Human communication is a very complicated & nuanced art, as opposed to the robotic, computer-generated voice. The messages we send are not just defined by the articulation of vowels and consonants, but also by the textures, timbers, shapes, clarity, melodic nature, rhythmic phrasing and volume level of our vocal sound. Our messages are also defined by the body language that accompanies our words, because how our hands, arms, legs, face and spine move significantly affects the sound and the interpretation of what we say and sing!
So we make all kinds of choices when we use our voices, just like actors do, to deliver a message that gets a specific response. When we choose, we take into consideration the nature of the heart to whom we are communicating. For instance, out of kindness and empathy, we may take the posture of weakness, literally slumping and condensing our physical profile so as not to offend or intimidate others. But after you learn what meek posture does to your voice, you may want to re-think your choice of caved-in body language.
I was asked to work with a signed recording artist who was about to lose his label deal because of vocal problems. After spending time working with him in vocal lessons as well as attending some of his shows and watching him interact with fans and music industry people, I saw a huge part of his vocal issues. Every time he talked to someone he slumped, crunching in his chest and moving his head forward. When I asked him if interviews and schmoozing events left him vocally tired, he said yes as if asking 'isn't that normal?' I told him it may be normal but it's not necessary, and that we had to get busy and stop his speaking voice from sabotaging his singing voice!
- Tall Recording Artist
So I poked him in the back, asked him to move his head over his heels and drop his chin. It seemed like he gained 2 inches in height! It was then that he realized he had been shrinking his body so as not to appear condescending or intimidating. And I told him what I've told so many others... that he needed to be all that he is, and that shrinking any part of himself will not help others... it will hurt his ability to bless them with his voice. He began singing better than ever, his producer and label noticed, and his deal was saved.
Tall people should sing and speak at full height, not like they have a premature dowager's hump!
When the female gospel singer came into the lesson and I immediately identified her meek posture, the curved back and crunched chest. When she began to sing, the tight, uncontrolled sound I expected came out. By the end of that lesson she was standing at least 1/2 inch taller, breathing better and was overjoyed with her new-found vocal ease, range improvement and pitch control.
- Modest Female Singer
I have had many young, adult and elder ladies who try to hide the fullness of their chests in the name of modesty. This always makes me angry at society. It's like wearing an invisible burka to cover your shame. I say if anyone has a problem with you being all that you physically are, it's their problem, not yours! Lead with your heart. That means open your ribcage, and lift all that is on top of it! When you do this, you not only give yourself freedom to breathe and be and sing and speak well, you give this freedom and validation to others who see your example. They and I thank you.
The 14 year old girl came in to her first vocal lesson with me to get ready for an audition. When she began to sing, she assumed the typical cool teen side slump, and the high note had to be pushed out as I would expect in that posture. When I asked her to stand flexibly tall and pull her head back a bit, pulling her voice with her lyrics, she was amazed at how easy those high notes became.
- Cool and Shy Teenagers
A 15 yr old boy came in with slumped chest like he was having to report to the principal. His voice consisted of pushed chest and weak head voice, separated by the typical adolescent male vocal crack with no mix area. When I straightened his spine out at the wall and had him come from pelvic floor instead of tight ribcage for power he was able to back off his volume, mix his middle voice and get in a clear and higher head voice. It eased his vocal strain so much he started laughing!
Teenagers often take on either a 'cool' posture habit to impress and deal with peer pressure, or a crunched posture from shy self-consciousness normal for this age. That cool side slump is paramount to imitating scoliosis. Those who have a real condition of excessive curvature of the spine will agree with me... this is not posture one should try to imitate. Hips should be same level, not one dropped and one shoulder up. The ensuing ribcage contortion is a terrible posture habit that causes breath limitations as well as unnecessary vocal tension. Shy posture is also detrimental to breath support and control for both singing and talking.
A man in his 80s came in wanting to sing better. He had been an amateur singer of popular standards all his life but was having trouble now and missed the joy of using his voice without strain. I was able to pinpoint the core of his limitations pretty quickly - it was his pronounced upper spinal curve. I put him at the wall with a cushion behind his head that was thick enough to encourage him to straighten up, without causing too much discomfort. I asked him to try and sense his power as coming from his pelvic floor instead of the middle of his chest. He was instantly able to sing with more range, control and ease. I then had him walk in the middle of the room and showed him how to use his mic to 'pull' himself tall with his lyrics when he sang.
- Vocally Strained Elderly Singer
When he began to practice this way he came in to subsequent lessons with more and more ability. A few years later his wife wrote me that he had died, but that from our lessons he had found his voice again and used it with great joy!
I have also taught people with significant COPD to sing much better by straightening out the upper spine. It doesn't take much breath to sing, if you take it and use it with good technique. Whatever their level of physical health, older people benefit greatly from flexibly tall body language, not only in their singing and speaking voices but also in all the benefits that come from being able to breathe more deeply.
I have worked with male and female students of all ages who have been in some way abused or perceive that they are not valued. Emotional, physical or sexual abuse can cause habitual meek posture because it was literally developed as a way to survive. Healing includes not just psychological freedom but also physical unfurling.
- Victims of Abuse
Here's what happens when you slumpWhen you shrink your height, cave in your upper torso or otherwise drop the bottom of your ribs:
- Your diaphragm, which is attached to the bottom of your ribcage, will loosen. This gives it too much slack, limiting its control of the breath. Losing breath control means losing vocal control of all kinds.
- Your head will inevitably move forward and your throat channel will tighten. A tight throat will sound and feel tight.
- The combination of limiting breath control and tightening your throat will cause your voice to be vulnerable to many issues. Vocal resonance will thin, pitch accuracy will suffer and vocal range will diminish on low and high ends. It can result in vocal strain and even damage from trying to push through to sing or speak adequately.
Tips to get yourself out of your slump
'I am supposed to be all I am, and my voice is needed in the world'.
If the idea of humble strength is new to you, try noticing the results. Experiment by telling someone how wonderful they are, while standing very tall as you do it. You will communicate strong empathy, which actually means more to the person than a meek compliment.
When meek posture is the right choiceThere is a time for everything... including meek posture.
- When you are communicating to a wounded, hurt or scared or excessively timid human or animal, your body language can add a needed non-intimidation element to help them trust you.
- When you have a spinal degenerative issue, such as scoliosis or kyphosis (true humpback condition). Even in these conditions, try to stand or sit as tall and flexibly as possible. Ask your doctor about doing targeted physical exercises and stretches to counteract the pronounced spinal curves and help you breathe better.
- When you get cast in a rough sounding voice-over or movie roll like Billy Bob Thornton's character in 'Sling Blade'. Thornton's slumped posture, besides creating the allusion of spinal deformity, helped create the character's voice. I would make a safe bet Mr. Thornton needed a round of chiropractic afterwards!
- And of course in truly unsafe situations, you may need to use guarded and closed body language, just as a threatened animal does.
And finally, here is a great TED talk by Amy Cuddy on body language:
There are times to speak and sing, and times to listen and be silent. When it's your time at bat, stand or sit flexibly tall, as if your voice matters... because it does.
What are your thoughts? Do you know how you backbone is stacking up when you sing or speak?