A Technical Guide to Great Singing
The Posture Method
Postures while Exercising the Voice
In this article, I am including three postures of the eighteen postures that comprise my warm-up method and one 10-count breathing exercise. Additional breathing exercises and vocalises are explained in detail in Volume 1/DVD 1 of my upcoming book to be published September 2011.
Yoga is not essential to good singing. Many singers have had long, successful careers without Yoga. However, nearly everyone would agree that exercise is good. It makes us feel better, and it might help us all sing better! Yoga will definitely develop breath control and breath capacity.
Remember: Ritual eliminates choice.
As with all physical exercise systems, the person involved is all-important and the exercise should be helpful and not harmful in any way. That is not to say, however, that a little pain is to be avoided. I believe the sports adage goes--no pain, no gain. Almost every physical exercise we begin has some discomfort; that is part of the price we pay to get into good physical shape. Every artist must ultimately find his or her way. There is always a threshold of difficulty in everything we aspire to accomplish. The art of singing is fraught with problems and mountains of material that has to be learned. It is up to the individual artist to decide how many languages to learn or how many roles to learn, and how much physical exercise to undertake. I personally recommend that all forms of modern exercise, such as aerobics or weight lifting, be avoided and that a doctor who is familiar with the individual aspirant should approve any form of exercise. If the doctor approves of physical exercise for you, I would recommend that everyone commit themselves to the old exercise systems that have the bugs worked out of them. Yoga and Tai Chi are ancient, as are the other Martial Arts practiced in eastern Asia. Any of these systems taught in a reputable school by a qualified instructor are safe for the practitioners including singers. Running is good for general conditioning but does not seem to increase breath capacity. Yoga, swimming, and playing a wind or brass instrument increase breath capacity dramatically.
Posture #1- Lolling About
(**Warning: This exercise should not be used by pregnant women or within 3 months after delivery without physicians approval)
Source-professional singers and actors
Sit in a large easy chair and lean back all the way. Slide the pelvis forward toward the edge of the seat while leaning the head well back. The neck should be totally relaxed and supported by the high back of the chair, thereby avoiding any form of tension in any part of the neck.
Place both hands on the lower abdomen, right above the pubic bone. Inhale through the nose silently with the lips closed for as long as possible by drawing the abdomen in slowly with the hands pressed against the abdominal wall. The breath should be drawn into the lower rear quadrant of the lungs. Dont worry about the chest at this time. The chest should be very relaxed. Expansion of the chest will be developed through other exercises at a later time. At this stage, we are concerned with the freedom and expansion of the lower back and the lower lungs while maintaining a totally loose throat and neck. Hold the breath for a moment as the lungs are completely filled. There should be no tension in the vocal cords. Avoid the glottal stop. Lilli Lehman, as discussed previously, taught the 'breath jerk'. This is a sudden jerking in of the lower abdomen at the moment of inhaling. Geraldine Ferrar (1882-1967) used this breathing method, learned from Lilli Lehman, her teacher. Reverse the process by relaxing the belly (abdominal wall) outward, slowly. At this moment, sing a low, comfortable note without any particular criteria in terms of volume or quality, avoiding a glottal stroke or any tension in the throat. Avoid any flexing of the muscles in the abdomen. While sustaining the sung note as the lower belly (abdomen) moves continually outward, use the hands to disturb the tone by moving (shaking or wiggling) the abdominal wall in and out (not up and down) rapidly until a rhythmic disturbance of the sung tone is achieved. It is sometimes better to make a fist with one hand and use the other hand to press it inward. It is important to note that the movement of the fist or hands must be in an inward (towards the spine) direction and outwards (away from the spine) direction, alternating fairly rapidly. As soon as the rapid movement causes an audible response in the voice, change the tempo of the pulsing with the hands to a slower or faster rhythm, eventually creating a range from slow to a very fast, almost quivering speed and back again to very slowly. The movements should not be vertical (up and down) in relation to the body, but at a 90-degree angle relative to the abdomen. All of this movement should be done while holding a long note in a comfortable part of the voice. The pitch can be lower or higher, and even to the very highest notes of the range, as long as the voice responds and the lower belly remains flexible. It is important that the sound be continuous and not crack or break.
The abdominal wall should be completely loose during inhalation and exhalation. This can be achieved by continually moving (wiggling or shaking) the belly with the hands during inhalation and exhalation.
