Why Can’t You “Just Relax” When You Sing?
I can’t tell you how many times I heard something of the likes of “you’re trying too hard” or “just relax” or “just let go” to singers from people who have great intentions but never stopped to think if their statements are doing the total opposite of what they intend. Have you ever had someone tell you to “just relax”? What about “just be yourself”? You can’t really DO any of those things. Relaxing is an absence of effort, it is letting go of something you previously had control over. You don’t control your tension habits. That’s why they’re habits. If you want to learn how to let go of your jaw, your tight shoulders, your (insert tight muscle here) you’ve got to tense it to a point that you can actually control. Sitting at computers for hours every day trains us to slightly tense our hands, wrists, shoulders, and neck. Once your body memorizes that, those habits take over and you don’t even notice how you slowly hunch over time. The solution is not to scold yourself to either “relax” or “sit up straight”. The solution is to tense more in that position and slowly let go. Eventually, your sensory awareness gets sharper, then you can actually TELL that you’re tensing to begin with, and THEN you memorize the feeling of consciously releasing a muscle. So with singing, if you want to relax your jaw, you don’t just slam your jaw down and hold it there (like trying to sit up straight which is just piling new conscious tension on top of old unconscious tension). You also don’t “tell yourself” to relax it. You tense it purposefully, slowly release it, and then slowly and continuously release your jaw while you sing. Enjoy being tense. Enjoy the feeling of choosing a tension and letting go. It’s an illusion that you control that constant static slight tension. I can tell you from experience that it’s incredibly wonderful to learn how to let unconscious tension go.
Hat tip to Thomas Hanna, F.M. Alexander and Moshe Feldenkrais for helping us all find the physical freedom of movement we had as kids…and especially for making it clear to me early on that there are better ways to help my fellow singers grow than telling them to “just relax”.