Michael Hanko, founder of FreeBody FreeVoice
A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of chatting with Michael Hanko, the founder of FreeBody FreeVoice, a comprehensive program that attends to the whole singer.
Michael and I had a great time talking about everything from his decade-long association with Cornelius Reid to the one idea in vocal teaching he’d like to banish for good to how one of his former teachers would go diva-crazy on him. It’s a pretty epic interview that contains MANY great insights for singers, voice teachers and voice geeks in general. Enjoy!
Hanko: Good morning, Peter.
Jacobson: Good morning, Michael. How are you?
Hanko: I’m good, how are you?
Jacobson: Good! This is so exciting – you’re the very first interview that I’ve ever done!
Hanko: Cool, I’m honored.
Jacobson: That’s great. So, I thought we might kick it off by just having you say a little bit about what you do and why you do it.
Hanko: All right. I am the creator of a voice training program that I call "FreeBody FreeVoice," which consists of three interrelated paths to achieving vocal freedom. One of those paths is voice lessons, the second path is Alexander Technique, and the third is light-touch body work. I have students who do all kinds of different arrangements of those three parts: some people do only one of them, some people do two, and many people do all three. The longer I’ve done it the more it just seems fluid the way the correct path for the moment tends to present itself. So I don’t usually start out with a specific plan like ‘we’re going to do a voice lesson on this day and then we’re going to do two Alexander lessons and then we’re going to throw in some body work.’ It’s just that in the course of working, it becomes obvious what to do. So that’s what I do.
Jacobson: Okay. And then the second part of the question would be why you do it: what got you on this path? Maybe share a little about your background and how you came to weave these different modalities into something that’s uniquely your own.
Hanko: That’s actually a pretty interesting journey. It started a long time ago, probably when I was in high school. It became clear to me that I was interested in two areas that were normally seen as of different worlds. I did a lot of arts-related activities and, at the same time, I was passionately interested in science-and-math kinds of things in school. I remember when I was applying to colleges, I didn’t even know what to put down as what I wanted to major in because I liked both of those things pretty equally. And although I picked music as my major at Princeton, I rounded that out by also doing a Pre-Med program. Ostensibly because I wanted to become a doctor at that time, but I think that was also my way of just keeping my toe in the science/math pool for a little bit longer. So anyway, as you can probably figure out, I did not become a doctor--
Hanko: --for various reasons. I, um, I don’t know how autobiographical you want this to be. There’s a lot of strange twists in how I got to where I am now.
Jacobson: I think it would be interesting for us to hear your unique journey and all of those little twists.
Jacobson: Whatever you feel is relevant and would serve people, I think, feel free to share.
Hanko: Okay. I’m going to start by trying to be a little bit direct about answering your question--
Hanko:--but we’ll see if I get drawn off onto any interesting tangents. I will say that my one-man show Platoon Lieder explains a lot of the weirdness of the background.
Hanko: Which involves being in the Army, and being an artist in an environment that didn’t really support being an artist and all kinds of things that are probably a topic for a different interview. Or you could come see my show.
Jacobson: Okay (Laughs).
Hanko: Okay, I’ve established that I’ve always been interested--pretty equally--in the arts and the sciences. What I really love about where I am now in my life is that, every day, I’m doing both of those things in a way that allows them to be related.
Hanko: It's giving me chills as I say that because I don’t think I’ve ever expressed that before so clearly. I got to take everything I love and make my life’s work. So what I do every day is everything I love. That is pretty cool.
Hanko: So, on a personal note, that’s why I do what I do. Because, for purely selfish reasons, I get to attend to all the things that bring me excitement. There are also reasons for my clients that I do things the way I do. And that’s because, as you know very well, I’m sure [laughs], singing is an incredibly complex activity that calls upon us at every level of our organization, from the physical to the spiritual to the emotional. If you want to be a good singer, you have to bring your best self, on all those different levels, to the forefront. Consistently and reliably.
