The following article was written by Sarah Whitten, voice teacher in the Holden Voice Program at Harvard, and appeared in The Opera Stage's Guest Blog on January 15, 2017.
Many singers will avoid doing any core exercises in the interest of having total flexibility of their abdominal area. Other singers will do core exercises in an attempt to strengthen musculature that they know is connected to vocal production. And, still a third group considers what they do as classically-trained singers to be adequate work for the abs and leave it at that.
For many of us, the voice works well even though our core isn’t as well coordinated as it could be. However, when the voice and/or breath aren’t working well or you go through a physical change that results in a negative shift in the functioning of your voice or body, core training is a key element of making a change for the better. A well functioning core is crucial not just for pain-free movement, but also for the voice to perform optimally.
There is an important distinction that needs to be made between ‘core exercise’ and ‘core training.’ Core exercise involves doing a set of repetitive exercises without contemplating whether they are contributing to the functionality of the entire body. Core training, on the other hand, addresses functionality in the whole body: your breathing and your muscles, your existing patterns of engagement, resting tension and how you put all of that together (particularly as it relates to your voice) to establish a synergistic relationship throughout the body
What are the signs of a core-voice connection that could be improved?
What is the Functional Reflexive Core?
The foundation of healthy movement and singing comes from the deep layer of the Functional Reflexive Core (FRC). The part of our body that makes up the FRC is our entire trunk located between where the head attaches to the neck and where the arms and legs attach to the torso.It has two layers. The deep layer of the FRC is made up of the throat, the diaphragm, the transverse abdominus, the psoai, the multifidi and the pelvic floor musculature. The outer layer is made up of all the other muscles that fall within that central part of the body. We want stability of the muscles in the outer layers of the core, and imbalances here can create problems when it comes to voice production, but when we talk about the core- voice connection, we are most interested in the functionality of the deep layer of the FRC. And, the relationship of the muscles here is heavily influenced by how we are breathing, how we are moving (or not) through our lives and our tension levels in the upper and lower body.
Why do we have these issues to begin with?
Modern life has left us with bodies that are ‘casted’ by sitting, wearing shoes, and moving through a limited range of motion. The good news is, our bodies are relatively plastic and have an amazing capacity to change. We just need to know how to make the change effectively and be consistent in our efforts.
Patterns in the body and breath that indicate an imbalance in the FRC are:
Abdominal Holding – As a result of sitting in chairs our whole lives, our backsides get weak, the abdominal musculature gets recruited to do work it shouldn’t be doing and we carry resting tension in the abs. Second, there is the cultural message that we are somehow more valuable if our abs are flat. That can result in people sucking the stomach in chronically or over-exercising the abs, creating a flatter but definitely not more functional mid-section.
Abdominal Bracing – When the deep layer of the core isn’t functional, we can over- recruit and use the outer layer muscles to make up for the lack. Bracing can be observed in both movement and singing when there is a very visible hook up in the belly at the onset of moving or singing and then it often appears as a static hold – as though you are bracing to prepare for someone to punch you in the stomach.
Bulging – This can occur on inhalation and/or on phonation and movement. If we bulge on inhale, seen through a distended belly, we overload the musculature of the deep FRC. Once overloaded, the muscles lack the relationship they need to the breath and don’t fire effectively. This type of increase in intra-abdominal pressure can lead to things like hernias and pelvic floor problems. Bulging during movement means the belly pushes out when we are doing something like lying on our back and bringing both legs up into reverse table (see below). Bulging during phonation will also show up as a belly that is pressing out in a rigid, fixed way when singing.
Bearing Down – This is just as it sounds. When we move or phonate there is a sense of bearing down – almost like you are trying really hard to go to the bathroom. This is, in fact, the reverse of the motion we want to experience when we are singing or moving. We also don’t particularly want to be bearing down hard to go to the bathroom, but that’s another post for another time!
Here are a few assessments you can do to test the functionality of your FRC:
Do you carry resting abdominal tension?
