The Vault

Surprises in the Music Class

Vivien Mackie


When I started to work as an Alexander teacher, I was disappointed to find that I didn't seem to be able to help musicians as much as I had expected. If they were cellists, as I am, there was plenty to discover together, and my own piano-playing experiences stood me in good stead with the pianists. But, I had no idea what to do with the singer who was already going 'forward and up' enough to take off into the audience.

My Experience in Singing

My great awakening came when my singing teacher—for I decided I must get to grips with singing myself—said, in one of our first workshops for singers, "just put a hand on her head, will you, Vivien?" 'She' was a tall, young woman of slight build, with a voice to match, singing an undemanding folk song, and waving herself about as if being tossed by a breeze. I approached, hand at the ready, and at the moment of contact, instead of the instant quieting I expected, I found myself drawn into the singer's movement as by a magnet. That was no breeze. It was like grabbing a wild horse by the mane. A gentle 'whoa there!' was not even going to be heard; my best direction had to be accompanied by a very considerable firmness, to hold the singer still while she sang. Immediately, and wonderfully, all the force behind the waving was redirected into the singer's vocal apparatus, and out poured a voice of real power and quality.

Audiences like to see movement in a singer—or a player. It seems to indicate sensitivity and feeling, intensity and passion, according to the amount of movement. I'm sure it may. Sometimes, though, I believe the feeling that gives rise to the moving is an intense and passionate desire to be elsewhere. In fact, a very vivid memory I have from a long time ago is of one of the most powerful of arias in all opera being delivered, overpoweringly, by a woman in a glowing green dress standing perfectly still. Standing with a powerful stillness, and total presence.

Directing to the Audience

At the Congress, I was delighted when a young teacher said that she would like to sing in my class. She prepared herself in her own way, taking time, and, presumably, thought. The song was a pleasant light folk song, in an unfamiliar language— a mountain patois, I decided. I asked her about her preparations, and was not surprised to hear that the singer had been 'giving her directions'. A direction that had been conspicuously absent in her performance, however, was her direction to her audience. I asked our performer to choose several of those in the room, to whom she would very clearly address herself; not only must she look at each in turn, but I asked her also to point with her finger as she looked. She sang her song again, looking and pointing, with perhaps twice as much sound and warmth. The next step was to ask her to stamp her foot just before each line of the song, to confirm her connection to the earth. Next came hitting the floor with both hands just before each line. At this point, suddenly, the words of the song became perfectly clear, and revealed themselves to be in plain, everyday Italian! Finally, she must smile at her audience. With each of these added instructions, I believe we all found our enjoyment growing moment by moment. I believe that in the end, and it didn't take many minutes, the singer's performance was hugely enhanced. Even her face looked brighter, warmer, more clearly defined. In a word, she was more her self. All these things confirmed her presence here, and brought her closer to the 'stillness in activity' I saw so clearly at the opera, long before I had heard the phrase.

Singers are often taught not to look at the audience, but to sing to the back row of the gallery, or to the clock at the back of the hall. This is quite reasonably expected to help with 'projection'. Surprising that looking directly at someone who is only a few feet away can, and nearly always does, hugely increase the amount of sound, as well as improving the quality. And, pointing at the person may multiply it again.

Musicians commonly don't like to look at the audience, and find any number of reasons for not doing so. One of the best was when a singer was quick to say to me "but if I look at a particular person, won't all the others feel left out?" It was a 'good' and uncomfortable question—but we were all surprised to find that in establishing communication with even one individual, the distance between performer and audience had been eliminated and communication had been established for all of us.

Stamping a foot may not be appropriate on the concert platform—though folk song and dance are full of stamping feet. Hitting the floor with both hands is more of a practice-only device. I believe the virtue here is in the compulsory abandonment of any 'fixing' for a moment, and that in that moment the voice is able to pervade and resonate in all corners—"it was as if her whole body sang" said someone, after it had first occurred to me to suggest this unorthodox procedure.

And diction? Surely a matter of lips, teeth, tongue? Well, yes, but how is it that so often the stamp of a foot or the floor hitting will bring instant clarity?

Benefits of 'freeing up'

Undeniably, this singer was functioning better after all that, and was more effectively doing what she set out to do. I believe that the 'directions' she has learned to give can be far more effective after so much internal 'freeing up'. The benefits of these unusual procedures don't go away, although our friend Habit will want to creep back in. The voice, once it has gained freedom, strongly wants to keep it—even if the 'voice' is one's violin or oboe. This 'voice' seems to have a life of its own.

Singing in public was a big challenge to our singer's ability to direct, and her success in meeting the challenge must have strengthened both her clarity of direction and vocal function. That powerful stillness is inviting; we feel comfortable with it and happy to go towards it.

Performers need to be 'inviting'. Unfortunately they often feel safer well distanced from the audience. A beautiful example of faulty sensory appreciation.

The Holding Habit

When we have persuaded our musician students to look at their audience—or simply 'out' if there is no audience—then perhaps we should look for signs of 'grabbing' being used as a safety measure. It's very easy to hold on to an instrument too tightly because it feels safer that way, especially for a beginner. The holding habit may never go away, even when skill has grown very great, and thumbs especially may be shockingly contracted—and there is always more to thumbs than meets the eye. Where you can't grab your instrument, grabbing on to your legs is very popular—and sometimes even advocated by music teachers. Thumbs, legs,—and mouths. For wind and brass players, sometimes the arrangement of the lips is taught, even before the instrument is blown for the first time. Consequently, the 'embouchure' is regarded as very special and not available for change. The tension required will have a certain recognisable 'feel' to the player, which he or she will want to keep constant, and the tendency is of course for tension to be increased in order to maintain the same 'feel'. Lips can become astonishingly stiffened without their owners having any idea of this. And stiff legs, hands, and mouths will all reduce the flexibility of breathing.

Another Congress member, a flautist, let me persuade her to smile between phrases, which was quite hard. The smile really had to have priority, even over breathing, and even when there didn't seem to be time for either—"smile instead of breathing". If this can be achieved it may be a revelation to the performer, because it shows that the embouchure, once abandoned, can be reassembled in the twinkling of an eye, thus guarding against the build up of tension, and it will free up breathing, and instantly render the performer more inviting to the audience. Our player was a winner.


After directing her own Alexander Teacher Training Course, for musicians only, at Trinity College, Melbourne, Vivien has returned to London and resumed her work with musicians, privately and in conjunction with teachers in the U.K. and abroad.

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