The Vault

Monkeying Around With Your Voice

Jane R. Heirich


This workshop was taught twice and, while each of the sessions was slightly different from the other, the general concepts and games were similar.

From Early Writings of F. Matthias Alexander (ed. Alex Murray), p.11, comes an excerpt from FM's "Letter to The Medical Press and Circular", Jan. 12, 1906:

...voice production from the earliest age with proper control of the respiratory mechanism is one of the best possible things, and anyone trained to use correctly the true motive power in voice production, could not injure the heart and would be in the same position as children reared in the Colonies, where, from early age, they live mostly in the open air and shout and sing from morn till night. It is undoubtedly for this reason that Australia can supply so many fine singers and still retains many superior to those on this side of the world.

Perhaps this is still true. Let us find out.

There are many different monkeys in the world—so too with Alexander monkeys'. There are several principles common to variants of this "position of mechanical advantage". The Alexander 'monkey' is a dynamic position, not a static posture; and the following eight points may be observed when working with any of a variety of ways of being a 'monkey'.

1) There will be a lengthening of all of the powerful extensor muscles from the feet to the base of the skull—these are the supportive standing muscles.

2) The head will be released up off the top of the spine, away from the tail-bone, in fact all the way from the feet.

3) There will be a general lengthening or extension of the spine, hence of the entire back, led of course by the head.

4) The hips will be released away from the head for a two-way stretch.

5) There will be a lengthening up the front of the torso from the pubic bone to the collarbone, which complements the extension of the back—we can sense this coming up and out of the lower back as we become aware of the frontal lengthening up from the pubic bone.

6) We will release the knees—i.e. not to lock them—away from hip joints, without any need to bend them or lower ourselves in space until we choose to do so.

7) This allows us then to direct the hips up and back and out of the knees, in order to keep the weight of the torso from dropping down into the legs and knees—i.e. the torso is lightened up off the thigh bone. The primary advantage of directing the hips up and out of the knees is that it becomes possible to use 'monkey' as a working position, without the legs giving out. How much the knees are bent becomes less crucial—it is a matter of direction up, not down. The teeter-totter/see-saw image becomes a useful one here: we balance the head and hips as on an invisible fulcrum, with the knees free, and various degrees of bend at the hip, knee and ankle joints.

8) The knees are released forward over the toes, somewhat lowering the whole system in space; knees are moving away from each other, and of course also away from the hip joints.

Advantages of Using the 'Monkey with Voice Work

There are at at least four special advantages of working with the 'monkey' for vocal use, whether speaking or singing—singing uses the same vocal mechanism as speech, with only two differences: a longer duration of vowel sound, and use of a wider range of frequencies. They are:

1) The larynx—commonly called the 'voice box' and housing the vocal cords—can begin to experience hanging freely because gravity assists here. The student/singer has an opportunity to experience non-interference with a natural freely-hanging suspension of the larynx in the throat. The larynx is actually hanging from the hyoid bone, which itself is suspended from the skull.

2) The lower jaw may begin to experience what it feels like to hang from the skull, as it is designed to do. One must stop seizing-up the jaw at the temporo-mandibular joint, however, before this hanging freedom can be sensed. A free lower jaw is essential for healthy vocal use, whether speech or song—because all vocal mechanism structures are intricately inter-connected, and fixation of any part affects the function of the whole.

3) Freeing up of the ribcage is more likely to happen in this position than in any other, especially if we use a chair in front, as do the games below.

4) A fourth advantage has more limited use. The 'monkey' can be used to teach direction of vocal sound—as well as of the head—in a variety of postures in relation to vertical/horizontal axes; for opera singers need to produce from some amazing positions.

Voice Games Utilising the Alexander 'Monkey'

The following games were used while making a variety of sounds: speaking a line of poetry, singing a sustained vowel or a simple vocalisation, hissing, using the whispered "Ah", any or all of these interchangeably. Credit for these concepts and procedures goes, of course, to FM himself, communicated to me via Joan and Alex Murray. As all workshop participants were either teachers or students in training, we worked as partners for all of these games, alternating roles of pupil and teacher/observer.

1) Shallow monkey: i.e. the pupil's back is at a very slight incline from vertical. We worked with the concept of direction while putting each other into a variety of 'monkeys', making sound when in the 'monkey', and observing the returning breath as a rebound rather than as a deliberate taking in of the breath.

2) A deeper monkey: i.e. the pupil's back is at a more severely inclined angle from vertical. Here we began to put hands on the back of a stationary chair in front, using the directives of "a gentle forearm pull", "a pull to the elbows", "elbows out and down", "a widening of the upper arms", "elbows away from each other", or "pulling the top rail of the chair apart". All of these directions are found either in FM's writings—Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, (CCCI) "Illustration"—or in the verbal tradition; and they mean virtually the same thing. (In all of the games, we used variants of hands on the back of the chair: thumbs opposing fingers, which are flat on the front of the chair rail as in the "Illustration" chapter of CCCI; or hands on the chair rail in front, fingers flat on the front of the rail, and with the thumbs at right angle to the fingers.) The specific task of this game was to make sound with the gentle pull to the elbows (i.e. on the exhale), allowing the breath to come back in of its own accord when the pull is released. We noticed considerable natural ribcage movement when working in this way—i.e. a 'monkey' with hands on the back of the chair, making sound co-ordinated with the pull to the elbows. We reminded ourselves that thinking any of these verbal directions is at least as useful a trying to do the directions.

