Sunday, February 7, 2010

Untying the Knots

Singing, Running, and Aging

The few short years which arrived so rapidly after reaching fifty, had me believing that I was finally catching up to that thing which, all of my life, I had been told to act– my age. And when you do start to be "your age," then each year you begin to notice that you are slightly older still. But despite the fact that "aging" is only the third mentioned aspect in the title of this essay, it is rapidly becoming the one which guides the progress of the other two.

Aging tends to diminish the flexibility in the cartilage of the voice box and in all the bones of the body. But some people can maintain youthful sounding voices into their eighties or nineties, while others start to sound older by forty or fifty. Equally, I have known people who remained athletic until far older than I am now, whereas others became stiff and tired and unable to jump and run whilst still relatively young.

So there I was, past my half century mark, and it looked like I was on my way down. I was starting to lose much of my athletic ability, I was running less and less, my workout schedules had become farther and farther apart, and to crown it all I couldn't sing my old songs anymore because they were too high. Worse than that, my attempts to continue singing those high notes led to a painful sensation in my throat, not only when I was singing, but also when I was speaking under normal conditions. It was making it impossible to perform my music, and uncomfortable to simply communicate verbally. Fortunately for me, I married a younger woman who, through her faith in me and through the example of her own strength of will, convinced me that I shouldn't allow this belief in my own old age to sabotage these years which could, if I so desired, become my strongest ones yet.

It occurred to me, that perhaps, somewhere along the line, I had had a hand in my own deterioration, and that possibly this loss that I was experiencing was not at all inevitable. Maybe I was getting weaker because I simply wasn't working out as much, or in the right way. Perhaps my voice troubles were a result of some bad practice that I had picked up, and that in both cases there was some technique that I had understood when I was younger, but had now forgotten.

But how could it be, I wondered, that there was something that I had understood before, but couldn't now. Yes, as we get older we tend to get lazier... we have less to prove, we are less and less locked within the "drama of the gifted child"– but I could not accept that we become less intelligent. The one thing that age has going for it, surely, is wisdom, isn't it? Well, I decided to use that hard earned wisdom to remind myself that now might be a good time to seek help for what I could not figure out on my own.

About a year ago I found a voice coach and, at the same time, started running and working out on a more regular basis. This process has not yet gotten me back to the point that I am seeking, but I can say, in all honesty, that today I am a younger man than I was a year ago, and my goal within the next year is to continue to travel a significant distance in the direction of my youth. As I have been diligently following these two simultaneous paths of voice and movement, I have reminded myself of something that I knew years ago but had, for a while, forgotten: that singing and running are like two sides of the same coin. They are metaphors for each other in a myriad of ways, and the similarities which they possess are the clues to their function and usage.

The first and most obvious similarity, of course, is breathing. Both activities require the correct use of diaphragmatic breathing.

The term diaphragmatic breathing comes, obviously, from the diaphragm, which is a membrane located above the stomach and below the lungs. It pops upward when you breathe out, and downward when you breathe in to allow the bottom of the lungs to fill with air. In order for it to do that, we must get the belly out of the way by distending it. I have had several Yoga instructors tell me to breathe into the stomach. And though it may feel like you are doing that, actually you are simply allowing the diaphragm to move out of the way of the bottom of the lungs so that they can fill completely. The lungs do not go down any lower than the rib cage does– but go ahead, breathe into the "stomach" for that is indeed what it feels like; the old military style breathing up into the chest, which we were all taught in phys ed as children, doesn't really achieve much in the way of getting more air into the lungs, but if you can learn to expand the ribcage outward and toward the back, that will help.

We don't want to constrict the belly by making the upper stomach muscles too rigid. Don't worry about that perfect flat belly, efficient breathing requires a little roundness to the belly, and therefore so does running… and singing. But we do need to support our posture by using the lower stomach muscles. Now, It can be difficult to isolate the lower muscles of the stomach from the uppers, but by tilting the pelvis forward we can start to feel where the lowers are working. Most people know how to do this when dancing or having sex. Some American males are not used to this movement…they see it as effeminate. In other parts of the world, Brazil for example, it is considered very macho. I say, it's just a body movement, get over it!

Another way to get familiar with these muscles is to clench the sphincter or the glutes (the ass muscles). But having said all of this, I'd suggest you do not concentrate too hard on the details of which muscles you are using, it is more about "feeling" like you are breathing fully and comfortably in a way that is supported by your center.

