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  • Jeni Houser

Isolation

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from SBC’s coach Jay in two years of training with him is the value of isolation. Before that, I was vaguely aware that all the systems and parts of my body are interconnected, but didn’t have a specific body map telling me *how* they connect. Similarly, I didn’t have images of which parts of my body would be actively involved in particular movements and, therefore, which ones did not need to be activated for those same movements.


Test of isolation: Can you lift your big toe off the ground while keeping the others down? Can you lift the smaller toes but keep the big toe on the ground?


My first big lightbulb moment was in an early training session when Jay had me do a glute bridge (video here). Easy peasy, I thought, I’ve done lots of bridges. Then he asked me to disengage my neck as I began the bridge movement, letting it be completely neutral and loose, as it doesn't play a role in this exercise. I had no idea that my neck was engaging; my awareness had never effectively extended to my neck while I was doing “unrelated” activities. As I began to try to place my awareness into the muscles of my neck, I found that it was sort of a black hole in which I couldn’t consciously activate the muscles or release them. Ooooof. Realization: I’m a singer. A singer with absolutely no kinesthetic awareness of my neck.


Fast forward a few months - I have gained some awareness, I can now contract the muscles and then release them, and I am starting to be able to notice when they are activating unnecessarily during other activities. This is the process of isolating my neck from other muscle groups. I start to give myself cues during exercise, checking in on my neck frequently, lengthening it and placing awareness in its release.


Necks in isolation?

Two years later, the result of isolating my neck is that I have a sense of it as part of my whole body. I recognize the importance of those muscles for some very specific activities, and I am able to feel when they are tightening in a way that isn’t useful. Now I am a singer with enough awareness of my neck to know that it still causes me problems from time to time and also to have some techniques at my disposal to work on releasing it. Plus, my newly-gained neck sense (like spidey sense but way less cool?) is leading me into shoulder awareness and back release, as I connect my knowledge and sensation into other parts of my body through physical movements.


Isolation allows for identification and understanding. It creates space for awareness. And then, most importantly, it provides for re-connecting. When we are able to see something as it is - on its own, realistically and with few filters - its value and its limitations become apparent in equal measure. We do not judge the neck because it is only a neck, we appreciate what it gives to the whole system: it bridges the mammoth gap between the brain and the rest of the body, and for those of us who sing, it provides the narrow area necessary for airflow to vibrate tiny muscles and then bounce off of other structures to create sound. WOW. Who cares that the neck can’t pump blood or give itself a massage or digest food?


In the midst of this pandemic period, I have read several articles about how to avoid feeling isolated. We have learned to use zoom effectively, signed up for online group meditations and workouts, started virtual book clubs, tried out various apps for game nights. I have taken great comfort in the fact that people want to be connected, are looking out for one another, and are offering their skills and talents freely as balm for others. I have also limited my own time spent using these resources, choosing to focus instead on some inner awareness. I am seeing myself without the trappings of the traveling operatic lifestyle for the first time in several years. I sense my own value as a friend, a thinker-of-thoughts, a student, a partner, a family member, and a lap for the dog. My limitations are such that I haven’t figured out how to use technology to create really beautiful singing videos at home, but I am ok with my role in the online world for now.


Because I feel somewhat isolated from my opera life and community, I am also more grateful for it than ever. I see myself as part of something ragged and glamorous and imperfect and beautiful. I sense how much I have grown through friendships and mentorships in this community, and I can see what I might have to offer to others coming up the ranks. I recognize how far I’ve come in my singing journey, instead of simply seeing how much further there is to go.


Perhaps this general sense of isolation will help all of us to recognize the importance of the whole worldwide community. We have space to see our roles in our communities and families and friend groups. We become aware of who we think about on a daily basis, whose welfare we are concerned about regularly, who we miss acutely. And as we hear stories of how this external force is affecting those less privileged and less fortunate, I hope (beyond hope) we have space to think about how to take tangible action for the greater good now and in the future.



By the way, in addition to finding some silver linings in our mindsets and awareness, let’s take a lesson from the improv comedy community. YES, we have space to see some things clearly, AND we may also feel anxious, alone, scared, angry, screened-out, frustrated, depressed. As discussed in last week’s post, we keep searching for the balance between things like growth and relaxation, stretching ourselves and taking time to recover. It’s ok to do exercises sometimes without thinking about your problematic neck, or to take time off from exercises that cause extra neck tension. The lessons that can be learned from isolation will still be there when you have the bandwidth for them.


Fyi, I am using some of my isolation bandwidth to work on curling the left side of my lip up. I have noticed in watching videos of myself talking (new quarantine skills: self-taping videos on a variety of topics for a variety of groups) that the right side of my face is extremely active, while the left side sits more placidly. I don’t attach value judgments to the two sides - I neither know nor care which one is harmful or helpful in terms of my speaking voice, singing voice, headaches, etc. But I do know they are not balanced (another shout out to last week’s post!). Therefore, I am using isolation to play and investigate. I can quite easily curl my right lip upward from the muscle at the side of my nose, but I CANNOT do it alone on the left side. So each day I spend a few minutes in front of a mirror squinting at myself and making ridiculous-looking faces while I discover the muscles around my upper lip. Highly recommend it if you’re looking for a new way to laugh at yourself! Perhaps at the end of this pandemic, I’ll be able to do Donald O’Connor’s impressive faces from Singing in the Rain.


As businesses start to open back up and we venture carefully out into the world a bit more, may we take our isolation experience with us. Let us see our individual roles in the whole community, recognize our value and our limitations, and extend to others that same understanding and awareness.






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