Dr. Evan Leontis - Interview with Dr. Madeline Miskie
Evan and I go way back – like, 2003 way back. We were in the same graduating class of voice majors at Eastman School of Music! Evan and I went our separate ways after graduating in 2007 but were re-united in the summer of 2013 in Lenox, Massachusetts. Evan was on the voice faculty of the highly acclaimed Boston University Tanglewood Institute (BUTI) summer festival for high school students and I was on the voice faculty at Belvoir Terrace, a Fine and Performing Arts Camp for girls. When we started hanging out that summer, we discovered that we both shared a love for hiking in the beautiful Berkshires – and yoga! Now that we’re both out in the world teaching singing and yoga – as well as performing – we have both experienced profound changes in our lives, our voices and in our teaching as the result of practicing yoga for a number of years. It always comes up in our conversations and so we’ve decided to share what we’ve learned with you. Check out her blog posts on her gorgeous website at: https://www.evangelialeontis.com/blog
Evan: What brought you to yoga?
When I was in college at The Eastman School of Music I had this idea that yoga was a slow workout where you just stretch. Because I was in this mode of “go-go-go” all the time, I wanted a workout that matched that pace. Yoga seemed like a waste of time; too slow for my desire to be ‘productive’. The summer after undergrad I started taking ballroom dance classes. I had this instinct that I wanted to move. We hadn’t had any movement classes in our undergrad voice major curriculum. At the time, I felt pretty secure in my singing, but onstage, I felt uncomfortable and awkward in my body. I ended up calling up Barbara Snyder, a choreographer I knew from high school who had been a mentor to me. She and her partner Ken Wilson taught me ballroom dancing twice a week for a year; a gift I am forever grateful for! In ballroom, posture is so important. Their most frequent comment to me was, “You need to lengthen your spine!” Although I was actively trying to heed their advice, they kept saying that I had another 2-3 inches of height that I wasn’t using. My posture was just not good.
From there, I sought out graduate voice / opera programs that offered movement and dance options. I ended up at the University of Maryland in the Opera Studio Masters Program; which offered a lot of work on movement and stagecraft. We had the privilege of taking a movement class twice a week with Alcine Wiltz, a dance professor emeritus who was trained in Laban (pelvic-based movement). We did a lot of rolling around on the floor, standing up and sitting down, walking, turning, and jumping in the context of basic movement sequences. During that time I started to notice that whenever I would sing after movement class, my voice felt and sounded a lot better and my mind would be clear. I liked it so much that when I stayed on at UMD for my doctorate I decided to do an independent study with him during my first year.
Toward the end of the first year of my DMA (doctor of musical arts) I started teaching voice lessons to a young woman who was a yoga teacher. I did a barter with this student where she gave me one on one yoga sessions in exchange for voice lessons. My posture was so bad at the beginning of this that she took a picture of me in tabletop position so I could see what my spine was doing. I couldn’t believe how curved it was!
About halfway through my doctorate, I went through a very difficult time. Several things converged at this time in my life that made it really difficult to focus on being a full-time student and TA: both of my siblings were struggling with life-threatening illnesses, my boyfriend broke up with me, and I had acid reflux from all the stress I was under (much of it self-inflicted). I ended up getting vocal nodules from overuse / reflux and had to completely stop singing for 3 weeks. It was at this extremely difficult time that I decided I needed to try yoga classes. I went to a 7am sunrise class and honestly it was the first thing I had done in a long time that made me feel better. I was really clumsy and I didn’t have a lot of strength; I could barely do one chaturanga push-up, even from the knees, but I noticed I felt better and I noticed that my singing was better that same day. From that point on, as I was rehabbing and retraining my voice, I started practicing yoga 5-6 days a week (attending classes and taking my mat into the practice rooms at school - I’m sure people thought I was crazy!). Deep down I just knew that yoga was going to help me get better. It was very instinctual. From practicing regularly, my awareness grew and I was able to make changes in my body that profoundly affected my singing.
Evan: How has studying yoga changed your approach to singing?
