I went to an all-boys high school where the first grade rugby team enjoyed the highest social status. Anyone who wasn't into aggressive body-contact sports got their head kicked in other ways, and boys on each level of the social hierarchy boosted their flagging self-esteem by bullying the boys on the level below. Any innate sensitivity in a boy was crushed both in the classroom and in the play/battle-ground.
Although I was highly intelligent and generally got good grades, this wasn't valued as highly as sporting prowess at my high school and being a thin, nerdy kid who was the youngest in my year, I didn't do so well at school socially.
I spent my lunch times singing in the school choir or hanging out in the computer room learning to use the new machines that the teachers didn't know what to do with. This was a couple of years before the computer revolution went mainstream and decades before Big Bang Theory made nerds hot prime-time-viewing commodities.
Since I was a late developer my voice didn't break until well after high school. It was embarrassing still being in the alto section of the all-boy choir as I headed into Year 11 so I quit and joined the lighting crew in the hall instead where I could feel good about solving technical problems backstage and wouldn't have to perform in front of people and end up feeling so self-conscious.
Fast-forward 30 years to 2017 and I'm studying music full-time at a local tertiary college. My dream is to use a combination of music and comedy to teach the principles of trauma awareness and emotional intelligence to the masses. I think that would be great fun for me because along the way I'll get to overcome my remaining insecurities in terms of freedom of self-expression, and it would also give an extra dimension of meaning and purpose to what I'm doing.
Trauma is pretty much ubiquitous in the modern world, yet most people don't even know what it is or how to heal it. That's what I want to teach my audience.
About two months ago, with my first full one-hour solo show coming up at the Sydney Fringe Comedy Festival, I heard about an upcoming Alexander Technique workshop run by a visiting teacher from the USA named Cathy Madden. I had read F.M. Alexander's book The Use Of The Self a few years back while studying acting, but couldn't really make head or tail of how to apply it. What I did learn is that the technique is popular among actors, singers, musicians and other performing artists for liberating themselves from undue tension while performing.
Since I was aware that the technique isn't easily learned from a book, I enrolled in the evening workshop to see what a live teacher with a background in the performing arts had to offer. A mix-up with the address saw me arrive late and feeling cranky. When I walked in I was greeted with a circle of strangers in the middle of some kind of introductory exercise.
I immediately felt overwhelmed with anxiety.
I joined in the exercise anyway, after which the focus of the workshop shifted from the group exercise to the facilitator working with individual students in front of the whole group. Singers, dancers and actors were getting up in front of everyone and being adjusted in subtle ways by Cathy as they each did a mini-performance or talked about the performance challenge they were facing.
Again, I felt overwhelmed with anxiety. I wanted to participate; but I also didn't want to participate. I felt particularly anxious about making a fool of myself in front of a group of strangers I'd never met before.
I wasn't sure what to do, so when the facilitator had finished working with the current student, I stuck my hand up and spoke my truth:
“I want to participate, but I feel overwhelmed with anxiety. I feel scared about what everyone else is going to think, and I'm not even sure what question to ask you. I want to get up and do something... but I also don't, and I don't know what to do.”
Cathy's response was filled with warmth and compassion: “Well, you don't have to participate if you don't want to.”
I felt my nervous system relax. “OK”, I said taking in her words. I didn't have to do it if I didn't want to. This was the antithesis of my old smash-through-the-fear attitude, and it felt good to hear.
But part of me did want to. “But I sort of do want to”, I added, “I just feel so anxious though.”
“Well what's going on for you?”, Cathy asked.
“I'm studying music full-time at a local college”, I explained, “I play guitar and sing. I have my first solo show coming up at the end of next month at the Sydney Fringe Comedy Festival, and I'm just terrified.”
I could feel a wave of terror rise up in me as I said it.
“Have you ever sung in public before and it didn't go well?”, Cathy inquired gently.
