Have you ever asked a singer to raise their sternum, or told them to stand tall? Perhaps you’ve had them place three fingers or placed three of your fingers on their sternum and asked them to lift into your fingers? Maybe you’ve even had them roll shoulders up, back and down as a way of elevating and opening the front of the chest.
If you have, I hate to break it to you, but you’re asking for the impossible. That open chest you want, with a ribcage that is buoyant and flexible…It ain’t happening at the behest of a few words or a shoulder roll or even a shove of the sternum.
What we know should be happening and what a singer’s body can actually do are often a few light years apart.
Because most of what we do in life has our arms out in front of us and our heads looking down, our shoulder blades tend to be protracted – that means they are pulled away from the spine. The impact of this is rounded shoulders, a dropped sternum and lack of mobility in the thoracic spine. When we tell a singer to stand up straight or to raise their sternum, they can’t really do it due to the hyperkyphosis (spine rounding) and resulting immobility of the thoracic spine (the part of the spine where the ribs attach).
As an aside, we ALL have that hyperkyphosis, most of us are just able to mask it still. But, when you see an older body that makes a C shape in their torso, that is unmasked hyperkyphosis.
Because we don’t have good mobility in each spinal joint in the thoracic spine, when we’re told to stand up straight, we move from where the thoracic and lumbar spine meet at the bottom of the ribcage and thrust the entire ribcage forward. It might look like the sternum is now elevated, but we’ve created a swayback position and closed off the lower part of the ribcage so it doesn’t move well when we breathe.
And no, the answer is not to tuck the pelvis and bend the knees to address the swayback.
The answer to being able to stand up straight without creating a cascading avalanche of compensations is to improve mobility and build strength in the parts that are tight and weak. Rhomboids are muscles that run between the shoulder blades and the spine. Strength in these muscles helps keep the shoulder blades happily positioned on the back AND they counter the hyperkyphosis that we all have in the thoracic spine. Their primary action is retraction of the shoulder blades – meaning these muscles pull the blades toward the spine.
It would be nice if we could just issue a phrase or move a body into the position we want it to be in and expect it to stay there, but that’s just not how it works. You can’t shove a body part where you want it to go and have that fix years of patterning.
Let’s start being realistic in the physical requests we make of singer’s bodies. Change will happen much faster and actually be sustainable.
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