Oct 07, 2016
This installment in the Simple Posture Fix (SPF) series has three sections. First, a few paragraphs called Why are the feet so important for vocal support? Then, to start you on your path of care and attention to your feet, I’ve included some Foot Massage Exercises. Finally, we take the next step (pun intended) in the Simple Posture Fix series of exercises: SPF#3 ~ Walking With Your Whole Foot.
When asked the secret to having the stamina required to sing the long Wagnerian roles for which she was renowned, Kirsten Flagstad famously replied, “Comfortable shoes.” In a similar vein, Margaret Harshaw, who was my own voice teacher and mentor, often said that opera singers wear out first in the legs. The “noble posture” is often evoked in training classical singers. This idea that the body, and especially the legs and feet, is important to singing has been around a long time. We take our feet for granted, but there is a lot going on in our feet. The feet are strong, complex, yet flexible structures of bones, joints, muscles, and soft tissues that support your every movement. There are 26 bones in the human foot. Think about that. The 52 bones in our two feet equal about 25 percent of all the bones in our bodies! In addition to the 26 bones in each human foot, there are 33 joints (20 of which are actively articulated), 107 ligaments, and 20 muscles and tendons. The feet are designed to provide the support we need for good posture, but few of us are engaging enough of the foot to get maximum results.
When creating an optimal vocal posture, there are two physical areas whose support is crucial: the head and the pelvis. When the head and pelvis are not properly supported by the body, our vocal power and resonance suffer. Your head is like a 10-12 pound bowling ball sitting at the top of your spine. But the spine cannot support the weight of the head by itself; the spine relies on the pelvis, the pelvis relies on the legs, and the legs rely on the feet. If the head is not supported properly through the entire skeletal body, the muscles of the neck have to overwork to support the weight of the head, compromising vocal ease and resonance. Additionally, the powerhouse of vocal support lies in the core muscles, most of which are in the pelvis. To access these core support muscles, the pelvis must be supported properly by the feet and legs.
As many of you noticed in Simple Posture Fix #2 - Plugging In the Feet, when we fully engage our feet, we automatically engage the muscles in our legs more fully. As we discovered in SPF#2, most of us are overworking in the muscles that work the outside of the leg to the inside (adductors) and not working enough on the muscles that work from the inside of the leg to the outside (abductors). If we land mainly on the outsides of our feet when we walk, we let those underworking muscles in the legs off the hook. This creates misalignment of the pelvis and lack of connection to core strength. It also sets us up for trouble in our knee and hip joints as the years go by. As with all my work, these exercises will not only benefit your voice, but also your physical well-being. If you suffer from plantar fasciitis, learning to plug in your feet is a great step in the right direction. (These foot puns just write themselves!)
When we support our bodies with the stable foundation of the whole foot, we can release the neck and jaw tension that compromise our resonance, and we can connect to the deep, internal core support muscles that provide vocal power without strain. A healthy vocal posture begins with your feet. The more fully we employ our feet, the more fully we support our bodies, and our sounds. When choosing shoes, take a tip from Kirsten Flagstad and think about how fully they allow your feet to function when you wear them. Look for shoes that provide arch support and enough width in the toe boxes for your toes to move around in. Flip flops and ballet flats are adorable but notorious for lacking the necessary support for your feet. Look for brands that have some insole support. Indoors, go without shoes sometimes, so that you can practice plugging in and engaging your feet. If you experience severe foot pain or any prolonged foot problem, don’t ignore it. Visit your doctor or podiatrist to have it treated properly.
If you want happy feet, massage them regularly. Foot massage is not only corrective but also preventive. You can massage your feet several ways: with your hands; by rolling them over other objects, like balls or rollers; and by using your toes to pick up things. Any time you use the muscles in your feet more evenly and completely, the movement itself is a wonderful massage for your feet. Just wiggling your toes periodically through the day will increase flexibility and circulation.
1. Flexion/Extension. When the foot bends at the ankle toward the shin, that’s called flexion or dorsiflexion; when the foot bends at the ankle toward the sole of the foot, that’s called extension or plantar flexion.
With your right ankle crossed over the knee of your left leg, use your hands to gently pull your toes toward your shin, to increase the flexion; then gently pull your toes toward the sole of your foot, to intensify the extension. Be gentle. Slow and steady wins the race. Repeat with the other foot.
2. Ankle rolls. With your right foot ankle crossed over your left knee, lace the fingers of your left hand between the toes of your right foot and rotate your ankle, first in one direction, then in the other direction. Repeat with the left foot.
3. Massaging between the metatarsals. Sometimes we forget there are 26 bones in each foot, and we think of the middle of our foot as the solid mass of one bone. However, as you can see in the image below, there are 5 individual bones (the metatarsals) running through the middle of the foot. Those bones are colored green in this image. When we encourage those 5 metatarsal bones to work independently, by creating space between them, our feet not only feel better but also work better, too.
