When I was taking singing lessons in college, I took a few lessons from a teacher who asked me to tuck my pelvis and lift my rib cage before singing. I remember thinking at the time: “I can’t breathe, let alone sing.” I tried but instinctually decided she was not for me, switched teachers and then embarked on a long journey of freeing my breathing. I explored meditation breath practices, did a year of Feldenkrais and then finally discovered the Alexander Technique. It was through the Alexander work that my body started to change, releasing very deeply engrained habits of “holding.” As I came out of a spinal “collapse” (the slump) from a whole-body perspective, the relationship of “parts” also started to shift. As the spine behind the ribs lengthened, the ribs became more buoyant and available for the singing breath. So, imagine my surprise when, at my last lesson, my beloved teacher led me into a slight pelvic tuck, head forward and up (I knew that one from Alexander lessons!) and, (gasp) synching up the onset of sound with a visible lift of the ribs.
Now, it’s difficult to explain in writing that this is not a “direct” lifting of the ribs as I was taught in college. She had me notice that as the lower abdominals pulled in to start the sound, the ribs respond by springing up. Then, while singing, keeping this lift and the spine lengthening relaxed the muscles of the neck and throat. It worked like a charm and the sound was free and huge. Driving home, however, I was conflicted, remembering my college days. What was different now? I have a freer body. Talking with my husband, who also teaches the Alexander Technique, he likened it to the “form” that perhaps a discus thrower might take before launch. When your joints are free, and the spine is uncompressed, you can take any “shape” needed for a strenuous activity and it won’t interfere with your freedom of movement and coordination. While singing I could feel the power of the body in this unfamiliar, but effective operatic alignment.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my vocal and Alexander work, true long-term change for the better – aka vocal progress – happens when you become aware of what you are doing, how you may be interfering with or holding your body parts and then learn to move, stand and sing from are more “organized” wholeness. Yes, we can work with parts – e.g. the tongue position or how you are using the cords – but ultimately, for transforming the voice into a healthy, flexible instrument, all these parts must work together. After all, we want to focus on what we’re singing rather than how when we share our music with others.
How does this work in the studio? When someone comes to me for voice lessons in Marin, they may be surprised that we do “table work.” A new student recently asked me if we needed to do this at every lesson. (A lesson on the table, at first, can take time and may not leave a lot of time for more direct singing work.) Other students are used to the table and might even ask to do an Alexander “lay-down” after a long day at work. Usually I will move students to the table if I see tension throughout the whole body that will likely make for a frustrating voice lesson. Or, I might see that someone’s rib cage seems directly held up – a habit that occasionally comes from people being told to push their shoulders back (a partial body movement that then keeps the whole upper torso and neck in a lock.) Lying on the table for a spell helps the spine and ribs soften and helps people, once they get up, to experience a different, healthier alignment. It is this new body kinesthetic that we want to take into our singing, not our habitual one. It is the body organization that needs to change so the voice has a chance, especially if there are big vocal issues to be addressed.
So, the original question was: Do we need a certain physical “form” to sing well? After all, there are many fine singers who have probably never even thought of what their bodies are doing. They just open their mouths and lovely tones come out. However, I’ve noticed that these folks often have inborn qualities that are great for singing. For instance, I know a successful local singer who has terrible “posture” (This word is bandied about a lot. I like to think of posture as just an expression of your physical and emotional habits.) Even though her alignment is such, her voice works well because she has “ring” that won’t quit. For her style of singing – musical theater – it’s good enough. I feel, though, that if she addressed her whole body coordination, she would likely have a bigger, richer voice.
It takes time and attention, but ultimately addressing long-standing habits (no pun intended!) and freeing your whole body is the way to a healthy voice that will last into the golden years. You can then tuck your pelvis, take any form you’d like – even do a hand-stand – and your voice will purr in whatever style of music you choose. I’m happy to provide singing lessons for kids and quite a few older adults and, working this way, they are sounding better and better as the years go by. I believe it’s worth the effort.