Studies in Public Posture: Bernie Sanders

In two earlier blogs, The Power of Posture and The Power of Posture – Part 2, I wrote about the posture and coordination of politicians and American televangelists.  In general the ones who are successful use their bodies more effectively than the average person.

And, as I wrote in the second blog:

Members of both groups also tend to be good public speakers.

Not surprising, given that their job is to convince their listeners to support them, either with votes or money.

Today, I’m beginning what I hope will be a series of blogs that focus on the posture, coordination and public speaking patterns of specific public figures from a variety of fields.

I want to do this from an Alexander Technique perspective. I’d like to emphasize close observation of movement patterns that are effective, as well as those that might be preventing these men and women from presenting themselves to the public as effectively as possible.

I’ll keep my own observations and comments very short in the hope that other Alexander teachers and students will weigh in with their own.  I’m hoping for some guest blogs too!

I also want to stay away from any consideration of the subjects’ specific views and policies.  The main focus of the Alexander Technique is not about what people do, but how they do it.

You Tube will be my primary source.  It’s the perfect medium for people from around the world to observe the same people and then share their observations. What I hope to provide is a platform for sharing those observations.

An obvious choice to start with is Bernie Sanders, one of the two candidates for nomination by the Democratic Party to run for President of the United States in the November election.

His speaking ability has played a large role in propelling him from an unlikely entrant into the Democratic race, widely seen by most political pundits as not having any chance of success, to becoming a very serious challenge to Hillary Clinton, his only remaining opponent.

Clearly he is an effective public speaker.  But I believe he could be a lot more effective, and a lot less likely to damage his speaking voice, if he made a couple of changes in his method of delivery.

Let’s start with the two video clips shown above. Here are my first thoughts:

Bernie seems to have a lot of neck tension and his head is habitually pushed forward from the top of his spine.  How much of this he can change in a short period of time is debatable. Photos of him as a student activist show this same pattern to some extent so it’s probably a deep-rooted pattern.  But there are two inter-related speaking patterns that really stand out to me, both of which I suspect he could change fairly quickly:

1 – He’s putting an awful lot of effort into speaking.  Sometimes it seems he’s forgotten that he has a microphone! All that force is putting a strain on his vocal mechanism, and his voice is clearly suffering at times.

2 – When Bernie wants to emphasize a point, he pushes his head still further forward, as well as his whole upper torso – which he also pulls down – putting further strain on himself.  You can see in the videos that his height actually diminishes at these moments, a clear indication that he’s compressing his entire body.

His public speaking pattern seems to echo in some ways that of F. Matthias Alexander, the developer of the Alexander Technique. Alexander was an actor and orator who ran into serious vocal difficulties resulting from his attempt to project his voice to to the back of large halls, crowded with rowdy tin miners, and –  this being the late 1890s – no PA system.  Alexander’s basic strategy had been to make more of an effort when speaking in these environments.

The unfortunate effects of this over-effort on his part – hoarseness, gasping for breath, and even the loss of his voice – prompted him undertake a period of self-study that ultimately led to the discoveries that lie at the heart of the Alexander Technique. And enabled him to project his voice far more effectively with less effort and strain.

The short video below is interesting because here Bernie is not on stage, but having a conversation.  You can see that the speech patterns discussed above are still there, but in a more muted form.  It was recorded more recently, so you can also hear the cumulative effects of his speaking patterns on his voice.

I suspect any competent Alexander teacher could help Bernie notice those patterns, and provide him with verbal and/or hands-on guidance that would enable him to let go of them to a significant extent fairly quickly.

What do you think?  Any other Alexander Technique thoughts about Bernie? Who else in the public sphere seems like a good topic for a future blog?  Would you like to write guest blog on this topic?

Normally I’d encourage you to put your comments on Facebook, but in this case it would be very helpful to also post them in the Comments section below so that this page can be a resource for learning how to observe posture and movement patterns in others, and themselves.

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I have acquired the ownership of two domain names which, at some point, could be used to bring the material from this series of blogs together in one place: PoliticalPosture.com and PublicPosture.com


Comments

Studies in Public Posture: Bernie Sanders — 11 Comments

  1. This is a fascinating topic. My off-the-cuff reactions to public figures are strongly influenced by the quality of their voices and the posture and movement habits. After I started studying the Alexander Technique, I began to be able to analyze the elements that were affecting me, and to separate the message from the medium.

    Robert, you describe Bernie Sanders’ patterns clearly, and I see them all in the videos. Despite all the interferences that are taking their toll on his voice, I still have the impression of a voice connected to the breath and resonating in his torso and head. Of course, I cannot be sure just from video. But he conveys an impression of sincerity that I believe comes from this physical integrity of the voice. Even the hoarseness doesn’t detract from this.

