Balance and Imbalance in singing posture - Questions and Answers
It is noticeable for myself and when teaching others that the cuperto (proper alignment of the vocal cords along the thin edges see article Cuperto) that it is difficult if not impossible to achieve when there is tension in the back of the neck thrusting the head forward. This tension is made all the worse by mismanagement of vocal technique causing specific problems. If it feels wrong then it is wrong. However many people who are not bodily aware may not be aware of this tension. It feels as if there is a building up of tension under the cords and in the tongue, the notes are squeezed or are breathy and lack resonance. Neck muscles are over working which inhibit the natural flow of the voice up and down the scale that one is so clearly searching for. If in touch with the body this set of muscles feels like the wrong choice!
Balance is not a stuck position for instance a juggler balancing an object on a pole on the palm of his hand moves his hand in what seems like a fast chaotic manner in order to keep the object up. If he makes one directional choice and sticks there even for a second the object falls off. This is true of the body, since the head weighs roughly a stone (10 lbs) and is on the top. Obviously the body does not want the head to fall off but if only one choice is being made constantly the body takes automatic contingency plans. The muscles we want to use to sing with, grip on - the neck, the shoulders the chest and the back.
Why do singers make such choices?
- Trying too hard in an attempt to improve but just going deeper into a one choice scenario with unsatisfactory results! We have all been there! Too much concentration on the upper body with no attention to grounding will cause imbalance.
- I have seen colleagues and my students make imbalance choices because of personal stress. I know from personal experience how difficult it is not too lose your grounding through difficult times.
- Straining the head forward and up and down to follow pitch is a classic imbalance.
- Lack of the correct use of the postural muscles (Muscles in your back, neck and stomach which hold you up) on inhalation and exhalation and taking on an unsuitable role or a role one is ill equipped to deal with.
A singer’s balance should be on the pelvis going down through the legs so that the centre of gravity is there and not in locking the chest, shoulders and back under the neck. Balance by its very nature is not a stuck position. We balance on our feet on the long muscles between the joints of our legs going into our feet. Developing a sense of the wonder and nuance of balance is a wonderful help and de-stresses the body. It is a strange sounding thing to say but out of this sense of gravity or grounding comes a tremendous levity. Using the fact that gravity sticks us to the planet is infinitely better than fighting it! We are balancing animals.
Here is a way of sensing the pathways of gravity and levity through you.
There is tremendous energy in the arch of the foot. Stand with the skull tall and proud on the top of the spine looking straight in front of you, legs slightly bent not rigid (The knees should always be thus on stage and this is a good habit for life) and feet about six inches between them and slightly turned out. Lift the big toe and put your weight forward on the ball of the big toe. Then as you drop the toe down bring the muscles of the top of the thighs round towards each other in a way that makes you feel pressure on the outside of the foot near the heel. This is quite hard to explain in writing I’m afraid. Slightly press the thighs forward at the top as you do this as the bottom should not stick out unduly but for want of a better word the bum should be slightly perky so you can feel energy going down the side of the leg. Lastly make sure you are not becoming knock-kneed by asking your knees to stay away from each other. Now see how lightly you can do all this and still retain the awareness of all that springy energy. Slightly move your ankles first one and then the other you have subtle choices of balance in every joint and muscle not forgetting all the little joints in the feet. (These movements should feel light and free; if they do not, make sure you are still doing the things mentioned previously) The spine is free to be flexible and to breath and the shoulders light. You can also nod your head gently as if nodding yes when singing and this stops the muscles grabbing and locking up.
You should get a sense of your inner thigh and of the long muscles of the legs on an open foot. (It is best not to scrunch toes up when you sing) There should also be a sense of the width of your back starting under the buttocks. At the other extreme sits the head on top of the narrow snake of a spine which starts between your thighs on all the energy of your legs miles away from the knees. It is the muscles either side of the spine that help phonate in conjunction with the abdominal wall A truly wonderful conductor I used to work with used to say that he thought of singing like a (narrow) fountain of water spurting up either side of the spine with a ping pong ball somehow buoyantly bobbling on the top! From gravity comes the fountain.
I have noticed that several of my students have presented with build up of bunched tension at the back of the base of the neck. Sometimes one vertebra has been shunted under another creating a shelf effect. This forces the larynx up. It sits in strings and pulleys in a hammock so to speak in the muscles of the neck. If the muscles of the back of the neck are released up out of grounding then the larynx feels safe enough to drop and relax in its hammock. If on the other hand the head is pushed out of balance the larynx feels obliged to join in the scramble to hold it up!
A lovely mezzo came with quite the worst case of this tension imbalance I have ever seen and her range had diminished over the years because of it. It took a good year of patient work to realign her voice and for her to find her balance and she is very happy to be in work now. Yoga stretches are excellent for keeping the spine supple and for stretching tight hamstrings (the major cause of tight backs and back pain) The Alexander technique is very useful work to do.
I must emphasize that the voice must not be driven through the cords and the breath held behind them. We sing on breath pressure and there needs to be the correct resistance IN THE TRUNK of the body to provide a narrow steady stream of air.
Accurate information as to how to use the body and the cuperto are very hard to find. In my own career I have fought shy of taking certain heavier roles I was offered - Wagner - Elsa and the heavier Mozart roles. The lessons I have taken with David Jones have refined the voice and given me marvellous vocal freedom in these roles through much more accurate information, than I had previously. This kind of information is in woefully short supply in the profession and needs to be shared.
Singing should be a great joy from a sense of connection from deep within on a wonderfully grounded body. It really is possible thank goodness!
Good luck on your vocal journey