Small children shriek happily, or ask embarrassing questions in their carrying voices, effortlessly far louder than the adults around them would prefer. Adults plead with them to use their inside voices. Gradually children learn a quieter register.
Sound is created by movement. We can be quieter by using less effort to create less motion, or by adding the effort of restraint. When our voice is open and free, we can choose a sound level from relaxed silence to barely audible to resoundingly loud.
If our voice was met with scorn, or threats, or indifference, then bands of tension constrain our voice so that we have to battle to make sound. When we are tasked with keeping secrets, we tighten around our voice to keep the truth from slipping out. Unresolved fear can constrict our whole body, trying to stay small and unnoticed.
We might want to sing in a choir, or share our perspective in a meeting, or express a boundary, or speak up against injustice. To restore our ability to speak or sing loudly and clearly, we need to restore our ease of movement. When we map our bodies accurately, we learn which muscles need to work and which do not to produce sound.
We tighten around the need to keep parts of ourselves hidden. As we restore our ease of movement, we also restore our ability to be our complete selves. The more we bring frozen parts into present safety and reduce ongoing threats in our lives, the more we can be available for relaxed movement rather than being continually tensed to fight or flee.
Balanced and buoyant
Ongoing tension might curl us forward protectively, or pull us back in a show of size and strength. Ease of movement comes from balance and buoyancy rather than a fixed posture or alignment. As we get to know our bodies, we have more choices about how we sit and stand and move.
Our voice is supported by resilient springiness in our feet, knees, and hips. A relaxed pelvis supports the spine rising through the center of the body in gentle, flexible weight-bearing curves. Take some time to sense your legs. Say hello to any tension or contraction. Offer it warm support and invite it to release.
You can find a neutral, buoyant relationship between your torso and hips by lying on the floor with your knees bent and feet on the floor. As your body takes in the floor’s support, sense for tension and pulling and invite it to ease. Can you find a similar ease while standing? Walking slowly backward might help bring awareness to habitual tension that is no longer needed.
Our heavy head balances on top of the cervical spine, supported from the center. The atlanto-occipital (neck-skull) joint is between our ears, at the level of the roof of the mouth. The jaw attaches to the skull at both sides and hangs lower than the joint between skull and neck.
You can find the joint between your skull and neck by rocking your head slightly back and forth on the top of your neck, letting your chin jut forward and back. If you run your tongue back along the roof of your mouth, it points to the joint. When your head balances easily on your neck, the surrounding muscles can release. Do you sense pulling or compression along the back of your neck? Invite it to lengthen. Does that allow your chin to drop and your head to float more comfortably?
The lungs fill the space within the ribs from front to back, surrounding the spine and heart, and from top to bottom, extending from just above the collarbones down to the diaphragm, several inches above the waist. Air flows only into your lungs, not into your belly.
The dome-shaped diaphragm attaches to the lower ribs and front of the spine. It flattens and widens to bring air into the lungs, and relaxes back into place to release air back out. (See animated video).
The whole torso responds to the breath. During inhalation, the diaphragm pushes down the abdominal organs, which push down the muscles of the pelvic diaphragm. The intercostal muscles (between the ribs) pull the ribs up and out like bucket handles. The sternum moves up and the spine compresses slightly.
During exhalation the diaphragm relaxes pressure on the abdomen, the ribs move down and in, and the spine releases to its full length.
Air flows in
The mouth, jaw, neck, and throat do not need to work to bring air in. The air simply flows through the mouth or nose, down the trachea (windpipe), and into the lungs, filling them from the top down. Invite your mouth and neck to rest while you sense where you feel the movement of your breath. (See MRI video of breathing.)
The trachea has rings of cartilage that keep it open to the diameter of a quarter. You can gently touch its ridges in the notch just above your sternum (breastbone). The esophagus (food pipe) is a flat muscular tube behind the trachea against the cervical spine. It only expands when food is moving through it. The mouth and throat do work to swallow food, but not to breathe.
Pronunciation is movement
We make sound with our out-breath as it moves through our vocal folds (also called vocal cords), causing them to vibrate. We control pitch and volume with the small muscles around the larynx (voice box) in the throat.
Articulation (speech) is separate from phonation (creating sound). Each speech sound in every language is made with different movements of muscular lips, mouth, and tongue.
On a steady pitch, say the pure vowels: “ah, eh, ee, oh, ooh.” Sense how your larynx stays steady as your mouth moves to shape the vowels. Now change pitch up and down while saying “ah” and feel your larynx change while your mouth stays steady. Say “that” and feel your tongue move from your teeth to the roof of your mouth.
Either sitting or standing, take some time to invite your body into balance. Scan for unneeded tension and invite it to release. Imagine saying “hello,” and notice which muscles prepare to work. Are all of them needed to make sound? Now say “hello” out loud. Listen for resonance and sense for ease.
As you speak or sing throughout your day, continue to sense how much work your body is doing. Look for safe opportunities to feel your full size, move with ease, and let your sound take up space.
- 3-D video animation of moving diaphragm. Link from an email by Jane Clapp.
- Real time MRI of breathing (15 sec.) Thanks to Amy Bennett for this link and discussions of breathing anatomy.
- What Every Singer Needs to Know About the Body by Melissa Malde, MaryJean Allen, and Kurt-Alexander Zeller, a wonderfully detailed book.
- The Structures and Movement of Breathing by Barbara Conable, a booklet focusing on accurate information for singers.
- Image is from commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Respiratory_system.svg, used under a creative commons license.