No, there’s no chair for that.

Potentially Unpopular opinion ahead from your loving movement specialist: I know you are looking for relief from the aches and pains you are feeling from sitting so much to teach online. However, no chair is going to really solve the discomfort you feel right now. So, stop looking for an ergonomic chair that you think will magically make things better.

When we sit, we outsource work our muscles should be doing to the chair, so the idea of ergonomics is really just to make us more comfortable when we sit so we can sit for longer periods of time. Ergonomics is not really about optimal body function. However, we each need to be more about optimal body function.


You might get temporary relief from sitting on something different, but it will be a better use of your time to troubleshoot your current set up so you change positions more during lessons and look at how you are moving (or not moving) in between lessons.


Here are a few ideas to consider:
1. How can you create a standing position during lessons? What can you put your device on so you can stand while they sing because right now you don’t need to sit to accompany? What can you put at your feet to do some movement while you’re sitting – think tennis balls, half foam rollers, river rocks.


2. Have you tried standing to play chords and notes for the part of the lesson where you want troubleshoot parts of their songs? In other words, your singer sings through a song with the accompaniment on their end and then you have the phrases you want to check for technique, rhythms, notes etc. Try standing and playing notes on the keyboard to give your singer what they need to start. Everyone’s dimensions are different so if your arms don’t reach, make it into some glute work for yourself and play the notes/chord in a squat 😁).


3. Can you begin each lesson with a standing physical warm up that you do too? No one is maxing out the amount of movement they do every day while we are on stay at home orders, so why not add in some extra and move along with your singer?


4. Look at how you are positioned when you sit: are you head on to your device, or are you turned to the left or right? Can you be head on or swap from one side to the other on alternate lessons?

5. Resist the temptation to crane toward the screen to reach your student – this is like wanting to reach your audience when you perform. Notice when you’re doing it and think about the hyoid bone gently moving back in your neck to help guide your head back.

6. Also, if you don’t have them, blue light blocking glasses will help your eyes/suboccipital muscles experience less strain. Or you can try switching up the settings of brightness and color on your monitor. Between lessons take breaks to look outside at the farthest away point you can identify. All the up close looking of screens means we need to balance with far away looking and let’s face it, nature is also a balm for the soul right now.

7. What are you doing in the rest of your day? More sitting on chairs and couches? Try floor sitting, schedule walk breaks, pull your bike out of your basement and dust it off, join me for a weekly movement class on Fridays. IF you can’t get onto the floor easily to sit, build up piles of pillows/blankets/bolsters to sit on.

If you are aching from sitting, try implementing some of these suggestions and you can also access these videos on my Youtube channel to get you moving in your studio:

Are you asking for the impossible?

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.

Want to get in on this goodness and discover ways of moving the body to make lasting, helpful changes that support the voice? Join me in the Singers’ Online Learning and Movement Library and get unlimited access to movement videos and workshops all geared toward the singer’s body.

Paragons of Posture or Perpetuating Problematic Patterns?

The title of this post is a small nod to my word-smithing grandfather and my English teacher mother. I do so love some good alliteration and I hope it has gotten your attention!

What I really want to talk about is the issue of using a ballet dancer’s posture as the best model for how a singer should comport his or her body while singing. I’ve read many a comment on Facebook threads lauding a ballet dancer’s posture, in particular, first position, as an avenue to teach posture to singers. My short response is ‘that’s probably a bad idea’.

The longer reasoning is this:

I’ve written before about my issues with posture and the power of using a model of alignment based on bony markers instead. My issue with looking at ballet posture and extrapolating it to singing is this: singing and dancing are two different activities. The desired outcome of posture in ballet is appropriate for ballet and ballet only.

There are very clear rules about how to hold the body in ballet – each of the five fundamental ballet positions for arms and feet are practiced as a way of building a foundation to accomplish other ballet moves.

As this image from aballeteducation.com shows us (click the link to see it larger), there are LOTS of things done to the body to achieve first position in ballet. AND lots of these things are contrary to finding a place of neutral alignment that allows for the greatest functionality in the body and voice. The places that I want to look to see if a postural position is going to help singing include: the feet, the legs, the pelvis, the core, the arms and the neck.

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So, assuming you are doing first position correctly, there is no weight in your heels, your feet are turned out to an extreme, kneecaps are engaged and lifted, ribcage is down (more on that in coming paragraphs), THE OBLIQUES ARE COMPRESSED, and the arm muscles are rotated forward. While those elements may lead to a fantastic first position, THEY DO NOT EQUAL ALIGNMENT. The feet as our foundation are off in this position. Of special note is that breathing for classical singing will be greatly compromised if the belly is ‘compressed’, which I’m assuming means engaged on a constant basis.

About the ribcage…I like that the directive is to keep the flat and lifted – I’m not exactly sure what that means in ballet speak, but I assume from this article and the accompanying photo below, that ribcage thrust is not desired in first position, or the other positions in ballet. However, getting the arms overhead without the ribs moving to help, take a level of flexibility and mobility that many are missing.

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A quick search on google for images of ballet dancers turns up lots of pictures, like this one, of young girls who are beginning ballet and they stand with ribcage thrust. It isn’t hard to understand why. We are casted in the way we move from such a young age, that even at the age of 7 it can be challenging to stand without the ribs thrust, let alone raise our arms overhead without taking the ribs up too.

