself and my classmates almost turn it into a joke. For me, I think this is because I’m actually profoundly confronted by the implications of this directive, my general incapacity to enact it, and the very sobering realisation that probably ever single facet of my life, my behaviour and my physicality is to some degree governed by fear – and the ‘control’ I seek to gain in reaction to that fear.

I’ve been more aware of that than usual and it’s uncomfortable.

Regular practice in semi-supine has been so deeply wonderful and such a gift to me. I have been practising about three or four days out of five and find it to be astonishingly powerful, working in ways that are completely mysterious to me. Most tangibly evident to me: I feel like it restores my body to neutral, and for that, is more restful, more relaxing, more restoring by far than doing some kind of ‘chilling out’ activity or even having a sleep. In fact often I’ll get up feeling as if I have had a sleep. I use it to begin my breathing-for-singing exercises and vocal practice and it is surprisingly potent in accomplishing what I don’t think I would know how to accomplish otherwise – that is, to do my breathing exercises from a relaxed and neutral body rather than kind of ‘on top of’ whatever I would have just been doing. It also provides a very clear break between the precious activity and my vocal practice which is no small thing. I can come off the back of an eight hour day, do my twenty minutes in semi-supine and then practice / sing for nearly an hour with fresh vital energy.

An unexpected result of this practice is that it seems to also restore my emotional body to neutral, and this is of HUGE significance and benefit to me. I am very porous to the world around me and other people’s energies and emotions can impact me to quite a high degree, let alone my own intense emotional life and deep feelings. Being here beginning this course has felt like something of a whirlwind of people, information, demands, new possibilities, new opportunities and it has been an emotional roller coaster with feelings of overwhelm. An additional factor is that I’m without most of my support structures and the main absence I feel keenly is the lack of physical touch, hugs, physical closeness with people I love. This is relevant because without this outlet for my emotional energy it just keeps building until it comes out in crying or irritation. What I’ve found with semi-supine is that somehow, magically, the emotional energy sort of drains away and leaves me relaxed, and no longer under this inner pressure. Also, and very interestingly to me, I’ll be lying there and it’s not uncommon for me to start sobbing in a strong way. The strange thing is it’s not necessarily that I feel sad or in an ‘emotional mood’ either before or after this sobbing. My best way of understanding it is that it is a emotional and physical shaking up, shaking out, shedding and releasing that happens in my musculature as well as through the emotional release.

Something else I’ve noticed in doing the semi-supine is a noticeable drop in my shoulders, and not only do they sit lower, I can also consciously draw them down which is something I did not even know was possible. This release has been accompanied by much tenderness in the muscles there, especially the trapezius muscles. For quite a while there I was almost in constant slight pain / discomfort, and they are still moderately tender, especially after I stand up from semi-supine. I take this as a good sign!

There’s so much more I could say. I’m reading Alexander’s The Use of the Self and there are so many light bulbs going off, and revelations small and large. The questions it is raising are ones such as:

What would it be to extend my awareness to the whole, to the source of my voice and not just what I think in a reductive way, my ‘voice’ is and what it is connected to? What would it be if I did not tamper or interfere with the most blessed and natural workings of the body, but soften, deepen, drop so much deeper than that, right to the inside of the inside? What would it be to place my action here right down at the roots of things, and have that action be so precise, so exactly placed that it need only be absolutely minuscule? What kind of doing is a not-doing, a refraining from doing? Is the very best we can do, to enact ‘right-conditions’ so that life will simply do what life does in us? Where indeed is our agency at all, given that Alexander found, he was completely unable to do what he wanted to do (consciously move his head forward and up) as soon as he had the impulse to speak? What is this tremendous intelligence in the human being that will enact grace in every moment if only it is allowed?

A life well-lived is not a process of error-correction, but living a dynamic posture of readiness, a perfect calibration of engagement and freedom, poise. This is what I long for.


My window has been open for days

The rowan berries are ripe

The rowan berries are ripe

My window has been open for days now, and there is a canopy of life above my bed: spiders, midges, moths, beetles. I’m at my desk drinking a finger of Green Spot whiskey from my thermos lid, listening to David Whyte and practising calligraphy with a swan quill pen.

