Is Federer relaxed, as Jim Courier says, and what can we, as singers, learn from watching him?

One of my singing teachers used to tell me to RELAX as I was rushing off from my lesson back to the conservatorium for a class. It always had the opposite effect from what she intended. I would tighten and feel defensive that she didn’t understand what I had on my plate. How could I possibly complete the course requirements if I spent my time relaxing?

I know what she wanted to convey. But that word never worked for me.

I watched the final of the Australian Open the other night. Did you see it?

One of the commentators, Jim Courier, kept marvelling at Roger Federer: “Wow, he’s SO relaxed..”

I think what Courier appreciates is Federer’s astonishing beauty and ease of movement, and his apparent unflappability on court. Both  the result of incredible discipline and training.

What brings out the word “relaxed” may be the fact that Federer doesn’t tighten when the stakes are raised. He doesn’t tighten, like many of us do, between head and spine, when we care deeply or urgently about the outcome of our action, or when the quality of our action has its greatest import. (And this is the essence of the Alexander Technique, by the way – that’s F.M.Alexander, pictured).

Federer probably doesn’t care much how we describe him. Maybe it even helps his competitive edge for the world to think he’s relaxed (and not trying or caring).

But “RELAX!” isn’t helpful if we think it’s something we should imitate for peak performance. Is “relaxed” the best we can do to describe someone who plays at Federer’s level? Playing tennis IS work. Playing competition tennis involves mental work as well as physical. And playing to win your 20th grand-slam title… well, can you imagine what kind of discipline that requires? Of mind, body and spirit? And how much he cares about it?

If you waited til the end of the speeches, and saw Federer trying not to sob in front of the world, you’ll have got a glimpse of how much he had invested in winning that match. He was NOT relaxed. If he’d been relaxed, he would have just got on with the handshake, said a few words, taken his Australian Open cup and had a beer with his mates and family and coaches. In those last moments of his speech where he was fighting away the tears, he showed us what he puts into each and every day of his career, and what it means to him.

When I understood that singing is a kind of work (rather than a kind of relaxation), my whole attitude changed and I began singing in a way that was more efficient and co-ordinated. I stopped trying to be relaxed and started paying attention to the true mental, physical and spiritual work of singing. And singing got a whole lot easier. To the point where now people might even say that I look “relaxed”!

But what I feel I am is co-ordinated. And disciplined. And I work hard. Off stage and on. But I am always on the hunt for ways to make my work easier, more efficient and more effective. As I imagine Federer is.

Next time you hear someone describe an athlete or a performing artist as relaxed, see if you can think of a better word.

If you have one now, let me know your thoughts?