Saturday, 28 February 2015

The Action of Breathing

Control of breath underpins all speaking and singing. Air is taken into the lungs either through the mouth or nose as we breathe in, and passes out of the body as we breathe out. On its way out, it passes through the larynx and is used to power the voice. The control of airflow must be the job of the breath support system and, when properly supported, the voice will emerge freely and under control.

The following are the most important parts of the anatomy with regard to the use of breath in singing:

· the lungs, which hold the air when it is inhaled
· the diaphragm, which controls the inhalation of the air
· the abdominal muscles, which control the exhalation of the air
· related muscle groups in the back and pelvic floor, which support the abdominal muscles

The Lungs

These are large sacs lying within the rib cage, above the diaphragm. Their main purpose is to provide the body with oxygen which they extract from the inhaled air. The air left over is then exhaled, and it is from this that we can make sound. Lungs cannot inflate or deflate by themselves because they have no muscles of their own. They inflate and deflate due to the action of the diaphragm.

The Diaphragm

The diaphragm is a sheet of muscle attached to the lower edges of the rib cage and to the spine at the back. It lies deep inside the body under the rib cage. You can feel the effect of it moving when you touch the upper abdominal muscles, but you are not touching the diaphragm itself. When relaxed, the diaphragm lies in a dome shape underneath the deflated lungs. When it contracts, it moves downwards towards the abdomen and the lungs fill with air.

Diaphragmatic breathing is often considered to be a support mechanism in singing. However, we use the diaphragm to breathe in. When we sing, we are breathing out! The diaphragm is relaxing as we breathe out (exhale), so it is losing energy and can’t be depended upon to support the voice. Breath support for singing in fact comes from the muscles which control exhalation, the outward flow of breath. These other muscle groups support the breath, giving power to the voice – and are particularly important for long phrases, whether spoken or sung.

When the lungs are full, the diaphragm will have contracted and moved downwards. This action creates the inhalation of air and the lungs inflate.

When there is little breath in the lungs, the diaphragm is relaxed and sits high in the rib cage.

Locking or holding the diaphragm interferes with and impedes the free flow of air. The diaphragm can become locked if the rib cage is constantly being held in a rigid, high position. This is a common problem, since some people mistakenly believe that this ‘military’ posture is good for singing. But flexibility is the key to success in singing, and it stems from well-aligned posture.

-          Ross Campbell
Professor of Singing, Royal Academy of Music, London

Director & Head of Singing, Musical Theatre Ireland, MTI
Award winning Author for ABRSM Songbooks 1 - 5
1-to-1 Vocal Training & Consultations available

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Muscle Memory & Posture

Muscle Memory

Muscles ‘remember’ the actions they perform. The more often these actions are repeated, the more efficient the muscles become at doing them. The clearest example of muscle memory is one’s accent. This is the result of years of repetition of particular muscular actions of the tongue and throat. It is habitual – if you wish to change your accent, you have to create new muscular habits. In My Fair Lady Eliza Doolittle’s cockney accent became Received Pronunciation only after endless work.

Training a voice involves building up the muscle memory which will allow the voice to work at its best. Singers may arrive for a first singing lesson with muscles that are under-active, over-active or used incorrectly. Correcting old habits and creating new, more efficient ones is an essential part of teaching singing. A singing teacher needs to encourage regular practice and rehearsal of these new habits, because it is through repetition that the new muscle memory is established. Repetition also builds stamina for more prolonged and sustained singing.


The voice works best if the instrument – and the instrument here is the body – is set up properly. There is an ideal physical set-up for the voice, which we call posture. 

The two main elements of good posture for singing are:

·         a long spine

·         breadth across the upper chest

The alignment of these two elements helps the voice to work optimally. The spine should be long, so slouching must be avoided. Think tall, with the back of the neck straight but not rigid, and the base of the spine tucked down. The simplest way of achieving this is to rock the pelvis backwards and forwards so that you can feel the lower part of the spine dropping down and tucking under. The knees should remain flexible, but not soft, and certainly not locked. This position means that the muscles of the lower abdomen are ready to work. Breathing can then function efficiently.

