Judy Rodman - All Things Vocal Blog

Training & insights for stage and studio singers, speakers, vocal coaches and producers from professional vocal coach and author of "Power, Path & Performance" vocal training method. Download All Things Vocal podcast on your fav app!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Think You Have a Tight Diaphragm? Think Again


I've been in a fascinating conversation about the diaphragm at a Linkedin group for NATS (National Association of Teachers of Singing).

What is it?

The diaphragm is a very large and thin dome-shaped muscle group that separates the upper and lower torso. The edges of it are attached to the bottom of the ribcage, all the way around. The heart and lungs sit on top of the diaphragm's dome, which contracts/flattens out to draw in the inhale and lengthens/rises for the exhale. It is the major organ of the breath, but is operated by the automatic nervous system. For the voice, you help it control itself by widening it's footing... the bottom of the ribcage.

The problem:

I had a student some years ago who was told by a doctor that his vocal problems were due to a tight diaphragm. I never believed it, but he would not believe me and try the things I asked, and therefore I couldn't help him relax and control his breathing. Next time I want to be better equipped to debunk what is most probably this faultty medical diagnosis crippling a singer. So... I started the discussion by asking:
Anyone else encountered a student comes in who is convinced that they have a 'tight diaphragm'? Only if they trust me when I tell them it's a self-induced issue have I been able to help. Thoughts? 

The NATS discussion is no longer on the internet, but here's the gist of it:

  • The unfortunate suggestion to 'sing from the diaphragm' is one of the most ridiculous and misinformed statements a teacher can make. Why?
  • The causative factor(s) is almost NEVER the diaphragm itself, but instead lies with tightness at anatomical points where the diaphragm is connected... primarily the bottom of the ribcage. A tight ribcage will cause all kind of vocal problems due to breathing limitations and lack of control.
  • Therefore the first thing to do with someone coming in thinking they have a tight diaphrabm is to ferret out why there is tightness in the ribcage. There can be many causes, from simple slumped posture, tight chest wall microfacia or valsalva manoever (6-pack muscles) to complex vertebral or neural dysfunction. 
  • There is a rare issue with the Vagus nerve which can actually harden and tighten the diaphragm itself. But this should be a last, not first, conclusion when trying to get to the bottom of the tightness.
  • Like voodoo,  fear and anxiety can create the tight diaphragm if you believe in it... sort of the 'which came first, chicken or the egg' syndrome. The belief that one must keep the belly flat to look good can also create this tightness.

Techniques & therapies that can help include working with (and trusting) an instructor who can...

  • teach a basic understanding of anatomy as concerns the diaphragm and its connections and actions to dispel faulty beliefs.
  • correct counterproductive posture.
  • re-train breathing techniques including widening the ribcage and lowering the sensation of where the breath comes from (I like to think of the voice's breath power centered in the pelvic floor)
  • suggest physical therapy, therapeutic massage, yoga.
  • suggest listening to calming music to relax the mind and body.
  • help you reform your understanding of what performance is to deal with and conquer fear.
  • refer you to a voice clinic that understands the rarity of the truly tight diaphragm. When all else is tried and fails, this kind of medical expert can check for the very rare neural issue possibilities.

Some cool resources:

I would like to thank the following teachers who contributed to this discussion:

Roberta Prada, Solomon Epstein, Janice Jarrett, Kevin Richards, Mairead Sheerin, David Wilson, Beatriz Kelly-Serrato, Jo Debenham, Mark Bonito, Pat H. Wilson, Evan Bortnick, Eileen Moss, Hugo Naessens, Evelyn Czaja.

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