Photo by Shawn Flint Blair
Interview by Rachel Garcia and Thu Tran
*This interview has been edited for length, original story here.
“Kate Conklin lists actors, singers, chefs, athletes and tech startups as a few of the professions that would benefit from the Alexander Technique – clearly, this technique is not easy to categorize. Alexander Technique is a method and a tool that is often used by actors and singers, and is commonly associated with posture, but it is so much more than that. It is a deep well of fascinating physiological and psychological information that can be applied almost ubiquitously. We spoke to Kate Conklin, a teacher of both voice and the Alexander Technique, at her home and studio in Los Angeles about her work, her teaching and the many diverse applications of Alexander.”
When did you begin singing and performing and when did you discover Alexander Technique and what was startling to you when you came across it?
Kate Conklin: When I decided that I was going to study and really pursue singing, I was around 17. I really didn’t have lessons until then. I started studying with Ann Chase in San Diego, and she was the one who said to me, “You’re tall. You should do Alexander Technique.” So I found a class in my town, Encinitas, and very luckily the teacher of that class, Eileen Troberman, is one of the world-class teachers of the Alexander Technique – it was a complete accident. And the way she teaches the technique is the way I teach it (and there’s a whole bunch of us like this): it’s non-prescriptive; it’s all about activity. It’s all about “what do you want to do in your life, that you want to do with quality?”
So I worked with her and what was lovely about it, and what was surprising, was that it wasn’t about posture, it wasn’t about getting the right position. It was about: “Your head is going to move and it’s going to keep moving. You’re always in motion. You’re always in motion.” And things are going to coordinate beautifully based on your intention, and the fact that you’re free to move, and then that movement will organize. Because it’s not just about freedom; there’s some organization that has to happen.
So Eileen Troberman was an absolute god-send. Very luckily I had her as a teacher and she asked me, “What do you want to do?” and I said, “I want to feel like I’m flying when I’m singing” and she said, “Great, that’s what we’ll do.” (laughs)
And the other thing that was really shocking (and is the basis of the whole technique) is that when your whole self is working better, everything in your life improves. If you’re moving well, your singing cannot help but improve. So she would work with me on things and I’d think, “Ok, this is interesting” and then suddenly chronic back pain that I’d had for 7 years would almost totally disappear, almost overnight. I mean, it was very fast and puzzling because I thought, “Well, that’s not what I came in for; I came in for singing.” For me, [the back pain] was a lifetime condition, as far as I knew. That was just part of being me because I’m tall and “tall people have back problems.” Well, they do if you tell them that and then they go and act it out! So I was doing what was expected and Eileen helped me find some other options. It’s pretty easy to let go of things you don’t like in service of what you love. So I knew what I wanted vocally, she knew how to help me coordinate to get it.
KC: The Alexander Technique is a tool that you can use to do anything that you do in your life with the quality that you want to do it. And the reason I say “the quality you want” is because when working with artists, there are times that we do things that are inefficient for artistic reasons. So you may wish to do a character that does not move with efficiency, but there’s a way to do that with a sustainability and a supple, resilient quality that will portray the truth you want onstage. It’s a constructive response to desire.
Alexander Technique gives you a way to use your constructive thinking to cooperate with design in service of desire. So your desire is whatever you want to do, and how you want to do it. Your design is: we are whole. We are whole beings. We are not mind/body; we are not parts stuck together. We’re one whole, biological entity. And there’s the web of relationships inside our own being and with everything around us, and there may be information that had been misunderstood, misrepresented. We have a lot of funny ideas about how things work. Particularly in arts education, singing education – we get some funny models handed down that are just not accurate about how breathing works. So having an accurate idea can give you something to cooperate with that is true – that is possible. Because if I’m trying to breathe into my lower abdomen, that’s impossible. If I’m trying to do something impossible, I will go out of coordination.
Now obviously, if we knew they were faulty models, we would change them. And using constructive thinking just has to do with directing yourself towards a “yes” – “What do I want?” We can coordinate towards what we want; we can’t coordinate for a “no.” It’s the pink elephant – “Don’t think of a pink elephant” – is a very clear command that says, “think of a pink elephant!” because you haven’t provided any other information. So if I want to sing a phrase with a very delicate quality, that gives me a “yes.” Then my whole self can respond to that, but that has to be clear and cognitive. Ultimately, the Alexander Technique is a cognitive process because you can’t repeat a feeling that just happened. You can’t repeat an accident. We love them, we’re happy for them, but an accident is not a plan, and hope is not a strategy. It’s not a technique. A technique has to do with studying and rehearsing so that it’s reliable, and you can call it up in a nano-second.