Hanko: And the challenges can be in any of those realms, too. Like, your technique could be off. Or your body could be filled with too much tension to allow you to freely express yourself. Or your pancreas may be pulling on your spine in such a way that your breath is not free. There are so many different things that could be contributing to a lack of vocal freedom, so I’ve tried to put together a program that can address any of them. I think that probably any of the three things that I do could, over time, result in a better singer, but I think that it speeds things up to be able to more or less directly intervene at the level that the challenges are occurring.
Hanko: Is that clear?
Jacobson: Yeah, that’s really helpful. I’m still curious about how you came to both the Alexander Technique and this body work. Obviously it sounds like you’ve been singing your whole life, so maybe you could speak to how you heard about the Alexander Technique, how it benefitted you, why you decided to train as a teacher.
Hanko: Sure, but I’m going to talk a little bit about being a singer because I have not been a singer all my life--
Jacobson: Oh, interesting.
Hanko: I’ve been a musician pretty much all my life.
Hanko: But my early life through college, really, was focused on piano and clarinet, primarily. I did some singing in choirs, but I did not take a voice lesson until I was twenty-three years old.
Jacobson: Hmm. It's interesting for me to hear you say that because I have a background as mainly an instrumentalist too. How do you feel studying piano and clarinet influenced your singing?
Hanko: For one thing, having the piano skills as both a singer and a teacher is great. I could not imagine doing either one of those things without piano skills.
Hanko: Like, if I have to learn a piece of music, I can just sit down and play it.
Hanko: I don’t have to go to somebody to teach me the notes. And of course I can also play it for my students. I think I just have a deeper sense of music theory, too, from having been studying scores since I was a kid. [Pauses] I kind of forgot the question. Did I answer the question?(Laughs)
Jacobson: (Laughs) It was particularly about your instrumental background and how it’s influenced you as a vocalist.
Hanko: Oh right. Well, I am grateful that I never had bad vocal training early in my life.
Jacobson:( Laughs) yeah.
Hanko: I had a lot of bad vocal training until I met Cornelius Reid, basically.
Jacobson: Yeah, I wanted to ask about your work with him because what I’ve read about him resonates very deeply with the Alexander Technique. Tell us about that bad vocal training: what it was, what it did to you, what you had to unlearn when you met Cornelius Reid.
Hanko: I was in Germany at the time--which is part of the interesting story, that the Army got me to Germany--and I decided that what I really wanted to do musically, and what I had wanted to do for a long time, was sing. So I took myself to the local opera house and found a series of teachers who were all extraordinary performers. Especially the last one that I studied with most at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. I’m not going to say her name because I’m not going to be saying anything very complimentary about her teaching.
Jacobson:(Laughs) Okay, fair enough.
Hanko: But she was probably the best singer I’ve ever heard, with an incredible technique... and no idea what she was doing. But with very strong ideas that she knew was she was doing. And I guess she observed the sensations going on in her body and assumed that any singer that was singing well would have the same kinesthetic experience that she was having. She tried to put that on me, like a template for singing. It did not work for me at all and it got to the point where I had an audition during which I literally croaked when trying to sing the opening of Wolfram’s Hymn to the Morning Star. Croaked like a frog. I could not make a legitimate vocal sound because she had destroyed the freedom of my breath.
Hanko: By the time I finished with this series of really great singers who did not know anything about teaching, I had a technique that was full of tension. For one thing, I had been misdiagnosed as a tenor by my first several teachers, so I was attempting to sing in a range that was not beneficial to me. I had a teacher who would physically have me pull down on my larynx to stabilize it while trying to sing very high notes. You can imagine the freedom and ease that that brought about.
Hanko: So basically I had a lot of tension and I had a complete lack of confidence in my technique because it was not reliable. Particularly when I had to sing in front of somebody else it would just dry up because I didn’t know what I was doing and I had all these wrong conceptions that I was trying to put into practice.
Jacobson: I’d be interested to hear, since we’re not using her name, what are some of the things that she would have you do that made you more tense in your breathing? Can you think of specific examples?
