Editorπs Note: The following essay is an edited excerpt from Voice and the Alexander Technique: Active Explorations for Speaking and Singing by Jane Ruby Heirich, published by Mornum Time Press.
The Whispered [a] and re-education of the breath
What happens inside my throat when I whisper? How is it different from ordinary speaking or singing? How much vocal fold closure is necessary for the air to be sufficiently turbulent to make the whisper sound? Why use the whisper and why use the [a] vowel specifically? What does whispering a vowel has to do with re-training my breathing habits? Isn't whispering hard on the voice? When my friend was recovering from laryngitis, her acting coach told her not even to whisper, because he thought it was abusive. So how could whispering be good for me?
Whispering versus phonation
Whispering is different from phonation. Phonation requires the vocal folds to be brought gently yet firmly together in such a way that they are set into vibration by the sub-glottal air stream, setting up a sound wave that produces speech or song. This process is initiated by the mental intention for vocalized (or voiced) sound. Whispering, by contrast, does not include vocal fold vibration. Whispering occurs when the vocal folds are held together just closely enough that air flowing between them generates a ≥rushing≤ sound, similar to hissing through the teeth but occurring within the larynx. A soft, easily produced whisper is not abusive to a voice; however, what is sometimes called a ≥stage whisper≤ can create problems. This latter kind of forced whispering uses increased laryngeal tension and a very high flow rate of breath, and it should be avoided, especially when recovering from any vocal illness.
Whispering versus hissing
Whispering requires a slight closure at the vocal fold level in order to create the necessary air turbulence. In contrast, when hissing, the constriction of the air stream happens as the top and bottom incisors come close together. Hissing will not trigger any old habits of excess tension at the laryngeal level, and therefore it is safer to use with singers and actors who have or have had vocal nodules (nodes). If the reader has or has had nodules, substitute a hissing sound for the whisper. Hissing is a useful tool in vocal rehabilitation precisely because it is not a laryngeal event, yet it allows us to monitor a deliberately noisy exhaled breath.
TO DO: Whispering some vowel sounds
1. First of all, speak (not sing) an [i] (ee)  vowel in a silly, high Minnie Mouse voice, then speak the same vowel on a variety of pitches from that high squeak to the lowest spoken sound you can make. Now speak an [o](oh) vowel on a variety of higher and lower pitches. Finally, use the [a](ah) vowel and see how many different pitches you can use and still consider it speaking.
2. Now with your mouth ready to open and with the best internal vowel-shaping that you can manage, whisper the following five vowels in the given order and listen to the pitch of each whispered vowel: [i](ee), [e](ay), [a](ah), [o](oh), and [u](oo). It may be easier to initiate the whispered vowel with a [h] consonant, e.g. [hi], [he], [ha], [ho], [hu], or as written without the International Phonetic Alphabet symbols—hee, hay, haa, ho hoo. The [h] is, after all, really just a whisper. Do all of the vowels sound as if they are on the same pitch? Can you change the pitch of each whispered vowel at will, or is it a given? If you do not try to force the sound in any way, but simply make the sound with an easy whisper, how much can you alter the whispered vowelπs pitch? You might find it easier to repeat each vowel several times before you go to the next one. It will be more interesting if you do this game with a friend so that you can listen to each other.
This experience shows us what happens to the turbulent air of a whispered sound after it leaves the vocal folds. Air from the lungs is rushing through the slightly closed vocal folds, and the resulting air pressure disturbance sets the vocal tract air into vibration. It is the vocal tract container, full of air waiting to be kicked into action, that creates each unique vowel sound. This contrasts with the undifferentiated hiss that occurs with an [s] consonant. Thus we can whisper recognizable vowels, but the vocal folds themselves are not vibrating. To clarify: In singing, the pitch comes from the buzzing vocal folds and is coordinated with the particular shape of the vocal tract that gives us a vowel. In whispering, however, the ≥pitch≤ that youπve heard from the whispered vowel occurs entirely within the vocal tract.
F.M. Alexanderπs breath-training tool
One of the commonly taught procedures in the Alexander world uses a whispered vowel as a means to re-educate breathing habits. F.M. chose the whisper mode because he said that we donπt usually have a lot of habits surrounding whispering, whereas we do have well-grooved-in (and sometimes counter-productive) habits of speaking or singing. He also suggested that for variety, other vowels could be used and that making phonated sound (speaking or singing) was another possibility. The purpose of all these modes of exhalation is to use up the available air, with the crucial moment coming after the air is all gone. What happens then? Do we allow the breath to return naturally? Or are we afraid that it will not come in unless we actively do something? Do we fear that we will not be able to get enough air for the long-phrase unless we consciously take a big breath?
