5 Basics of Singing 1: Posture and Breathing
Two basic elements of good singing are posture and breathing. Both of these are habits instilled since birth. However, the majority of people have both good and bad habits when coupled with the act of singing. For example, think about how you sit. Do you regularly sit in a chair, on the floor, or in some other way? Do you sit with your legs crossed, up, or down? When you sit, is your back straight, or are you hunched over in some way? Another example with breathing: do you ever think about how you breathe? Do you breathe deeply? Is it hard to breathe for any reason? These are some of the basic questions when becoming aware of your physical habits for the purposes of singing.
When you were a child learning to sit and walk, balance was a process. If you ever watch babies when they first learn to do either of these things, they do not get it right on the first try. The reason is that it takes several muscle groups working together to accomplish these physical tasks. In the nineteenth century, there was a man named F. M. Alexander, who was an actor. He experienced chronic laryngitis when he performed. Because acting involved projecting the voice regularly, he would get sore throats, and the doctors of the time could not determine the cause. He decided to figure it out for himself, and after studying how he spoke when he acted, he realized he was sticking his neck out as he got louder, causing tension in this throat. He would later develop what is known as The Alexander Technique, used worldwide to promote proper posture. (Go to http://www.alexandertechnique.com/ ).
Posture in essence is how we hold ourselves up, typically in a standing or sitting position. Your body utilizes different muscle groups when sitting verses standing. If you are in the best possible posture, you are using the least amount of muscle groups (free of unneeded tension). One common problem with singers is unneeded tension, especially in the neck area. This is caused by a number of factors, but the first one to check is posture. When standing to sing, place both feet about shoulder width apart (one can be slightly in front of the other for balance if necessary). Now the upper body should feel relaxed but aligned. One technique is to imagine there is a string coming out of the top of the back of your head, and someone is pulling just enough to keep you straight. Another technique is to put your arms above your head as if to stretch, then bring them down but leave your body in the same place as the stretch position. When in the sitting position, the upper body (the hip and above) should be in the same position as the standing position.
There are a few ways you can check to see if you are in correct singing posture. First, you can use a mirror, preferably a full-length mirror, and look in the mirror to see if anything is out of place. Second, you can video record yourself, and then look at the recording. Third, have someone you trust look at your posture. And finally, you can just see if you are balanced by placing a hardback book on your head, and not let it fall. One can also check proper alignment by lying with your back on the ground. This limits the number of muscles needed to stay balanced.
Balance of the muscle groups is key to proper posture. Most people habitually sit and stand in some level of bad posture, and this becomes evident if muscles get tired and you have to shift. Another technique to check balance is to stand on one foot for 10 seconds, then the other foot, without falling. The true test is to do either of these with your eyes closed (Don’t try this without something to hold onto in case you lose your balance, like the back of a chair).
Breathing is another activity done without much thought. The human body is set up to automatically breathe no matter if the person is conscious of it or not. For singing, the issue is typically one of three things: not enough breath, tension in the breath, or lack of proper tension in the diaphragm. The diaphragm is your muscle that causes breath. The lungs merely transfer the oxygen and carbon dioxide back and forth from the bloodstream. When you breathe in, your diaphragm expands, causing a vacuum in the lungs, and air fills the vacuum. When people breathe out in everyday life, the diaphragm relaxes, and air is pushed out of the lungs. In singing, the diaphragm stays engaged throughout the time right before a sound is made to the end of the sound. Common problems with inexperienced singers and breathing include: 1. Shallow breath; 2. Breathing with tension in the throat; 3. Not enough diaphragm engagement, leading to “breathy” sound; and 4. Breathing too late before singing.
When breathing in to sing, posture is step one. If the singer is in proper posture, the chance for extra tension decreases. There should be no extra movement in the body other than the expansion from the diaphragm. For some people, the shoulders go up, creating a shallow breath. Only about half of one’s lung capacity is filled when the shoulders rise, because it counteracts the diaphragm’s ability to expand. Also, breathing in should be completely silent. Any sound is an indicator of tension, which transfers to the throat (cue F. M Alexander). If a quick breath is necessary, and it often is, then the image that could help is this: pretend you are quickly surprised at winning the lottery, but you don’t want anyone to know. Another technique to keep tension away from the throat is to imagine what it feels like when you yawn (cue the yawn). Your throat opens up, and your soft palate in your mouth rises. After breathing in, the diaphragm should remain engaged, so tension cannot come back to the throat. Here’s a technique to accomplish this: First, find the spot below your ribcage, place your hand there, and pant. You should feel a muscle tensing and relaxing. That is part of your diaphragm. Push against that spot continuously so it stays engaged (If you fall over, then it is not engaged). This spot is nicknamed the “pant muscle” because of its ease to notice engagement by panting. Finally, people usually wait to the last second to breathe before singing, greatly increasing the chance for tension. Take up to 4 seconds to breath in if there is time. This allows for a deep breath with little extra tension.
It cannot be stressed enough how important these two concepts are for proper singing. Think of proper breathing as having enough gas in your car to get to your destination. Without enough breath, something has to give in order to make it to the end of the musical phrase. Typically singers get tense as they run out of breath. If you haven’t figured it out yet, any tension other than diaphragm engagement is the enemy of the singer. It causes the majority of vocal issues, and stems from bad habits. Usually it takes four times as long to unlearn a bad habit than the time it took to create it. Because singing is such a physical activity, good habits through repetition and muscle memory must be practiced. The payoff in the end is your true voice shining through, and greater control over what sound is produced.
Assignment on Videos
After watching the demonstration video, enter the secret number at the top of your assignment.
Write in complete sentences answers to the following questions.
1. In your own words, what was the content of the video?
2. What are two things you found most interesting about the content of the video?
3. Think of a singer you have seen and heard. Who are they, and what do they demonstrate in terms of this concept?
4. Name 3 positive things you do while singing that relate to this concept.
5. What 2 things can you improve on relating to this concept?