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9 Things Singers Need to Know About Their Bodies (Revised & Updated)

anatomy breathing May 04, 2015

By Peter Jacobson


Author's Note: This article was first published in 2015 and has proven to be our most popular blog post ever. Since I have learned much in the past 7 years, I decided to revise and update the original post to more accurately reflect my current approach.


1. Your whole body is your instrument, not just your vocal mechanism.

Your voice is part of a total system which also includes your mind and your entire body. Any method or technique of singing that doesn’t address the whole human being has limited applications to developing one’s full potential as a singer.

To become a better singer, in addition to trying to sing well, focus on using your entire mind-body-voice Self well. It's your whole self instrument that supports everything you do.
 

2. The poise of the head on the spine directly affects your quality of sound.

The larynx hangs from the hyoid bone which is suspended from the mastoid processes on the skull. If the head is pulled down into the spine, the neck and throat muscles will tense and the torso will become rigid. This excess tension will constrain your breathing and vocal production.

The head is the boss of the body. Allow it to be delicately poised on the spine. This lets the vocal mechanism hang freely and the allows the muscles of the torso to work without unnecessary effort. 

3. Pain and discomfort is caused by chronic tightening and shortening of muscles.

When a muscle is recruited by our nervous system it can really only do one thing – contract. However, if a muscle (or set of muscles) is always "on" and not allowed to release into its full resting length it can become chronically tense and inflamed leading to pain and discomfort.

Learn how to access the deep, support muscles in your body. In doing so, you can relieve pain and tension by allowing chronically tight superficial muscles to release into greater length and flexibility. 

4. The more we micromanage our breathing, the less control we actually have.

Our respiratory system is incredible dynamic, intelligent and responsive. When we “take” a breath using muscular effort or try to recruit specific muscles while breathing and singing, we can interfere with our natural breathing and vocal freedom.

Instead of trying to work on your breathing, investigate the habits that are getting in the way of your natural breathing and learn how to undo those habits. As you use less muscular effort to breathe you will be able to “allow” for a breath that will be perfectly suited for the needs of the music you are singing. 

5. Gasping for breath is a sign of unnecessary tension in the vocal tract and body. 

The habit of gasping during inhalation is an almost universal habit among voice users. In fact, it is quite rare to hear a singer that doesn't unconsciously gasp. Though common, this habit is not necessary to sing and can lead to a decrease in our the quality of our breathing and vocal functioning.  

Start paying attention to your inhalations to hear if you also gasp before you sing. You can avoid this unnecessary (and even harmful) habit by allowing the muscles of the neck and torso to release into greater length and width as you breathe.


Learn more about how your breathing is designed to work best in our free Breathing Made Simple e-book and 10-lesson mini-course.



6. We have 24 ribs (12 on each side) and they are designed for movement.

Our 24 ribs are spring loaded and designed for movement (to varying degrees). In our backs, the ribs are attached to our spine via many moveable joints. In front, they attach to our sternum via cartilage (similar tissue to your nose and ears). As Alexander teacher Patrick Macdonald says, "If you allow your ribs to move, as Nature intended, you will breathe properly." 
 
Explore the 3-dimensional movements available in your 24 ribs. It can helpful to use your hands to feel where the movement is happening.  
 

7. The lungs are housed in the upper torso and the diaphragm sits right below them.

3 key facts: 1. The lungs go as high as the collarbone (which you can see clearly in image at the top of this article). 2. There is more lung tissue in our back than in our front. 3. Right beneath the lungs sits the diaphragm, a large muscle that separates our upper and lower abdomen and moves up and down (as opposed to in and out). 

Many singers are instructed to breathe low into their belly. This can a useful metaphor to encourage whole torso movement. However, it must be understood that the only place air touches is the respiratory tract. This includes the lungs, which sit MUCH higher than most singers imagine. 


8. The diaphragm is not designed to be controlled directly. 

Because it has no proprioceptive nerve endings, we cannot directly isolate and control our diaphragm. Additionally, the diaphragm is primarily a muscle of inhalation and since we sing on the exhale it is not necessary (nor possible) to support your sound with your diaphragm. 

It is impossible to exert any direct control over diaphragmatic movement except through the natural act of reflexive breathing and the the controlled exhalation of singing. Therefore, it's best to leave you diaphragm alone when you breathe and sing.  


9. By cooperating with your design you can find freedom and ease in your singing.

Understanding the basics of how your total mind-body-voice system is designed to work best can take you a long ways towards eliminating excess tension, freeing your body and liberating your voice.

Taking the time to learn about your whole self instrument is one of the best investments you can make in yourself and your singing! 
 

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