Posts Tagged alignment

My Jaw, My Puppy, Myself

OK, I am trying to be on a schedule with writing these posts, and, mea culpa, I fell off the schedule. The bus. What have you.

But rather than beat myself up, I’ll do as I tell my students: get back on the bus. No point in dwelling on it, making excuses, apologizing. Just do the work. This post is going to wander a bit on its journey today, but we’ll get somewhere eventually…

Part of the reason why I missed my deadline is that my family got a new Miniature Australian Shepherd dog named Mabel yesterday. Very exciting times! And all those little corrections we’re having to do, “no,” “tsst,” “off,” etc., aren’t just negative reinforcement. We have to redirect her with positive things that she would prefer. So having a treat handy, a chew toy to substitute for the thing she shouldn’t is very important.

Well what does that have to do with voice training? Well, like dog training, we have to be consistent in our work on the voice. We have to reinforce the good stuff, and redirect the stuff we don’t want. Of course, we have the benefit of being able to understand our goals and make choices to get there, but there are elements of training that do require repetition and reinforcement so that they become positive, ingrained habits and not things we have to think about.

The Masseter MuscleOne habit I’m struggling with at present has to do with my jaw. I’ve been doing jaw exercises for voice work since I was a high school student in the early eighties. I first learned to shake my jaw when I went to the Boston University Summer Theatre Institute in the summer of 1982. Thirty years of jaw shaking. For that whole time, I really have never had to struggle with jaw tension. Well, this month, my jaw seems to have tightened up. I am now getting some clicking in my jaw, a sign of TemporoMandibular Joint Disorder TMJD . Whether it is related to stress, and there’s been a fair amount of that lately, or something more mechanical (like an injury), my jaw is more tense and when I massage my jaw muscles, or masseter muscles, they are sore and I can feel knots.

The masseter muscle  is easy to massage. Find the notch about an inch in front of your ear canal, and press firmly, using either your thumbs or your fingers. Then pull downward through the body of the muscle toward the bottom back corner of your jaw. There’s a good explanation of the starting place for this here.

Tight jaw can also lead to tight tongue root, as you may begin to use the tongue root to open the jaw rather than letting gravity help. So placing your index fingertips just below your lower lip, press your thumbs into the base of your tongue just behind the underside of your chin. Try to keep your tongue relaxed in your mouth and let your jaw hang open naturally.

Then take some time to just let the muscles of your face relax and have your jaw hang open, as if you’re “catching flies.” Be sure to check in with your alignment, so that your feeling those Alexander principles of “Forward and Up” — lengthening the back of the neck helps to release the jaw. I have, at times, tried hooking a finger in my mouth, and letting the weight of my hand encourage my jaw to release, while I let all the muscles of my face go.

Here’s a good opportunity to share a great resource for facial muscles: Artnatomy  (requires Flash). If you click on the “Application” tab, you can select various muscles of the face and then find out about that muscles’ way of working. Fabulous illustrations, both in a simplified schematic model and an artistic “naturalistic” model. With animations showing how the muscles cause expression, it’s a fabulous resource for actors and artists (and even plastic surgeons!). Unfortunately, the masseter isn’t included in the artnatomy illustrations.

So my redirection, rather than the negative jaw clenching, and holding of tension, is to remind myself to release my jaw, to keep my lips-together-teeth-apart, relax my tongue onto the bottom of my mouth, to direct my head forward and up, and to be in the moment. On the bus.

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This exercise is a great way to check in with your body and voice, and helps to mix things up, so that you’re exploring voice outside of the ‘box’ of your habits. The Roll-Down, or “spine roll” is one of those theatre exercises that most actors have done at some point in their lives — for some actors, they’ve probably done these more than they ever imagined possible! In this precursor to the Intermediate Warm-up Series, I’ll talk you through the process of rolling down through your spine, and then we’ll add a little voice to the process.

Start at the Top

Before we begin, check in that you are standing tall, with your feet hip width apart, shoulders wide in front and back and with your pelvis balanced in line with your ankles. Make sure that your knees are not locked! Take a moment to let your arms feel heavy, so that when you roll through your spine, your arms will hang off your torso like spaghetti. Finally, make sure that your jaw is dropped and that you’re breathing through your mouth.

Now, begin with your head, and let your skull tip forward on the very top vertebra. Slowly, very slowly, allow the vertebra of your neck to begin to curl forward, as your chin drops toward your chest. Keep your shoulders wide at this point, because we want to be sure that your NECK starts the roll-down before we begin to move into the vertebra of the upper back, where the shoulders are.

Once your head has dropped as far as it can toward your chest, take a moment for a breath, and see whether the exhalation will allow your head to drop just a wee bit further toward your chest.

Now slowly roll the rest of the way down your spine, trying as best you can to go vertebra by vertebra. When you find that your hamstrings are stressed out, you can release in your knees (a little), before your finish the roll-down. At a certain point, your spine will be curled forward, and you’ll begin to roll through your pelvis, essentially tilting your pelvis on your hip joints, until you are hanging upside-down.

When you’re upside-down, just enjoy letting your head hang off your neck, and your arms hang off your torso. Gently sway from side-to-side, then bounce gently through your knees, letting your spine bounce. Make sure there is no tension in your neck here. Try lifting your head gently by following your eyes along an imaginary phone that extends in front of you, up the wall, and then let your head drop away completely.

Going Up!