    By contrast, Hillary Clinton’s voice sounds disconnected fom her breath, with excess work in her throat, producing a flat, forced tone quality. She is frequently criticized for having an unpleasant voice, and this often is framed in a political context– e.g., strong women are threatening to some people). But a strong voice need not be harsh-sounding. I’d love to see your observations on her use

    I hasten to add that I don’t think these observations and impressions accurately reflect the truth of these two politicians. The very fact that we Alexander Technique teachers know they can change quickly in an Alexander lesson proves that. However, I think they do have a powerful effect on much of the electorate, who don’t have the observational tools to separate out the impressions arising from use patterns.

  2. Interesting, and an important topic especially in relationship to our national leaders. Before I go on, I want to make clear that I am still undecided as a voter and support different aspects of both Democratic candidates. I will be honest, one of the things that made me concerned about Bernie when he first came on the scene was his Use–besides concern for his health, the pattern you described struck me as having a lot of pull down and it made me wonder about his ability to be poised and responsive in difficult situations, as well as striking me as unnecessarily aggressive. Honestly, I think this Use often serves him, as one of the things which has helped him surge is the experience of righteous outrage and commitment to his ideals he gives–it is obvious he authentically cares. So, this pattern might be a bit self-reinforcing–it motivates people to join him and as an older gentleman, it helps him appear vital(he might be dismissed as frail if he were more poised, which is a cultural problem our society has with ageism). It might not serve him if he becomes the front-runner though. As time as gone on, I have noticed something interesting–this pattern only really happens when he repeats one of his major talking points(which with any politician happens frequently)associated with blame. When he formulates a new response or changes his mind on something(which he has notably done a few times), a new use pattern shows up which is comparatively spritely. This part of him I really like. So if he could learn as the campaign goes on to pull down less when putting out his main message and go to this more free use often, it could make him less threatening to people who want to dismiss him by calling up a pink scare around his socialist label. It might also help some of his supporters be less strident in a way that is setting up an oppositional dynamic between them and other groups. I would not be surprised if his supporters ape his pull down when they are being aggressive towards others(it goes without saying this is only a segment of his supporters, not reflective of the whole base). I think one of President Obama’s strengths has been to send people ‘up’ with his comparatively free use–it is part of his inspirational aspect. Hope this hasn’t overstepped–this stuff can feel like a field of landmines to talk bout, but I think it is important to have a dialogue. Thanks to Robert for facilitating it.

  3. I think a huge point for all of us as AT teachers to recognize is that Hillary Clinton has clearly worked extensively on her posture, poise and presence, and struggles constantly with the tone and volume of her typically Central Pennsylvania voice. Bernie Sanders, not at all. That is a major privilege and advantage men have posturally. As a woman vying for success in public, Clinton has to be exposed to a scrutiny of her physical and vocal presence in ways that a man never will. I think this is an extremely important reality to understand with our female students.

    • You may be right about that Monika, but the focus of this series is really to take an Alexander Technique approach to in-the-moment posture and movement observation – not to try to explain why they are occurring. That, I think, is would be a great subject for an entirely different blog.

      Robert

  4. I am a teacher of singing and a lifetime Alexandrian since 1982. I started studying with Nina Haar (National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal) and a graduate from London. Her father Axel Haar and her brother (who is the creator of the Devon School) were also Alexander Tecnique teachers.

    As a singer in my mid- 4O’s, at the top of my game, I had a terrible bout of pneumonia and developed a haematoma in one vocal fold from coughing so violently. It unfortunately had to be removed surgically. The surgery was very skilled but I was unable to get anyone to help me to restore the voice after the trauma of surgery. NO ONE!!!! I stopped singing for about 5 years and then while on a 2 year stint in Regina Saskatchewan, I re-educated my singing and speaking self, ie my body and my body in context of movement and the minutae involved in reeducating the breath and vocal mechanism myself.

    Everyday…..atttending attending, observing, recording, directing directing directing. Stopping at the the slightest doing!!! A hundred times in an hour if need be. I finally did it and the voice came back with more presence, beauty and ease than I had ever known.

    The upshot of this is I have been restoring voices for about 10 years now, including that of an Alexander Technique teacher in Halifax.N.S. Tasha Miller. She and I exchanged services and collaborated in many ways. What a joy.

    Through all of this I have ‘reworked’ the language to providemore accurate and aware thinking and images around singing. One of my epithets is that “the human voice is a resonant instrument (like a cello) , not a projecting one (like a trumpet). Keeping the sound within the body is essential to preserve vocal health and integrity. This is of course, jsut the beginning of a journey to restore and beautify a voice but such an important one.

    Bernie’s mistake is “going out” to the mic…not allowing the mic to do its job of letting it come to hime to pick up his properly direct (read supported) and resonant voice.

    Thank you Richard so much for your blog. What a marvelous discovery in an afternoon of sufing

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