Are We in Gym Class? I Thought This Was Choir.

by Contributing Author Niccole Winney.

Freedom of Movement Creates Freedom of Sound

Two years ago, upon accepting a music education position in Kansas City,  I decided to rebuild the after school choral program. Thinking about what kind of culture and expectation I wanted to create in my rehearsals, I determined that vocal-health awareness needed to be among the most prominent qualities. Of course, that meant establishing a routine of doing a full body, voice and mind warm up before singing our repertoire. However, right out of the gate in our first rehearsal one of my students raised her hand and asked “Um, I’m confused… Why are we stretching like its gym class if all we have to do is sing?”  After asking a series of questions, I learned that my students had never heard of doing a physical warm up before singing. And when it came to posture, their previous teacher had said “stand up straight like a soldier, head up, hands down by your side and whatever you do, DON’T MOVE.”  

Performance presence is important, but creating an expectation of absolute stillness invites tension into the vocal mechanism and body; ultimately sacrificing the singer’s ability to use their instrument freely.

How Does Stillness Create Tension?

Keeping a still stance while singing lets tension creep in for a myriad of reasons; some of which many trained singers and teachers may find surprising. 

  1. Stillness creates a breeding ground for poor body alignment. ​While some singers have learned to “lock into” singer’s posture, the reality is that, without movement, ‘perfect alignment or posture’ is never maintained. The inability to move, sway, or adjust during singing intensifies muscle fatigue causing long lasting tension. Practice makes permanent. Muscles are weakened from fatigue habits such as slumping forward, rounding the shoulders, standing with the weight on one leg, or projecting the head out and down. These poor habits cause the breathing mechanism to collapse reinforcing misuse of muscles in the throat and neck. A better result will occur when we rely on our core muscles for support. Remember that singing is a whole body-mind activity.
  2. Stillness eliminates our ability to relax overly tightened muscles causing rigidity.​ Tight muscles are often caused by a sneaky and overlooked tension culprit called stress. Our body operates on a fight or flight system. While most of us do not face the stressors our ancestors did, such as outrunning a wild predator, the body’s nervous system still responds to stress the same way. Things as widely ranged from a long work commute to a strained relationship can cause fatigue to creep into the muscles.

We put additional pressure on our blood vessels when the body senses a ‘stressor” causing a lack of blood flow to the muscles which in turn causes them to tighten and lock up. Movement is the natural remedy for combating this issue as it stimulates blood flow and releases endorphins. Furthermore, a rigid rehearsal atmosphere where singers are not welcome to move will contribute to a singer’s subconscious daily stress. This is especially true if the singer is concerned with “getting it right”. Not being able to move to ward off tension intensifies muscle rigidity and which in turn causes the neck, throat, jaw and shoulder muscles to kick into overdrive instead of allowing the airflow created by the core muscles to support the voice.

Why Is Movement Good?

Since we now know why stillness and rigidness is not good for fostering good posture and vocal health, check out the many reasons movement is beneficial for singers in next week’s post: Why is Movement Good?

Performance presence is important, but creating an expectation of absolute stillness invites tension into the vocal mechanism and body; ultimately sacrificing the singer’s ability to use their instrument freely.

Lynn Swanson leading early morning choral warm-ups at Northview Elementary Chorus, Kansas City, MO.
Karen Hall, Chorus Teacher, 2016.


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Be Prepared To Say YES!

Have you ever had the dream (or nightmare) that you receive a call from a well-known conductor to sing your dream piece of music with mere hours of notice? Should that call come, would you be ready? Are you prepared to sing your best on a daily basis? The answer for most of us is no.

The Boy Scout motto, Be Prepared, influences millions of individuals the world over. You may have noticed, I’m not male, but the lessons Scouting teaches are applicable to the daily lives of singing musicians.

Here are a few ways to stay in best voice every day, not just for the Big Day.

1. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! A fully, fluid, filled singer will not need to pull water from the most delicate tissues for vital body processes. The adequate water supply keeps mucus thinly flowing over vocal folds, pharyngeal surfaces, and nasal passages. How much water you need varies with the season, humidity, activity level & physiology. A good place to start is 4 quarts/ liters per day for an adult. Yes, you will need to use the facilities more often for the first few days, then your body adjusts to the new normal. Caffeine caution: as much as I adore my morning coffee – it does NOT count toward my water intake for the day. Some pedagogues will instruct that all caffeine is anathema to professional singing.

2.  Warm-up every day! Play with your voice! Discover and appreciate the changes you hear & feel. Remember to start with moving your entire body to release muscles & joints and remind your system of what it needs to do to sing efficiently. Breathe! Breathe! And Breathe! Then add sound to breath. Rhythmic unvoiced consonants are great for connecting abdominal control to articulators. Add descending, imprecise pitch exercises to the mix in hums or sighs or open vowels. When things feel and sound good – start specific patterns in similar arc to what you did immediately before exploring the entire range. If more practicing is on your agenda, go for it. If it is not a rehearsal day, your warm up session is a great self-diagnostic tool. If something isn’t working as well as usual, evaluate the situation & make your adjustments.

3. Practice – or not – that’s another day’s discussion!

4. Cool down! A good physical trainer at your gym will encourage you to relax and stretch the muscles you used. The minuscule muscles of the larynx deserve the same treatment! Humming and sliding coming back to center. Breathe! Hydrate!

5. Rest! Recover! Shut-up! 🙂 Allow the vocal folds that you have worked out extensively need time to release residual swelling resulting from both impact and sheering forces on edges as the vocal folds come together during phonation. For every hour of athletic rehearsal, you may need 2 hours of silence to recover. Healthy, flexible, well hydrated vocal folds bounce back more quickly!

Of the tips on this list, the Cool-down and Recovery time are the most often skipped by singers of all ages. If you want to sing your whole life long, these few things can help you sing better & longer.

Be Prepared to say YES!