Together at Last: Alba Emoting, the Estill Voice Model, and the Feldenkrais Method

Is the Feldenkrais Method® really approaching a Tipping Point that could take it into the mainstream? And, if so, what does that mean for the practitioner community, devoted students and interested newcomers to the Method? What changes are coming, and how do we best prepare for them?  

The best answers for these questions will grow out of the interactions of experienced practitioners, new trainees and an interested public at this year's Feldenkrais Guild® of North America national conference, to be held on the campus of UNCA in beautiful Asheville, NC, July 7-10.

In the intervening weeks, you can learn more about the themes that will be explored in a series of fascinating interviews with Feldenkrais® practitioners and like-minded thinkers who will be presenting their ideas this summer.

“This is a very unique thing that's never been done in a Feldenkrais Method Conference!” I was speaking with Lavinia Plonka, the moderator of “The Embodied Performer: An Interactive Somatic Symposium,” one of the exciting workshops that helps kick off the three-day conference of the Feldenkrais Guild® of North America in Asheville, NC, July 8-10. “We're going to have an interdisciplinary panel looking at a specific application of the Feldenkrais Method, and we'll be looking at its relationship to two other somatic approaches that both began their lives in the performing arts,
Alba Emoting and the Estill Voice Model.”

In addition to
Lavinia, I also spoke with Robert Sussuma who, like Lavinia, is a Feldenkrais practitioner who comes from a background in the performing arts. Lavinia is a former mime and choreographer, and a certified Alba instructor. Robert is a singer and Estill Voice teacher and trainer. Robert and Lavinia are teaming up with Jessica Beck and Laura Facciponti Bond for their conference presentation. Laura is a world renowned Alba trainer who often collaborates with Feldenkrais practitioners to incorporate Awareness Through Movement lessons into her training programs. Jessica is a theater director in the UK, trained both in the Feldenkrais Method and Alba Emoting. She uses both of these somatic tools directly in her work with the actors in her productions.
In our conversation, Lavinia and Robert made it clear that the Feldenkrais Method, Alba, and Estill can be powerful tools to help performers transform their creative ideas into actions aligned with their intentions. Both practitioners have experienced this personally, as performers, and in their work with clients who are performers. In the conference workshop, all four panelists will be sharing their stories, and participants will have the opportunity to directly experience each of these three somatic approaches. (Robert will also be teaching an Awareness Through Movement lesson for voice open to all conference participants on Friday morning.)
While they both hinted at further surprises that are still under wraps, they were happy to share the following preview.

Many participants in your workshop may be familiar with the Feldenkrais Method, but not with Alba and Estill. Can you say more about these two somatic approaches, and what participants might experience when they are combined with the Feldenkrais Method?

LAVINIA: Both of these methods are science-based. The Alba method was developed by Susana Bloch, a Chilean neuroscientist. She identified six basic emotional patterns that she defined in terms of the relationship between posture, gesture facial expression, and breath. Beyond the six basic patterns she included the possibility of mixtures.

She began by working with actors because they quickly understood how to take on the patterns. Later, many Chilean psychotherapists started studying Alba. They realized that they could use the patterns either to help their clients relax, or to mirror, reflect or support them. They could teach their clients strategies for calming by using their own breath and body language. Today, many coaches come to Alba trainings also. They realize that by understanding how people form and display these patterns, they can more easily see where people are stuck, fixated, or lying to themselves - and they can help them to create new and better patterns. It's a great way to learn body language in a very precise, scientific way.

If you are an actor: do you ever feel that you can't pull up the emotion today, that your voice is not communicating the thought that you want? A lot of actors try to have a memory of a sad event in order to evoke sadness, or they do things in order to “work themselves up” to find a particular emotion. But when you understand the Alba patterns, even if you're performing on a day when you don't feel well - or just not in the mood! - you can rely on this tool to be able to put in an effective performance without having to dig into your emotional life.

Performing artists face a lot of pressure and often they have to perform the same thing every night. They can't always pull it out of themselves in the same way, but if they have a technique, they can find it. They can even see what they're supposed to do with each beat, map something out, and physicalize it.

ROBERT: The Estill Voice Model was originated by a singer named Josephine Estill. She was a well-trained and successful performer, already in her 50s, when she started to have anxiety about performing. She wondered, “what am I doing when I'm doing what I'm doing?!” She would get on stage and couldn't trust that what she wanted to happen would happen. So she set upon herself to see: “When I am making this sound, that sound - what is happening exactly?!”

