This is the first of a three part series of articles related to the use of somatic principles in freeing the body in order to sing (and play) at its optimal level.
As musicians, we expect our bodies to use finely-tuned coordination to achieve optimal performance: performance that we expect to be excellent every time. Your technique may be very consistent; maybe even flawless. But, do you ever get the sense that there is something just a little “off” or maybe the flow of performance isn’t as free as you would like? Perhaps you have to “work hard” to make your technique work for you. If you also happen to suffer from performance anxiety, all of these sensations can be exaggerated. “Performance anxiety” isn’t just a psychological event, it’s a physical event happening inside of you! The physical patterns are the same patterns in hard-wired reflexes (more on this in a bit) and these patterns can include your abdominals tightening, your shoulders hunching and your back contracting. These reflexes create chronic muscle tensions (and let’s face it, who doesn’t have some) and these tensions can creep into your ability to have the most optimal technique possible. If you are not performing, but teach performers, this is valuable information which may help your understanding of your student’s individual progress.
Imagine the scenario of a voice student being told that the only way for her technique to be at its best is to have proper posture, proper release of the jaw, proper use of breath and no tension in the face/neck/shoulders. This singer, though, walks through the door for each lesson with a sunken chest, tight abdominals and tucked pelvis. There is a demeanor and emotional makeup that goes along with this posture as I’m sure you have witnessed before.
The singer is asked to stand a particular way and while she may be able to “put” this posture upon herself and use it for the 15-30 minutes, it’s not going to stick and stay with her. In fact, it’s going to be exhausting for her because her slumped posture, with shoulders hunched and belly contracted, is more “normal” for her brain than to stand with a straight, relaxed spine and relaxed diaphragm. It will take a lot of energy and tension to stand “the right way” because her brain is holding her muscles in a state of constant, involuntary tension due to the stresses of her life. She will most likely know that she doesn’t have the best posture and while she wants very much to fix it, she just can’t. It is very frustrating for her; and frankly for you, the teacher. Once she learns to release this tension in the center of her body, she will be able to sense the most optimal posture for singing.
If the student is told to start taking yoga (and don’t get me wrong, I love yoga), then she might find some improvement but she will always be approaching her yoga through her habituated brain patterns that are currently hard-wired. Our brain teaches our muscles how to contract due to stress and this becomes unconscious. It has nothing to do with singing and is exacerbated by performance anxiety. Therefore, the student may be enjoying her yoga but the postures she is trying on her body won’t be able to hold and it certainly won’t undo her habituated brain patterns. She might go to a chiropractor if she’s been complaining of pain, and the practitioner will correct and correct and correct but the body won’t be able to sustain it for very long. Massage feels great but the results don’t last.
You get the idea. These temporary fixes are just that: temporary!
What if I were to tell you that there is a scientific reason behind what is going on? Truth be told, these patterns are showing up in your everyday life, apart from your instrument. These chronic tensions are with you all the time. You may not know it until you start to use your body as a musician. You know that you have this sense that moving freely throughout the day isn’t really in your repertoire. If you are an older adult with years of these feelings, there will no doubt be parts of yourself with which you have lost the ability to truly connect.
In Somatic Education, your brain can be re-trained (re-patterned, if you will) to connect to your muscles more intentionally in order to release these areas of chronic muscle tension. You can learn not only to release those tensions through a technique called pandiculation (which I’ll explain later on) but will also be able to find more tools to help you realize your most optimal performance.
Somatic Education, and in particular, the practice of Essential Somatics (based on the teachings of Thomas Hanna and Moshe Feldenkrais) will address all issues for EVERY HUMAN, not just the musician. Thomas Hanna (1928-1990) defined “somatics” as ”the field of study dealing with somatic phenomena, i.e, the human being as experienced by himself (or herself) from the inside.” You may have heard of other somatic practices of Alexander Technique (created by F. Mathias Alexander 1869-1955) and Moshe Feldenkrais (1904-1984) with whom Thomas Hanna studied.
What is Somatic Education and more importantly, what is a soma? A soma is a system in which patterns are primary. Hanna simply stated: “a Soma is the body as experienced from within.” It is experienced in the first person.
Function Maintains Structure
Hanna believes that our muscles can learn to be chronically tight (and, in turn, painful) through daily stresses, injuries, surgeries and our responses to stress reflexes. These stress reflexes are “full-body reflexive patterns that people adopt in response to stress.” If the muscles stay habitually in this reflexive response, the brain can start to lose the ability to sense anything other than that habituated muscle tension. Hanna referred to this as sensory-motor amnesia (SMA). SMA is quite simply the brain losing the sensation of the muscles and how to release them. SMA also shows up as jittering, jerky, uncontrolled movements. In fact, as you continue to explore in different movement patterns, there may be some movements that are seemingly undoable because your brain may not understand how to organize them. If that happens, take things even more slowly to try to regain function.
We’re all faced with stresses and if we can recognize how the stress reflexes affect function, we can change how we respond to them.
Three Stress Reflexes
Hanna observed that there are three reflexes in the sensory motor system patterned quite specifically in the body. They are reflexive in nature because they have to respond quickly to situations as they arise. In Martha Peterson’s book, Move Without Pain, she beautifully describes and shows the function of each reflex.
The “Green Light” Reflex (Landau reflex): This reflex has been described as the “go, go, go” reflex. It’s the reflex that calls the body to action. Give it a try! (don’t be afraid to exaggerate)
Stand with a posture that you feel is overly straight. Pull the shoulders down and back. In fact, pull the shoulder blades down towards the spine, the neck is tight, maybe the chin is tucked, the buttocks is tight (maybe clenched), chest is high, the back is arched and the pelvis is tilted down and forward. Hold it! Now try and breathe. Try to take a few steps this way. Maybe your knees feel little locked.
