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

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