Do you still see Eileen Troberman?
KC: Eileen is a dear friend and mentor. When I was in Vegas, we had to fly her out because there are no teachers in Las Vegas. So I would take lessons and I would observe all her other lessons, so I would get 8-10 hours with this amazing teacher. And she would work with synchronized swimmers and all these extraordinary performers who were experts in what they were doing, and they would work with her and they would get better. And I was like, “That’s interesting. That’s what I want to do.”
And also, from her, that’s where I began to understand that you can see the quality of coordination.
“If I’m working with a drummer, I can tell you something about the quality of movement of their entire body by how the stick hits the snare, and what that signal does in a room.”
To me, that’s what this work is based on: seeing, hearing and sort of omni-sensing the quality of coordination, and then saying “is that getting us closer to what we want or further away?”
Do you have a teacher or mentor you work with currently?
KC: I have a friend, colleague and mentor named Cathy Madden. She’s up in Seattle and she teaches all over the world. She is very much on the cutting edge of this work and its application to performance. She’s one of those horizon-tilters. And also very validating in terms of getting away from the prescriptive use of the technique and going, “No, this is really just about getting what you want. That’s really what it’s about. And there’s no reason to tie yourself to things that limit you.” So she’s hugely influential for me.
Are there simple ways for people to incorporate Alexander into their lives?
KC: Absolutely. It’s a simple process and simple technique. We, as humans, are complex. That’s what can be confusing. If you want to use it on your own, the main thing to remember is: You are dynamic and you are moving all the time. When you notice that you’re giving yourself signals (or getting signals from somebody else) that has to do with a fixing or a rigidity (things that tend to be nouns), just turn it into a verb: “I am sitting” – that’s a verb, that’s a movement. So if you can remember that this is a movement, then it’s not going to be just one thing, it’s going to be dynamic and changing. It’s much easier to redirect energy that’s already moving, than to go from rigidity into cooperating with movement. Things will adjust, if you just remember that you’re alive and you can move.
If you don’t like where you are you, just move, just change it. That’s what I do when I get onstage and think “Why did I put my foot there?” – just move it! That’s how we’re designed. That’s saying “yes” to existence. When you decide that a fixed position is what it’s about, you’re pitting yourself against nature, and good luck. This was Alexander’s discovery: “Wow, my head is moving constantly on my spine, all my joints are moving all the time.” This was verified very shortly after. In science now, this is a big “no duh.”
And the fact that the head-spine relationship is the organizer of all mammalian and human movement, that’s also a “no duh” in the sciences. But what we get in culture is ‘shoulders-back.’ In the book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman talk about “cognitive ease,” which he describes as the “more familiar something is, it starts to get put in the category of ‘true.’” If you’ve heard “shoulders-back” your whole life, or “open your chest” – you don’t literally want to do that! – because my brain has an idea of what “open” means, so if you want to say “stretch,” then ok, fine. But you don’t need to lift anything – we are upright by design. This is something we don’t necessarily know. We have an idea that it’s something we have to do by using huge gross musculature that is totally inappropriate for the job. Gross musculature is for pushing furniture around or running around; it’s not for just being upright. That’s what you have your postural muscles for – those deep muscles close to the spine. So with a little bit of information, you can innovate on that for the rest of your life.
When did you begin your Alexander study to teach?
KC: The moment you’re using the technique for yourself that’s the first step. Having the desire to work with other people in this, to me, is about collaboration. For me, it’s such a profound collaboration with other artists. So I started to read a lot, about a lot. I started reading Alexander’s writings, but I also started reading a lot of vocal pedagogy, and seeing the common ground. There was a lot actually. So a lot of things that seem contradictory, they’re not at their core, but the way that they’re presented can make them seem so. So when I was in the circus, for two years, I had time between shows, time after soundcheck, and I used that time to study. And I watched. I was watching people on stage get injured, recover, get better, get worse – and going, “Ok, what’s natural ability? What’s just the biology that you’re dealt? What’s technique? How are they doing what they’re doing?”
Is there an Alexander certification?
KC: There is! Just like with my undergrad and graduate work, I did an incredible supplementation process with my training and certification. For me, any program is just a tool. It’s not a track you get on and then that’s-it-you’re-done. It’s a way that you get what you want.
“The idea is not to get lost in method- the idea is to use the method to get free to do what you want.”
I would do my training differently now if I had known about the alternative kinds of training. There’s an organization called Alexander Technique International and they have the “wild” premise that Alexander himself should be eligible to be a certified Alexander teacher. And if you look at some of the programs the way they’re designed now, he would not qualify (laughs).
