No matter who you are, your posture is your number 1 key to existing as a performer, equal only to correct breathing. The truth is, there is no correct way of standing while singing. You can be in many different positions, lying, sitting and moving around. The main thing that you must always have a tall spine.
If we all had to stand rigidly without movement, then how would you explain the many, many performers can sing while using complicated dance moves (e.g. Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Hugh Jackman in The Boy From Oz), while sitting (e.g. Jean Veljean during Bring Him Home is a common one) or while lying down (e.g. Almost every Puccini heroine who sings a death duet or monologue)?
I am going to use some information directly from a teacher called David L. Jones who commonly refers to Kirsten Flagstad when he discusses posture. He refers to her training as “The School of the Tall Spine.” He mentions this in a number of articles along with his introductory Coaching CD. The most common posture ‘school of thought’ teachers are pointing to these days is the ‘Alexander Technique’.
The creator of the Alexander Technique, Frederick Alexander was an actor whose voice grew progressively hoarse over long periods of use. This is not surprising. Many theatres these days lack the good acoustics of an ancient Greek theatre. If you stand in the dead centre of the Greek theatre in Delphi, you can breathe quietly and be heard by the audience members in the very top, back row. Don’t believe me? Please put the Theatre in Delphi near the Temple of Apollo on your bucket list if you are at all interested in performing.
No modern theatre has not worked out how to create the same acoustic affect, requiring actors and singers to be able to augment their bodies (their instruments) in such a way that their voice can carry and be heard. Alexander worked out that simple adjustments of his posture in the mirror would change the quality of his voice dramatically.
How posture affects your voice example:
I will get you to do it now. Talk or sing a line of text wherever your head is at now.
Now I would like you to push your head forward so that your neck is in an extreme slouched position and sing and speak the same line. Do a glissando in both positions (i.e. a siren from low to high and back down again). You may notice the following when your head is jutting out:
A flat acoustic
Extremely limited vocal range
Inability to ‘change gear’ through the passagio (when going through your break)
Flipping into a falsetto (breathy tone) at the break
You may feel tension too if you sing in this position for too long. I do not encourage this.
Now I would like you to try the same thing but now over-straighen your neck to the point your chin is tucking into your neck. You will probably experience an over-darkening of the tone. This is because your larynx is being forced down by the tongue.
In order to correct a slouch of the neck, I refer to an Alexander technique voice teacher who held a master class for myself and a number of actors. She called this “pony tail hanging to rafter from ceiling.” It was a simple matter of imagining you have a pony tail at the top of your skull nearing the back of the head.
You should imagine that the ponytail is an extension of your spine. You should then imagine that you are gently dangling from the roof like a puppet. The ponytail holding you up is not being yanked, just nicely tort.
If you were to vocalize in this position, you are about a third of the way there. What I have just described is how you fix any degree of neck displacement while singing. The truth is, everyone has a degree of incorrect neck posture. Look at the diagram below. Which posture do you correct using the ‘ponytail’ method?
The fourth position is corrected by this method because a tall upper spine results in a continuous line from upper-back to upper-spine to skull.
Upper Spine alignment:
The next part is ensuring that the upper back is correctly positioned to prevent slouching. We are therefore trying to fix the third position in the above image. By extension you will notice that this position also leads to incorrect neck position.
The method recommended for this comes from a teacher who worked primarily in the United Kingdom. She comes from the traditional Italian-Swedish school of singing. She asks that her students ‘hug a tree’ while singing. To do this, I would, suggest that you imagine your head in the position of the ‘ponytail’ exercize. You then put your arms out in front of you to the side as if you were about to hug a tree.
The picture below best represents where I want you to go with this movement. Notice how her posture is upright, she is not leaning forward into the tree. The only difference I want you to make is that your hands do not need to come together, imagine that the tree is too wide for that. There should be a fairly large, circular space shaped by your body and arms. In this position, your upper back is not allowing your neck to stoop forward.
The next exercize is aimed at correcting Lordosis, the second posture in our poor posture chart above. It is commonly referred to by Alexander practitioners as the chair exercize. When you are sitting, you naturally have only a slight curvature in the lower spine, unless you are trying to over-straighten yourself.
The following image best illustrates the chair exercize. Have your hands resting midway down the top of your thighs. I would like you to imagine that your ‘ponytail’ or spine is being pulled in an approximately 60-70 degree angle from your sitting (or 20-30 degrees from the back of your chair). You will be just looking at the floor ahead of you. This causes you to be sitting slightly forward and for your back to be straight.
Holding this straight spine, pivot forward. You should imagine that the point from which you are bending is your pelvis. The rest of your spine remains as straight as it was when you were still. Do not let your head or shoulders come forward. As you bend your whole body forward, let your weight shift slowly into your legs. As you stand, you will look a little like the following image:
Your legs will be slightly bent at the knees at pelvis, but your spine will remain tall.
