Setting up the structure of our instrument
Michael J. Mayer
In this installment of the Fundamentals of Singing series I would like to address the topic of posture. Not limiting this concept to just the posture of the body, we will apply it to each aspect of our instrument in order to best facilitate ease in our vocal production. This includes, in addition to the already mentioned body posture, facial posture, and mouth-tongue and larynx-jaw posture. The following is an attempt to present the instinctive postures for the natural use of the voice as taught by the Swedish/Italian School. The validity of these assertions has been proven through years of experience and agreement with other disciplines such as Alexander Technique, Tai Chi, and the study of athletic body mechanics.
Being the most common application of the term posture, we will start with the body. This is what most people think of when we speak of posture; the nature of how we stand upright. This is a topic that has most likely been addressed by every voice teacher in history. Some have placed more importance on it than others. In the Swedish/Italian School of singing it was regarded with such importance that Allan Lindquest referred to it as the “School of the Straight Spine”. I’m not saying that we literally want a perfectly straight spine, which would be unhealthy, but a comfortably elongated spine without exaggerated natural curves. Essentially what we want is balance, with the body relaxed but energized to combat the sag caused by the pull of gravity.
We can think of the body as being in three parts, the head, torso and legs. Although we can look at each of these parts separately we need to remember that every part of the body is interconnected. This means that what we do in one part will influence the others. This is especially true regarding the spine. We can effectively lengthen and straighten the spine by focusing on our head, specifically how our head is sitting on top of the spine. But before we cover that topic, lets start from the ground and work our way up.
Just as the importance of the tires on our cars is often overlooked, our feet are the unheralded base of our structure. If they aren’t properly positioned we can defeat the coordination of our whole body. We should experiment with different weight distribution of our feet to see what the effects are of, for example, standing on our heels versus leaning slightly forward with our weight on the balls of the feet. Some advocate standing on the heels because it relaxes the body, but that is the very reason this school avoids it. Actually this is one aspect of the Italian concept of “Appoggio” – “to lean”. By shifting the weight of our body slightly forward onto the front half of our feet, the muscles of our torso engage to support the spine while at the same time making an automatic connection to the diaphragm and other breathing muscles. It is this comfortable tension through the ribcage and breathing muscles that is referred to as “support”. This muscular connection continues through the legs to the feet, giving a very athletically buoyant feeling.
The legs should stay slightly bent, with “soft” knees, never locking straight. If they do the muscular connection through the body will be lost and the breath will lose its support. It is recommended that the legs have a slight outward rotation from the hips to help the positioning of the pelvis into a neutral state. There may be a feeling that the buttocks gently contract, helping to rotate the pelvis and subsequently lengthen the spine. Another positive result of the slight contraction of the buttocks is the unconscious contraction of the deep layers of abdominal muscles. (This is the reason some recommend “pinching a dime” by squeezing the gluteus muscles.) This also helps with breath control and compression. It should be stressed that these need to be gentle contractions, never effortful, or we risk becoming rigid. We need to always be reminding the body to be flexibly active.
Moving on to the torso we basically want to lengthen the spine by bringing the head up and the tailbone down. The spine has been compared to a chain, where each link corresponds to each vertebrae. This helps to remind us that the spine should always feel flexible and never rigid like a pole. As the spine straightens the ribcage naturally takes a more elevated and expanded position. This is the Italian School’s “noble” position. This also has a direct influence on the effectiveness of our breath management. A critical part of this posture is to keep the wide position of the lower ribs. This is essential to the proper action of the diaphragm and what people usually refer to as breath support. If the ribs collapse the throat will close and the voice will stiffen. That is why the common “belly breathing” is so harmful. If the abdomen expands forward it pulls the ribs closed, causing the diaphragm to lose its stretch and become displaced. We should not think of breathing in just one place, but a little through the whole torso. But we will go more into this in the article on breathing.
