Since I took the postural respiration course with Postural Restoration Institute a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately in regards to the teaching of singing and how good intentioned instruction is sometimes, ummm, not so helpful, and can even cause problems down the road.
I’ve LOVED my voice teachers. Not one of them wanted to do me harm. They all wanted to make me the best singer I could be, and I soooo appreciate them.
Now, I know that we (teachers) do the best we can with where we are in our teaching journey. The problem is when what we’re teaching/being taught is actually harmful in the long run. We have a huge responsibility to our students because what we say can have consequences that go beyond the voice studio (which is why voice teaching can be a powerful tool for building confidence, but that’s a different blog post.)
Let me give an example. I was taught for a looooong time by multiple teachers that I needed to lift my ribcage when I sing, and that I shouldn’t ever let it fall because that was good singing posture.
And I did it. I did the hell out of it. My ribs were lifted. A lot. But how were they lifted? By the breath? Nope. By pulling my shoulders back and down while I pushed my chest up (boobs to god was a saying from one of my teachers--well intentioned but harmful in the long, and short, run).
And I was Good. At. It. I did it all the time. I lived there and felt like I was really working for that GOOD POSTURE. (Ummmm, not really, it was terrible, and can we stop even using that term, please? kthx.)
Ok, how is this damaging in the short term?
Well, when we artificially lift our ribs in this way, we’re actually putting the diaphragm in an inhalation pattern all the time. Which means, we can’t get good inhales because the diaphragm lives in a state of contraction towards the end of its range. It also means we can’t get good exhales because the ribcage never comes to a place of rest to encourage the diaphragm to release.
...so, no good inhales or exhales. Can you imagine how this would affect singing? I was working so hard all the time. All. The. Time.
It’s like I was trying to drive a car with square wheels--I needed sooo much effort to move my air.
Now, how is this damaging in the long term?
Let’s start with neurological stuff. Living in a state of inhalation turns on our flight or fight responses (our sympathetic nervous system). Which raises our cortisol (stress hormone). Our sympathetic nervous system is amazing. If we’re about to be eaten by a bear. It’s not so great for our mental health to live in this constant state of panic.
And there’s a lot of research out now about how living with constantly raised cortisol levels is damaging to our physical health. (Inflammation, anyone?)
AND, more physical stuff, when we’re living in a pattern of inhalation, remember, this means the diaphragm is staying contracted towards the end of its range, it can affect other aspects of physical health. Did you know that there’s a sphincter in our diaphragm that the esophagus goes through? Yup. And if the material surrounding the esophagus is constantly “stretched,” might that affect how the digestive system functions? Say, by loosening it and letting acid come up the esophagus (Reflux??)? And might that inflammation from the reflux affect our sinuses (the answers to both of these are yes).
Have you ever met a singer that struggled with reflux and sinus issues?
Does a bear...well, you know. [The answer is YES.]
[Side note: if I had a nickel for every singer that has come to me with these issues, I’d have a crap ton of nickels. I just worked with an AMAZING professional singer last night that has been struggling with the fallout of these issues for years and years.]
Again, we teachers do the best we can with where we’re at.
Unfortunately, we don’t always appreciate how our directions may affect more than we intend.
So, how do we change this when we (teachers) don’t know what they (we) don’t know?
My first thought is to be honest with students--encourage curiosity in them and let them know that we’re still learning. And I want students to ask questions. Like, a lot of questions! About everything. Seriously. This can solve a couple of things--it lets you know if the student heard what you thought you said, or some variation that is nothing like what you thought you said lol. Also, it challenges teachers and holds them accountable. If my student asks why we’re doing something, I should be able to tell them. And if I can’t, well, then I need to hit the books (or the internet, more likely).
The next most obvious answer is seeking out continuing education. The problem is that not all teachers have the funds to access continuing education. You don’t go into music teaching to become rich (and also, we need to rethink how we charge, but again, that’s a different blog post. ) This is why organizations like NATS, The National Association of Teachers of Singing, can be sooo helpful--local chapters often offer affordable educational opportunities for voice teachers (shameless plug here--I’m the president of my local chapter!). You can also reach out to other teachers to create your own discussion and book groups. There are ways to seek out the info that are affordable, and it needs to be a priority since well-intentioned, but poor advice can cause problems for our singers down the road.
Like anything, there’s no one right answer. Being aware matters. Staying up to date and informed around the science of singing and the body also matters. We need to stay curious as teachers, and, most importantly, we need to appreciate how what we say and teach can have long lasting effects in as well as out of the voice studio.
How do you encourage this in your studios? I’d love to hear from you!