Hanko: I can. The most astounding thing was that she was under the impression that as the air came in, that you would actually get smaller. She said nothing should expand when the air comes in and if anything, the stomach should come in.
Jacobson: Hm! Interesting.
Hanko: Yeah. And when I tried to point out to her that I was watching her and when she breathed she was expanding, she would go Diva-crazy on me and start shouting. Like, “if you don’t want to trust my wisdom, just get out of here!” And so I shut my mouth and tried to do what she was saying.
Hanko: That was probably the most egregious anatomical impossibility that I tried to achieve for years.
Hanko: Yeah, that in itself pretty much destroyed everything else.
Jacobson: Yeah. So, you had this series of teachers and the last one had some very erroneous ideas about breathing, obviously. And then you were in Germany, and where did your journey take you next? Did you come back to the States and meet Cornelius Reid then, or was there anything in between…?
Hanko: Not quite. In my last year of being in Germany, I was browsing books at the U.S. Army library in Berlin, and one of my favorite sections was the self-help section and I pulled out this book called Body Learning by Michael Gelb and started paging through it while standing there at the shelf and before I knew it I realized I had read almost the entire book standing there.
Jacobson: (Laughs) Wow.
Hanko: And I thought “Wow, this stuff sounds really cool.” But I was in Germany and I figured, too bad I don’t have a teacher or know anybody who does this. So I put the book back and I went home and I think it was the same week the first edition of an English language magazine for people living in Berlin came out; it was sort of like Time Out New York, that kind of publication, and the first edition came out and I was paging through it and there it was, in the back, a little classified ad advertising Alexander lessons! And I thought, “well that’s pretty cool, the same week that I stumble upon a book about this thing I’m seeing an ad for it.” So I called the teacher, who turned out to be an American named Frank Sheldon, who is, by the way, no longer teaching Alexander Technique. He is focusing on guitar these days, but at the time he was teaching the Alexander technique and he gave me a series of lessons. Well, the first lesson resolved, at least temporarily, a chronic back pain problem I’d been dealing with for probably about seven years. It’s funny, he knew I was a singer and he kept wanting me to sing at my Alexander lessons and apply it to that, but for some reason that I don’t really understand to this day, I resisted that. Said, “I don’t want to do that.” So I never realized at that time that it could be anything to help my singing, but I knew that it had really helped my back pain and nothing else had. I got pretty excited about it and he told me during my last lesson--I was going back to the States, so I had to stop taking lessons from him--he said, “you know, I think you should look into being a teacher of this technique.”
Hanko: And I didn’t really pay much attention to that. But he gave me the name of Judy Stern. Actually, he gave me the name “Judith Trobe,” which was the maiden name that he knew her under, and told me to look her up because he thought she was near New York, where I was moving back to. So, a while after I got back to the States, I looked up Judy Stern and took some lessons from her. She also, after a few lessons, said, “you know, I think you should become a teacher of this work.” When the second person tells you something, it begins to make an impact. So I said, yeah, I think I do want to become a teacher of this work. I’m not going to tell you all of the details of what I had to do to make that happen, but I got my life in order so that I could attend ACAT [The American Center for the Alexander Technique] and eventually I did that. And I had still not, really, at that point applied the Alexander Technique to my singing very much.
Jacobson: Do you mean during your training?
Hanko: No, during my time with Frank Sheldon and my time with Judy Stern. Before training.
Hanko: It was mostly about, you know, just learning to use my body properly and being thrilled that I was no longer in agony every day. That’s what got me really excited about it and that’s why I was going into the work myself, to help other people out of pain. And that’s still thrilling for me--I love to be able to do that with people. So it took me a while to get the money together to be able to do ACAT, and during that time I was doing quite a bit of performing and I met a student of Cornelius Reid--I didn’t know that Cornelius Reid even existed at that point. I met his student in a production of Sweeney Todd that I was singing in. I really admired her Mrs. Lovett and I asked her, “I really like your singing—do you teach?” and she said “yes” and I took some lessons from her and after about a year she said, “you know, you’re really good; I think you need to study with my teacher in New York City.” So she introduced me to Cornelius Reid. She took me along to one of her lessons and I had a lesson, and that started off about a decade of association with him up until about two weeks before his death. I took a lot of lessons with him. Then I began to train at ACAT and after I was finished at ACAT I started really putting everything together between the Alexander Technique and the Cornelius Reid approach to vocal pedagogy, which are eerily similar.