Breadth of upper chest refers to a sense of widening of the sternum. This engages the pectoral muscles of the upper chest which help to support the muscles in the neck, and it stabilizes the larynx. In order to achieve breadth of the upper chest, the shoulders should be moved gently back. With hands clasped behind the back at waist level, the singer should pull the elbows back, before lowering the hands (still clasped). There will be a feeling of stretch in the pectoral muscles as the chest widens. While maintaining this posture, the hands should be released and the arms allowed to drop to the side.

The breath cannot work properly if the body is not correctly aligned, for example if it is collapsed in the centre. This happens when the superficial abdominal muscles, the ‘abs’, contract and pull the upper body downwards. The diaphragm then cannot work efficiently and tension rises into the neck. In addition, if the chin juts forwards, muscles in the neck, which hold the larynx in place, are stretched, which prevents the larynx from moving freely and therefore working easily.

Teachers should always be reinforcing good posture in a singing lesson, and singers need to be reminded that they can practise good posture at anytime, anywhere, and whether or not they are singing. It is a question of being mindful of how they are standing, sitting or walking, of checking the position of the spine and the shoulders (whether they are properly aligned), and of thinking about how the muscles feel. Good posture may feel unnatural at first if bad habits have become entrenched; new habits often feel odd, even when they are more efficient. Teachers & singers should persevere until good posture becomes habitual. Good posture is fundamental to good singing, and much more than an optional extra.

Ross Campbell
Professor of Singing, Royal Academy of Music, London
Managing Director & Head of Singing & Music, Musical Theatre UK, London
MTI Award Winning Author for ABRSM Songbooks 1 - 5
1-to-1 Vocal Training & Consultations available

Friday, 13 February 2015

The part Muscles play in Singing & Voice Production

Singing is a physical activity involving the use of muscles. It is helpful to think of the singer as a vocal athlete. As in all sport, the muscles we need for singing have to function properly and be strong enough to meet the demands of the music. Therefore, how muscles work needs to be understood at a basic level. Learning which muscles should be doing which action will help a singing teacher and a singer to train muscles to function properly and to build up the necessary strength, and from this to develop healthy voice production.

Muscles essentially have three actions:

·         they contract
·         they relax
·         they can be stretched

In singing, all three actions can be happening at the same time.

Contraction of a muscle is often called flexing a muscle. When a muscle contracts, it shortens – and the muscle bulges. This can be easily observed by looking at the bicep in the upper arm. The most basic muscular action is the spasm (jerk reflex); it is a quick contraction of the muscle, caused by energy passing through it. Singing uses a lot of energy because of the amount of muscular activity involved.

When muscles relax, they ordinarily go back to their original length and the bulge disappears. In sustained athletic activity, however, muscles which have been overworked may lose this function and go into a state of chronic contraction. In such cases, muscles need to be stretched, which is why athletes are constantly massaged.

Athletes do stretching exercises to loosen up the body and to warm up. In the same way, singers can benefit from a physical warm-up routine, such as stretching, shaking out shoulders, and moving arms and legs, in order to prepare and energize the body for work. This should then lead on to a vocal warm-up.

Muscles tend to work in groups rather than in isolation. For example, a group of muscles works together to raise your arm, and a group of muscles works together to lower your arm. If both these muscle groups decided to work at the same time, there would be a problem. The arm would neither raise nor lower, and the conflicting energy would block any movement. This conflict of muscular energies is referred to as tension.

Consider the tongue, which is not simply one muscle, but a combination of several which work together to comprise the fastest-moving organ in the body. It is also a very flexible organ, allowing the singer to alter the shape of the mouth and pharynx with speed and precision. But any conflict of energies in the muscles of the tongue can result in tongue-root tension – when the base of the tongue becomes locked, interfering with the free movement of the tongue and tending to stiffen the jaw. This can hinder the formation of vowels, consonants, and the free movement of the larynx, all of which has a negative effect on the singing voice.

Ross Campbell
Professor of Singing, Royal Academy of Music, London
Managing Director & Head of Singing & Music, Musical Theatre UK, London
MTI Award Winning Author for ABRSM Songbooks 1 - 5
1-to-1 Vocal Training & Consultations available