It’s Thursday evening: the moment of relieved exhalation after another intense three-day-week is completed. Tomorrow there is the washing to be done. And a rehearsal for a service in the concert hall we’ve been asked to sing at to remember all those of the UL community who have died during its 40 years, celebrated this year. And four of “we five” will meet for tea in the Pavilion cafe to debrief, laugh, vent and write our list of things that need to be done for next week.

This afternoon we continued learning a Georgian song “Lazhghvash” from Sydney, a twenty-six year old doctoral student here with a glorious and shining love of Georgian music and people. She’s blind and has the most beautiful smile: a smile that doesn’t know what it looks like. Smile as a pure, simple expression of the inside. She tells us random details of village life in Svaneti. Did you know that the “Greek” legend of Jason and the golden fleece actually originates from here in the Caucus mountains, where they used to use fleeces to ‘pan’ for gold in the rivers? She has us pronounce the ‘v’ like half-way between a [v] and a [w] and try to make the glottal stop like a sound Gollum would make. As you can see from the song title, Georgian (well, actually, ‘Svan’ – a related language) is no stranger to stringing consonants together. Their three-part polyphony is really something. To Western ears it is threaded with ear-crunching dissonance but the amazing thing is that once it’s in your ears it becomes the most natural, effortless, sustaining, robust braid of harmony. It is such a joy to sing, the middle line an unapologetic second below the top for the first run of notes, and the men an open fifth below the sopranos. The sound sits forward right on the outside of your face, vibrating in your nose, while your throat is relaxed. Sydney’s face is a lamp, rippling with expression. You can tell she’s hearing every voice in the ensemble. Afterwards she and I walk back together to Thomond our student village, her hand resting in the crook of my elbow. It’s such welcome touch and human contact. For all the friendly interactions of my days, nothing can ever replace the warmth of bodies touching, and the nourishment of that kind of easy togetherness.

Today I did a presentation on resonance for our vocal pedagogy class. People. I had no idea of the utter miracle it is that we can speak and sing at all and I bow to the intelligence by whom we are created for we are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made. Of all the musical instruments that exist our own humble voice stands alone in that we can consciously control not just the power behind the sound (our breath) and the source of the sound (the vocal folds), but also the resonating chambers within our bodies that shape, filter and channel the sound. The sound of our voice doesn’t simply travel from the vocal folds up the throat and out the mouth. There is an incredibly complex play of echoes and sound reflections which amplify and enrich the sound as it passes through the vocal tract, without which our voice could never be heard at all, let alone above an orchestra in a thousand-seat concert hall (I’m not quite there yet).

The world is an amazing place.

Love, Wildgoose.

“Though your destination is not yet clear                                                                             You can trust the promise of this opening;                                                                           Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning                                                                         That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;                                                                                       Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;                                                                      Soon you will be home in a new rhythm                                                                                     For your soul senses the world that awaits you.”

From John O’Donohue ‘For a New Beginning’

Hitting the ground running

Well I’ve been on campus for ten days now and it has felt like a ceaseless, vibrant and dizzying flow of beginnings. No time (or conducive space) for journal writing, calling home, going for a run – or this blog, as it seems, unless I very purposefully carve it out. Here goes!

So MARCS (Master of Arts in Ritual Chant and Song) is a full year course with two taught semesters and then a final project to complete over the Summer next year. This can be a dissertation, half research and half performance, or a full performance. Though it’s very early, I’m leaning towards the half-half option. Even though I’d love to sink my teeth into a longer piece of research, the performance side is definitely going to be the more challenging for me and therefore offer more room to grow and develop. The course itself is considered to be half applied (performance) and half academic based, with the performance side covering Gregorian chant, early music polyphony, Irish vocal traditions including Sean nós, and world sacred music. The academic side will involve aspects of ritual studies, history and notation of chant, and some ethnomusicology. Then we get to choose electives for both semesters which can involve specialised study in whatever area we wish. This is VERY exciting and I already have a hundred things I wish I could do.

