Body Alignment and Breathing Exercises
We sing with our whole body. Habits that we develop in our daily posture can interfere with our singing. Pay attention to your body alignment:
When you are sitting at a desk typing
Checking your phone
Notice the position of your head and neck. Check your jaw – is it clenched? Do your neck and shoulders get sore? If you are standing is your weight more distributed on one side – such as standing more on one leg with the hip out?
Finding optimal alignment:
Stand on both feet, shoulder width apart, feel the body weight through the center of your feet. Imagine a triangle is created on the bottom of your foot with the heel, big toe, and little toe. Try to distribute your weight evenly realizing that two points of your triangle are in the front of your feet. We often stand too far back on our heels. Try singing your “test song” with your weight too far back, too far forward and then just right.
Let your knees remain “soft”, neither locked nor bent. Pelvis is relaxed and centered over feet. Abdomen is relaxed.
Try your test song with knees locked and then again unlocked.
Try your test song with back arched, and then slumping, and finally with optimal alignment.
Feel your spine lengthen, but not straighten! Your spine has natural curves in it.
Shoulders should be in a neutral position neither rounded forward nor pulled back. Your upper chest and back should be equal in surface area. Feel your shoulders simply “sit” on the ribcage imagining the shoulder pads, which football players wear.
Your neck does not hold up your head! Your skull is balanced on top of the last vertebrae in your spine. Feel all of your head movements from this place. Feel the indentation in the back of your head on the same level as your ears? That’s how high it is. This is very important; we want to avoid neck tension in singing. Your ears should feel as if they are over your shoulders. Most of us tend to “stick our necks out”. Try nodding your head “yes” and notice where the movement comes from. Pretend you are eavesdropping on a conversation going on behind your back. This will allow your head to move back and your neck to lengthen.
Try short portions of your test song:
Head too far forward
Head too far back
Our goal in posture is a positive one; we don’t want our posture to get in the way of any functions of singing. This new alignment will take practice. Most of us have poor posture. You’ll find in the long run, with this new alignment, that you’ll have more energy. Also be aware that many singers who already have vocal training or a choral background have a tendency to hold the upper body up in a manner that is over extended, i.e. high chest and shoulders and lifted chin.
How to adapt the alignment for sitting.
Upper body is the same. Your sitting bones will become your new feet.
Find a chair that allows you to have your knees bent at a 90 degree angle.
Rock back and forth from your hips until you find the center. Note – the center will most likely feel too far back. Let your lower back move toward the chair if you feel that it is arched. Double check your upper body and head and neck alignment.
***Bonus – can you interrupt your habits and try your optimal alignment during the day?
Common Terms and Definitions
Resonance is the vibration of sound that causes sound to be heard. The vocal cords produce vibrations that are amplified by our resonators. We are a wind instrument. The breath is your motor, the vocal folds are the vibrator, and areas of your oral and nasal pharynx produce your resonance. What’s complicated about singing is that we have many areas where the sound can resonate, but only one area where we achieve acoustically pleasing tone. Ideally we should feel the tone resonate high in the back of the throat and the area around the soft palate. Each person describes these sensations in a different way. Many people feel as if the vibrations of the sound are in their nose and or sinuses, although it is not actually resonating in this area. You need your teacher to tell you when you are achieving optimal tone, and remember the sensations you feel when it is working.
Another complication is that while other musical instruments have a fixed resonating chamber, like the body of a guitar, our vocal tract can change length and width. We need to allow these adjustments to take place to achieve optimal acoustics with the different vowel sounds that we sing. Again, your teacher will tell you if you have achieved the correct space for various vowels and pitches that we sing. Your exercises will help you to feels this so that you can find a consistent tone.
Placement is a confusing term. If your sound has correct resonance then you have correct placement.
You cannot force the sound into any of the resonating chambers. This is more of an aesthetic idea of guiding the voice with the mind to remind you where you should be feeling the resonance.
You don’t need to exhale at the end of a phrase. Take your next breath, simply replacing the air that you’ve used.
