Etymology: Gk, hyper + L, extendere, to stretch out movement at a joint to a position beyond the joint's normal maximum extension.
The student arrives and seemingly has great posture, the head floating above it all. Work with him for awhile, and you observe that the cervical vertebrae are much too straightened. Not only that, he seems braced for impact. Now. What's that all about?
Hyperextension indicates that the Stapedius in the inner ear - an extensor - is not in balance with the muscle of the hammer - a flexor- behind the eardrum. It's engaging far too much. This results in the loss of awareness of high frequencies, which are dampened in the student's audio-vocal control (this excerpt from The Ear and the Voice is enlightening on the matter), the voice often lacking resonance, depth and fullness. Sometimes it sounds like it is coming from another room. Sure. The student may think he is singing correctly. But that's the problem. It's all too corrected! Too managed and manipulated.
I know something of which I write, since I exhibited this kind of posture when I went to the Listening Centre in Toronto in November of 1999. Yes. I was singing professionally, and my voice had fullness and ring, but I wasn't experiencing real ease. To regain that, I had to learn to hear the buzz of bone conduction. What vowel gave me the clearest sense of that? A vibrant /i/. Interestingly, it is also the vowel that has the most 'bite'. As such, it engages the hammer behind the eardrum and the tensor muscles of the body, which counteract the over-reaching of the body. Yes. My teacher taught me this vowel and how to listen to it, but it took the listening training for her words to make full sense to me, that is, for me to actually feel what she meant.
Even more interestingly, it was during my first week at the Centre that I began to experience true extension- an experience that I have not forgotten. I had been listening to filtered Mozart for about a week when I became aware of an ache in the root of my tongue, as though someone was pulling it apart, stretching it. This ache traveled to my sternum, and then, within a day, up the back of my neck to the crown of my head. It was as though an invisible person pulled my head up and back - strongly!
There is a great difference between stiffening to lengthen the spine, and true extension, which is accompanied by great freedom of movement. What did I feel when my neck and tongue tension released? A great deal of soreness.
I can tell you from experience that hyperextension reflects a psychological disposition of defense. One really is braced for impact. How does this condition arise? Somewhere in the past, the student has gone through some degree of repeated trauma - auditory or otherwise. Be it at home or school, it doesn't matter: the effect of this trauma takes its toll. It becomes habitual, and only an intervention - an overriding stimulus - can change matters. This is what Tomatis' listening training did for me. Did it set things right (there's a pun for long time readers of this blog) right away? No. I had to practice for a long time to experience sustained and permanent change. It didn't come overnight, even if I did experience an immediate release of the musculature of my throat and neck. I still had to teach myself how to listen. And that took time. However, all the information was there in my brain. My teacher and my own curiosity saw to that.
Knowing intellectually is not enough. That is the problem of the hyperextended student. He believes that he 'knows' better than anyone. And in fact he does, insofar as his listening ability is habitually yanked up to red alert status all the time. This outward looking disposition - this defensive posture -means that he has a deficit of inner listening. He can't quite hear what he is doing since his own inner voice has been compromised by fear, which stiffens the spine and distorts his audio-vocal control. This is why a clear and sustained experience of bone conduction is of vital necessity. It gives him back his voice.