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!

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The Deal with the Diaphragm, Pt. 2

The Deal with the Diaphragm, Pt 2

In the first post we looked at the diaphragm and its role in inhalation – It is the primary muscle involved in the lifting of the ribs and the expansion of the abdomen upon inhalation. To be extra clear, it is always involved in breathing – there is no such thing as a non-diaphragmatic breath. It is just a matter of how efficiently it works. When you are a singer you need it to be very efficient, and how the body is positioned influences the way we use the other muscles of inhalation and exhalation all of which allows the diaphragm to function efficiently.

When we sing we need to slow down the rate at which air is expelled so it matches the needed amount to set the vocal folds in motion at the appropriate pitch and gives you the ability to sing through a phrase. We can’t do that with the diaphragm because we have no direct control over it.

We accomplish this by engaging the accessory muscles of exhalation. (When you aren’t singing you can slow the breath down by pursing the lips on exhale, hissing, or by using an ujjayi breath). The abdominal muscle that has the most direct relationship to the diaphragm is the transverse abdominus, the deepest layer of belly muscle, because it attaches to the body at many of the same points that the diaphragm does. We often refer to muscles in pairs as antagonists (think bicep and tricep in your arm). The transverse abdominus is the antagonist of the diaphragm. The other accessory muscles and their antagonists include the obliques (belly) and the costals (ribs), but we’re looking most closely at the transverse abdominus here.

Transverse Abdominus in deep red above.

If the diaphragm returns to its resting position quickly, you get a big burst of air that will either make your sound breathy, out of tune or more difficult to create than it should be. So, when we slow its return down by engaging the other muscles of the abdomen and back, especially the transverse abdominus, you create what is often referred to as ‘support’.

So, how do you know you are engaging the transverse abdominus muscle?

Try This:

Lie down in a well aligned manner. Place your hand just above your pubic bone on your low belly.

Exhale through pursed lips or on a hiss, continuing until you feel as though you are out of air. Like, really, really out of air.

While exhaling pay attention to where you feel muscle engagement – hopefully you feel it beneath your hand in the lowest part of your belly, almost as low as where the pubic bone is. It is a subtle in-and-up motion. That muscle engagement is the transverse abdominus muscle which wraps around the torso like a corset. If you aren’t sure if you engage it when you sing, try vocalizing on the sounds v, m, n, or the ng sound from the word sing with your fingers pressed into your softened belly. Those sounds are good triggers to engage the muscle and you’ll feel it press against your fingers when you vocalize.

Enjoy!

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The Deal with the Diaphragm, Pt. 1

The Deal with the Diaphragm, Pt 1

“What do you know about breathing for singing?”

This is one of the questions asked of students in my voice studio at their first lesson. My least favorite, yet most common response is, “well, I know you breathe from the diaphragm,” uttered as they hold their hand vaguely over their abdominal area.

If that is their answer we go no further.

The diaphragm, for those of you who don’t know, is an involuntary muscle. That means we have no direct control over it. We cannot make it do anything. At all. When not engaged it rests at the bottom of the rib cage. When activated it contracts and pulls and aides with inhalation.

Because it is an involuntary muscle, we do not ‘breathe from the diaphragm’ anymore than we breathe from our stomach. We breathe through our mouth or nose, down the trachea and into the lungs. Breathing occurs through an interplay of muscles, including the diaphragm, that pull on lung tissue, create negative pressure and allow air to rush in (a very boiled down explanation with apologies to those who do anatomical things for a living and would give a more complex, in depth explanation).

What we want is a diaphragm that is free to descend to its maximum position, allowing the bottom portion of our lungs, where the bulk of our lung tissue lives, to fill with air, giving us the best shot at singing long phrases.

What we need is a set of abdominal muscles flexible enough to allow the contents of the abdominal area (stomach, liver, spleen etc) to move forward when the diaphragm encounters them. Because the diaphragm inserts on itself in a central tendon,  its flexibility is also partly dependent on the flexibility of the hips and spine. (Working on flexibility while building strength is one of the many reasons why yoga can be helpful for singers.)

When teachers and conductors and the like tell students “Breathe from your diaphragm!” what they mean is release your abdominal muscles and get the ribcage in an optimal position so the diaphragm is free to descend on inhalation.  We ‘feel a low breath’ because there is expansion in the belly as things move around.

The way the diaphragm is involved with exhalation and how it is paired with its antagonist muscles in the abdomen to provide the foundation for a supported sound is for another post.

Go forth and sing, but know that you aren’t controlling your diaphragm as much as you might think you are!

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