As you roll back up, start by rolling your pelvis, as if you were tucking your tail between your legs. As that’s happening, begin to lengthen your legs, so you straighten your knees. Then vertebra by vertebra, stack your spine back up. When you get to your shoulders, let them roll around to your back before your roll back up through your neck. As you slowly roll back up through your neck, take great care to only roll up to the point where your head rests on top of your neck spine — many people roll too far back up and end up with their neck collapsed to the back.

You can view a video of me demonstrating a spinal roll here:

Now try it again, only faster!

Explore this next roll-down by focusing on breath — 3 breaths down, 3 breaths back up. Start this roll-down by dropping your head toward your chest in one smooth, fluid motion. Then continue the roll-down rolling through your vertebra, releasing in your knees, until you hang upside-down, and then roll back up.

If you can do it in 3 breaths, try it in 2 and then later in 1. (That’s 1 down, and 1 back up.) When that’s easy, try it down and up in a single breath. Once you can do that with ease, try adding sound to this process…

Hummuh on the Roll

Similar to the Getting on Voice post, start the “hummmmmuh” sound (“hum”) and then drop your chin to your chest. Sustaining the hum, roll all the way down, and when you’re at the bottom, open your mouth and let the sound out. When you need more breath, relax your jaw open, let breath “fill up” to your pelvis, and then start the process again to roll back up: “hum” first, then once you’re on the /m/ sound, roll up until you begin to roll your head back onto the top of your neck spine, and then drop your jaw open, opening the sound up onto “uh.

Once that becomes second-nature, trying rolling down and up on a single “hummmuh.” Work your way through your range, as we do in Getting on Voice, going up semitone by semitone.

  • This post is also available in a condensed form, so once you understand the idea of rolling down and up through your spine, you can add it to your warm-up playlist.


NEXT STEP: Sustaining Breath

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Body Alignment

Alignment is something that has been part of Actor training for a very, very long time. In old days, it was called Posture, or sometimes Deportment, and it was about how to hold your body so that it looked the way you wanted it to. Today, we use the term Alignment, which has come to the Actor Trainers' vocabulary by way of the Alexander Technique. First created by an Australian, F.M. Alexander (1869-1955) in the 1890s, Alexander Technique (or A.T. as its proponents call it) is a hands-on means of exploring and balancing the tensions in the body necessary to do anything. I am by no means a trained Alexander teacher, but I highly recommend that actors-in-training seek out an Alexander teacher, so that you can begin to explore how your own use of your body helps and hinders your work. Teachers can be found throught the Alexander Technique website, at

Here I hope to guide you toward some simple suggestions about how to approach standing, sitting and lying down when working on voice. These are merely guidelines, and not hard and fast rules. If it doesn't feel comfortable, you may want to shift out of the position for a while. However, our habits often tell us that something new is "not natural", when really, it's merely new, and therefore we are not yet habituated to it. Learning to feel comfortable in any new mode of doing takes time, practice and patience. If you always give in to the voice in your head that says "that's uncomfortable" and resort to slouching, you'll struggle to change your pattern. For more on how to change your pattern, you might investigate The Performance School , an online self-study guide to the Alexander Technique. They have a very helpful experiment page that specifically addresses Slumping.

Stand with your feet in parallel. For some people, this feels as if they are "toeing in," because they are used to standing with their feet turned out. Stand with your feet, knees and hips aligned, stacking your leg joints vertically as best you can. Because you may have knock-knees or bow legs, you can only do this as best you can, but that should be your guideline. Your knees should be somewhat bouncy, not locked or hyper-extended. It helps to think of length in your legs, rather than feeling compression in your joints. Be sure to avoid standing with your feet together, or with your feet to wide apart.

 too wide, aligned & too close

Your lower back should neither be flat nor too deeply curved. You want to feel as if your shoulders are wide in both the front and the back. Often people pinch their shoulder blades together in order to compensate for collapsed shoulders. You want to feel both wide and opening in the front AND in the back. Your head should be balanced on your neck, not thrusting forward, pulled too far back, and your gaze should be ahead, not down toward the floor or up at the ceiling. Let your head float up toward the ceiling, so the neck feels long and easy, rather than collapsed. Again, finding the right balance of all your body parts takes a lot of experimentation and exploration, and the best way to find that is with a teacher, rather than on your own.

Sitting in a chair is very similar to standing, in terms of alignment. You want to allow your torso to be balanced on your "sitting bones" (iscial tuberosity), so you can stack your spine up, letting your head float up. Let your hands rest on your thighs, with your shoulders wide across the front and back. For people with shorter legs, be sure to sit forward in your chair far enough so that you can sit with your feet comfortably on the floor. You might also put a phone book under your feet, so that you don't have your feet dangling over the edge of the chair.

Your feet, knees, hips should be aligned, so that each joint is roughly hip width apart. Don't cross your legs. For those who have studied musical instruments, you may be familiar with this form of sitting from band or orchestra practice.

Lying down is pretty easy, or so we all think. But lying down mindfully takes some care. Again, you want to align your legs so that you are roughly lying as you would be when you're standing, with feet, knees and hips in alignment. Your feet can fall open here, into a more "turned out" manner, if that's comfortable, though I would avoid allowing your toes to turn in. Your arms should be down by your sides, with your hands at roughly hip level. You can let your palms turn up to the ceiling, if that is comfortable, but it's not required.

The place that probably deserves extra attention in lying down is how to put your head. Most of us are used to lying on a bed, often lying on our sides or on our fronts, rather than squarely on our backs. To align your head, you want to be sure that you can keep your head in an alignment similar to what you might have when you're standing, floating your head up to the ceiling. For some, this requires a small book be placed under the head in order for the head and neck to be in a comfortable position.

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