The Problem with Posture

As of this writing, googling “Noble Posture Singing” gets 533,000 returns of articles, books, blog posts etc. that address the topic. Clearly, there are a lot of thoughts out there about how to stand while singing. I am going to add my voice to this chorus, but I want to rethink the noble posture based on biomechanics.

The concept of the “noble posture” emerged in the 19th century from the Bel Canto school of singing and every major pedagogical treatise on singing has a description of how the body should be positioned to achieve it. In my opinion some of them come closer than others to describing how a body is actually aligned, but the desired end result is the same – a body that is free to create a glorious sound. If you want to read specific descriptions and get yourself utterly turned around on how to achieve the noble posture, check out page 81 of Garyth Nair’s Craft of Singing, where he describes the ‘proud posture’, page 16 of William Vennard’s Singing – the Mechanism and the Technique, page 78 of Richard Miller’s Art of Singing, or see figure 7 in Meribeth Bunch Dayme’s book, on page 19 – in which, the entire body is leaning forward so the weight is more toward the toes and her line of alignment passes through the center of the arch of the foot).

BUT! But, but but….our modern lives don’t exactly lend themselves to being well aligned. We sit for most of our day, drive where we need to go, wear heeled shoes, spend quite a bit of time typing and texting and slump into very cushy, cozy sofas and chairs. Our shoulders are tight and internally rotated, our abs are weak and our glute muscles are non-existent (hello flat butted sisters and brethren). Well-intended teachers and conductors ask students to open across the front of the chest, raise the sternum, throw the shoulders back and stand tall. Attempting to adjust our posture without understanding what actual alignment looks like only leads to more postural problems and less freedom of the voice.

Here’s the thing. Posture is how you are doing it and Alignment is how you should be doing it.

When we are aligned, you can draw a straight line down from the shoulders to the hip to the ankle. The body’s weight is mostly in the heels, but the forefoot is still active. The pubic bone and ASIS (Anterior Superior Iliac Spine) are in the same plane. The bottom of the ribcage is in line with the ASIS of the pelvis, the shoulders are open and not internally rotated and the head is balanced on the atlas occipital joint. (see my fabulous drawing of the body in the top left of the lower picture).

However, because we don’t move our bodies as much as we could, our feet, pelvis, ribcage and shoulders are not in the place they should be. What I see most often are necks and rib cages that thrust forward on top of pelvises that press forward, and feet that are turned out.

To get to aligned you have to visit the land of reality and understand just where your body is right now. We can use bony markers, as taught by Katy Bowman to discover what we look like when everything is lined up. When we align the body we can see things like just how much our thoracic spine is rounded – called Hyper Kyphosis. That rounding impacts things like breathing!

I’ve spent time since the beginning of this year understanding my own alignment through this lens and this fall decided to bring it into the studio and see what happened to student’s voices when they were placed in a position of being aligned. So far they’ve all been willing to do it they report various things – they feel stretch in the low back (yes!), they feel stretch in the base of the neck (yes!), their feet feel tired (yes!)  AND they feel the abs engage (YES!).

What I have found most fascinating is the sound that comes out of their mouths when they are in alignment, which initially makes them look like they are majorly slumping over. It is reported to be more easily produced, male singers can sing past their break without flipping into falsetto and the sound is glo-ri-ous. My current theory is that while singing in an aligned position the abs are recruited in the right way to do work simply to help the body, rather than in an artificial way, the ribcage is free to flare open in the lower back rib area, and the larynx has less pull from extrinsic muscles.

The thing is to get your body to have a spine that isn’t so rounded over we can’t just shove your body into new positions. Alignment is just a tool, not a rule. To create long term shifts, we need to move. Over time and with practice, your sternum can be in the ‘high’ position so many pedagogues espouse, but it will be there without your rib cage thrusting forward. Your breathing won’t reinforce ribcage thrust and will be better balanced over your pelvis.

Posture doesn’t have to be a problem! If you want to see how you actually stand have someone take a picture of you from the side and then look at the line down the side of your body – where are you pushed forward or back? Then you know what your posture is and you can experiment with moving into an aligned position. Feel free to share your photos with me, I’d love to see them!

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