So my study really started in the circus: I wanted to help the people who don’t have anyone to help them because they’re as good as you can get. Who helps them? That was really fascinating to me. I didn’t know if I could do it, but I was willing to find out.
Then I decided I was going to come back to LA to be certified as a teacher, but what I discovered was that not everyone was interested in seeing the quality of coordination. Sometimes you get people who think there is a “righter” way to move, and I disagree with that. I think there is “appropriate” for what you want. There is no moral imperative here. It’s just: what do you want to do, how do you want to do it?
You can go to an institution and do it that way. You can also do an apprenticeship, and that’s the kind of training I provide. If someone is interested in getting to the point where they feel confident to teach, they can qualify by doing a combination of your own study and working with other teachers.Through Alexander Technique International, you can qualify to be a certified teacher. For me, it’s all about quality – understanding the underlying structure – to me, that’s what’s satisfying. I don’t want to do an approximation or an elaboration on top of something that I don’t really understand. Part of the reason is, it’s not as much fun. Part of the reason is, I got some of that in my vocal training and you sniff it out immediately. And you get a lot of, “No no no, THIS is the way it works,” and it’s just rickety- it’s not nourishing, it’s not flexible.
A lot of the students I work with are voice teachers. I teach a lot of teachers and a lot of professionals. They use the Alexander Technique in their teaching. They wouldn’t say, “I’m an Alexander Technique teacher,” but they would say, “This is where I’m getting these ideas” and applying them to the activities – I think that’s great. I think that’s really important because if I’m using something I learned from an acrobat or hand-balancer in a vocal lesson, I’ll say that. If I’m riffing on something, I will tell you what I’m riffing on. And if other teachers are riffing on the Alexander Technique, and say, “this is where I’m pulling from,” then great – more people know about the technique.
That really makes sense when you describe this technique as a tool…
KC: What I find is that people use “technique” as a noun and not a verb. And when you use “technique” as a noun, you become a fossil. The Alexander Technique is a “how,” not a “what.” This is why it can be a tricky thing to market. If you experience the Alexander Technique as applied to an activity, you think it’s about that activity itself. Which at that moment, it is! If you’re using it for singing, that’s what it’s about. If you’re using it for doing your plumbing, that’s what it’s about. But what you’re really doing is using your conscious thinking to make a choice about how you’re doing what you’re doing for some reason. That’s really important. Technique is just a tool. I get singers all the time who come in and they say, “I’m having this vocal problem, but I don’t understand why because I have good technique.” And I think, well, I’m sure that’s true, but that technique changes. You change, so your technique better change. It’s a dynamic system.
“A fixed technique or a fixed solution for a dynamic system is a non-starter. It just won’t work.”
It seems very hard to quantify the result.
KC: Yes, we can talk about what the technique is, itself, and we can also talk about what the results tend to be. The results are: people have less pain, they move more easily, they communicate better, they get more satisfaction from their life, they get better at their art. A big thing with artists is that they plateau. They get to a point with their ability and they hit a ceiling (it might be a pretty high ceiling), but that’s what it was for me. I just thought, “I know I can do more than this, but I don’t know how.” So then it’s a problem of I don’t know what I don’t know. So I have a sense that there is more, but I don’t know how to access it reliably.
For singers, I have a lot of recipes in the box. You can come see me a couple of times and get some good recipes. But if you’re interested in study, you’re learning how to cook. Jamie Oliver says this thing: just get a handful of beans and cook them 7 different ways and figure out what you like, and then you understand beans. I want people to understand themselves; what they do with that understanding, that’s what’s fascinating about the world. And they go make art or live their life that’s in line with their actual values. Those are all different, and that’s what’s cool.
Modern pop music (à la American Idol) does not really seem technique-focused. Why don’t you think a value is placed on it and is there a place for it in places like Top 40 radio?
KC: There are always vocal trends. Somebody does something (that might totally be unsustainable) and there may be something that’s attractive about that for other people. As an artist, you’ve got to think about what you’re willing to sign up to do. Music, acting – all these things – they are crafts. If you don’t learn your craft, you’re probably going to hit up against some limitations at some point. And a lot of time when you’re working with actors who are getting work or singers who are getting work that they are not prepared for, that’s when people like me get calls late at night. It’s because they don’t have the foundation, the craft. It doesn’t need to be technique around a certain type of music – you don’t have to have classical training. If you meet a great blues singer – they’re great. Period. But they are great, they’re not just employed. There’s a big difference.
You’re going to have enough other stuff to deal with. You’re going to have fatigue, you’re going to have travel, you’re going to have injury, sickness – all that stuff happens. To accidentally end up somewhere where you’re not prepared for the opportunity is really not that satisfying.