The object of this exercise is to loosen all tension in the abdomen and throat, and
in the viscera in general, and to encourage breathing into the lower back. It is not necessary to pull in the abdomen while breathing in (or to use the breath jerk) if the inhalation sinks deeply into the lower back. However, most singers tend to create tension in the abdomen and all abdominal tension must be eliminated in order to maintain a free throat. Lolling is a loosening and freeing exercise, dedicated to the neutralization of the muscles that affect the throat and the breathing process. It is generally beneficial to the practitioner because it encourages total relaxation in the body and mind while beginning an activation of the breathing process.
If you were taught that the belly or abdomen must be drawn in while exhaling and/or singing and speaking, conflicts can occur if a female singer becomes pregnant. Everyone agrees that women sing better and better when they become pregnant and the larger the fetus becomes, the better the singer sings. She has no choice but to breathe in her back! A pregnant woman who has the nearly impossible task of pulling the belly in while inhaling or singing can get into a state of severe conflict with her voice and diaphragm if she was taught to pull in while exhaling. It is better to do what comes naturally and breathe into the back with the belly hanging out. Let us all learn from Mother Nature. If it were necessary to pull in the belly while singing, a pregnant woman couldn't sing! Singers who are not pregnant should practice pulling the abdomen in while inhaling in order to eliminate the possibility of tension in the abdomen. While it may feel like tension is being created by pulling the abdomen in, an examination using the "shake the lower belly test" will reveal although the abdomen is pulled in while breathing, there is no tension (flexing or hardness) in the muscles of the abdominal wall. This is crucial to good singing. Singers who activate abdominal muscles while breathing or singing must compensate by creating an opposite and equal force somewhere else in the body, usually in the throat. Everything we do is done for the purpose of total relaxation of the throat. This exercise is conducive to a very free attitude concerning the quality of the sound and helps the singer to relax.
Posture #5- The Primitive (Campfire) Squat
From a normal standing position, squat down all the way, with the heels on the floor. Most adults cannot squat down and keep their heels on the floor the first time they try. However, it can be done, believe it or not. In some cases, it is as difficult as learning to ride a bicycle or learning to ski, because it is all about balancing and centering. Every child we see playing in the sand on the beach squats this way--heels down. It will require a lot of practice in some instances, but it is possible to learn to squat correctly. All primitive people squat this way around their campfires. It is the natural way to squat, and must be relearned by most modern adults. However, it is essential to proper centering and energy flow and must be learned. It is actually easy for children and some adults.
The mechanics of squatting are simple. From a normal standing position with the arms relaxed and hanging down and the feet apart at shoulder width, bend the knees deeply and completely. It will be necessary to shift the weight forward with the arms well in front of the body as the body goes down. Ideally, the squatter will be able to rock back and forth without a loss of balance. Most people lose their balance and fall backwards. While sometimes a little embarrassing, this is harmless and is a natural part of the learning and adjusting process, just as falling off the bicycle is part of finding your balance and coordination. Don't give up! Keep trying until you are successful.
Once accomplished, this posture is inducive to the lower back breathing begun in the Lolling Posture. The dome-like diaphragm should be descending while breathing in and the rear half of the diaphragm should descend to the lowest point possible. It is not enough to depress only the front of the diaphragm. These postures, and the ones described in the following examples, cause the singer or speaker to breathe in an optimum manner, utilizing the total diaphragmatic function, thus providing a deeper tone and more freedom of the throat, which leads to more control of the voice.
Posture #11-The Tree
Stand up on the right foot with the leg straight. Take the left foot and turn it upside down so the sole of the foot is facing upwards. Pull the heel of the left foot back into the crotch until the heel is well back and against the inside of the upper right thigh. Press the knife-edge (the outside edge) of the left foot against the inside of the right thigh, high up, and let the left, bent leg rest against the opposite (right) thigh. Raise the arms and touch the fingertips together above the head. Be sure that the space formed around the head is as equal as possible. Allow the arms to relax without losing their posture above the head. The elbows will move slightly forward. The shoulders should be as loose as possible and the entire body should feel as soft and relaxed as possible without compromising the perfection of the posture.
Up to this point we have concentrated on floor postures, with much bending forward and backward. Now we are standing up (one of the standing group of postures) and straightening the body. The breathing should continue to be very deep and directed toward the tailbone and buttocks. The abdomen should be drawn inward during the inhalation and released outward during the exhalation. This is a very good posture to begin octave exercises from a very low note. The body should remain free and the singing should not cause any loss of balance or any loss of the correctness of the posture.
One of the rules of the Posture System in singing is, once a posture is established, the singing should not cause any loss of balance or any change in the perfection of the posture.
