Better body alignment: why and how
Many of the metaphors we use to address the position of the vocal tract directly contribute to active tongue tension. Subtle changes in body alignment will naturally lengthen and widen your vocal tract.
Most books on voice and vocal pedagogy have a chapter on posture or body alignment, and it is typically one of the opening chapters due to its fundamental impact on resonance. (I prefer the term body alignment over posture.) However ubiquitous this topic, there is a lot of confusion surrounding it. Ideal body alignment creates two distinct physical conditions that help optimize resonance:
• Longer vocal tract
• Wider vocal tract
Humans create sound when the vocal folds draw near and then are set into motion by air passing through them. Sound is then resonated in the vocal tract, the area from your voice box to the roof of your mouth (back of the throat) to the lips (mouth). Changes to the size and shape of the vocal tract give us distinct colors of resonance, some of which are more optimal for our singing style.
|Unadjusted Alignment||Self-Adjusted Alignment||More Balanced Alignment|
|Because the bulk of the torso is behind the center of the body, the head must jut to stay counterbalanced. This can cause tension in the head/neck and abdominals.||The typical response to a request for better posture is to bring the shoulders and head back, but this does not take into account the position of the hips. This can cause tension in the back, abdominals, knees, and head/neck.||Because the torso is more balanced over the hips, the head can be brought farther back. This can relieve tension in the abdominals, back, and head/neck.|
For barbershop, we generally prefer a long and wide vocal tract. Both can be difficult to achieve and thus hundreds of metaphors are used to address them, from “inside smile” and “lifted sound” to “open throat” and “hot potatoes inside.” Several instructions, in particular, directly contribute to active tongue tension: “raised soft palate,” “start of a yawn,” and most instructions regarding “placing” a tone (a physiological impossibility).
Addressing points of a balanced body alignment will help you achieve a longer and wider vocal tract. When the body is out of balance, muscles rush in to keep us upright. In the picture to the left, notice that because the shoulders are behind the
center of the body, the pelvis is forward. This causes the abdominal muscles to be engaged. If the singer inhales with abdominals already engaged, the larynx cannot descend, keeping the vocal tract
short. The resulting sound is thinner.
When singers stand like this, well-intended directors and coaches try to get a fuller sound by asking for some of the aforementioned manipulations. The solution for a lower larynx/longer vocal tract is to align the highest part of the shoulder (acromion) with the highest part of the hip bone (iliac crest). The skeleton for most singers is sufficient to keep a human upright and the abdominal muscles don’t need to be engaged.
Also notice that to counterbalance his shoulders being back, his head is in front of the center of his body. Our friend Rob Mance coined the term for this: to turtle. When we stand this way, the spine presses in on the back part of the vocal tract (pharynx) narrowing it. Also note the angle of his head: the chin is not parallel to the ground. This body position affects vowels and our ability to achieve expansion both personally and within our ensembles. The solution for a wider vocal tract is to align the ear canals with the highest point of the shoulder.
This might feel unnatural at first. But, to be fair, so is most choreography. Practice adjusting your body balance until you feel more comfortable. In the picture to the right, the singer achieve most of his body balance goals and his abdominal muscles are released. The body alignment in this picture is by no means perfect, but it is substantially more relaxed than the first. The resulting sound should be naturally full, as there is release in the abs, the knees, and in the neck.
About the Author
Steve Scott is the Music Education Curriculum and Online Learning Manager at the Barbershop Harmony Society. This article was originally featured in the Nov/Dec issue of The Harmonizer magazine.