It is worth considering the value of using a whisper to train for breath efficiency. We often talk about the muscle elasticity needed for efficient intake of breath, but in one of his early pamphlets, Alexander goes into some detail about the value of using what seems like a very inefficient way of exhaling or making sound. His design eventually becomes clear, showing the training effect of whispering in relation to speaking and singing.
≥The breath control necessary in the whisper tone is much greater than during the use of the ordinary speaking or singing one; consequently the student who is taught from the very beginning of his respiratory re-education to convert the air exhaled into whispered tones ä and the proper vowel or vowels [,] will have learned what should always be one of the simplest forms of vocal effortä.≤
He often used the [a] vowel, possibly because it demands the most vertical space of all the English vowels. The lower jaw (mandible) needs to be free enough to drop down and slightly forward from the temporomandibular joint in order to produce this particular vowel. Each vowel results from its unique shape of throat/pharynx and inner mouth/oral cavity, and each shape depends considerably on what the tongue is doing. The [i] vowel is at one extreme in the English language and [a] is at the other, with the highest tongue and jaw position for [i] and lowest tongue and jaw for [a]. There are various shades of [a], from rather shallow ones, which I call the ≥Detroit [a],≤ to taller ones. There are a variety of International Phonetic Alphabet symbols to represent the various flavors of [a]. (Appendix I in the book from which this article is extracted has all of the IPA symbols that are used in the book.)
F.M. Alexander never wrote down the specifics of his whispering-vowel routine, but one of the early U.S. teachers did. Frank Pierce Jones documented the way F.M. and his brother A.R. taught the exercise, and his notes confirm what the elder generation of teachers learned directly from the Alexander brothers. Through this exercise, they demonstrated the role of inhibition (in the literal sense of stopping our usual habits) in breathing and voice production.
The exercise is, among other things, an unsurpassed tool for re-educating the breath. As Jones described it, the exercise begins with an unprepared exhalation, which means that we begin the whispered vowel without stopping first to ≥take in≤ a breath. There is always sufficient air in our system for at least a brief sound. After making the sound, we then can allow the breath to return naturally, as does a small child. This does not mean that we need no breath at all with which to sing a long-phrase, or to launch into a bit of Shakespeare. Learning to use an unprepared exhale is simply our homework if we want to re-educate the breath to work naturally. ≥Natural≤ implies elastic mobility of the whole torso, unimpeded by manipulative breathing methods sometimes imposed on that elasticity. One of the main functions of the Whispered [a] procedure is to allow the in-breath to take place as a response to exhalation already having taken place.
TO DO: The procedure as described by Frank Pierce Jones
1. The first directive to a pupil is ≥to notice where his tongue is and to leave it with the tip touching his lower teeth.≤ If necessary, you can use a mirror and mentally coax your tongue to lie down in the bottom of your mouth with its tip against the bottom front teeth, while thinking, speaking, or singing the [a] vowel. If you choose to use other vowels, each vowel will demand a slightly different tongue shape, a slightly different shape of the soft-palate dome, and the lower jaw will be in a slightly different location.
2. As you begin to explore the whisper mode, think about the beginning of a yawn or an ≥inner smile,≤ which coaxes the soft palate up into a dome. The ≥inner smile≤ is definitely not a grimace with the lips or the facial muscles, but it comes when you think of something that makes you smile and lights up your eyes. The inner smile will ≥relax his lips and free the passages leading to the throat.7
3. The [a] vowel was perhaps chosen because that particular vowel shape requires you to open the mouth vertically, releasing the lower jaw slightly down and forward with gravity. Gravity will do most of this opening work if you can stop tensing the several sets of muscles that are responsible for closing the lower jaw—muscles that all too often hold it tightly shut. It is here that many speakers and singers have considerable work to do. Learning not to constrict the lower jaw or chewing muscles (temporalis, medial pterygoid, masseter) is a much more difficult and subtle task than just trying to make the lower jaw dropdown. It does not ever work to make anything happen that is not yet ready to move on its own.
4. A whispered vowel sound was chosen ≥because it [whispering] was not associated with ordinary bad habits of vocalization.≤8
5. If we close the mouth and let the air come back in through the nose, it slows things down, and it is not so easy to gasp or suck the air in. If the nasal passages are relaxed, it is impossible to sniff the air in, and the air will come back in without any noise. As a practical matter in real life, however, when singing a song with accompaniment, singers often need to let the breath come back in through the mouth and the nose simultaneously. In this Whispered [a] exercise, however, there is value in leisurely inviting the breath to return only through the nose.
General and specific benefits of practicing the Whispered [a] procedure, according to F.M.πswritings9
1. It is primarily an exercise in inhibition (preventing the wrong thing from happening).
2. It assists our learning to pay attention to the circular process of breathing, rather than simply going for the end result. For example, the whispered sound is no more important than any other part of the procedure. Taking a breath comes not at the beginning but at the end of the sequence.
