Choir is a Sport: How to Align the Body for Healthy Singing
Preface: After attending a clinic presented by Dr. James Jordan (senior conductor at Westminster Choir College), we’ve been disciples of his work and his philosophies. We want to give credit where credit is due, and a lot of this information comes from him and the presentation he gave!
Introduce this concept and you will have a different choir!
We kid you not – we have done this with every choir we’ve been in front of and their sound changed immediately! Now, keeping that sound will take repetition, practice, and some self-policing from your singers. But if you introduce this concept, you will have a different choir on your hands. I’ve had singers begin to take pride in their instruments after we completed and worked on this simple, yet sometimes overlooked, aspect of singing. And none of what I’m about to tell you has anything to do with ACTUALLY singing!
Singer’s Alignment: The First Step in Reconstructing Your Singer’s Instrument
Posture posture posture! I’ve always loathed hearing this word in the choral classroom. Maybe loathed is a strong word, but it’s never sat right with me. Your singers don’t need to work on their posture. They need to re-align the INSTRUMENTS that they bring into rehearsal. That means deconstructing their “posture” and re-aligning their bodies in order to create a beautiful and healthy sound. Some of the following may be second nature to you as a director – THAT’S GREAT! You’re already on your way!
ALL tension leads to the throat if we’re not careful with how we align our bodies for singing! Let’s learn how.
I’m a huge sports fan and I’ve always thought there was a strong connection between sports and singing. Each athlete in every sport has a stance. Baseball players have a batting stance they continue to work on for years. Offensive linemen in football have multiple stances that they must perfect in order to do their part. Basketball players have certain defensive stances that they use in order to lockdown their defender. Singers are no different when it comes to perfecting a stance. This stance is distributed through the feet up to the hips. We’ll start from the ground up.
The feet must be shoulder-width apart – not too wide and not too close together. The outside foot (the foot closest to the end of the risers) should be placed slightly more forward than the inside foot. This allows a singer to have some range of motion on all sides. This is important when it comes to moving with the music–it’s okay to move!
Try this with your singers: Have a volunteer come down to the front and have them stand with their feet shoulder-width apart but DON’T tell them to place one foot slightly in front of the other. Warn them that you are going to give them a little shove and tell them to try and balance and not move their feet (please make sure your volunteer is a someone who can handle a slight shove and not fall over and get injured). Once you give them a little shove, they will either catch themselves with one of their feet or almost lose balance and catch themselves by waving their arms around in a circle! Now have them stand the same way but with one foot in front of the other like we talked aboout above. When you shove them this time, you’ll find that they will have a better chance of actually keeping balance because of their range of motion!
This might come as no surprise, but it’s always worth mentioning. Make sure the knees are slightly bent. Doing this engages the quadricep muscles and takes weight and pressure off of the upper body. If the knees are locked, it takes slightly more upper body strength to keep balance and have a sense of grounding. Let the knees take some of the tension rather than the abdominal wall or God forbid the chest.
The hips are very important, because the hips are where the body’s center of gravity is located. The hips should be placed over the heels of the feet, not over the toes and not over the middle of the foot, but the heel.
Try this with your singers: Have the singers point to their hips. Seems easy right? I’ve probably only ever had a handful of people correctly point to where their hips are – and that’s out of hundreds and hundreds of singers. Most, if not all of them, will point to their waist. This is incorrect. The hips are lower and located more around your pants pockets. You can even feel the hip joint on your sides. A great way to prove this to your choir is to have them place their palms on their hips and take a bow. They can then feel where the hips truly are.
This is your singer’s stance. This will take time for your singers and yourself (always be the model for your choir) to create that muscle memory in order for this to become second nature.
The Upper Body
Up we go! As we ascend the body, we’re going to inevitably get closer and closer to where muscle tension can set up camp – the throat and neck. We’ll deal with that when we get there. But for now, let’s break down the parts of the upper body that help us form our new singer’s alignment.
Young male singers typically build up a lot of tension in their chest and this boils over to singing as well. This can happen for a few reasons. They either have been taught wrong – to stick their chest out when they sing – or they’ve built up some sort of muscle memory that feels comfortable for them physically to either cave their chest in or stick it out like Superman. Neither is healthy for singing and can lead to tension in the voice. Female singers don’t typically have as much tension in these chest muscles but from our experience, young female singers can tend to cave in their chest if not taught correctly, so they need to focus on this area too.
When focusing on the chest muscles and alignment of the upper body, we need to actually address the rib cage, shoulders, and shoulder blades. In order for the chest to be lifted and aligned correctly for singing, the rib cage must be lifted off of the diaphragm. This will instantly lift the chest and allow your diaphragm to move freely as well.
But this move alone will not align the chest in its entirety. The chest will still be caved, and this is there the shoulders and shoulder blades take control. The shoulders should be slightly nudged back. This may happen more naturally for others, especially if you have any dancers or theater people in your choir! Nudging the shoulders back will help un-cave the chest, but not necessarily “stick out the chest.” The shoulder blades should be pointed towards the ground. A great way to accomplish this is to slowly roll the shoulders back until you feel the shoulder blades “pointing” towards the ground.
Try this with your singers: A tip we’ve used, particularly with Catholic children’s choirs, is to remind the singers of some words they say in mass. “Lift up your hearts,” the priest says. How does the congregation respond? “We lift them up to the Lord.” Remind singers that they need to lift their hearts up to the Lord spiritually AND physically when they are singing!
The Head and Neck
Many singers overlook tension building up in their head and neck. But again, ALL tension leads to the throat if we’re not careful with how we align our bodies for singing! For the head and neck aspect of our singer’s alignment, we will look to one major important bone – the skull.
In order to align the skull, we need to first understand how it is connected to the rest of our body. The cervical spine (neck vertebrae) surrounds the central hole in the center of the skull that houses the connection from the spinal cord to the brain. The atlas is the first vertebrae and holds up the skull, sort of like a dome. Think about how a bobblehead is connected to a spring in the middle of the head in order for it to bobble. This is where the spine connects to the skull. The skull needs to be perfectly balanced on the spine in order to maintain alignment.
Try this with your singers: Have them let their head fall naturally in each direction (forwards, backwards, left, and right). This will make it easier to find that balance point between their atlas (the first vertebrae) and the skull.
Doing all of this with the upper body will allow the spine to naturally curve from top to bottom.
It’s easy to get out of alignment especially when it’s still a new concept to grasp. To drive this all home, here’s how we’ve end lessons on singer’s alignment:
Try this with your singers: Have the singers stand however they want. Begin to count backwards from five, and instruct them that when you reach zero they should have slowly morphed into their singer’s alignment. When they are singing, and you notice the singers standing more comfortably, just speak the word align. This should be your code to have them realign their bodies.
Again, thank you to the incomparable Dr. James Jordan for much of this information! We’re eager to hear how it transforms the sound and confidence of your choirs!