Who are we? Well there are five of us in our course: Robin from South Carolina is a choir teacher in a girls’ school with a piano background and she’s taken a year’s leave of absence to be here. Morgan is from Pennsylvania, a church organist and music therapy graduate – and our only guy: a lovely tenor. Femke has lived in Ireland since the age of two (from the Netherlands) and graduated last year from one of the Irish World Academy undergrad programs. She has a little daughter with her fiance who she met doing ethnomusicological fieldwork in Ghana, and is currently our fount of knowledge for how things work in the academy, where things are on campus, and how to do the trilly ornaments in the chants. Meg is from Sydney and has been singing the Latin Mass (ie. the Gregorian chant that we are learning) for three years, and hence asks all sorts of technical and informed questions that make me nervous. She wants to solidify her experience in chant performance in order to bring it back to Australia. We range in age from 24 for 43, and so far are all getting on very well! This is good because though we have some classes which cross-over into other discipline areas, like ethnomusicology for instance, for the main part it’s just us.

We are automatically members of two vocal groups in the Academy: Lucernarium is just the five of us and will focus on early music, different Western chant traditions (think: Gregorian chant) and polyphonic music (my favourite! In harmony). Sonas is a larger group and – wonderfully – is taught completely aurally, so no reading music or burying our heads in the words. It is a world music choir and I think different people can introduce songs as we go along. I’ve also been asked to join a Georgian voice ensemble which is one aspect of the doctoral work of Sydney Freedman who is doing a PhD in arts practice (youpie!!). For those of you who don’t know, I sang for a year with an a cappella group Shalva who sing Eastern European music and I just love it. Georgian music has thrillingly dissonant harmonies.

I’m writing this on Wednesday evening of our first week of classes and we basically have three full days: Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday into which fall the majority of our 20-odd contact hours. With extra rehearsals, private lessons, observing other lessons, fitting in our electives and.. errrr… living, I think that will be plenty! It has been a very tiring couple of weeks with so much information to take in, uni administration to take care of, hoards of people – all of them new to me – and all the normal settling in to a new place. Kudos to all international students out there, especially those in a foreign language setting.

My little room in Thomond Village

My little room in Thomond Village

I’m up in my room / study on the third floor of Thomond village (pronounced TOEmond, not theMOND as I had thought) with the light fading outside and a trembling wall of green. When the window’s open I can hear the Blackwater river shooshing and murmuring down there, its last solo melody before joining the Shannon just fifty or so metres further down. I love my room, little sanctuary, and already feeling homey. It’s one of four in an apartment which I share with three Irish lads, Alan, Mikey and Daniel, studying Music Technology (the first two) and a Grad Cert in P.E. Alan and Mikey and I have already had a week or so together and get on like a house on fire. Daniel just moved in last night, and is a sweet fellow, huge, with a tick* Kerry accent that I have trouble making out.

Sorry folks, I’m running out steam, here, so I’m just going to give some broad brush strokes of other aspects of life here and the course. We begin our three big days with either Alexander technique or a yoga / pilates / somatics class, all geared towards body awareness and suppleness, and finding and accessing the natural voice in the most easeful and economical way – some (much) of which involves unlearning a lot of the postural and tension habits reinforced over time. I am so thrilled about this aspect.

I’ve had two solo voice lessons so far, one with Catherine Sargent who is one of our chant specialist tutors and the other with Marie Walsh who is going to be “tormenting us” (her words) with technique. I was SO nervous before the first lesson. All the other four have a stronger musical background than me, and it feels like a huge leap to be singing in this way and to this standard. I haven’t had a singing lesson since 1994 (failed voice lessons at high school with Mrs Saltmarsh) and haven’t had anyone work with me on my voice or technique or anything. So I’m sort of half a little bit freaking out which isn’t helping when I’m trying to sight sing or listen to and repeat a melody. From a slightly bigger perspective, I tell myself that I’m doing just fine, to not expect myself to be someone I’m not, and simply to learn the absolute most I can from this. The steeper the learning curve the better the view from the top, no? With Marie, we are beginning with breathing, and I’m doing daily exercises involving holding breath and shhhhing and sssssing in various positions for different lengths. And from Niall, our Alexander teacher today, I actually felt what it’s like to breathe into my back and not all out the front. Amazing!

Okay! First entry done. Off to bed to read (boring dry) textbook on Gregorian chant and (juicy, inspiring) book called Freeing the Natural Voice.




* I kid you not, it is a very tick accent