The Singer’s Library: : The Alexander Technique Leads to a Journey of Vocal Discovery

The Singer’s Library: : The Alexander Technique Leads to a Journey of Vocal Discovery

It has been Ron Murdock’s life’s work to bring together the philosophies of European vocal pedagogues Frederick Husler and Yvonne Rodd-Marling with the principles of the Alexander Technique. After more than 40 years of study, practice, and teaching, he outlines his experience in the book Born to Sing: A Singer’s Journey toward Mind-Body Unity, published by Mornum Time Press.

The title Born to Sing refers to Murdock’s firmly held belief that we all inherently know how to sing already. Even young and amateur singers, he says, should be encouraged to build and discover their vocal abilities from the approach that the answers within merely need to be uncovered and awakened. He has witnessed firsthand the embarrassment and fear that come about when people are told they cannot sing. These cruel words can last a lifetime, depriving individuals of what Murdock calls a right as basic and natural as using one’s hands, skipping, or breathing.

Therefore, while the title of the book tells us “why” it was written, the subtitle (A Singer’s Journey toward Mind-Body Unity) gets closer to the details of “how” to sing that are explored in the pages between the covers. Focusing on techniques for building physical efficiency, Born to Sing is one part guide to the Alexander Technique and one part autobiography, chronicling the author’s life and studies.

In the first chapters, Murdock shares his experiences growing up in the small, seacoast village of Merigomish, Nova Scotia. He fondly remembers his earliest teachers and their formative influence. He describes lessons learned from the piano teacher with whom he studied from ages 5 to 14 as well as lessons from his first voice teacher, who opened up “a whole new world” by introducing him to recordings of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the symphonies of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms.

Murdock’s journey continued as a student at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada. After completing his degree, he received an invitation to sing a series of concerts with fellow Mount Allison graduate Annon Lee Silver. Silver encouraged him to begin study with her voice teachers, Frederick Husler and Yvonne Rodd-Marling. At Silver’s recommendation, Murdock was accepted into their teaching studio—sans audition—leading to the fortuitous decision to pack up, move to Switzerland, and begin training with the teachers who would change his life.

Husler was a lirico-spinto tenor who had been hand-picked by conductor Bruno Walter to sing the title role in a touring production of Verdi’s Otello. However, Husler recognized that he did not have the temperament of a stage performer and instead chose to pursue a career in teaching. At the Detmold Academy of Music in Germany, and later in a private studio, his work drew the support and recognition of conductors Herbert von Karajan, Otto Klemperer, and Sir Malcolm Sargent, among others. Husler authored the text Das vollkommene Instrument (The Complete Instrument), which was published posthumously in 1970. He also joined with Rodd-Marling to write Singing: The Physical Nature of the Vocal Organ. First published in 1965, it became a standard text in many European music schools, according to Murdock.

Unlike many pedagogues, Husler and Rodd-Marling insisted that they weren’t teaching a specific method or a technique. Rather, their thorough approach to the body and voice “uncovered what was already there in the singer.”

In 1969, during Murdock’s third year of study, Husler died after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer. For Murdock, the loss of his teacher and mentor left a significant void in his young life.

After moving to London to pursue singing opportunities, Murdock bounced from teacher to teacher in search of the voice that had never quite been the same since his lessons with Husler. It was finally in his first lesson in the Alexander Technique that he rediscovered the freedom from tension and the ease of coordination that he had felt while working with his late voice teacher.

In 1976, Murdock gained a spot in the Alexander Technique studio of Walter Carrington, who had been a student of the technique’s developer and namesake, F.M. Alexander. Though Rodd-Marling was against Murdock’s decision to study Alexander—believing that being too analytical or cerebral would cause him to lose his singing instinct—Murdock continued to uncover parallels between Alexander’s principles and Husler’s vocal philosophies. He feels both teachers looked objectively at how the body works and encouraged its natural function. He believes both men arrived at the same conclusions that “everything we need in order to speak, sing, and stand well is already there within us. All we have to do is stop interfering with the process.”

The analytical approach that concerned Rodd-Marling had actually been crucial to Murdock’s progress. As he writes, “Alexander said over and over again: ‘The right thing does itself.’ But before that can happen we need to know what that ‘right thing is’ and where we are interfering with it.”

Murdock also believes that muscles react to the desire to express beauty. In his estimation, the heart of singing is to express the beauty of the human experience. Therefore, when the body works without interference, as encouraged by Alexander work, it is better able to communicate.

In Born to Sing, Murdock relates stories from his life that demonstrate how he has personally seen the benefits of Alexander Technique at work in himself, in his students, and even in his son. The first appendix of the book is the story of Andrew, Murdock’s adult son who was born with Down syndrome. He explains how much of Andrew’s development defied the limitations experts imposed on him due to his genetic condition. He credits much of this to Andrew’s work in Alexander lessons.

In the third appendix, Murdock describes life in the small village where he was raised and the country living that formed many of his values and perspectives. The stories of family, neighbors, and community speak to a time perhaps lost to history but still cherished by those who were formed by the time and circumstances.

An accompanying DVD to Born to Sing provides musical examples that are referenced throughout the book. There are nine tracks of Murdock performing songs by Schubert, Duparc, Wolf, Barber, and others.

Lastly, the DVD features sections of interviews with Murdock that further elucidate topics from the book, including a 20-minute demonstration of dynamic breathing.

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Book Review

Singers familiar with the Alexander Technique will recognize familiar language in Born to Sing: A Singer’s Journey toward Mind-Body Unity. Author Ron Murdock uses phrases like “encouraging the soft palate to widen and release” and “allow the lower jaw to drop slightly.” Rather than “do” and “do not,” he chooses affirming statements like “this is the state the vocal mechanism wants to be in.”

He makes easy ties between the philosophies of his voice teachers, Frederick Husler and Yvonne Rodd-Marling, and the principles advocated by Alexander. Advocating muscular mobility instead of strength, being “fully present” by directing focus to particular areas of the body, and using thoughts like “having kindness in one’s eyes” to release the facial muscles are some of the common themes.

Similarly, Murdock eschews potentially confusing phrases like “breath support” and replaces them with the idea of full-body coordination.

One of the highlights of the book is the inclusion of 49 beautifully detailed illustrations of the body used to provide images for functional understanding. Chapter 9 displays the structural bones and muscles that allow postural balance, Chapter 13 addresses vocal anatomy and depicts the systems involved in phonation and articulation, and Chapter 14 portrays the muscles responsible for breathing and explains their function.

Murdock feels that many problems singers encounter can be avoided by a clear understanding of how the voice works alongside a balanced “use of the self.” To this end, he requires his voice students to study the Alexander Technique before beginning vocal instruction. In the same vein, he has not included vocal exercises in the book, believing this technical work is best accomplished on an individual basis with experienced vocal pedagogues. The book, however, may be used either as a precursor to Alexander study or perhaps as a supplement once Alexander work has begun.

Born to Sing is both a beautiful homage to Murdock’s influential teachers and an important medium to further their useful philosophies and solidify their legacy. While informative and practical, readers will also find inspiration in the personal stories held within. —Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach, DM (he/him), is an associate professor at the University of Utah Department of Theatre and a research associate at the Utah Center for Vocology, where he is on the faculty of the Summer Vocology Institute. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Singing, and his research, reviews, articles, and essays have appeared in numerous voice-related publications. /