Hanko: I don’t know if you’ve ever read--there’s an article by Pedro de Alcantara called, “An Alexander Teacher Reads The Free Voice, His Mouth Agape.” Because he was just so stunned that Cornelius came up with a lot of the same principles that Alexander did without ever having known about him.
Jacobson: Hmm. That’s so interesting. Did you ever talk to Cornelius Reid about your Alexander work? Was he familiar with the Alexander Technique during his life?
Hanko: He was. Interestingly enough, his wife, who was also his student for a while, and who is now my teacher, Donna Reid, was taking some Alexander lessons and decided to train as an Alexander teacher while I was studying with Cornelius. So, he was well versed in Alexander principles and, in fact, Pedro de Alcantara took a bunch of lessons with him. Every time he came to town he would have lessons with Cornelius-- the ends of which I occasionally observed. So, yes, he was both familiar with the technique and aware that his principles were really congruent with Alexander principles.
Jacobson: If you had to put those congruences in 3 bullets, what would you say those are? Where do those two schools of thought overlap and on what principles?
Hanko: I would say it starts with awareness. Non-judgmental awareness. Cornelius always used to say, “we’re here to train your ear” and for him, awareness came from the listening. I didn’t understand it that much when he was still alive, but I think I’ve come to know what he meant by that: if we can learn to just take in the sound we’re making and not think “that’s good, that’s bad,” or whatever mental chatter tends to accompany the listening, if we can just listen, then the brain takes that information in and adjusts the voice.
Hanko: There's so little you really have to do if you’re really, truly listening. That to me is a lot like Alexander, who was more engaged in a kinesthetic and visual “listening” (which we call observation) and learning to see himself non-judgmentally, so that things could begin to shift. I think the “awareness” and the “observation” are very similar in those two realms. The concept of non-doing underlies the means-whereby for both of those. I’m not going to make my back wide, I’m going to allow my back to widen. Same thing with the voice; he never said anything like, “raise your soft palate” because he realized that when you sing well, your soft palate might rise, but that doesn’t mean you can effect good singing by raising your palate mechanically. It has to be part of an overall, whole-body coordination that springs into action when you think a certain way. Kind of like Alexander’s primary control. In fact, it pretty much is the primary control. I think Cornelius discovered a subset of primary control and how to access it. Alexander was even more whole-body than Cornelius in that he included everything. Well, Cornelius did too, although he didn’t really talk about it in those terms and he was much more focused on what was going on laryngeally than spinally, for instance. But in both realms it’s all about letting things happen rather than making them happen.
Jacobson: So, I’m curious: when you were studying with Cornelius, he said “you’re here to train your ear,” what are some specific exercises that he would use with you to help train your ear or to listen to yourself more non-judgmentally? And can you think of some exercises you use in your teaching that you got from him?
Hanko: I’m going to come around through the backdoor for that question. Just as with the Alexander Technique, in which we do not have specific exercises to learn the principles, Cornelius didn’t either.
Jacobson: Oh, interesting.