Before I started practicing yoga, I noticed in my voice lessons that when a teacher would tell me to change something (i.e. widen the ribcage, relax the jaw, support the exhale with the lower abdominals, etc.) I would try to make adjustments (maybe with limited success) but I wasn’t aware enough of my body to make permanent changes. I firmly believe that if you can’t feel something, you can’t fix it. Now, after practicing yoga for a number of years, I can repattern physical aspects of my singing much more easily than before because I can feel it in my body. I had been so stuck in my head, so caught up in the intellectual aspect of singing up until that point in my life that my instinct to study movement in the form of yoga may have been a subconscious cry for help!
Evan: What are some of the specific physical things you were able to change in your singing once you were more in your body?
First, the ujjayi breath from yoga was very important. When I first learned about what it was I thought, ‘There is no way in hell I’m going to close my throat, I’m a singer, no way’. So I didn’t even try to do that for a year. One day, I thought what the hell, maybe if I can learn how to slightly constrict the back of my throat I can also learn how to open it. My yoga teacher Michael Joel Hall (michaeljoelhall.com) is very specific about breathing during practice. He talks about ‘free breathing with sound’; lifting the soft palate while simultaneously making a slight constriction at the back of the throat, keeping the larynx low and the nasal passages open. This is tremendously helpful for singing. The only difference of course, is that while singing there is no constriction of the throat.
I also learned to isolate shoulder and neck movement from rib cage expansion (something that many students of singing struggle with!). There is a pranayama (breath) exercise used in Forrest yoga where you use breath to expand all 4 sides of the ribcage. You place both hands on one side at a time and breathe into that space; front, sides, and back in between the shoulder blades. Developing that awareness of rib cage expansion was so helpful. Also from pranayama, breath retention exercises (holding an inhalation for several counts before exhalation) are very helpful for building rib-cage strength for singers. Standing postures have helped me find strength and stability in my legs. Triangle, revolved triangle, extended side angle, revolved side angle, reverse warrior, etc. all help to establish a foundation in the legs which allows space for opening in the right and left side body which in turn gives the spine more freedom to lengthen. All backbends (from baby cobra to full wheel) are tremendously helpful in opening up the chest and throat. My larynx sits much lower and more relaxed than it ever has before as a direct result of practicing backbends. The list goes on and on.
Getting to know the pelvic floor through yoga practice has also been important. Balancing postures have helped me develop awareness of my heels and their connection to the sitz bones. Also, the connection between the pelvis and the jaw is an awareness gold-mine that I learned about in yoga. So, if you squeeze your butt, you may also be clenching your jaw and vice-versa! Another common physical pattern I see with singing students is wrinkling the brow / creasing the forehead in order to ‘help’ sing high / low notes. I see so many singers who hold tension there, and not because they are being expressive! You can mine yoga forever and keep coming up with more things like this.
The main thing I noticed with my own vocal recovery is that if there are excessive tension / holding patterns along the central axis of the body, they will most likely have an effect on the voice. I.e. If you clench your stomach and say ‘Hi, how are you?’ and then release that tension and say the same phrase again, you can feel / hear a difference. Along these same lines, I am interested in learning more about the chakra system; the seven nerve bundles (also referred to as energy centers) located along the central axis of the body. From what I have learned so far, and through my teaching experience I can say confidently that energetic blockages and emotional blockages are just as real, valid and impactful to the voice as physical tension / stress. For example, I’ve worked with numerous students; men and women, on releasing the muscles of the abdomen, specifically upper abdomen in order to take a deep breath. Students have shared with me that they have been holding on to body image issues, which have prevented them from releasing that part of their body and taking a deep breath. The vocal instrument really is the whole body, including the mind. I am also interested in the koshas as a model for self-study. The kosha system is a model that allows one to look at oneself and others through the layers of the physical body, breath, energetics, thought structures and emotions. While I’m teaching / singing / practicing yoga I often find myself becoming curious: What is the physical body doing? What does the breath sound like? Where does the breath constrict and where is it flowing freely? Where am I holding? What is the energetic body like? Being able to see if someone is a high energy person that needs to chill out or if they are already a very chilled-out person who needs to be energized is so helpful. Being able to help someone reframe their own view of their voice is HUGE. Being a teacher is a big responsibility. In my own recovery, it felt like I had to uncover my voice from all of the bad patterning (physical, breath, energetic, thoughts, emotions) that had built up around my injury. I had many inefficient habits of squeezing and forcing that I had to let go of. With that said, I am happy to report that is an ongoing process that never stops. I still feel some of the residual effects of the old tension patterns; that is why I need to keep practicing yoga and singing!