For most people the chest will also feel higher, but we should watch out for trying to lift the chest into a high position. Doing so will most likely hyper-extend the spine, causing the diaphragm to be displaced and squeeze the back of the ribcage reducing the effectiveness of our breathing. Another positive effect of a properly straightened spine is the “relaxing back” of the shoulders. For many people it is habitual for their shoulders to be rolled forward, collapsing the chest. With proper spinal alignment the shoulders naturally relax back so they point out to the sides, neither pulled forward nor pulled back. This opens the chest with a feeling of broadness, and removes excess downward pressure on the lungs.
The proper alignment of the head on top of the neck is the last piece of the puzzle, but in time becomes the guiding principle. The pull of gravity on the weight of the head is the biggest challenge to healthy spinal alignment. Because of its disproportionate weight, the head can cause a complete breakdown of vocal freedom if it is allowed to drift off of its balance on top of the spine. The reason for this is when balanced the spine supports the head and frees the neck and jaw muscles from the burden of supporting the skull. If this balance is not present when we attempt to sing these muscles interfere with the free functioning of the vocal instrument.
For most of us the feeling of proper alignment is a foreign one. One thing that F. M. Alexander, founder of the Alexander Technique, found in his research was that people on average did not have very accurate awareness of their body. Because of conditioning over time, habitual body use tends to interfere with one’s ability to recognize optimal body use. This causes people to like what is familiar and dislike what is new, even if the new condition is optimal.
Because of this tendency, this school of singing recommends using the floor and subsequently a wall as tools to guide us to new postural conditions. As you lay on your back gravity actually works for you rather than against you as it does standing. The weight of your body going into the floor gives a very clear sense of the condition of the spinal alignment. You should start with your legs bent, much the same as preparing to do a sit-up exercise. In this position you can feel if your lower back is arching excessively off of the floor. If it is, think of your thighs going in the direction of your knees. This will slightly rotate the pelvis so the lower back will lengthen and flatten against the floor. If you feel like you are tucking the pelvis it is too far, always keep the buttocks touching the floor. Breathing in this position should give the feel of elastic tension around the mid-section that is necessary in good singing. Again, these exercises should be very gentle and not strenuous at all. If you feel discomfort you are trying too hard.
The next exercise in this process involves flipping over to our front with the head on our crossed hands. In this position we are able to feel the movement of the lower ribs, the flank muscles as well as the abdominal muscles against the floor. Vocalizing in this position gives the sense of where the motivation of the voice should come from. It helps to get all thought away from any tension at the throat. Both of these positions help to train the abdomen to stay slightly in rather than hanging out. The slight drawing in of the abdomen was recommended as a life-style. If the abdomen is allowed to hang out, as it often is, it pulls the diaphragm and spine out of their natural position. This disrupts the natural balance of our breathing, which in turn disrupts the natural balance of the voice.
Once we get familiar with the feel of our spine on the floor, we can transfer our exercise to standing against the wall. We should start with our feet approximately 12-18 inches out from the wall and our legs bent. From this position we sit back against the wall so our hips and shoulder blades touch the wall. We most likely will not be able to have our backs completely flat, but we should eliminate any excessive arch in the lower back. Over time and through repetition the body will memorize this postural position, permitting you to replicate it standing upright. It should be noted that when we extend the legs to stand the lower back may not stay as flat. That is expected. We just want to keep the natural curves of the spine so the body can be free to function completely.
Once we get the feel of straightening the spine so the head is in line with the shoulders we need to start transferring the stimulus for our posture from a conscious effort to an emotional feeling of desire to express. Lamperti is quoted as saying if the start of your tone doesn’t straighten you up like a soldier some important element is not taking part. I take this as meaning the desire to say something needs to be strong enough to make our whole body come to attention and participate. I think this topic can be wrapped up by something Allen Lindquest used to say – you need to look like a singer before you will sound like one.
Facial posture may not be a familiar term for some people. Especially considering the amount of emphasis placed on relaxing when learning to sing, it may be unheard of to think the face should be anything but hanging “relaxed”. The problem is the face is an integral part of the vocal instrument and if any one part is passive it will make the other parts overwork to take up the slack. A relaxed face acts as a blockage that actually makes us work against ourselves when we sing, destroying ease and distorting vowel clarity. In this school the passive face was regarded like a curtain being down in front of a stage, blocking the sound behind it. When we lift the “curtain” we allow the sound waves to reflect outward in a naturally bright way that brings ease and beauty into the tone.
