Last week I double-checked everyone taking voice lessons with me in my Marin County studio on whether he or she understood what goes on in the body when we sing. I was generally relieved with the responses but there was one doozy. Do we really need to know anatomy to be good singers?
I believe it helps a lot. But it needs to be a functional knowledge rather than just intellectual knowledge. What do I mean by that? I’ll take a non-singing example. You can intellectually know where your knees and hip joints are but have no sense of how they feel when they are in movement. You may be locking your knees and pelvis as you walk without being aware of it. I remember an osteopath came to me for Alexander Technique lessons because of back pain. Here is a doctor well-steeped in anatomy, who works with the spine. But he was surprised when we started to take that anatomical information and applied it to actual movement. He had to learn, using his sensation, what it meant to connect through his whole spine and through his arms, which he used a lot while working on his patients. A functional approach to anatomy awakens our senses and confirms that we are moving the way our body parts are meant to move. This includes the breathing and vocal mechanisms also.
Most voice teachers have studied the vocal anatomy down to the smallest muscles of the vocal folds. However, a student doesn’t necessarily need such in-depth knowledge to sing unless they want to teach. And, of course, there are many “natural” singers who have no idea what’s going on. They just open their mouth, and all is well. However, a knowledge of functional anatomy and its relationship to our technique can be super-important when our voice gives us trouble.
Here are a few general anatomy facts about the vocal mechanism. Some of these may seem, like, duh, but…you’d be surprised!
- When we inhale, the lungs fill with air, the ribs widen out and back and the diaphragm, the main breathing muscle, descends. The lungs’ air “sacs” expand all at once, not from “the bottom up” like a balloon.
- The belly pooches on the inhale because the diaphragm, the mushroom-shaped muscle that attaches to the front of the ribs and front of the lumbar spine, descends and compresses the organs in your lower torso. Breath is not going into your belly.
- The diaphragm is an indirect muscle, meaning we can only strengthen it through speech (not sit-ups!). What we may “feel” as tension when we sing are the other breathing muscles, such as the ones between the ribs, the rectus abdominus, obliques and transverse abdominals.
- Anything you do with your whole-body balance and the joints, such as locking your knees, affects the easy journey of the diaphragm because of its attachment to the spine.
- Your jaw joint is in front of your ear or, more specifically, at the base of the temporal bone of the skull. Check it out online!
- Your tongue is a hugely strong muscle that attaches to the hyoid bone, a floating bone above the larynx. The tongue has a direct relationship to the larynx and the vocal folds that reside within. The front of the larynx is the Adam’s apple in front of a guy’s neck. (On women it’s not so prominent.)
- When we exhale without closing the vocal folds (closed cords = talking or singing), the breath comes out the mouth and nose, the lungs “deflate,” the diaphragm comes back up under the ribs and the ribs come back down.
- “Vocal support” is the sense of lung compression one feels in the torso between the closing and vibrating vocal folds and the upward-returning diaphragm and rib contraction. This last one is important because if there isn’t enough compression, the voice can be breathy (cords aren’t closing cleanly enough). If there is too much compression, the larynx can clamp down and there is too much pressure on the cords.
Again, these are VERY general pieces of information. But in order to understand vocal “technique,” it helps to understand where that technique physically stems from. I encourage any adult or kid taking singing lessons to take out an anatomy book from the library and explore. I can be a fun and fascinating study.