There’s a great Bill Evans video where he talks about, “What are you satisfied with?” And for me, I like to do fewer things more fully, with more quality. That’s what I find satisfying. We have a culture right now that is very much about big impact, “A-ha” moments and “mind blown” and in arts education you see a lot of that. When I think about the teachers that I have had that have been powerful, I almost never have “a-ha” moments with them. I walk away almost always going, “Huh,” and then the horizon just ever so slightly starts to tilt, and then a couple of months later I go, “Wow. I see things totally differently now.”
I work with a pianist and percussionist that has music written for him that is basically impossible to play. And our job is to figure out how to make it possible. “If we could do that, how would we do that?” And when you work with circus artists, it’s the same thing: Ok, so you’re defying a lot of what normal movement is about – how do we do that? And, from a sustainability standpoint, how do we make that ordinary? Because if you’re doing multiple shows, it needs to be kind of easy for you. It can’t be the hardest thing you’ve ever done, if you need to do it over and over again. So it may start as the hardest thing you’ve ever done, but you need to be able to routine-ize it.
Anybody I know who’s gone on tour or done any regular performing, it’s somewhat ordinary. The act of performing in front of people is an extraordinary act, but the act of playing guitar or singing or dancing on your hands or whatever it is, they’re very comfortable doing that because they do it a lot. To be great at something is incredibly rewarding in and of itself.
Would you say a part of what you do is to unstick people when they’re stuck?
KC: I see a lot of people who are stuck, and their friends go, “You gotta work with Kate” but if they need to be motivated for their own reasons. I can’t give you a want. You have to already have that. I can absolutely help someone to use the technique to unstick themselves.
Sometimes the want is to just know what else is possible. And that’s great, because that’s playtime. That’s experimentation time and that’s really fun. Because if you want to innovate, and most of us do on some level, even if it’s holding your pick in a different way to get a different tone, having those options if you want to do something other than what you already know how to do. Play is the only way to get at that. We use the Alexander Technique for play and for purpose. Play is like improvising- innovation really comes from play.
What gives away an Alexander Technique user? Is there a tell?
KC: If they’re using the technique well, you don’t see the seams of the technique. You just see the movement.
You know when people say “Oh, they make it look effortless.” Well, of course, it’s not effortless. Michelle Kwan is not effortless. She’s working quite hard. But you almost see it and go, “I bet I could do that,” because she makes it look easy. So what you’re really seeing is excellent coordination that’s appropriate. It’s a congruency between the work that’s being done and the work required for that activity at that moment. So Michael Phelps – does he take Alexander or does he need Alexander Technique? All his pathways are around excellence in the water. We don’t see his technique coming through – we just see speed.
There’s a great hurdle runner named Michelle Jeneke. She dances! She’s marvelous because what you see in her, at every stage of competition, is a “yes.” “Yes, I want to be here. Yes, I want to do this.” This is what she does for fun. And the dance is not a put on. She’s been doing it forever. That’s her preparation that makes her go like hell. So when I see someone like that, I don’t know if she’s studied Alexander Technique – but she’s highly coordinated in her activity. Could she use the technique for something? Yeah, probably, but she’s already working with all the right principles as far as I’m concerned. How to move, get close to the hurdle, clear it, etc… so what you see is well-organized, extraordinary human movement. You don’t know how they got there.
When I see people who are incredible at what they do, that’s just excellent coordination, and I don’t know how they got it. I work with those people because I wonder how they are doing what they’re doing, and is there anything they need help with. And I have some really rich collaborations with people who are just doing unbelievable stuff. One of the things about them is that they’re not easily satisfied.
Is there ever a fear of over-thinking the process, for someone whose movement might come naturally to them, like a Michelle Jeneke or a Michael Phelps?
KC: If I’m singing, I have my vocal folds which are doing what they’re doing, my brain is telling my vocal folds what to do, my respiratory mechanism is doing all these things – if I try to track each little movement, I will go out of coordination because we are designed to coordinate as a whole – ”I want to walk across the room,” not, “I want to walk across the room, so my left arm must move two inches, etc…” And when you segment your thinking that way, your whole self responds to a segmentation. That’s why the head-spine relationship is the crux of the Alexander Technique because the head-spine is the conductor. So I don’t need to track every little movement.
Now, if I want to study it, I will go more specific. Because if I’m going to do something, and somewhere in the movement something is going funny, I need to look at that and see where am I interfering, such that what I want and what I’m doing are mismatched. But then we have to relate it to the whole. So a lot of times, if you have a whole studied and rehearsed plan of how you’re going to do what you’re going to do, then you walk out on stage, you do your plan, and that’s it… But if you go, “I’m going to do this song and I know I have a tendency to… do something on a high note that’s not what I want” at that moment, you may choreograph some awareness. “One phrase before, I’m going to think about what I want and use my conscious thinking.”
