What is the definition of a habit? It simply means a repetitive behaviour that occurs regularly, based on your subconscious mind. All of us have habits, and some of them can be classified as good or bad habits. Whatever the case, changing a habit requires conscious thought and a conscious choice. And, changing habits is never easy. How many times have we thought we need to stand up straighter, only to slump a few minutes later?
I often teach vocal hygiene habits, which include: adequate sleep, warmups, hydration, reduction in caffeine etc. However, I had hardly considered the impact of postural habits till I learnt Body Mindedness, which follows the principles of the Alexander Technique. Sure, I was aware of the usual stand up straight, reduced tension in larynx etc, however, I discovered loads more. In this article, I will discuss the habits we use when we speak or sing, and how they can be detrimental to the human voice. These are based on the principles of the Alexander Technique, and research is quoted from, “Voice and the Alexander Technique”, Jane R Heirich, 2005.
1) Habits from too little muscular effort: The postural slump
This is the most common form of posture seen, especially when people work at computers, head forward, shoulders slumped and rounded back. This collapsing of physical structure results in low muscle tone and in turn, downward direction of the voice.
2) Over-arched back
Most of us have been taught to stand up straight in order to sing or speak well. Best intentions aside, that may result in an exaggerated lumbar curve, lifting of the sternum, shoulders back, as well as pelvis forward.
3) Stiffened neck and throat
One of the most prevalent tendencies when singing or speaking is when the neck muscles are overused and stiffened. When the head neck muscles are stiffened, they result in TMJ problems. A habitually clenched jaw usually results from a habitual clenching of the head neck muscles.
4) Knee-locking habit – which results from a stiffened torso.
Sometimes, singers and speakers have been advised to ground themselves and grip the floor, and hence grip the floor with their toes, which invariably lock their knees and disallows a free voice. When not on stage or performing, this overused pattern of knee locking may start off as lower back pain.
5) Rib reserve
Any stiffening of the rib cage muscles alters our breathing. Classically trained singers are usually trained on rib reserve, where they hold their rib cage up and out after a deep inhalation, and maintaining that posture whilst singing. The diaphragm moves up, however rib cage hardly moves laterally. Rib cage flexibility is required for the singer to utilise his full vocal range.
6) Facial muscles
Speakers and singers usually learn to over-articulate vowels and consonants, in order to be articulate. The problem occurs when the singer puts in too much muscular energy in saying consonants which interferes with their vocal range. Vowels carry the element of sound and tone, hence it is worth practising saying vowels effortlessly, rather than too much energy on articulating consonants. Some teachers request their students to sing with a smile, which distorts the intended vowel sound. A good way to instruct would be to use their inner smile, or smile with their eyes when singing.
7) Talking with the whole body
In addition to using all of the excess work described above, some speakers/singers use other parts of their body when talking. Eg: tightening shoulder girdle, holding elbows tightly when making a sound.
In conclusion, each and every one of us has different habitual ways of standing, sitting, walking, when we are not performing ( Singing or public speaking). These habitual patterns of posture then creep in, when we are singing or speaking. Habits are subconscious and we hardly notice them, till something affects our performance.
The best way to check your posture would be to stand in front of the mirror and go through those pointers. If you are unsure, you are most welcome to drop me a line or speak to an Alexander Technique practitioner, who can steer you in the correct direction.
“Unless stated otherwise, this article represents only the views of the author and not the views of the AVA”
Thila Raja is a Speech Pathologist, who specializes in voice training. She helps people recognize their vocal skills and express themselves clearly. Thila loves helping professionals communicate to their best.