She began to ask voice teachers and pedagogues, but didn't get sufficient answers, so she went back to school to study voice science. She would sneak into an x-ray room at night and literally take x-rays of herself while she was singing. She would make particular sounds - one vowel on one pitch with one quality...and then pick another vowel, pitch, and quality. She found that changing any of these variables impacted the configuration of the vocal structures. So it set her on a quest to understand what was moving in order to make those particular sounds that we recognize as qualities like opera, belting, speech, falsetto, etc. Then the more interesting question she began to ask was: if those parts move to create those qualities, can each part move by itself?

She ended up creating a model for the voice that took into account thirteen particular structures and all the different things they could do, and then: how you could put them together in different configurations in order to get the qualities you were looking for. This included basic structures we all recognize like the lips, tongue and the jaw, but also things like the thyroid cartilage, the arytenoids, the true folds and the larynx.

LAVINIA: These different techniques help you find the quality – in Estill it's about a vocal quality, in Alba it's about an emotional quality – and then you can place it exactly. As an actor or a singer, if you come to this workshop you're going to learn about tools that you can access that will help you perform better. And also how the Feldenkrais Method can support the process.

I want people to be aware that it will be an interactive workshop. They will have the opportunity to actually experience the methods. It will be a wonderful way for both actors and singers to discover new tools for improving their performance, and for Feldenkrais practitioners to find new ways of interacting with the performing arts.

ROBERT: Each of us will introduce our own personal connections between these modalities and the Feldenkrais Method. Then we will lead three separate 30-minute lessons on a common theme so that people can integrate all three experiences. Then Jessica will be talking about how she applies Feldenkrais Method and Alba to her theater work and rehearsal. At the end we will have discussion.

It's an opportunity to explore the connection between body, voice and emotion from three different approaches that are actually quite connected at the center. And I think that the experience at the center is what participants will be wowed by; because the convergence of voice and emotion is a very rich place in the somatic world.

How has the addition of a second somatic approach informed your Feldenkrais practice?

LAVINA: I come from a theater background. So when I first started studying Awareness Through Movement lessons, every single lesson reminded me of a way that I could perform better; for example, how to embody a particular character or process that I was working on. I was always looking at the Method through the lens of my own work. So it was shocking to me to find out that some people saw it just as a way to relieve their back pain. For me, the Feldenkrais Method is so much bigger - and so relevant to so many other disciplines.

So, for me, studying Alba, was a natural development. But, in my first encounters, I found the way that the patterns were taught was very harsh and prescriptive. It was always, “do it like this!” I met Laura about twelve years ago. She invited me to teach Awareness Through Movement lessons to her drama students at UNC Asheville and was blown away by the impact it had on them. I suggested to her that the Feldenkrais Method could be a more organic way of exploring the Alba patterns, because it seems to me that many ATM lessons bring us to particular ways of carrying ourselves that can be related to the emotions.

We did a test workshop with the joy pattern - basically that means teaching people how to laugh! I taught ATM lessons that helped set people up for the pattern that Laura was teaching. It was amazing to us how quickly people embodied these patterns. After that we did an entire week-long workshop integrating Feldenkrais Method and Alba and then we just continued to work and evolve it to the point where, in Laura's trainings, she always uses the Feldenkrais Method to introduce the patterns and to help people decompress from some of the more intense patterns.

Because of my Alba training, I can read people a lot better, even the clients whose main reason for seeing me is to address an issue like back pain. So, if their eyes have suddenly gone into the fear pattern, or they tell me that things are going really well, but there is a micro-expression of sadness – I can catch these subtle things. It's one way that I can address the subtle ways that they are carrying themselves.

Sometimes, during a Feldenkrais lesson, I will spend some time just giving a person an Alba pattern. For example, I might teach the pattern of courage to someone who has to confront somebody about something. I give them a way of breathing, the posture - things that they can practice. And I've found that there's a Feldenkrais way of approaching it: I don't tell them what to do, but we explore different ways of breathing and then talk about what that feels like. That's how I use it.

ROBERT: In my work connecting the Method and Estill, I emphasize getting away from the idea that the voice only lives in the throat. This is different than what most people in the voice world are focused on: the area between the bottom of the nose and the clavicles.

A lot of what I've been exploring with Feldenkrais Trainer
Richard Corbeil has been connecting what happens in this area with what happens in the rest of the trunk - and even the feet and hands. We've also done a lot of work on the effects on the voice of different facial expressions related to the emotions.
The thirteen vocal structures identified by Jo Estill are now part of my self- image. I can move them at will or change combinations just like I can change the positions of the rest of my body. And as a Feldenkrais practitioner and Estill teacher and trainer, I can help others develop these same capacities.