And this is what people talk about with “flow.” They’re very specific in what they’re doing, and they’re also very zoomed out, and it’s kind of both at the same time.
If I want to cooperate with specific constructive coordination, I need to study the components very specifically, but you don’t take that on stage, necessarily. We don’t want to be in there working levers. That’s just not how we’re designed. And that’s key when learning a skill, that we pay attention to the details in relation to the whole.
How does the LA music scene affect your work?
KC: I hang out with musicians. Most of my students are not students who were looking for Alexander Technique. They’re colleagues who find out, “Oh! What you do helps me with this? I’ll come in!” I have wonderfully complex relationships in LA because I make music with the same people I teach, with the same people I hang out with socially. Which is cool because that’s what community is about, to be able to nourish each other in all of those ways. We have a really incredible group of people in LA in many many different areas of music that cross-pollinate, and that’s really exciting.
So I might have a week where everyone’s auditioning for a microtonal opera. And everyone will come in like, “So….. do you know anything about microtonal singing?” Or the LA Master Chorale is doing a piece and everyone will come in and say, “So the tessitura on this John Adams piece is really challenging,” and I’ll be working with that all week. So I see what’s happening. One of my good friends and longest Alexander students, Jodie Landau, who is a percussionist/vocalist/composer, he has stuff written for him, and he’ll bring in things from people who were my teacher at CalArts who are now writing stuff for him, who have written stuff for me. Yeah, it’s wonderful. It’s exciting.
And how does it compare to the work you’ve done outside of LA?
KC: I teach all over the world via the internet. It’s really about finding soul mates and collaborators. Through this work, you find people who care about similar things, and you revel in it and you collaborate. The way I teach is a collaboration, fundamentally. And so working with artists who are compelled and inspired to self-transcend and innovate, that is the work I want to do. So it’s not that I couldn’t work in other arenas, but it’s not the best use of my resources. And when I’m happiest is when I bring my full resources to whatever I’m doing. It’s just fantastic. I flourish in that.
Do you feel your work affects LA’s music scene?
KC: You’d have to ask them, but I do know on any given night there are people performing in LA who have worked with me, and are likely using something from our work.
I also hear things… I was seeing Kathleen Grace, who has long studied with me, perform at The Blue Whale, and a friend came up to me at the bar and said, “Kate, I just heard the funniest conversation. These girls were going, ‘Well, who has she been working with? She sounds amazing’ and the other girl said, ‘Yeah, she’s been working with this really tall lady!’” (laughs). I mean, does that count?
There have been people that I have worked with that I know what we worked on has increased their ability to do what they do effectively. And some of those people are people who have changed the face of music. And I get to be a collaborator and fan the flames of their awesomeness a little bit – that makes me really happy. Because ultimately, that’s all this work is for – is just doing great stuff on the planet. So if I can help someone who’s having some kind of an issue or someone who’s going out on tour and they haven’t been on tour in a long time – if I can help that person who’s going to go and play in front of 40,000 people, then cool. So it’s a very quiet collaboration we have, but then they can go and do something extraordinary with the work they’ve done in that situation.
What are your big dreams for this work?
KC: I would like it if people knew that this work is available for them to use, to the extent that they might want to use it. For me there are a few things that are so important that I feel every human being should know them: just a little bit of accurate knowledge about how we’re designed would be great. Because then we could give up some of the things that are just not helping. A little bit about how your stress response works, and how that plays into life and performance. I think that’s information that’s so important that everyone should know it.
What I want people to understand is wherever you are, you can change how you’re doing what you’re doing. And the things that seem immovable might not be. And a lot of times performers have a cultivated technique that they went and paid a lot of money to learn how to do this thing in a certain way and they may find it’s not giving them what they want. I want people to understand that you can change that.
There’s a lot of people who go, “I’ve got this terrible habit and now I’m stuck with this habit!” and I’m like, “Yeah! And the same way you got that, you can get a different one.” You can just change it. Just the idea that there are other options and you don’t necessarily know what they are. That’s a thing that my students find the most frustrating thing when they say to people, “You should work with Kate,” and the people go, “Well, I don’t really have that much pain when I’m playing.” That’s good, but it’s also not the point of the technique. It can be used for that, but it can be used for so many things that they care about. So it would be nice if we had just a little more representation of that. But I also think that if you’re curious, you’ll find it. I found it.
“I didn’t know what the hell I was looking for. I just knew something more was possible.”
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