Physically, we’d like the larynx to be aligned just right for your breath to flow optimally and your voice to sound at its potential. In reality we know our bodies are phenomenal at compensating and adapting.
Most of us live lives that look like this: Type on the computer, drive, play piano or other instruments, hold children, carry heavy bags, slump in a chair…any of those sound familiar? Each of those activities pulls your head in front of your shoulder line, adding weight to your neck and pulls your arms out in front of you, putting your arms and shoulders into internal rotation, pulling your shoulder blades away from your spine.
The result? Tight upper chest muscles, weak rhomboids (the muscles that run between the shoulder blades and the spine), a neck that is strained, a voice that isn’t set up to let little muscles do little work and big muscles to do big work, breath that can’t flow freely and posture that looks like this:
OW! I’m giving a bit of an extreme example, but you get the point. Though you are primarily concerned about your voice, the long term effects of this position are linked to impingement of nerves in the neck, migraines, eye tension, breathing problems, as well as rotator cuff injuries. Please note, there is also some evidence showing that we are able to adapt to this posture and not experience issues. As with many things, when we are seeking to do them at a high level (like sing professionally) the alignment of our body tends to matter more because we are seeking optimal performance.
Your situation might not be at a point where you feel pain in your neck and shoulders, but perhaps you are experiencing some voice challenges that you suspect might be connected.
If you aren’t sure if your upper chest is tight, try palpating just below your collarbone from your sternum out toward your shoulder and see if you feel some pain. That’s one of your pec muscles – in an extreme situation, you might feel the pain radiate through to the muscles around your shoulders in the back. Then, extend your arms out wide and notice what you feel down your inner arm. If you are really tight, you may feel some tingling in your hand/fingers in that position – that is a sign some nerves are being impinged.
Honestly, I was shocked when I did both of these things at just how much sensation (sounds nicer than pain, right?) I felt across the top of my chest and all the way down my inner arm and into my fingers. I often have neck pain. The combination of a water skiing accident as a child and being rearended in my twenties with my head turned over my left shoulder left me with several cervical vertebrae out of alignment. My neck muscles spasmed after giving birth to my second and in the years following the pain would sometimes get pretty intense, feeling like my head was in a vice and all I wanted to do was close my eyes and lie down. My vocal symptoms included not being able to sing the really, really high notes that I had been easy before.
Fortunately, I started exploring things through my movement practice and have managed to keep the pain and tension at a minimum, re-finding some high notes and making my life much, much better.
Here are a few things you can do and your voice, neck and shoulders will thank you for it.
First, find your hyoid bone in your neck and imagine it moving back and slightly up, pulling your neck and head back with it. You may feel like you have a million double chins when you do this.
Then, cup the back of your head with your hand and gently press the head back into your hand. You don’t want to do it so hard that you feel compression in your laryngeal area.
This will get you on the road to moving your head and neck back into alignment. It will probably feel pretty foreign at first and you’ll have to develop a sense of how it feels when it is in the right place so you can be aware of when it isn’t.
Taking it to the next level to really create a long term remedy involves restoring mobility and improving strength in the upper body. Together, these go a long way to undoing tension and pain in the neck to help your voice function at its best!
If you want a few more things to explore, check out Forward Head Posture and the Voice Part 2.