Let’s put it all together:
Now, to incorporate these three adjustments while standing involves the following:
Raise both your arms up to the air. Keep them slightly forward of your head.
With your eyes, follow your hands up. Your head may tilt ever so slightly to see them.
Puff your chest out and upwards. This will cause a lordosis, but will open your chest.
Correct this lordosis by bending at the hips and knees and letting your pelvis tilt slight forward.
Putting it all In this final posture exercize, I have incorporated an open chest and collar bone, which allows for better relaxation and release of the sternocleidomastoid (side neck) muscles to assist laryngeal release. I encourage an over-extension of the chest initially, which is then corrected by the tilting forward of the pelvis and slight bend in the legs.
This, in essence is correct posture for singing. In this posture, your abdominal, oblique and intercostal muscles will be forced (without too much conscious effort) to engage and regulate outward breath. When you remove any lordosis (the extreme S shape), the abdomen releases better during an intake of breath. The tall neck and wide sternum and collar bone area results in better laryngeal tilt and less tension in the neck area.
Singing myth: we need to stand still and straight
Let’s just address a common issue around posture: That you must be standing up and standing still to maintain good technique.
For a recital, exams, singing practise, still performances, I would recommend standing for the most part. This is not, however, how it works in the industry. Singers and actors end up in all sorts of positions while delivering their text effectively. When you look at the exercizes above, note how everything is aimed at keeping a straight, continuous spine. Even your leg adjustments are focused on removing an over-extended lumbar spine. When you are sitting down, it will be easier to find a straight spine, when you are lying down, you can support your spine into a straight position with other actors, your arms and objects. This can be all worked out during rehearsals.
One thing must be true whether you are dancing, lying down, sitting or flailing about, if you are delivering text, the spine must be straight. Everything else is smoke and mirrors.
Let’s start with your bread and butter operatic posture, followed by some contemporary singers.
Jussi Bjorling and Renata Tebaldi (La Boheme)
These two opera singers are the crème de la crème of technicians. As is common with opera, you will see that the choreography is simple and directed mostly towards the front. This ensures constat, optimal posture for breath support and vocal production. The ears of both singers are always on the same plane as their shoulders, and the head always appears to be slightly suspended.
Also note that during the most difficult passages (3:30-3:41 and 2:59-3:55 respectively) the singers do not move very much. They remain very ‘stuck’ in one, powerful, straight posture and do not perform much action. It’s as if they are waiting to get through that passage before doing anything else. This is an excellent example of how opera singers need to be very aware of any action during their passages and where they need the most preparation.
Natalie Dessay (Lucia Di Lammermore, the Mad Scene):
Watch this clip from 2:45. Dessay is on the ground for a large chunk of the aria. What stands out is how straight her spine is from tail bone to skull. You will not see her buckle in any part of the torso, neck or abdomen. Her legs and arms can create the illusion that she is in a difficult to sing position, but in reality, if you were to make her arms and legs invisible, her torso would co-ordinated the same way as in a Bach recital.
Lady Gaga (Edge of Glory, live)
For those of you who are singing snobs out there, you should listen carefully to some of Lady Gaga’s ballads before judging. She has a fantastic voice and has made a real headway in the music industry with her artistry. She has even made Sound of Music cool again.
I wouldn’t call this the best example of her singing, but from 2:15 onwards, you will see her get into a more ‘rock ballad’ position. A very common position for a lot of metal singers especially. Notice how, despite some head flicking, her torso and spine remain fairly rigid from pelvis to skull. When she bends, she bends from her pelvis, not her spine – hence the slight ‘table-top’ shape of her back from 2:31 onwards.
Marco Hietala and Floor Jansen from Nightwish (Wish I had an Angel, Live)
While we are on the subject of ‘metal posture’, I believe that it explains a number of the brilliant voices we have in metal music all over the world. I would refer to ‘metal posture’ as having a large bend at the hips and knees so that the body can pivot forwad and look down at the crowd (since the crowd are often below the band).
2:12 shows a fantastic example of good singing posture. Even with a heavy guitar, Marco’s spine is straight, legs are slightly bent. Flood has a similar posture with potentially more freedom due to not having a guitar. Both singers’ legs are bent and they are bending slightly forward from their hips, not their backs.
I challenge the readers of this article to find singers that they love and respect and watch them performing live. Try to work out the moments that they may have to lip sync (in the case of pop singers doing complex dance moves), the moments that they bend. Also see if you notice any poor posture that may interfere with their vocal production.
If you hear or know about any Alexander practitioners in your area, pounce on that opportunity whenever you can. You do not need to do the full 2-3 year Alexander course to benefit, that is primarily a course for specializing. Most musicians, singers, actors or anyone affected by voice issues will frequently see results from a single session with an Alexander practitioner.
Always remember the key rules of posture:
Bend from the hips
The spine is always straight
Thank you for stopping by! I will endeavor to do more posture case studies in the upcoming blog.