Idina Menzel’s New Year’s Eve Performance – A Voice Teacher’s Perspective
NASM Guest Blog: The Voice of Posture

It is Known: Biomechanics & Breath Management

 

Dear Claudia,

I have searched so much to find a good link between fitness and singing. I am struggling with breath support. There was a time when I was getting back into sports and all of a sudden everything worked so much better and I actually had the sensation of appoggio. I didn’t then link it to the exercises I was doing and stopped. And was very frustrated when this appoggio feeling just “went away”. Now I can’t seem to find the right exercises any more to experience the same again. Could you maybe give me a hint as to what sport exercises help? Or are absolutely necessary for good support? Or maybe stretches? I was thinking pushups and abs?

 

Thank you for your email. Your question touches on something I’ve been thinking about a great deal this week, and I’ll do my best to answer it.  

What I have been pondering lately is how to help singers understand that, in fact, many of the things they find mysterious about technique can be made more transparent and relatively easy to work with through an understanding of kinesiology.

While art, imagination, and the transference of emotion through music are indeed mysterious, physical movement is not. Human anatomy, physiology and movement have been studied and codified in intricate detail. The field of Sports Science has its roots in ancient Greece, and advances in exercise physiology have accelerated throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. We now have extraordinary resources for optimizing the human body to perform in any arena.

 
 
It Is Known
A dress whose full weight pulls on a choker will pull you out of optimal alignment.
 

You are looking back on a time when you were exceptionally physically active, and you suspect that there is a connection between your prior involvement in sports and a heightened sense of appoggio. Now that you are less active, you have lost that sense and hope that fitness can offer some tools to help you get it back. While you don’t mention the specific athletic activities or exercises you were engaging in, I can speculate that they led to the development of a stronger, more balanced core musculature, as well as enhanced strength and flexibility throughout your intercostals. However, engaging in a series of exercises targeting your core and rib cage will not by itself necessarily yield the results you are seeking. Any exercise that you engage in for a specific part of your body will impact the whole. One of the things that we have learned is that weakness in one area of the body is usually symptomatic of a pattern of imbalance that affects other areas as well. When there is a very specific skill that you wish to develop, it’s vital to take a comprehensive view of your overall physical condition and address any greater pattern of imbalance in order to avoid exacerbating it.

I’ll now get into the specifics of how fitness can improve your breathing. 

To optimize any aspect of your singing performance, analyze the specifics of what you want your body to do, the extent to which you are already able to do it, the areas of strength, flexibility and coordination you must develop in order to improve, and the means to attain this improvement. Let’s apply this procedure to your question.

 
What do you want your body to do? 
 
You want to improve your breath support and recapture a sense of appoggio. Describing this goal in terms of anatomy and movement requires a definition of what support and appoggio actually are. The term I use when discussing these things is “Breath Management”, which I define as the ability to optimize and regulate subglottal breath pressure while keeping the vocal mechanism as free as possible (this blog post provides a more detailed description).  
 
In order for your body to do this, you need:
  • Full range of motion available to all the joints involved in breathing (for which optimal alignment is a prerequisite)
  • Balanced strength and flexibility throughout the musculature involved in breathing
  • Excellent coordination between the muscles of inspiration and expiration
 
To what extent are you already able to do this?
 
You believe there is room for improvement, having in the past experienced a greater level of mastery than you currently feel you have at your command. Now you must take inventory and investigate exactly where there is room for improvement. 
  • A qualified fitness trainer can assess your alignment for postural distortions and imbalances – most everyone develops these to some extent, and they are nearly always possible to ameliorate through exercise. 
  • An Alexander Technique teacher, massage therapist, or other somatic instructor or bodyworker can assess balance in your breathing musculature.
  • Your voice teacher can provide feedback on your breath management coordination. 
 
Where do you need to build strength, flexibility and coordination in order to improve? 
 
The answer to this question depends on the information you have gathered from examining your alignment, breathing musculature and breath coordination. What’s important to understand is that there can be no one answer that will be correct for every singer. Every body is unique, and unique strengths and weaknesses develop in response to lifestyle and habitual behavior. If you want to optimize your breathing for singing, you must discover the precise areas where your body may be out of balance and adopt strategies to restore optimal function.
 
 
What means will most effectively and expediently achieve this improvement? 
 
A targeted fitness regimen based on a thorough assessment can optimize your alignment and balance out your musculature. A good voice teacher can help you build the coordination necessary for excellent breath management, but they can only work with the instrument you bring into the studio – if there are imbalances in your alignment and musculature, there is only so much they can do. 
 
Professional athletes often hit plateaus or experience injuries that necessitate their taking a step back to achieve the level of balance they’ll need to optimize their performance. In my fitness work, I’m currently working towards NASM’s Corrective Exercise Specialist certification, which focuses on highly detailed assessments of dysfunctions and imbalances and techniques for rehabilitation. Rick Richey, one of NASM’s Corrective Exercise clinicians, is often referred professional athletes for rehabilitation, so he continually observes how things can get out of alignment for even highly successful, elite performers: “I’ll have this athlete who has achieved all these amazing things, do an assessment, and once I see what’s actually going on I have to ask myself, ‘how is this guy even walking down the street?’” 
 
For elite singers as well as athletes, imbalances and compensations often get built into overall technique without anyone noticing it… until they hit an inescapable plateau or experience an injury or deterioration in their performance. When this happens to an athlete, they get a referral to someone like Rick. When it happens to a singer, though, they often feel like they have nowhere to turn. Singers are at particular risk for developing these imbalances and compensations because they tend to focus exclusively on improving the sounds they produce with little attention devoted to the movements involved in producing them. When they hit that plateau, it feels like their instrument has somehow failed them. They have a problem that their teacher cannot help them to solve, and they don’t realize that there exist excellent tools to retrain the faulty biomechanics responsible for their issues. 
 
To sum up, you have experienced a connection between fitness and singing technique and asked whether there are particular exercises essential for good support. While it may be possible to identify the specific muscle groups that contributed to the experience of improved breath support you enjoyed when you were more physically active, it is not possible to guarantee that a series of exercises targeting these muscles will give you the results you are after. Achieving the good alignment and balanced musculature necessary for skillful breath management requires a comprehensive, full-body approach to fitness, ideally via a regimen based on a thorough assessment of your unique needs. But while there exists no one-size-fits-all fitness regimen for vocal athletes, a yoga practice supervised by a skilled instructor can start you down the right path. 
 
Whatever your approach to breath support, it breaks down to a combination of physical movements. Successful appoggio is the result of expert coordination. Analyze the biomechanics, and you can devise a means of improving them. 

 

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