Singing – Posture for optimum performance.
The stage is a platform projecting the artist’s sense of “Self”.
When a singer, or any other performer, instrumentalist or public speaker, walks on to a stage, the audience will immediately sub-consciously pick up messages from their appearance – and from their posture and body language. These messages, albeit subtle (or perhaps not so subtle in the case of some performers) will provide the audience with expectations of the performance which is going to be delivered.
Good posture and good singing are very strongly inter-related. In those first seconds upon entering the stage, there must be a connection developed between the performer and their audience. A singer who appears nervous, lacking in self-esteem, or who carries themselves with poor physical posture, will engender less confidence in an audience than a singer who enters the stage confidently, and greets their audience with due attention, grace and respect.
It is a common mistake of inexperienced performers to make assumptions that are harshly judgemental and critical of their audience. These unfortunate ideas are usually based on their own lack of self esteem. The audience do not want to see the singer fail! They will be supportive if the singer provides them with expectations of a quality performance – after all, they have paid an entry fee and made the effort to attend. Now, it is up to the artist to deliver with polish and charm. There is nothing worse than sitting in an audience and feeling sorry for the artist because they are under-prepared or, worse still, clearly well prepared in practise, but unable to get past their own inhibitions to really get out there and sing.
To test whether posture will have an effect on production of sound, stand relaxed and well, and sing a vowel. As you do so, fold both arms, slowly raise your chin, slump, put your head forward, turn your head to one side (to name but a few) and note the immediate changes in the quality of sound produced. Without going into a great depth of detail, I will endeavour to outline the basic characteristics of good posture:
The Skeletal Structure in Good Alignment
We will work from the ground up, starting with
Weight should be evenly distributed on the feet, with one foot slightly in front of the other. This looks far more refined than the ‘warrior stance’ with both feet splayed as though ready to do battle. The weight should be a little forward onto the balls of the feet. The feet should not be together, but a little apart to provide a stable support for the body. I would say just inside the shoulders is a good distance. I would be remiss here if I did not mention footwear. Ladies – please – high heels are elegant and wonderful….. but not if you can not walk in them! I have seen so many young performers tottering on stage in overly high heels, reminiscent of a newborn baby calf, or sporting that other inelegant look, the duck walk. Above all, proper foot position should look natural, provide a firm foundation, and feel comfortable.
The legs, trunk and head should conform, as much as possible, to a straight, natural line. It is important to not ‘lock the knees’, thus creating tension in the body.
Again, the hips should conform as closely as possible to a straight line. There was a school of thought that, if necessary, the pelvis should be “tucked forward” to strictly align. This has been much disputed over recent years with some teachers adhering to this convention, and others refuting it. Personally, in performance, I tend to adhere to it because I believe it allows for the previously mentioned straight and natural line. If it is uncomfortable, or creates tension, that is something which must be taken into consideration.
The Upper and Lower Abdomen.
The upper abdomen extends from the rib cage to the waistline, and is especially significant for the role it plays in “good breathing” (efficient breath management.) The lower abdomen plays a vital role in support and should be held in comfortably and pulled in gently during the breathing process. As the lower abdomen is gently pulled in, the muscles at the wait=band (upper abdomen) should gently lean out. You will notice the constant use of the word “gently”. No part of the process should be conducted too strongly, thus creating excessive tension, the enemy of good vocal production.
Standing tall, with a comfortably high chest position not only looks better on stage, but allows the function of breathing to be conducted in an uninhibited manner. The chest should never move up or down, and consequently both chest and shoulders should remain relaxed, still, and quiet. There will be some gentle and rhythmic movement of the ribs. The chest should feel expansive and buoyant, but should never be held in a rigid military style bearing.
Remember the old rule – do not allow your shoulder to “roll inwards” This is important for everyday posture, as well as for singing and performance. They should be pulled gently backwards and allowed to drop into a comfortable position. There should be absolutely no rising and falling of the shoulders when singing or breathing, however the shoulders should not be forcibly held in position (see previous mention of ‘military style’ bearing.)