I am not advocating that the face should be contorted in any way, but there is a middle ground I call “elastically active”. This “elastically active” structure keeps things energized so the instrument can be played to its maximum capacity while staying balanced. This elastic activity is what keeps the rib-cage suspended open as described in the previous section. Regarding the face, we should always strive to keep it “alive” which is stimulated psychologically through our imagination and emotions and our desire to communicate. We need to train the face to have a pleasant and inspired expression, which results in a slight lift of the cheeks, helping to lift the palate. We should also stay aware of the eyes’ tendency to get rigid, which is mirrored by rigidity in the throat. This will obviously impede free functioning of the voice, and can be distracting to audience members.
As I stated, the facial posture needs to be stimulated through our emotional personality. More specifically, we can achieve this through the feeling of smiling to ourselves. I also call this smiling under the eyes. Many have referred to the “inner smile”, which is essentially the same thing, but that term always seemed too foreign to me. I am not talking about a smile with only the mouth, which can cause the tone to spread and close the throat. This “smile under the eyes” activates a set of muscles that run from the bottom of the eye sockets to the upper lip. When activated these muscles lift the upper lip revealing a portion of the upper teeth. An increased prominence of the muscles on top of the cheek-bones is a sign of the successful achievement of this condition. This has been referred to as “putting ping-pong balls in your cheek-bones.” It should be stressed that these are very subtle movements, we should think of a slight smile with a slight pucker. Others have referred to this as the “Mona Lisa smile” or the “flowering of the lips”.
It must be remembered that this is a pleasant expression, not a mechanical posture. If one attempts to just put the face in a particular position, they will end up looking very unnatural. That is why it is imperative to practice this in front of a mirror. This pleasant expression was a main objective in the practice of “smelling a rose” by the Italian school. This practice provided a complete preparation in one act. The imagination and emotional personality are stimulated through the pleasant experience of drawing the fragrance in through the nose. The imagined experience stimulates a pleasant expression on the face causing a lift under the eyes, which combined with the inhalation through the nose opens the upper resonator. The strength of the action stimulates the diaphragm for a complete breath, and the smelling action creates an aerodynamic situation that draws the vocal folds together without muscular interference, so they are ready to vibrate cleanly and spontaneously. But this is going beyond the scope of this article.
The reason this posture is important is to ensure a balanced resonating cavity. The lift under the eyes of a pleasant expression opens the space referred to as the “mask”, which is more accurately called the post-nasal resonance space or “ng” resonance. (This does not mean nasality) A nice side effect is you actually look like you are enjoying the activity of singing, which adds to the enjoyment of the audience. (I know this from personal experience. I once was singing in church when I was a student in college and trying to sing in a dark dramatic way. A member of the congregation approached me after the service and said “You sound great, but you should try smiling a little. You look too serious.” I thought about it since I was singing relatively light-hearted music. The expression on my face didn’t match the expression of the music.) Compare this to the general expression of singers we see which ranges from completely uninvolved, to one of struggling. The majority of singers we see today sing with a downward pull to the face, which tends to pull the palate down and make the voice darker and heavier. Some seem to think that this adds dramatic color and beauty to their tone.(A trap of trying to listen to our own sound.) Actually what it is doing is dampening the natural brilliance of the voice. This is why many singers are hard to hear in their low range. In many cases this extra weight forces a need to push extra breath against the larynx which causes discomfort to both the singer and listener.
The Mouth, Tongue, Jaw and Larynx
I am placing all four of these components together because of how interrelated they are. Essentially these parts are the main element of our instrument and they cannot really be separated.
G. B. Lamperti is quoted as saying that many singers go on stage before they even know how to open their mouths. I would say this is even more true today. If we observe currently active singers we will notice a wide range of mouth positions. The sad fact is it is very unlikely you will see someone employ the mouth position I will describe. You most likely will have to look at videos of singers from past generations to see examples of it.
