Oct 07, 2016
This article appeared in the December 2013 issue of Classical Singer magazine.
"Using your core" has become a popular term in everything from Pilates to singing. But what is your core, exactly, and how can you "use" it? Get some easy-to-understand specifics here, as well as some simple exercises to start strengthening your core today.
Who doesn’t want strong core muscles? In addition to being the powerhouse for our breath and singing support, a strong core stabilizes posture, creates freedom of movement, and protects the back. Sounds great! Just one problem: that core you’re talking about... where is it, exactly? The core is a system of muscles that circumscribes the actual core, or inside, of your body. The core muscles include:
Of course, it is not necessary to be familiar with the names of all of these muscles. Doing the exercises in this article will create strength and coordination in the core, whether you remember the names of the individual muscles or not. There are, however, a few points that are important to remember. First, engaging the core means using all the sides of the body, not just the front. We are stronger in the front of our bodies than we are in the back: biceps stronger than triceps; quadriceps stronger than hamstrings. Why? Because our eyes are in the front of our heads, so virtually everything we do happens in front of us. Learning to use the core means learning to pay attention to the muscles on the back and sides of our bodies, as well as those in what I call the “front corridor.” Equally important to remember is that core muscles are the “go” muscles, not the “show” muscles. I don’t look particularly fit, and it often surprises my young, toned workshop participants when they can’t do the core strength exercises, and I can. You can be overweight and have an incredibly strong core. And you can look great in a bikini, and have very little core strength. Also, equating a short, tight muscle with a strong muscle is an oversimplification. Muscles work both by lengthening and by shortening. When we use the entire core, some muscles will be lengthening and some will be shortening, at various times. It is the balance and coordination of all these muscles working synergistically that allow singers to experience what I call “effortless effort.” Finally, how we work the abdominal muscles makes a big difference. Habitually contracting and tightening the abdominals actually prevents true, three-dimensional core strength, teaching us instead to rely predominantly on the muscles in the front of the body. This one-sided strength is detrimental to singing support, as well as to physical movement and stability, often contributing to back problems.
Shortening and tightening the abdominals also creates unnecessary tension in the larynx. Place one hand on your abdominals at rest and take notice of the position of your larynx, as well as sensations of laryngeal tension or release. Now, shorten, tighten, and push out your abdominals, the way most people do when they do a “crunch.” You will notice that your larynx tenses and pushes forward. So, shortening and tightening the abdominals is not the way for anyone, but especially not for singers, to create core strength. When doing exercises for core strength, it is vitally important to check the long, vertical abdominal muscle (rectus abdominus) to make sure it doesn’t shorten and tighten, but stays lengthened as it works.
We all have some default level of core strength, and for some kinds of singing that level might be enough. However, for high-intensity vocal activities, such as opera singing; belting; and loud, dramatic spoken monologues, the performer’s default core strength is often insufficient. In other words, the big muscles of the core support are “underworking,” that is, not working hard enough to support those high-intensity sounds. In those cases, performers are forced to supplement their default core strength by “overworking” in smaller, more peripheral muscles in the throat, ribcage, neck, jaw, and tongue.
How much of your practice time or teaching day is consumed with trying to release that extraneous tension in the jaw, tongue, throat, and back of the neck? Why are those muscles so commonly tense in singers of all types? Singers aren’t stupid, and we’re not masochists. We tense those muscles because--in the absence of sufficient core strength--we HAVE to overwork those muscles to create the powerful sounds we want to make. Releasing the “overworking” peripheral muscles and engaging the “underworking” core support muscles more deeply are two sides of one coin. Doing BOTH creates lasting change and leads to mastery. Core work is also very helpful in teaching the concept of appoggio, which means “to lean against, to support.” Many classical voice teachers and singers use the term appoggio, and most agree about the purpose of appoggio. But there is often disagreement about which muscles create it, and how we should practice using those muscles. This article is not going to settle that debate, and the definition of core muscles and the exercises presented here do not attempt to teach appoggio. But strengthening and coordinating all the core muscles allows the torso to be stable without being rigid, thus creating the body mechanics that undergird appoggio. Do the following exercises daily both on their own, and also while singing. As you do them on their own, as physical exercises, your full attention can be on the changes in your body. When you sing as you do the exercises, notice how continuing to use that true core strength allows other tensions to release. As the core muscles engage to perform the exercise, they will simultaneously inform the support of your voice, creating more and better sound with less “effortful effort.” Singing while simultaneously doing the exercises is like wearing a "corrective shoe" to help you engage and strengthen your core support. Then, when you sing without doing the exercises at the same time, but recalling the same physical coordination, your core muscles will have developed the habit of engaging, deepening the support of your breath and voice.