Hanko: And that was what was so exciting about taking lessons from him and what I’m finding so exciting about teaching lessons with him as my model: no two lessons are anything like each other. I’m always--and he was always--making up new exercises to suit the moment and everything that happened was based on what had just happened in the previous exercise. So it’s not like you do exercise one, then exercise two, then exercise three, it’s that you do exercise one and then see what’s needed and then make up exercise two. Any exercise could have been the one in which Cornelius was encouraging you to listen. One of the things he really wanted his students to listen to was the vowel. I remember for years I couldn’t sing an octave from, say, C below middle C to middle C, on “Ah” without changing the vowel. [Demonstrates changing from “Ah” to “Uh”] And for years, I couldn’t even hear that I was doing that. Until one lesson I heard it and I went, “Oh. That’s what he meant.” So it could be just as simple as how we perceive our vowels. He would also talk about how any sung note has a particular pitch, vowel, and intensity. You would learn to distinguish, “well, was that loud, was that soft? Was that ‘ah,’ was that ‘aw’? Was the C natural in tune?” Really listen to the pitches you were singing--to listen to them on the piano and to listen to them in your voice. And he often encouraged us to listen to the higher harmonics in the tones we were singing.
Hanko: There were many ways he was encouraging a very refined kind of listening in the moment. And he often bemoaned how the skill of listening was being degraded so much by the habits of modern life, with people walking around with ear phones on all the time blaring loud music into their ears. Or that the kinds of music we listen to do not have the kind of subtlety that, say, a Bellini aria might contain. And a lot of autotune and everything. There’s just not that exquisite refinement that the very best singing can contain. And he wondered, I think, whether the next generation of people were even going to have the physical ability to hear the way he would want his students to hear, when they were bombarding their ears constantly.
Jacobson: Wow that’s really interesting about how he was really after developing the sensitivity of the ears as much as the voice. Is it fair to say the ears were sort of the guide for the voice?
Hanko: Exactly. They’re like a bio-feedback mechanism. That’s where the brain gets the information about what you just did or what you’re doing in the moment. And if you’re thinking about, "oh, is this good?” “Am I singing flat?” “Oh, does he like my tux?" [laughs] You know, if you’re not hearing the sound, then your brain has a fog to try to figure stuff out and you have to do stuff to make your voice work. Whereas if you have a very clear pathway between your brain and your voice through the ear then things just work to the best of your current ability.
Jacobson: So how would he address things--or you in your own teaching--things like the sensation of singing? Like what singing feels like in the body, in the torso, in the neck, in the head. How would he deal with that feeling aspect of it in relationship to the ear? Does that make sense?
Hanko: It does make sense. And again this is a place where Cornelius’ work and Alexander’s work are very complementary. Alexander talked a lot about what he called "debauched kinesthesia" or unreliable sensory appreciation. And Cornelius did too, saying you may feel vibrations in your chest when you sing a chest voice note but you can’t try to put the tone in your chest to sing well. It doesn’t work in that direction. The sensations that we feel when we sing are largely illusions and they can change pretty radically from moment to moment or from day to day. If you have a cold, say, the feelings in your head may be very different and if you’re relying on a feeling to sing well, you’re gonna be out of luck.
Hanko: I would say that the attitudes towards feeling that I'm adopting for myself at the moment--I’m going to say this and I might just edit it afterwards. I’ve never said this before--I think it’s really good to include what you’re feeling. In fact you can’t not include it. If you try to exclude your feelings, you’re cutting off the connection somewhere, so that’s not helpful. But it’s important to know 1) that your feelings can be illusory, and 2) that they’re not a very reliable road to a good technique.
Jacobson: Interesting, yeah.
Hanko: There’s one exception to that perhaps, which is the subset of feeling that we can feel when something is free versus something that is constricted. I think that’s pretty reliable and can provide a really good benchmark for how we’re doing. In the Alexander technique, you know if you can go from sitting to standing and it feels really open, yeah something good probably just happened.
Hanko: But you can’t chase that feeling to get to good body use or to good vocal technique.
Jacobson: Yeah, that’s really interesting and also obviously you can hear it in the sound that there’s freedom. I find sometimes that my students can’t hear that freedom right away but they can feel it. It’s interesting, the interplay between what we’re feeling and the sound.
Hanko: Yeah and that part of the training process is to hook those two sensory experiences up so that they’re just two different ways of experiencing a sung note.
