During the Explorations in Singing workshop held at Marywood University earlier this summer, master singing teacher Thomas Houser made the following statement about one of his colleagues teaching at the workshop: “I have learned as much about singing from her as I have from any singing teacher.” He was referring not to a singing teacher but to Joan Pfitzenmaier, a practitioner of the Feldenkrais Method® of Somatic Education, who has a private practice in Manhattan.
For the last eight years Joan has been teaching a group Awareness Through Movement® lesson each day of the five-day program. Many participants say it is one of the main reasons they come back year after year. Joan teaches regular Awareness Through Movement lessons, rather than lessons specially designed for singers. She doesn’t have the students do vocalization as part of the lessons, although she does ask them to pair up before and after the lessons to observe each other, listen to each other speak or read a short poem, and observe changes in the quality of the sound.
The lessons vary from those that emphasize small, gentle movements, to those that develop an easy ability to move through space. They provide an experience that complements the vocal instruction offered by the voice teachers. As I observed the workshop and spoke with students and teachers this past July, I saw how this method can provide invaluable insights for both singers and instrumentalists.
At the workshop I observed Joan told her students, all of them singers and many of them singing teachers, that she is not a singer and would not dream of telling a singer how to sing. She explained that the lesson is designed to allow students to experience themselves in a new way, and increase their range of options. It is then up to the students to make use of their experience in the lesson and apply it to their singing.
Lessons are designed to help the students feel their bones, what she referred to as their “internal architecture.” This helps them find more efficient ways of organizing themselves by guiding them to learn to recognize smaller and smaller differences in the comfort of performing actions in various ways, so that they can learn to recognize an easier way to do something, thereby spontaneously organizing themselves more effectively for action.
One student commented on how much more erect she felt when coming to stand at the end of a lesson. Joan pointed out that the new way of standing comes about not as a result of a decision made at the end of a lesson, but as a result of the reorganization that occurs throughout the lesson.
I spoke at length with MaryBeth Smith, Coordinator of Voice and Opera at Southwest Texas State University, who conducted a master class each evening dealing with interpretation, about the value of the Feldenkrais Method for singers. She told me that she had come to the workshop after a six-month period of severely restricted voice use, necessitated by a medical condition, and had been feeling very rusty. “The Feldenkrais sessions left my voice feeling fresh and supple from the first day. I had let go of much of the tension that accompanies the fear of hurting oneself.”
DISCOVERING AND ALTERING INGRAINED HABITS
She described her experience in the lessons. “As we began on the first day, Joan had us notice several things about ourselves. We interlaced our fingers in our habitual way. Then she asked us to interlace them the opposite way and observe the sensations and our reactions to it. She also asked us to walk forwards, then backwards, observing which foot was our habitual one for stepping off. She asked us to try it the other way and notice how it felt.
“Just these simple tasks made me realize that I have many habits I’m not even aware of, which are powerfully ingrained! I also realized that the world doesn’t end if I do something a different way. Quite the contrary, more possibilities open up.”
As Joan encouraged the students to alter their routines in many small ways, MaryBeth said, they became more aware of themselves, their reactions to change, and their experiments with new choices. “I felt as though everything in my life was open for negotiation, that I had the power and permission to change anything I wanted to, and that it didn’t need to be a big deal.”
“During one lesson I became a little teary-eyed. We were releasing our shoulders and upper back by giving ourselves a hug. For some reason, that was a very powerful and emotional metaphor for me. At the end of then next day’s session, as I was able to gradually increase my mobility and lightness of movement, I actually felt joyful. I believe that the gentleness, minimalism, and repetitiveness of the movements all contribute to a meditative quality of the experience.”
The students found partners to serve as witnesses for each other for the remainder of the week. They observed each other for a few moments, and then gently touched their partners to assess body tension, balance, and stability. “My partner was initially very stiff. She responded to my promptings jerkily and seemed to be very worried about losing her balance,” MaryBeth said. Another part of the initial assessment involved pretending that they were about to sing. “My partner drew herself up to her full height, stiffened up, and stopped breathing! This was a fascinating insight for both of us.” But, as the week progressed, “I observed my partner’s face become softer and more cheerful. She was standing taller and seemed less stressed and pressured. Her balance and stability improved.”
MaryBeth told me that she is now “much more aware of awareness, in myself and in the student standing before me. I’m planning to use my newly-learned way of observing body use in my voice lessons…I will definitely incorporate more and more Feldenkrais techniques into my teaching as I continue to learn more about it.”
FREEDOM FOR INDIVIDUAL INTERPRETATION
I asked her what aspects of the Feldenkrais pedagogy stand out as distinct from that of other teachers. “Although the instruction was very specific, there was always the freedom for individual interpretation. Each person had to figure out how to implement the instructions in the way best for him…All of this is in direct contrast to most of the teaching of voice which I experienced during my student days, and which I know still goes on. The teacher may give very rigid, specific instructions and insist that it be done exactly so. The withdrawal of the teacher’s emotional support is the penalty for the student’s inability to follow directions or achieve. On the other hand, a teacher may not give any specific directions at all, yet brutally evaluate the student’s product if it does not meet the teacher’s expectation, which can change daily.
“The Feldenkrais teacher rarely corrects a student, and then only in an extreme situation where the teacher can see the student is totally on the wrong track, and then, very gently and without judgment or condemnation. I find this form of teaching to be extremely respectful of the student’s ability to teach himself. The instructor is truly a guide and facilitator for the process.”
MaryBeth considers the Feldenkrais Method to be “a means-whereby instead of an end in itself. This perspective is important in and of itself, for anyone pursuing any art. Also, from a physical and technical standpoint, the Feldenkrais Method seems to teach a deeper understanding of the body as one’s instrument to play life as well as to sing.”
“It’s hard for a student to change a technical approach because they are so habituated to doing it one way that they aren’t even aware of what they are doing. I’m also describing myself at times! Any tool that can give students a key to unlocking this frustration should be welcomed. For many singers, myself included, perfectionism is an issue associated with a great deal of struggle,” she said. “The environment of the Feldenkrais lessons make perfectionism irrelevant. There’s no way to fail, and success is individually defined. In letting go of perfectionism, one can enjoy one’s life and the other people in it. Letting go of perfectionism opens up possibilities for true art (and life) to happen.”
John Link, a certified practitioner of the Feldenkrais Method®, has a private practice in Manhattan and teaches classes at the Manhattan Plaza Health Club. His clientele includes people of varying ages and conditions. A singer and guitarist, he specializes in working with singers, instrumentalists and other performing artists. He may be reached at (212) 463-7102 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Monday, Sept. 18, he will present an introduction to the Feldenkrais Method at the monthly MAP networking meeting. For details, call (212) 397-4802.