The main thing missing with singers of today I would again attribute to the idea of being “completely relaxed”. If you open the mouth with a feeling of being completely relaxed it will open downward. “Of course the mouth opens downward,” I hear some saying. As I stated before, opening downward pulls the tongue and palate down with the jaw making the voice unnaturally heavy. What I recommend is to think of opening upward, so you feel as if the weight of the skull is being taken off of the jaw and voice. This allows the jaw to stay relaxed and drop naturally away from the pleasant expression of the face.
Through experimentation it should be noticed that the natural path of the jaw is to swing in a down and back arc. This down and back position of the jaw is a vital component to the open pharynx, which is indispensable to healthy singing. In fact it was stated by Franklyn Kelsey in his book, Foundations of Singing, that we open the throat by lifting the cheeks and retracting the jaw. It should be noted that the jaw swings back easiest when we think of opening the mouth in an upward direction. The slight down and back path of the jaw is also influential in the proper positioning of the larynx. If the jaw thrusts forward it will pull the larynx up and cause the vocal folds to take an undesirable form.
This feeling of opening upward is dependent on the facial posture described in the previous section. An important element is to keep the feeling of slight roundness to the mouth as you open. This is necessary to help balance the tendency of spreading when one has a pleasant expression of the face so the pharyngeal space stays open. This can be assisted by thinking of keeping the corners of the lips slightly relaxed forward by “sinking the cheeks”. (This applies to the part of the cheeks that can be sucked in between the teeth.) The result of this is a protection to the voice and a slight alteration of the vowel quality from “ah” to “aw”. This slightly darker vowel also helps to keep the larynx in a healthy position. If the vowel gets too spread it closes the pharynx by pulling the larynx up. This posture was described by my teacher David Jones as the “happy to suck a lemon” face. The “happy” aspect refers to the lift under the eyes and the “sucking a lemon” refers to the slight pucker feeling the brings the lips forward and sinks the cheeks. This combination gives the sought after “chiaroscuro” – bright-dark – quality of the Italian school. The lift under the eyes keeping the bright and the slight pucker providing the darker color. The Swedish language provides ideal mixed vowel forms to help achieve this mouth position, giving the unique tone quality of this school.
Another concept the old Italian school spoke of was “Drinking the Tone”. Like other axioms this had multiple meanings, but one is the mouth position I am describing. When we take a medium to large drink we open the mouth in an upward direction. Our cheeks rise lifting the upper lip. This is accompanied by a generously open pharynx to receive the liquid. The feeling of drinking also helps in learning to drop the larynx without pushing it down so it can function in its naturally relaxed position. This is a very constructive exercise to use before singing to get the feel of opening in the correct manner.
The last element of this posture is the tongue. There is a fairly wide belief that the proper positioning of the tongue is flat. It is stated in many books and by many voice teachers. It is my experience, as well as others, that the flat tongue is a very unnatural position. David Jones has written an article on the dangers of the flat or retracted tongue on his website www.voiceteacher.com. Suffice it to say here that the flat tongue position blocks the pharynx opening and causes excess air pressure against the vocal folds. This position also causes the jaw to thrust forward, causing unwanted tension in the muscles of the jaw. (By changing these habitual positions I was able to relieve my long-time TMJ pain.)
To avoid these hindrances, we want to train the tongue to take a slightly arched position in the mouth. This is done in a couple of ways. One, with the exercise of arching the tongue gently out of the mouth with the tip anchored behind the lower front teeth. This strengthens the middle of the tongue, what Allan Lindquest called the “saddle” of the tongue. By strengthening this part of the tongue, we reduce the tongue’s tendency of pulling back into the pharynx when we phonate. The second technique is to breath with the tongue in the “ng” position. This teaches this position as “home base”. Gradually the tongue gets accustomed to being in this acoustically ideal position.