3) Changing monkey: i.e. moving from a shallow to an ever-deepening 'monkey', which becomes a kind of a squat. We put the backs of our hands on the top of the stationary chair rail in front, fingertips in toward each other with elbows directed away from each other. We can come into a deeper monkey, almost touching the chest to the palms, all the while thinking "back and up and away from the hands" in order not to drop our weight down onto the hands. As we make sound in this deep monkey, the larynx and lower jaw have a wonderful opportunity to hang freely; and the ribcage has the opportunity quite literally to hang from the spine, which can be in a nearly horizontal position (depending on the height of the chair and the structure of the pupil). There are some additional and continuing games within the deepening monkey: when the chest almost touches the hands, the teacher/observer can turn the front chair around so that the backs of the pupil's hands shift to the chair seat, while continuing to direct the elbows out and away from each other. Again we think "back and up and away from the hands" in order not to drop our weight down onto the hands. Singing in this position is often remarkable for classically trained singers; the unfamiliar freedom is usually startling, for the habitual 'support' mechanism is less likely to come into play. The pupil does not "sit down" as such, but may wind up seated in a chair if there is one behind.

4) Shifting monkey with moving chair: i.e. the pupil moves from shallow to deeply squatting monkey while tilting the front chair away from the self and pulling the Front chair back towards the self. In this game, the timing needs to be individual, and some pupils will work happily simply tilting the chair away and bringing it back to the starting position; while another pupil will prefer to bring the chair toward the self and then tip it back to the starting position. The adventurous and highly co-ordinated will enjoy tilting the chair away from the self then bringing it all the way back toward the self—moving continuously through the starting position. The directions are the same whichever of these three patterns of movement is chosen: one makes sound as the chair is pulled toward oneself ("a gentle forearm pull", "pull to the elbows", "elbows out and down" etc.) and allows the breath to enter reflexively as the chair is tilted away from oneself. Why? Not only is the larynx potentially hanging freely along with the lower jaw; not only is the ribcage invited to be free from rigidity; but many of the counter-productive habitual manoeuvres of trained/untrained vocal use are out of the way. Some of these detrimental habits are: excess abdominal work for sustaining sound or for 'projecting' to the back row; the ribcage consciously held up and out when singing; stiffened neck muscles that often accompany speech and singing; always "singing on a full breath", whatever the task; or gasping the breath in before making any kind of sound.

5) A deeper squat: i.e. tilting front chair farther forward. If we keep the torso's weight up and out of the knees for most of this procedure, and only bend the knees when the hamstring muscles insist, this deep 'monkey' allows one to come up out of the hips and knees, especially if there is no chair on which to sit. Making sound with this one can be at one's own timing because there is no 'pull' involved with this one; but allowing the breath to return is just as important as when it was co-ordinated with releasing the 'pull' and tipping the chair away.

6) Working with a ledge, table etc: Going into a shallow 'monkey' and using the hands and arms on an Alexander table is a nice substitute for Alexander floor work with pregnant women. However, we all can benefit:

i) put the backs of hands on the table, fingertips toward each other, widen to the elbows, and at our own pace, we make sound in the 'monkey' position, allowing the larynx and lower jaw to hang freely, and allowing time for the breath to return reflexively. This is a nice position in which to consciously direct head, hips, elbows, knees and fingertips while singing a song, one phrase at a time.

ii) We can also continue the "pull-to-the-elbows" work from the chair games: go into a 'monkey', reach out forward (palms down) with hands and arms, and gently "pull" to the elbows—remember "elbows out and down" etc. Coordinate the exhale/sound-making with this 'pulling' of oneself across the table, and allow the breath to rebound when the 'pull' is released. Reach out again and repeat the 'pull', while singing/speaking. Remember that the "gentle forearm pull" is teaching direction, and it is more of a thought than a doing. We can move from a shallow to a deeper monkey with either of the above procedures.

In the Sydney workshops, we took time during and between games to come up out of our 'monkeys'—walking, squatting, doing a brief lie down—because, until one's back is really strong, continuous 'monkeys' are tiring. We all know, however, that working with 'monkey' through various procedures and activities is an obvious way to bring about co-ordinated back strength. Hence we are working with basic Alexander principles when we coordinate making spoken or sung sound with the magnificent Alexander 'monkey'—a position of advantage for vocal and systemic re-education.


Jane Heir was granted certification as an Alexander Technique teacher in December 1987, having studied with Joan and Alex Murray in Urbana, USA.. She holds a B.A. in Music from Harvard University and has been a lecturer in Music at the Residential College of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, since 1972. Her work as a choral conductor led to the study of vocal pedagogy, which in turn led to a personal study of the anatomy and physiology of vocal acoustics. Her particular interest is in the whole mind/body system and its effect on the voice. Her class and studio voice text, which treats the voice as an acoustic instrument within the context of Alexander work, is available from the author.

Ms Heirich works privately as well as teaching at the University, where she runs a basic voice technique class for singers and actors. Since first visiting Sydney for the 1994 Alexander Congress, she returned in May 1995 for the for the 3rd Australian Voice Symposium, where she presented a paper on "Fundamental Teaching Units of Vocal Pedagogy" together with a Master class on the Alexander work.

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