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.

Head, Shoulders, Neck and Your Voice, Pt. 2

In the first post about Head, Shoulders, Neck and your Voice, we looked at a few ways to move the neck into a more neutral place to help eliminate “Piano Head”, where your head is thrust forward, adding so much weight to your neck.

In this post, I’ll share a few simple (though they may be very sensational!) stretches to help move your shoulders out of internal rotation, the place where they are most of the time thanks to playing piano, typing, carrying things and driving.

Hold each of these for around 3-5 breaths, or longer if it feels comfortable. Also, I’m not a doctor, so consult with your physician if you have health concerns before beginning any exercise program.

 

The first thing you can do is roll up a small hand-towel and lie with it behind your neck. Make it big enough so you feel the support, but not so big that it hurts. This encourages your neck to be in its natural curved state.

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Next, sitting appropriately (with your pelvis in neutral), clasp your hands behind your back. Open the palms away from each other and bend your elbows slightly. Then, gently squeeze your shoulder blades together thinking about spreading across your collarbones. Keep your head in neutral.

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While sitting you can do the arm portion of Gomukasana (Cow Face Pose…don’t ask). Move one arm behind the back and try to bring the back of the hand between the shoulder blades. Extend the other arm up and reach back to clasp the fingers of the hand between your shoulder blades. If your fingers don’t easily meet, use a strap to act as an extension of your arms.

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Stand with your feet hip width distance apart, feet pointing straight forward and extend your arm to the wall. Touch just the finger tips and tip of the thumb against the wall at shoulder height. The thumb should be pointing up. This one may tingle all the way down into your fingers. That’s because we are compressing a nerve a bit.

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(I don’t know why I fail to smile in selfies, I think I’m concentrating too hard on whether the damn picture is going to work!)

 

Lastly, you can lie over a bolster placed behind your heart center. Have your shoulder blades draping down the far side, arms open at shoulder height – you can play with moving the arms around the vary the sensation. To come out of the pose, bring your feet to the floor and pick your hips up. Shift the bolster to be under your sacrum, rest back down on it and hug the knees into your chest.

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Head, Shoulders, Neck and your Voice

Physically, you need your larynx to be aligned just right for your breath to flow optimally and your voice to sound at its potential.

However, what do you you a lot every day? 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,  a neck that is strained by an additional 10 lbs for every inch that the head sits forward, 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:
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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 a bit grim. This misalignment is linked to impingement of nerves in the neck, migraines, eye tension, breathing problems, endocrine issues as well as rotator cuff injuries.

Your situation might not be at a point where you feel pain in your neck and shoulders, but if you don’t address it now, it will get there. 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. You will feel how tight the inner arm is.

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 my 2nd cervical vertebrae out of alignment. My neck muscles spasmed after giving birth to my second and in the last two years 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 yoga 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.

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Then, cup the back of your head with your hand and press the head back into your hand.

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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 some great yoga-based stretches that I’ll share in another post. Together, these go a long way to undoing tension and pain in the neck to help your voice function at its best!