The reason this position is ideal is because the tongue mass is completely out of the pharynx. Allan Lindquest stated that we open the throat from the proper tongue position. This actually goes hand in hand with Franklyn Kelsey’s statement because the slight retraction of the jaw and the “ng” position of the tongue work together. The feeling of opening the mouth upwards is imperative to the proper tongue position. If the face is pulled down it is very difficult to keep the tongue arched out of the pharynx because there is no space for the tone to escape. Essentially we need to open space above and behind the tongue and not pull the tongue down to open resonance space. Acoustically this is ideal because of the reflection of the sound waves against the hard palate, giving vibrancy and natural brightness to the tone compared to the dark, dull and muted quality when the tongue is low. A high tongue position is often discouraged because of the claim that it closes the throat. This can be true unless one opens above it, as described when drinking. The feeling of stretching to open upward lengthens the root of the tongue so it doesn’t pull the larynx up.
A more practical reasoning for this facial and tongue posture is simple intelligibility. It is a common complaint among audiences that they can’t understand the words of classical singers, even when singing English. This is because of the “dark” posture of their face, mouth and tongue. The face and tongue are in a pulled-down position, causing the vowels to lack clarity. This could be explained with scientific terminology of formants and such, but it is enough to say that the vowel resonance space needs to reinforce the sung pitch with a balanced vowel sound. Much of the singing I hear in New York is overly dark from an attempt to enlarge the throat space to make a bigger sound. (We need to remember that the “size” of the voice is determined by the intensity and reflection of the vibration, not on the size of the resonating space.) On the other hand the “Broadway” sound suffers from closing the throat space in an attempt to make the words overly clear. This makes the sound harsh and unattractive in most cases. These are opposite ends of the spectrum that when balanced gives a perfect vowel with clarity and beauty. The biggest challenge I have observed in students learning this tongue position is the tendency to pull the larynx up with the tongue. This can be remedied by learning to separate tongue action from the larynx, which needs to be done for healthy consonant function so the larynx doesn’t get disturbed when pronouncing consonants.
I want to take a moment to comment on the practice of “low larynx” singing. This is a practice that became popular with the success of Mario del Monoco and Franco Corelli, who attributed it to a teacher named Melocchi. The technique functions by lowering the larynx maximally, which includes a lowered tongue. This requires strong activation of the yawning muscles that pull the larynx down, keeping it pulled down for the duration of singing. It was stated that this is what was meant by an open throat. This low position of the larynx and tongue causes the vocal folds to be thick giving a more powerful tone, which can be quite impressive. The problem is this is an extreme position and there is no balance when we are in an extreme position. If we function out of balance the muscles that make up the instrument overwork, and eventually breakdown. The other issue is the thickness of the vocal folds. In an upcoming article I plan to discuss the action of the vocal folds, but right now I will say that we want to vibrate on the edges of the folds, which is impossible when they are thick. Thinner folds makes the voice sweeter allowing us to sing beautifully through a wide range of pitch and dynamics, exemplified by Jussi Björling. The natural position of the larynx is hanging relatively low in the neck. This needs to be accomplished by stretching and relaxing the swallowing muscles so they are not active during singing. This is a common challenge for most singers. I attribute this to our tendency to hold emotional tension in these muscles which pull the larynx up and close the throat. The ideal larynx position is a balanced one, neither pulled up nor pulled down. This allows the vocal folds to be in the ideal position to vibrate most efficiently.
In this article I have tried to present a thorough account of the different concepts of posture as practiced in the Swedish/Italian school of singing. I hope you have found some helpful ideas to explore in your practice. As always any questions are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. In closing I would like to reiterate that the mechanical explanations I have described need to be absorbed through practice, and stimulated from a psycho-emotional state of inspiration and joy in the act of singing. Ultimately that should be the causal factor for these postures, not our conscious placing. It was a constant directive in the Swedish/Italian school to sing from the feeling of Joy, which would naturally cause the body to lengthen and straighten to a proud, tall posture with the shoulders relaxed back and the head on top of the spine. This feeling would stimulate a pleasant expression on the face, including a slight smile and soft eyes that would be mirrored by freedom in the throat producing a naturally bright and resonant tone. This is ultimately the only true path to security in singing – to sing from the natural response of joy and love of the very act of singing for its own sake.