I immediately knew the answer:
“I was in the choir at my all-boys high school and I got bullied a lot.”
As I said it, tears started to flow from my eyes. The wave of terror turned into a wave of grief, sadness and anger about how I had been treated in high school and the implications for my singing. Late developers like me whose voices hadn't broken were teased with taunts like “Sterile!” and “Bald sack!” by the other boys. It didn't really matter whether you sang in the choir or not; you'd cop it either way, but the impact was most noticeable to me whenever I went to sing a high note.
So I just stopped singing.
A young woman in the class also started to cry in response to my story. She had been participating in the full-day workshop with Cathy, and earlier in the evening had asked several questions about how to apply the technique correctly. I remember thinking “Wow, she's trying really hard to get this right”; which was a little ironic given that the technique is all about releasing tension rather than trying harder... which tends to create physical tension. I felt for her, trying so hard to get something right that's actually perfectly natural.
“Looks like you're releasing some stuff from your nervous system, and I can see another person here is being triggered into releasing too”, Cathy said patiently, adding: “I suspect that you've been drawn to study music now to get this resolved.”
I'd had the same thought myself. Our psyche is wired to seek healing unconsciously and our nervous system ultimately wants to release tension and trauma. Going to college to study music performance has brought a lot of my latent adolescent insecurities to the surface that I couldn't imagine would have arisen in my old career as a Computer Engineer, and obviously weren't fully dealt with in all the conventional therapy I've had. I became a trauma therapist myself to find a more powerful solution to healing this kind of thing.
“Remember that you have choice, and you don't have to participate if you don't want to”, Cathy said kindly.
I chose not to participate actively at that point in time and to wait for my nervous system to calm back down while she moved onto the next student.
A couple of students later, a young woman got up who wanted help preparing for an amateur performance of Les Miserables that was due to open in a couple of week's time. Cathy did some physical adjustments on her as the student sang the rousing anthem from the show: Do You Hear The People Sing?
I had played a revolutionary student in an amateur production of Les Miserables myself several years ago where I had also sung this song, so I knew it well. At the end I shared with the group that I would have liked to sing along but didn't know whether it was appropriate or allowed. Cathy asked: “Would you like to stand up and sing it now with the other student, remembering that you have choice?”
This time I chose to get up and sing. And it felt great! I had never felt so un-selfconscious singing in front of a group of strangers before. My newfound friend and I looked each other in the eyes and belted out this revolutionary anthem of self-empowerment:
“Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the song of angry men
It is the music of the people
who will not be slaves again! ...”
The trauma created by bullying in childhood and adolescence leaves deep scars in our psyche that enslave our adult selves leaving us feeling self-conscious and hyper-vigilant to potentially painful criticism from others.
Bullying hurts, but in a schoolyard environment it's not safe to express the pain of that in tears: that just leads to more bullying. The mere passage of time doesn't heal trauma; it just allows us to bury it more deeply. In order to heal, we have to face the unpleasant feelings in an environment where we receive unconditional loving support and have a feeling of safety and choice over how we respond.
With a lifetime of experience as a performing artist herself and as a facilitator informed by The Alexander Technique, Cathy Madden's workshop provided just the environment I needed to heal this wound.
Last weekend I hit the stage with my first solo one-hour show at the Sydney Fringe Comedy Festival, and was able to perform original songs in front of an audience of supportive friends without feeling self-conscious about my singing. To me, that's a huge success.
Since then I've been reading Cathy's excellent book Integrative Alexander Technique Practice for Performing Artists. It has a wealth of practical insights about being kind to ourselves, co-operating with our design, exercising freedom of choice, our psycho-physical nature, and undoing unhelpful lessons we've been taught by well-meaning teachers who didn't understand the constraints of our basic bio-mechanics.
As Cathy remarked about her own experience: “I had tried a lot of things before learning The Alexander Technique, and none of them really worked. Once I tried The Alexander Technique though, they all started working.”