The alchemy of the hands - part 1
"In every culture and in every medical tradition before ours, healing was accomplished by moving energy” – Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, Nobel Prize Winner
Singers cannot see their instrument. These days we see some images flipping through social media showing live MRIs of the vocal apparatus, lifting the veil on before unseen processes of the singing voice. It’s quite magical. But on a daily basis, singers do not have access to this kind of technology and most of them hardly know what their instruments look like, and can only imagine what is going on inside their throats, even when they do know some anatomy. This is why there is usage of so much imagery and metaphors in vocal technique. Some of these can get quite creative and over the top! I personally love to use them (I might get to these on a different post).
This article, though, is about how hands can aid in vocal technique. I find that the use of the hands in certain ways can assist in achieving certain goals during a voice lesson. They can also reveal to the teacher how the student “is” in their body (and consequently their voice).
In yogic technique and in the yoga that I practice (Naam Yoga) there is an extensive use of mudras (hand seals). Each gesture that we make is a projection of our consciousness. All the meridians, paths of energy in the body, have touch points at the finger tips and by activating the hands in certain ways we are making changes in these paths of energy that fuel our body, thus changing it.
Let’s look at the alchemy of the hands: they are an extension of the heart. They lie on the astral plane which is connected to our emotions. This plane is also associated with the element of air, which, if you think about it, is the carrier of sound waves. Hence, we can start seeing how connected the hands are to the voice. We can also create with our hands, as we can create with our voice!
Following are just 3 examples of hand movements that I often use.
Beginner students have a hard time, for a while, in pivoting their larynx – producing sound without constricting or elevating their larynx. This is very typical and normal in beginners (some long time singers never really learn how to do this). Pivoting is crucial since it’s the correct way to full adduction of the vocal cords and access to more harmonics. I usually tell my students to press on their chests with their hands while contradicting that movement by lifting the chest at the same time. This usually works like magic. I call it the “chest-hand opposition for pivoting”. I believe it just helps to use the sterno-thyroid depressor which is the main muscle that aids the larynx in staying in a neutral position. The touch of the hands can energize parts of our body. That movement, so simple, I also believe is comforting, relaxing and grounding. The voice is IN the body, everywhere, so that grounding helps to make the voice full, as it should be.
Another movement that helps a lot in grounding the larynx while singing higher pitches as well as help the voice flow freely, I learned from a great singer Katalin Halmai when I was in Hungary. As you reach for the pitch, dive one hand in front of you and right away in a trampoline-like movement throw the hand above your head in a circular motion. Another simple gesture that is so helpful.
Finally, in different students, I will see “the claw” coming out. The student will clench the hand vigorously (usually it happens only in one hand) while producing a certain sound or singing through a certain passage, or sometimes throughout the whole lesson... When I see that, and depending on each student’s idiosyncrasies, I usually tell them to move the hands in a certain way (since often just telling them to release the hand has a very short effect – “doing” is often easier then “stop doing”). In the case of one particular student, his body gets so tense trying to put together all the information that the tense hands are a reflex of that. And by releasing the hand in a certain constructive movement he informs the brain of a different message – working the other way around. In this particular case I tell the student to shake his hand graciously and continuously while singing. It is mesmerizing the difference it makes in the sound. One such simple thing! Then we can change the movement one more time, like for example, conduct the notes as if he were a maestro; this will bring about a different musicality and empowerment to the singer.
Sometimes just the idea of movement unlocks the body and/or distracts the brain. On an alchemic level, it can also move the energy through the meridians affecting all parts of the body, including the voice. Singing is about moving air (well, and many other things), thus blockages in the body will constrict the flow of the potential beautiful sound.
In a nutshell, moving and/or placing hands in certain parts of the body can:
Move energy and unlock the body/voice
Redirect the focus (distract), thus helping to unlock the body/voice (specially good for over-doers)
Give a sense of grounding, thus helping to relax and sing from the whole body
Help achieve the balanced duality of deep sounds within high pitches
Aid in some proprioception (the sense of the relative position of neighboring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement)
Help with general musicality
On the alchemy of the hands - part 2 I will go deeper into mudras and their use in relation to the voice/performing.