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While it may not be something you want in this pose, there is no doubt that rib thrust is a common part of many ballet positions – and rightly so if that is the desired posture on stage (just as it is in a ‘stick the landing’ posture for a gymnast).

In fact, in my 15 years of teaching, every ballerina I’ve worked with has ribcage thrust (so do most other people, but it is a harder habit to break, I’ve found, in a ballerina) and seriously tight core musculature. Again, both of those elements are appropriate to the event at hand: ballet, but they don’t add up for singing as they don’t translate to functionality in the body and voice..

Ballet is a fantastically beautiful art form. I just want to call a separation between the correct postural position for a ballerina in any circumstance and how we want to stand and move for singing.

Voice professionals will be far better served at educating themselves about what an aligned neutral state is in the body, understanding why so few bodies come to them presenting in neutral and how to begin to work with the body to return it to that place than they are to suggest simply standing in a ballet position and calling it appropriate.

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 use our body as it is meant to be (squatting, swinging, walking etc.) 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. You will probably look something like the bottom picture that I have so aptly drawn. The top left pic is an aligned body. The Not Aligned is what I see a lot of in students. The bottom is where you go first – when you line things up we see just how rounded the shoulders are due to the excessive internal rotation from all we do. I’ve written about that a lot already so I won’t revisit here. The thing is, if you can find the place where you are aligned and spend time standing there, walking in that position, singing in that position, stretching to release held tension and building strength in your weak muscles, your body will work its way back to having a spine that isn’t so rounded over. 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 will be better because when the ribcage isn’t pressed forward, the lower back ribs can expand – and the diaphragm can experience its maximum excursion of close to 2 inches.

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I’ve spent time since the beginning of this year understanding my own alignment in a new way 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!). As they continue to stand and move in the aligned position their body adjusts and they move away from being so slumped over to having a rib cage that can be elevated without being thrust forward, a pelvis that is neutral and weight that is more in the heels, but the forefoot (just behind the toes) is activated – and yes, they are singing while barefoot in my studio.

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.

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!

 

 

 

Un-Tuck Your Pelvis, Please!

Today’s scintillating topic is the back of your thighs and what they do to your pelvis. Those three muscles, collectively called your hamstrings, are what we spend a lot of time sitting on. Very often when we exercise we shorten them as well. When they get shorter they pull on your pelvis, and in consort with some other muscles and ANY SHOE WITH ANY KIND OF HEEL, move your pelvis into a ‘tuck’ position.

Please see my lovely pictorial below that shows a more sway-backed position a tucked position and a more neutral position. (All of these are my body’s version of each given my own alignment limitations and by no means the definitive way to be duck, tuck or neutral.)

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As you can see with my exaggerated tuck position, my upper spine also rounds. For many people a tucked pelvis also comes with a forward thrusting lower ribcage (sorry I wasn’t able to contort myself into that position).

If you have a tucked pelvis, a thrust forward ribcage and then a rounded upper spine, is there any chance your larynx is going to be optimally aligned in your throat? Nope, nope and nope. While the feet are the foundation in many ways, what is happening in the pelvis when it is viewed as a foundation, is equally important. So, start by taking your shoes off when you sing, are in your house and any other time that you can!

Now, Rome wasn’t built in a day and it will take time for you to even begin to assess whether you have a tucked pelvis that needs addressing and then you’ll need to spend time adjusting your alignment to find the mobility to un-tuck it.

This is where yoga can help. For many people with tight hamstrings and a tucked pelvis an aching low back is also often in play. So, we need a pose everyone can do, but especially those with achy backs.

Reclining Big Toe Pose is the answer! Really, yoga is always the answer, right? This pose is in my top 10 of favorite yoga poses.

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In this version look at the leg that is on the floor. There is no space between the hamstring and the mat; the back of my leg is touching the floor.

Here are some key elements of the pose:

Begin lying on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor.

Hug your knees into your chest and wrap a strap around the balls of the toes of one leg.

Extend the opposite leg out on the floor. Be sure the pelvis is untucked.

As you extend the strapped leg into the air pay attention to the small of your back. Is it flat to the floor (meaning your pelvis is tucked) or is there a little space behind it (meaning your pelvis is untucked).  Move the leg in the air to where it is straight AND you have the pelvis untucked. It may be that the back of your other leg is touching the floor – but if you have super skinny legs it might not. Walk your arms up the strap until they are straight. Don’t  yank on the strap, just let the action of the arms falling back into the shoulder be what gives you the stretch.

When your ego says, ‘no way, I can totally get my toes close to my nose!’ This is what you get:

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My leg is wayyyy closer to my nose, but my pelvis is totally tucked and my leg on the ground popped up. So much so that I drove a little lego car underneath it to show you the space. (What you can’t see is the pile of legos and matchbox cars and allll the other toys  just behind my head because I shoved them all out of the way to be able to take these pictures).

This pose is a great place to start to begin to find some release and relief for your legs and pelvis. Try to hold the pose for 3-5 cycles of slow inhales and exhales. Then get up and walk around and notice how you feel!