With the right ankle crossed over your left knee, run your fingers along the top of your foot to feel the individual metatarsal bones. You probably won’t feel much space between those bones; massaging there will change that. The wide spaces you see between the metatarsals in the image above are your birthright, and massage will help you reclaim that space. Find the spot where you can most easily get your fingers between two metatarsal bones and start there. Using a circular motion, gently press your fingers into the space between those two metatarsals. Try to run your fingers all the way from the ankle to the toes.
At first, you may not be able to feel the space all the way along the length of the bone. As you continue to massage, those spaces will open up again. You can also use your thumbs, which will provide a firmer massage. As the space opens up, you can line up three or four fingers in the space between the metatarsals and massage the whole length of the area at once. Be sure to massage the same area on the bottom of the foot (plantar side), creating width there, as well. To finish, spread your toes apart as wide as possible and hold for a few seconds, which will further encourage the stretch between the metatarsals. Repeat with the left foot.
4. Rolling over a ball. You can use any size ball, just keep in mind that the smaller and harder the ball, the more intense the massage will be. Start with a tennis ball, and then move on to a handball or a golf ball. Sit on a chair, with the ball on the floor in front of you. Roll the ball under the entire surface of the bottom of your foot--heel, arch, ball of the foot (forefoot), and toes--for a minute or two. Repeat with other foot. 5. Picking things up with your feet. Sit on a chair, with an empty bowl and 10-15 marbles or small objects on the floor in front of you. Pick up one object at a time and put each one in the bowl until all have been transferred. Repeat with the other foot. You can also incorporate this into your daily life, picking up whatever falls on the ground.
In this exercise, you will practice taking a step while keeping your foot “plugged in” to the ground. You will be rolling back and forth through the feet to practice keeping the feet plugged in as you shift your weight.
1. Stand with both feet “plugged-in” to the ground, adding the balls of the feet for a total of six “prongs”: inner heel, outer heel, inner forefoot (ball of the foot behind the big toe), outer forefoot (ball of the foot behind the pinky toe), mound of the big toe, and mound of the pinky toe. Notice that you feel your center of gravity in the center (midline--not to the left side or to the right side) of your body.
2. Shift your weight to your left foot. As you shift your weight, don’t let all the weight fall on the outside of the foot. Make sure the inside of the foot is still plugged in. This will prevent your center of gravity from shifting to the left side of your body, and allow you to keep your center of gravity near the mainline (center) of your body.
3. Take a step with the right foot, plugging both inner and outer heel prongs into the ground and shifting some of your weight back to the right foot, keeping your center of gravity near the midline. Notice if it is difficult for you to land with both heel prongs plugged in.
4. Roll through the right foot, plugging both forefoot prongs (at the balls of the feet) into the ground and continuing to shift more of your weight to the right foot. Make sure both the inside and outside of your foot are plugged in. Your left heel will come off the ground, placing slightly more weight on the 4 prongs of the left forefoot and toes. Make sure those 4 prongs are evenly plugged in. Keep your center of gravity near the midline. Roll all the way through the right foot, so that the 2 toe prongs are also plugged in, but don’t push off the left forefoot and toe prongs to take another step.
5. Roll backward through the right foot to plug in the right heel again, plugging in both inner and outer heel prongs in the right foot. Notice if it is difficult for you to land with both heel prongs plugging in.
6. Roll backward through the left foot to plug in the left heel again. Notice if it is difficult for you to land with both heel prongs plugging in.
7. Repeat on the other side of the body, by shifting your weight to the right foot and planting a heel strike with the left. Practice going back and forth in this “half-step” movement until you can keep all 6 prongs on each foot plugged in as you roll through your feet. Once you can do this exercise, you are ready for the next exercise.
Follow steps 1 - 4 from the exercise above (“Rolling Through the Feet”), but in step 4, DO push off the left forefoot and toe prongs to take another step with the left foot.
5. Push off the left forefoot and toe prongs to lift the left foot off the ground and shift all your weight to the right foot. As you shift your weight to the right side, make sure the inside of the foot is still plugged in, as you did in the first exercise. Keep your center of gravity near the midline.
6. Take a step with the left foot, plugging in both heel prongs, as in step 3 of the exercise above.
7. Roll through the left foot, as in step 4 of the exercise above. Roll all the way through the left foot, so that the 2 toe prongs are also plugged in.
8. Push off the right forefoot and toe prongs to take another step. Now you are walking with the whole foot! My next blog post, the last installment in my Simple Posture Fix series about the feet, will include an explanation of pronation and supination, as well as some new exercises.
Releasing, exercising, and using ALL of your feet as you stand and walk will improve your balance, make your movements more graceful, and provide a more solid, grounded foundation for your body and your voice.