Sunday, February 22, 2009

Preparing to sing: hip wiggling and knee bending

This is a guest post from Alexander Massey of Authentic Voice™. It originally appeared in the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network newsletter in June 2005. This post is the last in the series Preparing to sing

This is the fourth in a series of four posts looking at warm ups and how you prepare to sing.

preparing to sing

  1. why bother?
  2. what should a warm up consist of?
  3. physical and vocal warm up ideas for choirs
  4. hip wiggling and knee bending
Chris has asked me to explain why knee bending, funny walks, and various hip wiggling and belly dancing movements can help ‘ground’ our voices, and create stronger breath support and a more centred tone. Okay, here goes with a brief (-ish!) explanation.

When we breathe in, our diaphragm (roughly horizontal dome-like sheet of muscle below the lungs, and above the viscera, guts, etc.) muscularly contracts downwards; the muscles of the ribs also make the rib cage expand; through these two actions, the lungs expand and air comes in. As the diaphragm contracts downwards, the guts and contents of the abdominal cavity are compressed, and move outwards (front, sides, and lower back). Because our front below the rib cage moves outwards, many mistakenly believe this to be the diaphragm moving outwards; it isn’t; the diaphragm can only move up and down, not in and out, so we can never see it move, however athletic we are with our breathing.

In normal everyday breathing, an out breath happens when the diaphragm simply relaxes, and springs back upwards, and the rib cage closes a little through a similar ‘elastic recoil’. Abdominal and pelvic muscles play little or no part in this.

For singing, we need to make the out breath a more ‘muscular’ event, so that the air pressure at the vocal cords is sufficient to sustain their vibration when they are flexed for vocalising. The diaphragm itself can only contract downwards; it cannot ‘push’ upwards of itself. This is why we need to use extra muscles to act upwards on the diaphragm from below. This is where the abdominal and pelvic muscles come in. In singing, abdominal muscles squeeze the viscera inwards, which in turn pushes the diaphragm upwards. If we didn’t do this, no air would come out, as the coming of together of the vocal cords would prevent its exit.

So why all the wiggling? Well, the majority of people have lazy bodies and lazy breathing; their posture tends to be slack, so that the spine curves in at the base, and the abdominal muscles are virtually ‘switched off’. When these people try to sing, they push with their rib cage, and muscles just below the sternum, but never engage the deep breath support. The result is a forced, inflexible sound, sometimes hard, sometimes breathy or thinner than it could be, limited in range, and it is difficult to sustain notes for very long. This method of breathing produces what Meribeth Bunch (in her excellent book Dynamics of the Singing Voice) calls a ‘false sense of fullness’; the singer feels upper body strength and energy, and feels full of air, with an illusory sense of ‘support’, and then is puzzled why the voice feels stiff, and the air supply doesn’t seem to last very long.

To wake up the abdominal muscles (and the muscles of the pelvic floor that also help deep breath support) - so they start doing what the singer needs them to do - the simplest thing is to bend the knees, keeping the spine as lengthened and upright as possible. If you try this, you will notice immediately how the muscles just above the groin become ‘toned’, and start supporting the lower back. Breathing is automatically deepened, and exhalation becomes more muscular. Silly walks (e.g. Frankie Armstrong’s chains of ‘elephants’) will help achieve the same thing. Either rocking the pelvis, or rotating it during a knee bend will ensure that the abdominal muscles remain accessible for ‘singer’s breathing’. If the muscles are moving, then they can’t lock. (If they lock, even if we bend our knees, we tend to revert to stiffer, upper body breathing.)

Another couple of handy tips:
  1. put one foot up on the wall in front of you, and sing - see if it you feel a greater vocal centredness;
  2. sit on a dining room chair facing its back, and press your thighs against the side, and sing.
So, bending your knees, and wiggling your hips helps engage the abdominal muscles needed for efficient ‘singer’s breathing’. The beauty of it is that when we do such exercises, the voice starts working more efficiently quite automatically, and we don’t have to get so self-conscious and tense about trying to work out the ‘right’ way to breathe.

I think it is helpful to distinguish the word ‘natural’ from ‘habitual’. The mechanisms I explain here may feel odd when people first try them – and can take weeks or months to absorb into our technique. That does not mean that they are ‘wrong’ or ‘unnatural’, but simply unfamiliar. What we do habitually, we often call natural, though it is not necessarily the healthiest or most efficient way of doing things. Because we live such unaware lives a lot of the time, and have such entrenched inefficient habits, we have to learn afresh how to do what is most natural - it does not come automatically. Singing IS simple, but sometimes we have to work hard to reach that simplicity.

The good news is that more efficient and healthier vocal, postural and breathing habits can be learned, given a clear understanding of the principles, appropriate application, and perseverance. Now in my 23rd year of professional singing and teaching, I still take myself back to these basic principles, and use them in my own warming up, and monitoring myself in rehearsal and performance. Whatever our level of experience, and whatever the context in which we sing, I believe we always need to attend to the basics of what makes any voice work well; we are all subject to the same natural anatomical laws! Observe these laws, and our voices should survive well into our 70s (at least) as serviceable singing instruments, giving pleasure to ourselves and others.

Alexander Massey © 15 June 2005 and

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Chris Rowbury


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