Posture in Four Takes
Take 1 – the “noble posture”
Small changes in posture can result in major changes in breath control.
Breath management is one of the most important technical factors in good singing. It may be counter-intuitive to some, but singers do not have to inhale and exhale tremendous amounts of air. What singers need is a steady, fairly low-pressured exhalation that will last until the end of the phrase. What is really needed is coordinated, controlled exhalation.
There are many ideas and practices about which muscles work to control breathing, but the process can be simplified to the following: for singing, one set of muscles pushes the air out, and another resists that action; so that the air doesn’t gush out quickly, but comes out in a very nuanced and controlled manner. Two muscle groups actually work antagonistically to create a smooth, nuanced breath stream.
Physically speaking, there are a couple of ways to manage breath. In one, resistance is accomplished by holding the belly still while exhaling (“belly out”); in the second, resistance is accomplished by keeping the ribcage expanded during exhalation, allowing the belly to contract (“belly in”). There are very successful performers who use both these methods. The purpose of this blog is not to debate which one is more correct; I believe that a person, depending on body type, can do one or the other more effectively, and each singer must find the method that works best. Today we will look at something that is common to both methods of breathing. Most singing methods teach the “noble posture.”
What is the “noble posture”?
In the “noble posture,” the rib cage is somewhat expanded and raised from a resting position. It is the posture of a healthy individual with good muscle tone in the core.
Unfortunately, most students today have a slouched posture. It comes from looking down at mobile phones or laptop screens, and extended periods of sitting from a young age. This “21st century sedentary posture” feels normal to us, but this posture is antithetical to good breath control and is not beneficial for the body in general. I have found during my teaching career that in recent years I have to spend more and more time in lessons on posture, as our lifestyles have become more and more sedentary.
In the pursuit of the “noble posture,” there are some dangers. The first is going to the extreme. Sometimes known as “military posture,” this is the “at attention” posture with shoulders thrown back, lower back arched, chin up, and knees locked; for women, an image that might be applicable is the ballerina pose, with arched back and pulled-in, tight belly. Both of these postures have something in common with the noble posture, and that is, the raised ribcage. But they are too extreme and require a lot of effort to maintain. Singers need to maintain the noble posture for minutes and, in the case of a solo recital, more than an hour, at a time. Singers need to be able to move the abdomen to breathe. If you are in a staged work, you must be able to move your body and maintain the essentials of the posture. For such requirements, the military and ballet postures are too rigid.
Finding a happy medium.
How much is enough? How much is too much? I would say first find the extremes of which you are capable. Facing a mirror and observing your torso, slouch forward, dropping the chest, and exhale all your breath; this is zero on the scale. Then raise your arms straight above the head, lifting the chest, noting the opening and raising of the ribs; this is 100 on the scale. Now slouch, letting your chest fall: this is zero on the scale. Assume your normal posture; I am guessing it is somewhere in the middle. Now you have some idea of the total range, and your habitual position.
I would say at the start, try for 60 or 70 on this scale. Look in the mirror. When you breathe, the ribs should not raise any further, and when you sing, they should not really drop. The action of breathing is sensed lower in the body, with movements below the ribcage, in the area of the waist and the belly. This is probably not intuitive unless you have had a lot of training.
If this is difficult, you may have to raise the arms to find the sensation. Try holding the arms straight up and take several breaths, observing that the ribcage does not move. Then drop the arms to a more moderate position, hands at the shoulder level and observe several more breaths.
If you want to be able to rely on this alignment regularly as you sing, you need to practice it. If you want to be able to maintain it for longer periods of time, you should also use it while you are not singing! Top athletes usually have good posture because their muscles are toned and hold them properly. This is something you can work on every time you have an idle moment during the day, while waiting at a traffic light or to check out at a store. With practice it will become nearly effortless. Good posture, which puts the body in balance and helps muscles work in concert, helps us avoid fatigue.
Observe the posture of those around you. In earlier times, clothing was constructed in a way that restricted the body posture. Ladies, you will notice this with the whalebone inserts in opera costumes! Today, with sedentary lifestyles, stretchy clothes, and small devices with screens, it is somewhat rare to see good posture. Strive for good alignment as a matter of awareness, choice, and mindfulness.