I often find myself getting too caught up in the technical details of what I'm doing, and when that happens I lose my spontaneity. For both singing and running it is important to feel strength and support coming from that pelvic/lower stomach area, from the glutes and even the upper thighs. I have heard voice teachers tell students to sing "from the balls." I can only assume that what they meant was the same thing that I am talking about. So with the hope that women reading this will not take my masculine metaphor too literally I shall advise runners to also "run from the balls."

Now again, these are not fixed positions we are talking about– in fact the complete opposite is true. In both singing and running we need strength and flexibility. We don't want to be locked into either state, but maintain the ability to move from one position to the other easily and naturally. Both disciplines benefit from our ability to suspend judgment of the outcome and instead concentrate more on our process. If we do it right, the speed will come, the high notes will come… do not push.

But what does "push" mean?

When we are "pushing" we are not doing too much of the right thing, we are actually doing the wrong thing. We are using muscles that don't really do anything, and sometimes actually block the movement of the muscles we need for the activity in which we are involved. This is why relaxation is so important. To quote the Hippocratic oath, "first do no harm." The relaxed body is more likely to be able to isolate the muscles it needs for a specific purpose and not get them all tangled up with other muscles which just get in the way.

When singing or when running in a healthy way, we will not feel harshness associated with the process. We will feel buoyant and pain free, controlled but flexible. My present voice teacher, W. Stephen Smith, describes correct voice control as feeling like a ping-pong ball spinning in place on a current of air at the back of the throat. It is that effortless, it feels like… nothing. Well, maybe not completely nothing, there is a sensation, but a very pleasant one. Smooth and slippery. More like a sophisticated Mercedes hydraulic suspension than the leaf springs on a Jeep.

Which, again, is the perfect metaphor for running– shock absorbers. If you can hear your feet slamming into the sidewalk with every step, then you are hurting yourself. But if you feel like you are in the center of a wheel which is just rolling down the street, you can hardly hear your own footsteps and running becomes a pleasure.

By using the heel and toe method this pleasurable process can be achieved. First learn to walk by placing your heel on the ground and rolling the foot toward the front, as if it were a small arc of a large circle, and then push off with the toe. Now, once you are walking this way simply speed up maintaining the same process, and as you get faster you will find that you are running. Remember to be centered in that pelvic area. Remember to allow the pelvis to "rotate" in a fluid way. Use the thigh muscles to control your movements and place the feet where you want them. Allow the body to dip just slightly by bending the knee as each leg takes up the weight of the body– just like the suspension on your car. Do not fling your body through the air, your weight should be balanced and capable of changing direction easily if necessary. With each step there is a tightening and relaxation of the muscles in opposition to each other. Nothing is only relaxed. Nothing is only tensed.

Do not change this technique as you speed up, let your breathing take you to the next level– not your body posture. And just as importantly, do not change your technique as you slow down. When we get tired we need to slow down, and because running slowly is easier than running fast we tend to let our technique get sloppy as we decelerate.

Similarly in singing, find the lightest and least pressured way to sing low, and then move up the scale using the same technique. It should feel just as easy to sing high as it does to sing low if you allow the breathing to get you up there and not the contortion of the lower tongue muscles. And again, when coming down don't get sloppy just because it's easier down there. If you get stuck in a bad technique down low you won't be able to get high again.

Of course, with both singing and running, ultimately you are not thinking technique whilst you are involved in the process. Although at first we do need to learn these things slowly because they do seem incredibly unnatural at first. It is simply not the way we have been used to doing them. When I do my vocal exercises each day I often feel like Helen Keller learning how to talk. I don't want anyone to hear me or see me in my agonizing frustratedly over correct process. But somehow in the previous five years or so I have "trained" myself to force certain tongue muscles to do the most painful things when I sing and talk, and like some victim of childhood abuse, my primal mind seeks that self abuse because it cannot imagine a pain free existence.

What we need then, is to find that comfortable feeling, which is the correct posture for our activity, to which we can go immediately without thinking about it, which will be our voice… our stride.

As far as aging goes: ditto all of the above. Let's face it, these metaphors don't just apply to singing and running, but to every aspect of life. We need to know the correct techniques for doing things, but then we need to get out of our heads and just do them– we need to be in the moment. All the old clich├ęs are true… life is what you make of it no matter how long you keep on living, be here now. Youth and age are not separated by a line but are connected by merging into one another. We are neither old nor young, we are neither strong nor weak, we are neither good nor bad, but all those things rolled into one. Try to see yourself as you really are, and without judgment. Just keep on living no matter what, and keep on receiving the fruits that life has to offer because there is no time– future or past– like the present.