The Arms and Hands.
When the shoulders are comfortably in position, the arms should fall naturally at the sides, and the hands should rest free of tension. In Classical performance, singers were originally trained, by many teachers, to not move the hands at all. These days, it is more acceptable to make small and graceful movements at times, in order to illustrate – and give full meaning – to the lyrics. I have seen some teachers suggest that the singer perform with one hand resting on the piano. I am not a proponent of this stance, however it does seem to be gaining acceptance.
A Word on “Borrowing”.
Having been a member of the audience at many eisteddfodau, and watched inexperienced young vocalists perform, I have had the occasion to note many different style of what is known as “borrowing”> This term covers the various nervous mannerisms often employed by novice singers to distract themselves from how overwhelmed they are feeling in front of an udience. These behaviours include, but are not limited to, rolling the hems of gowns, plucking at clothing, tapping the fingers against the body, rolling and unrolling the fingers, slow elevation of one or both hands, clenching fists, rolling thumbs and fingers together, licking lips repeatedly, stretching fingers or twiddling them, rolling and flicking hair, rocking the torso. This domain is not limited to the amateur musician. I have watched an experienced music teacher sing her solo, conducting time beautifully throughout with one hand.
Let’s now go back to the first part of that paragraph… “mannerisms employed by singers to distract themselves”. On stage, we never want to be distracted. We are completely focussed, and committed to our performance. “Borrowing” is one of the worst possible exhibitions on stage.
There is an old saying which still holds true. I first heard it at the Conservatorium of Music. “Long back of the neck, and ears over shoulders.” When viewed from front or side, the head should be in alignment with the body. “Imagine,” my teacher once told me, “that there is an invisible string from the ceiling to the top of your head, and you are suspended by it, standing straight and tall.” Stranding straight and tall, head and eyes level, never raising the chin, especially on high notes.” There is often a temptation to raise the chin on high notes when the opposite is the correct technique! If anything, the chin should be slightly lowered for the high notes. Don’t feel that the head should ever be locked into, and held, in one position. Allow it to move freely and roam, and engage with the audience by traversing the room or theatre in it’s entirety. After all, the audience in the wing seats, in the box seats, and in the stalls, have all paid for their tickets!
In speaking about the head, we have looked at “standing tall”, a sensation of spinal lift or stretch. Without tension, gently straighten the small of your back, tucking the buttocks in and under, and slightly forward. This spinal stretch will allow for a lengthened, straight alignment as previously discussed.
A Brief Summary of Faults In Posture for the Singer.
- Feet too close together, which does not provide adequate support. Feet too far apart, or in the “warrior stance”, which can create tension and look out of place when singing a beautiful melody.
- Knees “locked” creating tension.
- Slumping posture, rolled in shoulders, chest not ‘open’.
- Head tilted too far back, or to one side.
- Chin stuck forward, or lifted. Jaw jutting out.
- Too much curvature in the small of the back – body not in alignment.
- Arms behind back, folded or tight. Borrowing or fidgeting with the hands.
- Asymmetry – remember “ears over shoulders, and long back of the neck.”
Discussing “Asymmetry” in the Posture of a Singer.
For a few months after rehabilitating my voice post thyroid surgery, I fell into the habit of singing asymmetrically. This was due to my subconsciously trying to protect the area of trauma which was, no doubt, still slightly tender and in a process or recovery. I didn’t realise that I was inadvertently singing with my head slightly to one side, a habit that I had never had before. From this experience, I can confidently say that it can happen to anyone, so if you have had surgery, an injury, or trauma to an area of your body, be aware that you may be covering it when singing and affecting your production. Use a mirror, as well as the eyes of a competent mentor or teacher, to check alignment and posture when you practise.
A final word, two of them to be precise – Happy singing!