I was a singer, performer and voice teacher in college, before I discovered the Feldenkrais Method. After finishing grad school, I returned to teaching and I had the idea of developing an application of the Method for voice - in other words, a physiologically based approach to help you figure out how to sing the way you want to sing. Then, literally just a few weeks later, I was introduced to Estill. From the very beginning I wondered what could happen if this information was folded into the Feldenkrais approach to understanding learning and improving the self-image.

Estill created exercises that she called the “Figure for Voice Control,” exactly like how an ice skater does figures before they skate. She thought, “these are the parts and pieces that make up our art and craft. Every singer should know how to move their arytenoids and tilt their cricoid cartilage - how could you not?!” (laughs)

It was a fascinating idea - but just knowing that you have a coracoid cartilage and that it can move doesn't put it squarely in your self-image. That's another whole process. In my case, my Feldenkrais training and Estill training overlapped for two years. So for me they always worked together. I was always thinking, “How could I think of this like an ATM lesson?” or “How could this ATM lesson influence that Figure?” It was how I was processing things.

These days I train students, lead courses, and train teachers in Estill voice. But from my point of view, there's a lot missing in the pedagogy. Jo Estill gave us many keys and clues to what we could do, if we could figure out how to do it! Adding the learning strategies of the Feldenkrais Method that take into account the person and the self make this an easier and more dynamic process.

Many of my clients are singers, performers or voice teachers. A typical case would be a talented singer, but someone who is somewhat pigeonholed. They might say, “I only make these few sounds that I am well-paid to produce, yet there's this whole other part of my voice that I know I should be able to access - but I have no idea how.” I use my technical knowledge from Estill to zero in on what they need, but, to find it, I use a very Feldenkrais-like process. With awareness, a lowering of the sense of effort, and the use  of novel movements within the vocal tract or novel sounds within the vocal repertoire; I can create the basis for a lesson that brings about a particular organization, movement or configuration of the parts and pieces that they haven't experienced before.

Once something starts to wake up, either through a sound, a movement or a combination, then it's something we can play with and build on with variations and auxiliaries – just like what always happens in an ATM lesson! The voice could be related to the ears, the breath, the arms, or many things. But the part that will really change a person's singing is being able to actually re-configure how they use what's happening inside the vocal tract in connection to the other parts of the self.

You would be amazed by how exploring seemingly unrelated sounds or strange sounds, used in a 45-minute lesson can completely change what they are able to do as vocalists. They sing and say “whoa – what was that sound? I've never made that sound before!” Because their nervous system has been picking up on a particular organization and is now applying it. Then this opens up other new possibilities.

Often Feldenkrais practitioners find that in the performing arts community there are more people who are aware of their work then among the general public. Is the connection with performers an important piece of reaching a “tipping point” and “propelling the Feldenkrais Method into the mainstream”?

LAVINIA: I think that one way for the Feldenkrais Method to tip into the mainstream is for it to be included in other approaches and disciplines, and for other professionals to incorporate it into their work. I hope it will help people to start to recognize the different applications that the Feldenkrais Method has in different disciplines.

ROBERT: I think the most beautiful part of the Feldenkrais work is how it allows you to become so curious about yourself in a way that is both organized and free at the same time. But sometimes when a person encounters that for the first time, I think, it takes a while for them to understand what's happening. It's easy for them to write it off, actually.

A new person might feel like nothing's happening because the situation is too open compared to what they are used to. At the same time it can feel very constraining – “I'm supposed to lie on the floor all this time, be quiet, do what this person says?!”

So, I think there are certain cultural barriers to the work because it's not so easy to see the value of it right away - unless there are ways to create that experience where people can have an “aha” moment within their soma and that moment is easily related to an activity in life where they are already interested in how they use themselves.

If you can draw people in where they already know that there's a need and they're already curious about how things work in their life, there can be a kind of a red carpet down the Feldenkrais path that's pretty natural. I've turned on a lot of singers on to the Feldenkrais Method.

If we can take the smarts and the process-oriented joy of Feldenkrais learning - and meld that with the new functional understanding from a lot of different disciplines that are out there right now – there is a really rich place to make connections between the public and the work in its pure form.

Find out more about Somatic Symposium.
Seth Dellinger is a certifiied Awareness Through Movement® teacher, a 4th-year student in the Feldenkrais Training Program of Baltimore with David Zemach-Bersin, central organizer of the DC Feldenkrais Festival, and writes a regular blog at