3. It is re-educating the elastic bellows of the rib cage muscles, allowing increased expansions and contractions of the thorax. This results in increased aeration of the lungs and a greater supply of oxygen, with more efficient elimination of carbon dioxide.
4. It allows the in-breath to take place naturally, as a response to exhalation having already taken place.
5. It prevents sniffing and sucking in the air, caused by undue depression of the larynx or constriction of the nasal passages; undue stiffening of the neck and throat muscles; or a stiff-set position of the lips, cheeks, and tongue.
6. It prevents undue lifting of the front part of the chest during inspiration and prevents the dropping of the front part of the chest on the exhale.
7. It allows a return to a normal condition of the abdominal muscles.
8. It prevents the excessive escape of air (a ≥breathy≤ tone) by training efficient use of the vocal folds.
Practice the Whispered [a], with guidance if possible, and you may be surprised how much can change when so little happens.
Undoing habits of over-preparation
If we first take a breath before whispering the chosen vowel, then it is the same habitual pattern as ≥taking a deep breath≤ before initiating any sound, and this habit is particularly common with singers. We thus defeat the purpose of inhibiting our usual habit if we prepare the breath before we speak or sing in this exercise. Instead, we can use this pre-sound-making moment to practice the skill of inhibition (not doing the usual), for we always have enough air sitting just under the larynx (located at the top of the trachea/windpipe) with which to make a bit of whispered, spoken, or even sung sound. Try it!
To my mind the genius of Alexanderπs Whispered [a] is this: The exhale uses up breath energy by whispering a vowel; and the inhale will then happen if we leave things alone after we are done with the exhaling task. It is startling in its simplicity. With this ≥allowing≤ kind of thinking, we start at a different point in the breathing cycle from an all too common way of teaching breathing for singing: ≥Make sure you take a deep breath before you sing anything,≤ or ≥Always sing on a full breath.≤ It is often very difficult to persuade classically trained soloists or choral singers that they can sing a note, speak a line, or do a Whispered [a] without their usual preparation. If they are willing to sing or speak without any preparation as an experiment, the first sound they emit is often of a different quality, because it is not preceded by the habitual muscular stiffening throughout the throat, neck, shoulder area, and torso. Learning to trust this pattern of letting the breath come in, rather than taking it in, takes time and patience and practice.
TO DO: Integrating the Whispered [a] into voice work
One effective way to integrate the teachings of the Whispered [a] into an actorπs or singerπs work is to speak lines, read poetry, or sing a song one phrase at a time, alternating these phrases with a whispered vowel or a hiss. (Remember that the latter option is suggested for those who have had or do have vocal nodules). By taking time, especially for a singer, there is no pressure to be ready quickly for the next phrase; and the habitually stiffened torso, neck, and throat muscles have a chance to rediscover their elasticity. By working one-phrase-at-a-time you can learn to stop the ≥gasp and get ready≤ syndrome.
What is the value of working this way—alternating whispering with sound-making? By taking time to observe yourself, you may begin to notice the excess systemic work that takes place habitually as you get ready to speak or sing. You can learn to pay more attention to how you make the sound than to the sound itself. This is essential if you want to make changes in the quality and effectiveness of your sound. By literally taking time, you can allow things to happen instead of making them happen, especially the returning breath. By taking time, the sound quality is likely to be different due to the more relaxed throat and torso muscles. Over time you will be able to give up the ≥over-working≤ habits and be able to enjoy your new ≥allowing≤ habits.
 The International Phonetic Alphabet symbols that are used in this extract article, with their everyday ≥translations≤ are: [u](oo), [i](ee), [o](oh), [a](ah), [e](ay).
2 F.P. Jones, Freedom to Change: The Development and Science of the Alexander Technique (London: Mouritz Press, 1997), 22.
3 F.M. Alexander, Introduction to a New Method of Respiratory Vocal Re-education (London: Bailliere, Tindal and Cox, 1906), 20-21. Reprinted in the 1995 Mouritz edition of Alexanderπs early Articles and Lectures, 47.
4 F.M.πs brother A.R. (Albert Redden) Alexander taught the Technique all of his adult life, first in Australia, then in London, and eventually in the U.S., where Frank Pierce Jones studied with him.
6 See Glynn Macdonald, The Complete Illustrated Guide to Alexander Technique, (Shaftsbury, Dorset U.K. and Boston, MA: Element Books, 1998), 82, as well as appropriate sections of my complete book, Voice and the Alexander Technique.
9 F.M. Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual (London: Chatterson Ltd., 1923), 205; and a 1906 pamphlet, Introduction to a New Method of Respiratory Vocal Re-education. The two pamphlets are reprinted in the 1995 Mouritz Press edition of Alexanderπs Articles and Lectures, pages 39 and 51 respectively
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