Today we welcome globe trotter Robert Sussuma! He’s going to talk to us about NOT warming up, NOT repeating exercises but all the while enhancing the learning of skills. It’s a great one! Click play on the player above to listen and enjoy the supporting blog below!
Welcome Robert Sussuma
Robert is originally from NYC but travels the world as a somatic re-educator in singing. For anyone who is saying “soma-what?”, here’s the Google definition:
relating to the body, especially as distinct from the mind
He’s a Feldenkrais instructor and has taught workshops in many schools in America and across the world.
His life as a singer started with the influence of family. On Sundays, between dinner and dessert, they would stand around the piano and sing together. It was a very normal situation to be in!
As a boy soprano in choirs, he was singing A’s and C’s above top female C until his mid teens! He was keen to experiment and discovered his ‘man voice’ at the age of 16. At an audition were he sang in a baritone range for the first time, was given the lead role.
Breaking into Baritone
Robert auditioned for college in 1994 as a baritone despite wanting to retain his soprano range. Not being sure on where he fitted in vocally, an opportunity to re-audition in his junior year meant his tutors decided a counter tenor was most suitable. He was the first in the school. Later on, an interest in baroque, renaissance and medieval music led to a masters in Early Music Voice Performance.
Robert admits that after half hour of practice throughout the college years, his voice would feel hoarse and tired. He started lying about the amount of practice he was doing and an anxiety about performance came about. But luckily, he came across Feldenkrais in his college journey through a recording by Maxine Davis in an Awareness Through Movement (ATM) lesson.
Discovering a new passion
The session had such a profound effect on him that he found he had a noticeable difference in his voice production over the next 4 weeks. This led to a quest to study as much as he possibly could about Feldenkrais through books and teachers. A class he took through Olivia Cheever (one of the first certified Feldenkrais practitioners in USA) suggested he would make a great practitioner and the rest is history!
So what’s Feldenkrais all about?
“In Feldenkrais, everything is done through variations…
there’s repetition but you never repeat things the same way twice.”
Whoa… hold up..
There’s no repetition used for practice?
Well, no, not really.
A tactic in somatic or experiential learning is you use repetition to have a clearer view of what it is. However if you repeat things too much, over time your brain gets bored. Instead of expanding your mind, you’re only seeing the same thing over and over. Musicians for example are trying to practice the end result immediately, so cutting out a lot of options to get there. Variations will help you learn the song, but not any one way.
Essentially a song is comprised of:
- A melody
- A rhythm that holds them together
Change it up
By learning these elements differently, ie speed or different keys, we prepare ourselves for any eventuality. We can all relate to singing in our bedroom. It’s a familiar situation, so to create variety in learning can help rid us of anxiety of performing outside of familiarity. If we avoid randomness, we’re not giving the brain enough to perhaps make a better choice. We can choose the linear option but this causes rigidity, it’s not backed up by a series of options.
How can I create this myself?
Robert suggests ‘Thinking In Systems’ by Donella H. Meadows as some literature that he found most helpful.
There’s also a Nova special (a science programme in the US) called Chaos which you can find on YouTube. about how chaos and order is the name of the game with the brain and how learning is optimising the balance between the two.
A quote that struck a chord with Robert was that of Feldenkrais practitioner Richard Corbeil…
“It’s not the sound that sounds that’s interesting, it’s the organisation of relationships come together to create the sound that is interesting. And that’s what we can work with”
So looking back on all of his experience, what would be some of Roberts favourite ways in creating the most efficient warm up?
“Without randomness there is no learning, I do not believe in warming up.
The more you need to warm up, the more it relates to what you don’t know.”
Robert starts a lesson straight on to a song, as it’s the quickest indicator to see what’s happening. In order for a ‘clean experiment’, you don’t change the set up before you start. In addition, it’s common for singers to think they need to be good at scales and that they need to be “performed”, which in itself can create anxiety.