Watch for “over-filling”. Just pretend that you are filling the stomach with air, stopping at the lower ribs. If you inflate your chest your sound with be breathy because you won’t be able to pressurize the air.
Try not to use up all of your air at the beginning of a phrase. You will have a great deal of air pressure built up before you start to sing. Let the phrase dictate the use of the breath.
Try to feel that jaw dropping from the hinges in front of your ears. It is helpful to feel the space between your back molars. Watch out for Pac Man! You should look like a wrench, with equal space on the inside and outside.
Let your jaw drop a comfortable amount for the pitch and vowel that you are on. We need to be a little more open as we go into the high and lower part of the voice. Beginners tend to not be open enough, but advanced students tend to open too much in the comfortable part of the voice.
Wiggle the jaw while singing if you feel jaw tension. If you’re not sure, wiggle the jaw from side to side. If the sound is better and freer, then you had some jaw tension. This is a non-addictive training tool. It teaches you to give up control of the jaw muscles.
The tip of the tongue should be resting along the inside of the bottom front teeth, unless you are using for a tip of the tongue consonant. Then you return the tongue to its resting-place once you’ve completed the consonant.
The back of the tongue will be in various positions according to the vowel sound. It will be highest on ee, medium on oo, and lower on ah, but never flat. The tongue has a natural curve to it.
Watch out for a depressed tongue or a feeling of it falling backward down the throat, like you are choking. Especially on ah in the higher part of the voice. We have exercises that help correct this problem. Pairing ee with ah is very helpful.
Think of lifting the soft palate as a continuous active process. If you are sustaining a note, keep stretching it upward. If you are changing pitches, keep stretching it upward, even if you are going lower. This prevents “clunk” or “yodel”.
It’s never too early to start lifting the soft palate on the way to the high voice. It’s helpful to lift on the way to the note.
If you are having trouble lifting the soft palate, check for jaw and or tongue tension.
Try upward slides of a 5th or octave to feel the stretch.
How to Prepare a Song
- Write out the lyrics on a sheet of paper. Read through several times as if you were reciting a poem. Underline the words that you stress. Underline those words in the music.
- Listen to the song several times while following along with the music.
- Write check marks where you will take breaths. You can breathe at rests and at the end of sentences and phrases.
- Sing the song on a comfortable vowel and consonant combination until it feels comfortable in the voice. (Bee, Bah, Meh, Mah, Ah, Oo, etc…)
- Sing the song on the vowel sounds of the actual words. For example, “My country tis of thee” would be: AH-ee UH EE IH UH EE. Write them in if you have to. Try not to let the consonant sounds influence you. Our voices carry on vowel sounds.
- Sing the song with the words concentrating on the vowel sounds. The consonants should be quick, crisp and clear, and should not interfere with the vowels. You can push the final consonant onto the beginning of the next word.
- Diphthongs are a combination of two vowels that are spelled as one. For example, “Drive” is an ah-ee diphthong. It’s important to stay on the first (primary) vowel as long as possible, and put the secondary vowel with the final consonant. Other examples are Day – eh-ee or snow – oh-oo.
- Some consonants that follow a vowel will cut off your sound if you put them on too early. They are: r,l,m,n and the ng ending. Stay on the preceding vowel as long as possible and try to minimize these consonant sounds. R is a particular culprit, and we are often better off not singing it at all, especially an “er” ending. “Flower” would be sung “flah-oo-uh”. Just use “uh” instead of “er” as a substitute ending.
- Head toward “ah”. We have a very dull “uh” sound in the English language which sounds better if we head toward the “ah” vowel instead. For example, a common word in songs, “love” sing as “lahv”.
- If your phrase ends in a word using a voiced consonant, you must add an extra syllable or else the consonant will not be heard. We add “ih” to the consonant. The voiced consonants are: m,n,l,v,z,b. For example “love” would be “lahvih”. Only do this at the end of a phrase.
Preparing a song requires more thought and muscle memory than singing exercises. Your technique will not be as far along in songs as in exercises. Allow time for your technique to catch up.