Jacobson: Yes. So, I thought we might hit a couple other topics we discussed ahead of time. The first one was, "don’t put the cart before the horse: how the results of good vocal coordination are not necessarily the route to achieving it." So I wonder what you have to say about that.
Hanko: Well, we did touch on that briefly; I think I used the example of raising the soft palate. I’m going to use another example from the Alexander world because it’s less fraught somehow. Alexander directions describe what happens in a well coordinated body: your head goes forward and up, your back lengthens and widens, your knees release forward and away. You can’t really put your knees forward and away but you can recognize that in a coordinated movement, that is happening. So you have to find an indirect way to kind of trick the body into coordinating itself well and then your knees will go forward and away.
Jacobson: Sure. So how would that translate to the voice?
Hanko: Right. So--well gosh, there’s a whole continuum. I do sometimes address things directly because sometimes it works, but there’s always the danger when you tell somebody what to do with a part of themselves that they will latch onto that as, “now I’ve got it.” Then what they did a little bit becomes a caricature of itself. Like, if I told somebody that their tongue was going back and down and to think of their tongue going forward, that might work really well for a few minutes. But then they’re starting to actually put their tongue forward and tense it in the opposite direction. So what started out as addressing an imbalance has become a new imbalance. It’s my preference to find indirect ways; like if somebody was pulling their tongue back I might design an exercise that I thought would get their tongue going forward without having to mention their tongue. That’s always my first strategy, to see if I can indirectly allow something to come about. That’s when the creativity of teaching really comes in.
Jacobson: Right. And where would you go with that? Would you typically do that through their ear in terms of having them try to produce a specific sound, or would it be having them think holistically? Or going back to the relationship between their head and their spine?
Hanko: It could be any of those things. It would be really hard for me to write a primer of voice teaching because you can’t just say, “Okay, you do this to address this problem.” Not even with the same student can I use the same teaching technique twice in a row, often. It’s different; every experience demands something different. I always like to remain fluid in my thinking so that I don’t really have a method but I have access to whatever tools I have developed. That toolbox keeps growing and growing and growing over time with ways to talk about things, hands-on things I can do, and different exercises I have found helpful for different situations. I often have students move their bodies in various ways, which might be coming up in another question that we said we might talk about. But whatever it takes to kind of trick a student into doing something a little more freely. And then at that point I don’t always find it helpful to say, “Okay, did you notice that that happened this time?” or “X was happening before, now Y is happening.” Because anything that a student perceives as The Thing they start overdoing, or they feel self-conscious about it. So it’s challenging and it’s challenging also for the students because I’m not giving them any rules of thumb, usually. It’s like my only rule of thumb is that if you learn to listen and you stay open for the rest of your career, to your technique evolving constantly, then you won’t get into trouble. But as soon as you think you’ve figured it out or think “that’s how to sing,” I’d be worried about that.
Jacobson: Yeah that’s really great advice; I think it’s a great attitude and I like how simple it is. There’s not a whole laundry list of pre-prescribed things that students need to do to fix specific problems and issues and it’s refreshing. It makes me curious about this, “putting the cart before the horse.” I’m assuming that you put it that way because you see teachers and methods of singing that do that. Maybe you could speak to what you’ve seen. What are some erroneous beliefs or ideas in vocal teaching that you’d like to wipe off the face of this earth?
Hanko: Probably the biggest thing is belly-breathing. At some point in history somebody noticed that when their breath was free their stomach expanded a little bit. Of course, this happens because as the diaphragm comes down it presses against the abdominal organs and the only place they have to go where they don’t encounter something hard is forward. So the belly expands slightly when a deep breath comes in. Whoever noticed that first then put the cart before the horse and said “Breathe into your belly.” For some reason that piece of advice is the main thing that people are taught about breathing in any context that I’ve ever encountered: yoga classes, acting classes, singing lessons, personal trainers. If anybody tells somebody about breathing, it almost always starts with “take a deep breath into your belly.” And, you know, it’s so easily turned on its head when you say to someone, “Okay tell me where your lungs are.” They always know where their lungs are--and you put your hand on their belly and say, “What’s there?” It’s the liver and the intestines! There’s no place there for air to go, so it’s pretty easy for people to intellectually understand the misconception but by that point they’ve practiced that ingrained societal belief about “breathing into the belly” for so many years that it can take a really, really long time to retrain people. I mean, years to get that belly breathing idea out of there and it really throws everything off in the meantime. But I have come up with some tricks that make it really hard for people to involve their abs in singing so I’m happy to say that I’m finding ways around it.