This posture is the first and only one dedicated to the development of the pure, vertical lean. This is the posture that best develops the 'brick in the bucket' concept of a straight-down, vertical drop of the breath, down into the pelvic floor with nothing to hold it down but gravity. 'Bouncing' is discussed in my book on vocal technique, which, also, develops the vertical concept of the drop of the breath. However, it is not really a posture, but an action technique.
The main thing to remember with the tree is that we are not floating away into space. Gravity is all we need to hold us down on the earth. Therefore, it makes sense that gravity can hold the breath, viscera, and diaphragm down if we can relax and allow it to happen. This is the secret of those obese singers who seem to sing so beautifully without the problems and tendencies that seem to plague most singers. We know that obese singers who lose a lot of weight invariably develop vocal problems. Some are very famous, magnificent singers who lost control of their voices after losing enormous amounts of weight, sometimes over 100 lbs. Having been obese since childhood and having relied on the weight to keep the breath dropped down in the lower body, when the loss of the extreme downward pull was no longer there, the singers developed huge wobbles and the voices became hard and strident. The breath is no longer held down deep in the body by the weight carried in the abdomen.
This loss of control can be corrected after a severe diet by teaching the singer how to get the breath down again. By exercising, through Yoga posturing and consciously thinking deep, the concept of where to place the breath in the body can be relearned. In this posture, the feeling of heaviness and weight are all-important. The voice itself seems to drop down into the body, as if each tone weighs several pounds and is sitting right in the center of the floor of the pelvis. The sensation of the voice sitting securely down in the lower body is essential to having secure and easy high notes. The feeling of the body being heavy helps especially with the high soft tones. It is obviously something to be desired for any singer. This is one of the most important postures for developing the upper register of any voice.
Source- great singers, past and present; and teachers of Bel Canto 10-count breathing:
This exercise is the same for both men and women. Stand or sit erect (in a straight-back chair if sitting); your spine in proper alignment--chest slightly raised, arms slightly behind the body, allowing the air box to be fully open and expanded. Exhale, releasing all of your breath, allowing the abdomen to fall out as you exhale.
Inhale to a count of 10 seconds (start with 5 if necessary and build up to a 10-count). Inhale through the nose silently, slowly, as if smelling a fragrant flower for 10 seconds; as you inhale, simultaneously draw in the lower abdomen slowly with the inhalation; hold the breath for 10 seconds and then, exhale slowly and evenly for 10 seconds, relaxing the abdomen outward as the breath is released. This exercise can be done while walking, sitting or standing still.
At all times, the singer works towards the following criteria:
The jaw is free; the tongue relaxed and resting on the inside of the lower lip from one corner of the mouth to the other; the lips relaxed/the mouth closed with corners of the mouth slightly back (a gentle smile) for inhalation; inhalation is through the nose (as if slowly smelling a fragrant flower); upon exhalation, allow your jaw to fall open and slowly exhale through the mouth.
Any book written on singing today will have to deal with faulty concepts of vocal technique that have become universally acceptable to the point of being, in some respects, convention. It is interesting to note that the greatest singers in history, including Enrico Caruso and Lilli Lehmann describe the correct method of breathing for singers as follows: "...when the singer inhales, the abdomen should be pulled in before singing and at the instant the singer begins to sing a tone, the abdomen should be released down and outward." Caruso described the process in his book, The Art of Singing, as follows: "Pull the abdomen in while inhaling, and do a contrary motion while singing." Lilli Lehmann, in her book, called the process the 'breath jerk' and described her breathing method as being like that of Enrico Caruso, although the two singers never compared techniques in person. This is a paradox, when one considers that today, the so-called correct method of breath support being taught is the exact opposite function used by both of these historical singers.
How can a young singer become as great as the old greats if he or she does not use the same criteria they used, as described in their books? Young singers today are directed as follows: No grunting; no sobbing; no slowing down; no speeding up; no holding notes too long; no cutting off notes too soon; don't wait too long; don't hurry; don't sing too dark; don't sing too bright; don't look up; don't put your head up; DON'T BREATHE (the most amazing of all bad advice); don't, don't... DON'T!
All we can do is hope there are young singers in the wings who are smart enough to wade through the don'ts and discover the dos that set the voice free. The true fans of beautiful, thrilling, expressive singing will be so grateful.
"The breath is the ocean---the voice is the boat that floats on the ocean. Nature gave us the voice---we cannot change it---but we can educate the breath and learn to control it. This constitutes the whole method of singing."
"Keep the heart warm and the head cool. Heart and head must go hand in hand."
- Giovanni Batista Lamperti
"The human voice is the organ of the soul."
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Copyright 2010/Michael Trimble