Tips4Pupils – Respiration & Voice

How will the Alexander Technique help me with respiration?

In two ways:

  1. by having generally better “use” – that is to say, carrying less unnecessary tension and having the proper support in the body – the respiratory system will not have to work so hard to move air in and out of the body;
  2. by learning how to leave your breathing mechanisms alone, you will not be interfering with what Nature does very well.

What are the mechanisms involved in breathing?

Briefly, the brain receives information about carbon dioxide levels in the blood. When they are too high it responds by sending a message directly to the diaphragm which in turn contracts downwards and outwards from its dome-shaped resting position while the ribs move side-ways and upwards. This brings about a considerable increase in the volume of the thorax. The internal air pressure is thereby reduced and atmospheric pressure pushes air into the lungs. The diaphragm then begins to relax and come back up inside the rib-cage, which closes around it, into a dome-shape, aided by the internal organs and abdominal wall which – having been pushed respectively down and out during inspiration – are exerting pressure. The resultant decrease in the volume of the thorax puts the air in the lungs under increased pressure (higher than atmospheric pressure) and it therefore passes out through the wind-pipe (i.e. is exhaled).

The most important aspect of this from the point of view of respiratory re-education is that the movement of air in and out of the lungs, when not interfered with, is a passive consequence of work done primarily by the diaphragm – not under voluntary control. It is when we either interfere with the voluntary muscles (either consciously or unconsciously), or are more or less permanently in a state of rigidity or collapse that things go wrong. Therefore any effort made to make air come in or out of the lungs is counter-productive. To learn to breathe well is to learn how to get out of the way. Alexander work is a very effective way to bring this about.

How will the Alexander Technique help me with voice?

Natural breathing, as described above, is the foundation for any work with voice. In order to produce sound, the vocal chords squeeze together and provide a resistance to the air being pushed out of the lungs by the increase in air pressure caused by the diaphragm and rib-cage. When this is done without any unnecessary interference from voluntary muscles, the voice has a particular resonance which can be recognised. The most common faults in voice production (or playing a wind-instrument) are:

  • accessory breathing mechanisms are used to pull air into the upper chest. This mechanism (used, for example, when panting) allows for a rapid exchange of air for emergency purposes. However, since the lungs are more or less pyramid shaped they very soon feel full if the air is coming into the top part first. This is the most common reason why singers and public speakers find they feel puffed up with air and yet cannot finish a phrase.
  • the abdominal muscles are used to try to force air into the base of the lungs. The effect of this is to weaken those muscles, cause flaccidity in the intestines, weaken the diaphragm (whose work is being done by the wrong body-part), and bring about a rigidity in the rib-cage, which is denied its chance to expand and contract with respiration.
  • excess tension is used in the throat region to try to control the rate at which air is expelled.

Though there can be exceptions and special circumstances, re-education of the vocal mechanism is best done in the following sequence:

  1. work on improving general functioning
  2. work on rediscovering natural breathing
  3. work on producing simple sounds (whispered vowels) without interference
  4. speech
  5. song

© 1994 John S Hunter

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