Evan: How have your goals around singing changed?
Singing has always been something I love to do. When I got to college it seemed like singing became this mountain that I had to climb and conquer. The process frustrated me because it seemed endless (ironically, the endless discoveries are what I love about singing now!). I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to climb this mountain, I am going to conquer it, I am going to be a famous opera singer’. When I got my first small part in an opera at Eastman I was so excited and so eager to do the best job I could. At that time I thought to myself, ‘This is it, for the rest of my life I am always going to have an opera role coming up.’ That’s nuts! But that’s what my goal was. Now, after all I have been through, I realize that I just love singing. I love it so much. I had to get to the point where I almost quit, I almost didn’t finish my degree, I had an injury and was in this rock-bottom place where I didn’t know if I was even going to sing again. Now that I can sing healthily and well and I get to help other people sing, that’s a big deal for me! I no longer care about being a famous opera singer. I want a simpler life now. I have let go of never being satisfied with where I am.
Evan: Is there anything specific from yoga philosophy that has helped you on your journey?
Balancing effort and ease-this is something that I think about on a daily basis with regard to its physical applications for singing. If I am singing a long phrase, I don’t want to muscle it out but at the same time I also don’t want to be a wet noodle with lax posture. The yamas and the niyamas (first two limbs of yoga; restraints and observances) are also very important. If you have them in your back pocket when you are singing and teaching it is so helpful, although I find that it is better to model them through actions rather than talk about them with students (unless they ask!). For example, I try to remember to be non-violent and kind to myself and I also love the yama of speaking the truth (truth is the superpower of the voice!). Contentment is also important. Not grabbing for a goal and feeling like it is something you have to have. Sometimes this has translated in my singing. Before, I was grabbing at being a singer instead of just being a singer. Grabbing for my high notes instead of just singing them. The idea of tapas (enthusiasm, zeal for practice) also really resonates with me.
Evan: Are there any books about yoga that you recommend to fellow yogis/singers/voice teachers?
There is a book called Teaching Yoga by Donna Farhi. It’s an amazing book. It is my biggest recommendation to all voice teachers, whether they practice yoga or not. She spends a lot of time talking about the ethics of teaching, specifically with regards to the teacher-student relationship, really breaking it down and talking about the uncomfortable stuff. She explains that first and foremost, your role as a teacher is that of a guide. Guide students into their own experience, their own discoveries - this is hugely empowering! Students bring all kinds of energy to class and you just have find the inner strength to let all of that energy bounce off of you. You are there to guide someone into an experience of their own mind, their own reality.
I also love The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, The Mirror of Yoga by Richard Freeman, and Wheels of Life by Dr. Anodea Judith which is all about the chakra system. The idea I love from the Freeman book is the importance of consistent practice. He creates this metaphor to illustrate consistent practice where every time you practice yoga you are digging a well. If you keep digging in the same spot (even though it is hard work!) eventually you are going to get to water. On the other hand if you dig in one spot one day and then another spot a few days later and lose your focus, you aren’t going to hit that water.
Evan: Any parting thoughts?
If I had known 10 years ago how much this practice would help me, I think I would have sprinted to the store to buy a yoga mat and gotten to work! Honestly though, I think that having any kind of physical practice that incorporates breath and movement is so good for singers, whether it is tai chi, martial arts, dance, running or walking. Just having a regular physical activity / discipline where you are getting to know your body and how it moves and breathes will yield enormous benefits for any singer. Then when you are in a lesson and your teacher says, you need to expand your ribcage or relax your jaw or unclench your belly, you will be able to do it. It doesn’t even have to be yoga (although yoga is GREAT!). Find what works for you. Having some kind of physical practice is completely priceless for what we are trying to do as singers.