In Feldenkrais, it’s common to take advantage of basic functions to organise movements such as swallowing, turning the head, chewing or looking. Lessons are designed around these in order to assist the singer. From the start of the lesson you need a reference so it’s straight on to a song! The student observes themselves, and the teacher observes them. Something usually stands out (the greatest deviation from the “norm”) in this moment. You’re comparing the ‘ideal’ to what you have observed and this will become the basis of the lesson.
A little feature like the corner of the lips turning down in singing may be a starting point for exploring how the lips move for that particular person and clarify how it affects that persons voice. Just observing how they open and close their lips or where the corners of the mouth sit when closed can offer a lot of information regarding the individuals body function.
Here’s something to try
Close your eyes and imagine touching the corners of your mouth with your index fingers. Now slowly bring your fingers to the corners of your mouth. Did you get your fingers to touch the corners correctly? Or end up with a finger somewhere in the middle of your eye like Chris did? The perception your BRAIN has of where your body is/works will undoubtedly have an effect on your singing if it’s not actually the true positioning. (Picasso picture?)
“Acting in accordance with your self-image. If it’s not in accordance with your actual image
then there will be a mismatch, we will use ourselves inefficiently.”
Should we be symmetrical?
You may have one leg slightly longer than the other or an eye that’s more forward than the other, however you can use your body well in function as you’ve learnt to balance the function, regardless of structure. We can educate the body to function well despite these things as opposed to desperately trying to “fix” the asymmetry and make everything straight. That can cause problems in itself!
The individual will ‘compensate’ throughout the body to create symmetry and balance.
Roberts unique larynx
Robert himself has numerous points of mutation within the laryngeal area. In a recent (first time) scope it became apparent that his folds are a third longer than the average male (no wonder he could hit those soprano notes!). He also has sulci on the top of his vocal folds, they appear to be abnormally thin. The false folds are abnormally distant from the true and lastly, he has an omega epiglottis, it’s so cramped that it’s almost folded in 2! Despite all of these things (which he never knew!), he learnt to use his voice with what he had and figured out tactics that worked for him.
“Repetition with variation and awareness became a new way for me to think about what practicing was.”
Do you ever meet resistance with the Feldenkrais technique?
Unfortunately quite a bit. He admits not being in a linear way of thinking anymore, which some students/peers may find it hard to get their heads around as they want a quick fix. But some answers aren’t always found via A+B=C. You don’t have to understand, to do.
It’s almost like a disease, I’m sure we can all admit to feeling like if we don’t understand what we’re doing then how can you get it right? Referring back to a previous podcast with Meribeth Dayme, she mentions that a tennis coach will never insist on you knowing the intricacies of bone and muscle tissue of your arm before you hit the ball. But for some reason, in the voice community insists on you knowing about breathing and the diaphragm, anatomy of the vocal tract and so on.
What do you recommend for a singer to do or think during a performance who may be dealing with challenging material on stage?
One of Roberts favourite books is ‘The Art Of Learning’ by Josh Waitzkin. It focuses a lot on performance and not anxiety, not preparation but trusting that you’ve put all the information in your system already and things will work out. We all know it’s hard to ‘practice’ performing under the same conditions.
When Robert himself was suffering with performance anxiety, he paid a visit to a body psychotherapist who recommended that he find a part of the body that does not feel anxiety or stress at all. You don’t think about your ankles at all in the moment, right? He would meditate, sense and think about them for, say, half an hour. Then he would compare them to the anxiety he was feeling in his chest, for example, and go between the 2. Transferring to that calming energy is so helpful, and you can do that whilst in performance too. You can keep your attention more ‘skeletal’. In Feldenkrais, there’s a term called the five lines. We’re talking the spine, the two arms, and the two legs. You can use that as an image to get out of the muscular tension and into the skeleton.
Has that peaked your interest?
If anyone wants to get in touch with Robert for any reason, you can contact him via his website robertsussuma.com. There are also many free educational videos available here.
Upcoming international workshops are listed at www.vocallearningsystems.com. Robert will be workshopping in Spain during September 7th-9th. He will also be in London on 10th-11th of November, so we might see you there!
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