Lie down on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Place your hands on your belly, near your belly button. Cough. Cough 5 or 6 times. What direction is your belly moving when you cough? Does it push up into your hand? If it does, as it will for almost everyone, it indicates you carry a level of resting tension in the abdominals that is greater than necessary. That means when you are expelling air to either move or sing, the coordination between muscles and breath could be improved.
Do you have a diastasis recti (DR)?
Both men and women can experience DR. It is a separation of an unnatural distance between the two rectus abdominus muscles and the connective tissue, called the linea alba, is stretched and thinned. DR is caused primarily by excessive intra-abdominal pressure. To check your body for a DR, lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Exhale normally and pick your head up off the floor. With the head up, use your fingers to palpate down the midline of your rectus abdominus muscles from sternum to pubic bone. See if you can feel both sides of the muscles and see if there is a gap between the two. The gap is measured by finger widths. It is also measured by depth. It may be normal for you to have some separation between your muscles, but a width of 2 fingers or greater or a depth of a knuckle or more, may indicate you have some issues with too much intra-abdominal pressure.
Do you have a hernia?
Most men are probably familiar with the turn your head and cough test to see if you have an inguinal hernia. Inguinal hernias can also present as swelling or a bulge in the scrotum. A hiatal hernia, which is often associated with GERD will require an x-ray study to diagnose. Umbilical hernias are usually diagnosed through physical exam and present with swelling or a bulge around the belly button. All 3 hernias are associated with excess pressure and weakness in muscle.
What do we do about our imbalances?
Our answers to these issues lie in an approach that addresses the whole body, including alignment, breathing and movement mechanics. When we tune in to how we are moving and where our body is compensating for our limitations we can make gains quickly. Here are some simple movements to begin to explore your current patterns and function. To bring balance, strength and stability to the whole body a more complete practice is needed, but these will give you a sense of where you are in this moment and perhaps inspire you to explore more!
Abdominal Release –
Waking up the Deep Layer of the FRC –
Waking Up the Deep Layer of the FRC
Notice if you flatten your back to the floor when exhaling. Notice if you tense in your shoulders or throat when you are exhaling. Notice if your lower ribs pull away from the floor when you breathe in. Be aware that it is easy to engage the obliques more than the transverse abdominus (TVA) muscle in this exercise. Don’t force the engagement of the TVA, allow it to happen organically.
Reverse Table –
1. Repeat steps 1-3 above.
2. Midway through the exhale, when you have felt the FRC engage, slowly bring the right leg into reverse table.
3. Breathe in again. And exhale, returning the leg to the floor.
4. Repeat the above but this time bring the left leg up.Notice first if one side feels easier than the other. For each side, notice if your belly bulges while moving the leg into the air, or if you are bearing down as you bring the leg up. Notice if your hips wobble or shift or if your back flattens to the ground as you bring the legs up. Those are all signs you have some work to do to improve function. For an advanced version of this pose, bring one leg up and then on the next exhale, bring the other leg to meet it. If you have any of the above issues, back up to the phase before.
Waking up the deep layer of the functional reflexive core can feel like slow, small work, but the payoff is huge. Having a body that supports you as you move through your life on stage and off, providing you with a solid foundation for the voice to be produced, is an invaluable tool for a singer.
If you have questions or would like some help waking up your FRC, don’t hesitate to reach out by email or connect with me on Facebook.
About the Author:
Sarah Whitten, MA, MM is a voice and yoga expert, focusing on whole body wellness and function. A 500-hour Certified Yoga Instructor, Sarah Whitten offers a fusion of traditional yoga and other movement modalities help singers resolve physical issues and find their optimal sound. She is located in the Boston area, but offers workshops around the country and her online course Seeing the Whole Singer is open to all.
Seeing the Whole Singer is a one-of-a-kind online course that gives you the information you need to see the whole singer: body, breath and voice. Based on the principles of yoga, and biomechanics, this 6-week online learning program fills in gaps left in the typical vocal pedagogy texts. Over the program you will explore and transform the body and breath through alignment and movement, creating a solid body-breath-voice connection.
To connect and learn more about her work visit www.sarahwhitten.com.