The “Red Light” Reflex (Startle reflex): This is the opposite of the “green light” reflex. It is a “primitive and universal pattern common to all vertebrate animals that occurs in response to anxiety, apprehension, fear or any perceived threat.” The startle reflex is actually becoming more and more the posture you see today. Why? Give it a try!
Take your cell phone and place it in your hands in your texting position. Move your head forward and a bit down in front of your shoulders, round the front of your shoulders inward. Maybe you’re reading an alarming text, have your shoulders raise as they are rounding inward, sink your chest towards your pelvis, tighten your abdominals and tuck your tailbone under. Maybe your knees may bend and come towards each other. Hold it! Now breathe. Take a few steps. Do you recognize this position as also your computer position?
Remember our voice student in our scenario? She is exhibiting the same “red-light” pattern!
The “Trauma” Reflex: Now, be careful with this one. This reflex is tricky and if done with too much extreme, it might trigger a muscle contraction. This reflex is a reaction to injuries and accidents occurring on one side of the body.  Give it a try!
Raise one shoulder higher than the other. Allow the opposite side hip to also raise. Notice the contraction of the waist muscles as you try this. Now try to breathe and walk.
If you want to take this experiment a little further, you can try all of these stress reflexes with your instrument (standing or sitting) or while singing. Do you recognize yourself in any of these patterns? You can have your major pattern but also a combination of the others. Recognition is the key to unlocking the solutions.
Hanna states very clearly in his materials how to get maximum benefit from somatic exercises:
- Primary task is to focus your attention on the internal sensations of movement.
- Ideally, you should do your somatic movements while lying on a rug or mat, wearing loose clothing and being away from all distractions.
- Always move slowly.
- Always move gently and with the least possible effort.
- Do not force any movement.
- Somatic movements should not be painful.
Pandiculation versus Stretching
There’s another reflex worth mentioning and that is the stretch reflex. You’ve experienced this, I know. You try to stretch your hamstring and you can only go so far before your body recoils. It’s a built-in mechanism of protection. An already chronically tight muscle is not going to be fully released by stretching and if the muscle is chronically tight, the stretch reflex may be triggered pretty quickly. That is to say, an already chronically tight muscle is a muscle that the brain cannot sense nor control. The brain has FORGOTTEN how to relax the muscle so it must LEARN again. In order to teach that muscle what to do, the brain must receive new and novel feedback so it can learn to release and relax the muscle. Stretching does not re-educate the brain.
What to do instead? It’s actually a pretty great technique because all animals instinctually know how to do this. Just watch your dog or cat as they awaken from a nap and arch and curl, just once, and then they are ready to go. They’ll teach you. It’s called pandiculation! Pandiculation is the purposeful, voluntary contraction of a muscle with a yawn-like, super-slow release. This restores optimum sensory-motor control over the muscles involved in the stress reflexes of the central nervous system. This is how you regain optimum muscle length and function and feel more relaxed and present in your body.
Arch and Relaxation: Give it a try!
This is a core somatic movement from which other movements are built. Typically, a class is led by verbal instruction. Even though this particular video has the practitioner doing the movements along with you, I encourage you to try to only listen so you are not influenced to re-create what you see. It’s best to explore your initial movement patterns and use the verbal instruction to help you find your version. Allow the movement to be breath-driven and work from the center of your body. Enjoy!
I recently witnessed a group of non-musicians participate in a weekend long workshop and their transformations were incredible. Some of these participants had very extreme cases of immobility. One, who was absolutely hopeless when she walked in the door, noticed release in muscles that had been so very painful for her. Her tears were part of that release as she explained that this was a life-changing weekend for her. I came to this practice through injuries so I know that release and excitement of being able to regain control.
In my master classes and workshops, I have seen very immediate results. My voice studio students are being trained not only to use an optimal vocal technique but a technique that includes helping them through their own SMA patterns. I’m only as good as their ability to sense themselves: I cannot feel what they are feeling. I have a sense based on what I’m hearing and seeing, but that’s as far as I can go until they can feel it for themselves. I’m only seeing them as a 3rd person but their 1st person experience is what is important. Once that happens and we change the brain pattern around it, then with practice, it will be lasting.
Your somatic awareness coupled with good technique means that you “work smarter, not harder.” You may begin to feel more joy in your playing or singing and will feel back in control of your performance. This is not a quick-fix practice. As in music, deepening and bettering your techniques cannot be rushed. The learning never stops; and that’s the beauty of it!
In subsequent articles, I will go into more specifics about each reflex and what you can do to change your reaction to them. If you want some reading suggestions, please see the endnote citations! Or, visit Martha Peterson’s Learning Center. Singers as well as those needing to use breath for their instruments are immediately helped by this somatic practice.
How wonderful will you feel to gain back the control you feel you might have lost?
 Thomas Hanna, Somatics: Reawakening the Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility, and Health (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1988), 39.
 Martha Peterson, Move Without Pain (New York, NY: Sterling Publishing, 2011), 13.
 Ibid., 7.
 Ibid., 15, 16.
 Ibid., 17.
Dr. Cristina Castaldi is an Assistant Professor of Voice at Wichita State University. She is certified as a Level 1 Essential Somatic Movement Teacher and is passionate about this work, empowering her students both in and out of the studio. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.