Vocal Lessons Article

#4: Your Body Is Your Instrument

2013-02-17

Do you sing your best when you haven't gotten enough sleep the night before, when you are tense and stressed out or when you are just low in energy? The answer is probably no – rather, you do your best singing when you are energized and well rested. Think about that, and you will realize why body awareness is a crucial part of the equation when studying voice. Singing is unlike other musical forms, as your body is actually your instrument. A pianist has a piano, a violinist has a violin, but we as singers have our bodies. Therefore, like an instrumentalist tunes, lubricates, and otherwise maintains his or her instrument before every performance, we as singers need to keep our body-instrument in top performing order through the use of practices like yoga, Alexander Technique, and good old physical exercise.

One of the main things that physical “tuning” can help alleviate in singers is bodily tension and misalignment. You should always strive to have little tension in the body and to be well aligned. This will help you to find an unrestricted and free sound as a singer. Many of us are not aware that we are doing things physically that may not be most helpful in our singing. Fortunately, there are many ways to go about seeking help in making these adjustments that will ultimately enable us to produce amazing vocal sounds.

You might ask, “How do I make sure that I don't have unnecessary tension and that I am in alignment?” Well, that is individual. Some people might hold tension in their jaws while others might have to bring their attention to their posture. Where you have to focus your attention may be different than where your best friend has to focus his or hers. These physical adjustments might seem minor to you, but they can make a tremendous difference in your sound if you bring attention to those areas. If you are still unsure about where you're harboring tension or alignment issue, a good voice teacher can help you identify the problem areas.

So now you know you have tension – what to do about it? Very popular among singers is the study of yoga, as it draws many parallels to singing, such as bringing our attention to alignment and breath. In a yoga class, you will find yourself physically stretching muscles all over your body and focusing the whole time on making sure your breathing is fluid and not held. Every posture practiced in a yoga class will help you, but just as an example, let's look at a backbend. Here, you are not only stretching your abdominals (which will help your breathing), but you are also opening your shoulders, lifting your sternum, and stretching your neck muscles. All this plus you are really energizing your body at the same time! As a teacher, the difference my students' singing after taking a yoga class is astounding, and can do wonders for your singing as well. In addition to the physical, yoga calms and relaxes the mind, which can be extremely helpful if you suffer from performance anxiety.

Another common exercise modality among singers is the Alexander technique. This practice focuses on helping you to get rid of harmful tension in the body. This is extremely helpful because we want as little tension in our bodies as possible. This technique focuses on bringing awareness to physical habits that may not serve you, and gives you the tools needed to fix them. You may learn that you have been holding tension in a part of your body that you didn't even realize had anything to do with singing, but with the release of this tension, you will find a much freer sound. In Alexander, a lot of attention is given to the correct posture of the head, neck and spine, which will help a singer immensely.

Both yoga and Alexander technique are great to practice on a daily basis, but also extremely valuable tools to use before a performance. Many might think they just have to warm up their voices before a performance, but that is only one part of the equation. Remember that you are warming up your body to be a musical instrument, so you have to stretch and energize the body!

A student came to me complaining that her auditions were not as consistent as she wished. She knew enough to do a vocal warm-up, but didn't realize how important it was to also warm-up her body. Sometimes the high notes felt great, sometimes not. Sometimes she felt like she was pushing, sometimes not. Of course, there are many technical issues that were causing these problems but they would take some time to work through. I recommended one simple adjustment that she could make immediately - incorporate warming up her body into her audition prep. She started making a trip to the gym prior to each audition. After this small change, she found much more consistency because she was coming into the room with her body warmed-up and ready to perform!

Again, you will learn what your specific body needs to feel ready to perform at its best. Some individuals will need to find ways to release tension in different parts of their bodies, while some might just need to run around the block to get their breath moving. We all want to be able to give our audiences 100% in a performance, so why not do your best to have your instrument/body in the optimal condition to do so? Your voice and body will thank you!

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Julie Brooks

Julie Brooks

Associate Voice Teacher at New York Vocal Coaching