Jacobson: Would you be willing to share a couple of those?
Hanko: Sure. They’re some of those body movements that I was talking about. Actually, we can pop back into one of the questions we said we were going to discuss was the freedom of the suspensory muscles of the larynx and getting them mobile and supportive in all their different planes. I started out that exploration through bodywork and the throat is a really, really interesting anatomical place because there are so many structures in a very small space and they’re all interconnected in amazing ways. And they are things that are really surprising to find out, like, your hyoid bone is connected directly by a muscle to your shoulder blade. That is just weird and wonderful. There are all these connections and every connection is a possible tension. So through the bodywork I do, I’m feeling for what might be too tight a connection between structures of the throat and freeing those up. That’s where I got really interested in that whole concept. Lately in my lessons with my voice teacher Donna, she and I have been exploring ways to do that more or less mechanically. For instance, the muscles that raise and lower your whole larynx can be activated if you say something like, “gah, gah, gah, gah, gah” with a kind of glug-like “g.” When your tongue moves up it pulls the larynx up with it and then drops it, so often that if the connection is not free in students when they say “gah, gah, gah, gah,” their larynx stays really rigidly stiff. So just by having them sing on “gah, gah, gah, gah, gah,” or an exercise like that, with a little bit of creativity and luck you can get the larynx a bit freer in that plane. We are going to get to the abs I promise. So that’s one way that you can free the larynx, and then another way we’ve been working with is various ways of twisting the body into spirals while you sing. A very simple one is just looking straight forward while twisting the body. I’m sort of flailing my arms out, spinning like a helicopter, letting my body twist at the atlanto-occipital joint while my head stays forward. If you do that on your own at some point you’ll be able to see in the mirror or even feel with your hands where the muscles holding the larynx in place are really challenged to twist. The larynx has to move freely to allow you to do that twist. You can sing while you’re doing those spirals and it’s been mind-blowing how effective that is. Because--and this is where we get to the abs--another thing that twisting makes it really hard to do is any kind of “support” with the abdominal muscles. It helps the abs to remain neutral while people sing and that has enabled me (and my voice teacher also, I presume) to clear up a list of vocal challenges you would not believe. Like, almost everything from out-of-tune singing, to pushing, to insufficient breath. All kinds of things are immediately cleared up by having students do those “helicopters,” which is what I call them.
Jacobson: That’s really cool, I’d like to see exactly how you do that. It would be great to share with my students and readers.
Hanko: Yeah and you’d probably want to try it for yourself. It’s really astounding.
Jacobson: It sounds great.
Hanko: The best one I’ve just been kind of discovering over the last week. The students lie in semi-supine and allow their knees to go over first to the right then the left alternating. That’s a different kind of twist in the body. That seems to be the most powerful option because not only does it give the abs something else to do so they can’t participate in the singing inappropriately, there’s also something about the horizontal position that allows the larynx to really just fall back into a state of incredible ease. It opens up a lot of new possibilities. So I’d like to show you that one too.
Jacobson: Yeah. Do you have students sing in semi-supine much?
Hanko: Um, I’ve started this week. I have done that quite a bit. It’s been an outgrowth of doing both Alexander and bodywork on the table and then wanting to test out what progress we might have made. I got really excited about the bodywork thing when I had a student for a long time who couldn’t do falsetto and I did one maybe three-minute thing on his larynx using bodywork and then he could sing falsetto.
Jacobson: Wow that’s…
Hanko: It’s not always that obvious and exciting but it often is.
