My [physiotherapist] was wondering (I, of course, am wondering too) what singing techniques, things to think about, etc. would be useful to remember when practicing voice. He said he once saw footage of Whitney Houston belting it out, and he noticed that she was not using any of the muscles that were bare and visible for all to see — the ones above her rack, basically. So that’s my “question”…although better body awareness in general is beneficial for singing, is there anything specific to focus on or something? Any information on this would be sooooo appreciated from me. It’s hard to change these habits…like…breathing…ahhh! – Kamil (Vancouver, BC)
Proper posture and breathing definitely play a huge role in singing. There are the obvious benefits to having proper posture and breathing, such as improved projection and breath control. But in my experience as a singer, they also assist with the less obvious things like stage presence, managing stage fright or performance anxiety, endurance (try singing a 45-minute set or getting through an 8-hour recording session when your body isn’t aligned properly or you’re only taking half-breaths – not fun), and even the level of artistry that a singer can lend to the song.
I was taught that proper breathing can be described in three words: low, slow and silent. Low, meaning your chest and your shoulders should really be still (unless, of course, you’re purposely moving like in choreography). Slow, meaning you should take as much time as you can drawing in your air, as opposed to taking small, quick puffs of breath, which tend to be more shallow and usually don’t make full use of your lung capacity. Silent, meaning you shouldn’t be gasping or wheezing.
Now, posture. When I was young, the teachers at my school used to make us balance books on top of our heads and walk around while trying to keep them from sliding off. You probably don’t need to go to that extreme, but for singing you should make an effort to stand without slouching, hold your head up straight (so that you’re looking straight ahead, not downwards or upwards) but not stick your chin up or out, and relax your shoulders and neck as much as you can. When I need to correct a student’s posture, I sometimes get them to stand against a wall so that their behind and the back of their heads are just resting on the wall. There should be a hollow space between your back and the wall, but not so much that your back is extremely arched. This is a generally good reference point for whether or not you are standing straight, but as with everything else in vocal training it’s better executed by an actual instructor. If all else fails, don’t sweat it too much; otherwise, you may just end up tensing up even more. For many people who are just breaking out of a slouching habit or a tense posture, I like to get them to stretch their neck muscles, roll their shoulders and do other upper-body stretches intermittently, just to get them to “check in” with their bodies and keep the tension at bay through their vocal exercises. For students with severe posture problems, I would recommend additional physical training or therapy outside of vocal instruction so that their issues can be addressed more adequately.
As far as those muscles that are engaged in singing but not visible to the audience – your physiotherapist is absolutely right. This is the transverse abdominis (TVA) muscle, which is responsible for stabilizing your core and pushing out air when you exhale. This is the muscle that activates when you’re about to lift or push a heavy weight, or when you pull your belly button inwards to hollow out your stomach. This is also the muscle that creates all that air flow which, when combined with her incredible vocal abilities, produced Whitney Houston’s giant sound. Actively engaging and strengthening this muscle can really improve both your posture and your breathing, because it is an integral factor to both.