Jacobson: And what was the technique that you used for him? Are you able to describe it?
Hanko: Yeah. Well, I’m going to describe what happens in falsetto a little bit. So the cricothyroid muscle is the one that connects the thyroid cartilage with the little cricoid ring which is right below it. There are tiny little muscles that are on either side of those two connected cartilages. When those muscles contract they pull on the upper cartilage, the thyroid cartilage, which is your Adam’s apple. They tilt it a little bit forward and down towards your feet, which stretches the vocal cords to make a higher note. When they release, the vocal cords shorten again, which makes a lower note. This is all happening on a more or less microscopic basis in your singing. Those are the muscles involved in producing the falsetto. So I thought maybe this guy has a restriction in his cricothyroids. I did a little tiny release of those muscles and suddenly he had access to a whole family of sounds that he had not formerly been able to produce. If your bicep muscle was restricted you couldn’t move your elbow. If your cricothyroid muscle is restricted you can’t sing falsetto.
Jacobson: And what was the look on his face when he could produce falsetto sounds for the first time?
Hanko: He was pretty much splitting his face in two with the hugest grin I’ve ever seen. He had never been able to make that sound before and a lot of people have trouble at first doing it because it’s not an aesthetically pleasing sound so no one is really ever taught to do it. People are often a little stymied at first but usually after a lesson or two people can do it somewhat well. After a couple years this guy could not even begin to make that sound until that day and then he did.
Jacobson: That’s great.
Hanko: And that was just crazy fun.
Jacobson: Those are moments we live for as teachers, those “aha” moments. So we’re coming up on the hour mark, I was wondering if I could have, like, 5 or 10 more minutes of your time because there’s one big issue we didn’t talk about and that’s support and the myths surrounding it. Would that be okay if we went just a little bit over?
Hanko: Yeah a little bit, I could probably do five minutes.
Jacobson: Okay great.
Hanko: So yeah, I think it’s part of that whole belly-breathing misperception. People think that there’s something down there in the digestive zone that is important for singing or breathing or both. It kind of touches on other things too, like the cart before the horse thing. When you’re singing a well supported tone, it tends to put a little pressure on the place around your solar plexus area. But you can’t support a tone by putting pressure on your solar plexus area. It’s the result of the column of air being properly closed off by precisely functioning vocal cords. You have a column of air and it comes up and meets the vocal cords and there’s only that tiny little gap between them. That sets up pressure in the tube which at the bottom end is experienced as what people call “support.” Really it’s what’s happening at the top of the tube that determines how good your support is. If your vocal cords are not able to maintain their approximation precisely then there’s gonna be gaps in that and the air leaks out and you don’t have a good support. But it does not come from the bottom and it certainly does not come from any kind of muscular engagement that one can do. But many people have come to me pushing their stomachs out or pulling their stomachs in or squeezing the ribs or doing something with their low back. Just creating all kinds of rigidity in the name of support. I never talk about support. I don’t use the word, I don’t think it’s an important concept. I don’t even think it’s a useful concept.
Jacobson: That’s what I believe as well. There’s so many ideas, misconceptions, and myths about what support is. I like that: It’s actually the top of the tube and not the bottom. Well I’m aware of our time now and I want to let you go. I feel like we could talk for another couple hours, I have so many questions.
Hanko: No, this is fun. I would love to do this again.
Jacobson: I know, we’ll definitely have to do a Part II if not a Part III.
Hanko: That sounds fantastic. Thank you so much Peter--I really appreciate this. It’s sparked my own thinking in some really useful ways.
Jacobson: Oh, me as well. I’m so inspired to try some of this with my students now and thank you so much for being so generous with your time and expertise.
Hanko: You’re welcome. I look forward to getting the transcript and we’ll go from there.
Jacobson: Sounds good, have a great day Michael.
Hanko: Thanks, Peter, you too.
Jacobson: Take care.
Hanko: Bye bye.
You can learn more about Michael Hanko at: www.freebodyfreevoice.com