I always precede alignment and engagement exercises with release exercises. The following exercises will be more effective if you first do some gentle stretching and releasing, especially in the spine, in the lower back (all the way down through the pelvis), and in the ribcage. Yoga stretches, such as child pose, camel pose, tree pose, and garland pose work very well. Doing exercises, or even just standing, on an unstable surface, like a BOSU (a piece of exercise equipment that looks like a large inflated ball, sliced in half) helps engage core muscles. The Wii Fit program, with its balance board, also encourages core strength by monitoring how well balanced your body remains as you exercise.
A very simple core exercise is waddling. Yes, waddling, like a duck. This is also a great exercise to do while singing, as it has a very healthy effect on the breath. The feet are engaged in deep support, helping the lower abdominals engage and the pelvic floor lift as it widens and engages. In addition, this squatting posture lengthens all three curves in the back of the spine (as well as a fourth curve I like to think of in the sacrum), and a longer, more released spine yields a better breathing body. The muscles of the back (quadratus lumborum, multifidus, and sacrospinalis) lengthen and engage, encouraging the psoas to lengthen. You can deepen the stretch in the spine by gently pressing your elbows against your knees. If waddling is too extreme a position for you, you can plié, keeping your pelvis in a neutral position: neither tucked (flexed) or pushed back (extended). Or, in a modified plié position, you can make belly dancing motions or move your sitting bones in a figure-eight pattern. Another adaptation of the exercise is to slide down a wall, making sure not to flatten out the inward curve (lordosis) at the small of the back. You can see a clip of this exercise on my DVD website, VoiceAtTheCenter.com/clips.
Stand in front of a chair, with your arms relaxed at your sides, and begin to sit. At that moment, your brain is doing something it almost never does: it’s actively looking for input from the back of the body. You can almost feel your pelvis looking for the seat of the chair. As you begin to sit, your back lengthens, especially in the back of the pelvis at the tailbone. That downward energy through the tailbone is an important component of core strength, as it activates your body’s natural opposition. As you continue to sit, your sitting bones (the points at the bottom of the pelvis, the ischial turberosities) widen, engaging the pelvic floor. Make sure you do not bring your arms in front of your body to help. Lower your body slowly and with control, all the way down to the chair. Try not to “plop down” at the end. If you do not have the core strength to support your torso all the way to the chair, just go as far as you can without using your arms. To use your core strength to stand up, you use exactly the same core muscle energy and coordination as you did to sit. However, this is extremely counterintuitive for most people. From a seated position, as you think about standing, notice that your brain is no longer communicating with the back of your body. Now, the action is in front, as usual, and the temptation to overwork in the “front corridor” is great. The key is to engage that downward energy in your tailbone that you felt as you sat down. Again, do not bring your arms in front of your body to help “jumpstart” you out of the chair, certainly no further forward than in the photo above. Ideally, your arms would hang down from your shoulders in a straight vertical line. If you do not have the core strength to lift your torso from a seated position, modify the exercise. Start again from a standing position, lower your body as close to the chair as your core strength allows, and then stand up again from that position. As you continue to do the exercise, you will be able to go closer and closer to actually sitting down. You can find more information about this exercise, as well as others, in other posts here in my blog.
This exercise may be difficult at first, but the results are definitely worth the effort. Lie on your back, with your knees bent and your feet on the floor. If your head is uncomfortable in this position, place a book or books under your head until it feels comfortable. Your head should remain parallel to the floor and not be tilted in any direction. Do not press the curve of your lower back into the floor. Your pelvis should remain in a neutral position, neither flexed nor tucked. Think of the sitting bones (the points at the bottom of the pelvis, the ischial turberosities) moving toward your heels. Feel the lengthening in the lower back and back of the pelvis that you felt in the previous exercise, “Using the Core to Sit Down and Stand Up.” Place one hand on the abdominal muscles, to make sure they don’t shorten or push out as you do the exercise. Slowly and with control, keeping your knee bent, lift one leg off the floor. Use your entire core. Don’t “jumpstart” the action by shortening or pushing out in the abdominals. If you habitually shorten and tighten your abdominals, you may not even be able to think about lifting your leg off the floor without your abdominals pushing out. If you are unable to lift the weight of the leg without shortening and overworking in the front of the body, slip a resistance band, yoga strap, or even a long, sturdy scarf under one leg. Hold it with the hand that is not monitoring the abdominal action, and rotate your hand so that the palm is facing upward. This will help to engage the muscles in the back as you use your arm, rather than overworking in the front (pectoral and bicep muscles). Even if you can only lift the leg an inch off the ground--indeed, even if all you can do at first is imagine lifting your leg off the ground--you are benefitting from this exercise because you are retraining your intention to move from the core, rather than just from the front of the body. When lifting one leg is easy, do the exercise with the other leg. One side is almost certain to be easier than the other. Eventually, when you can raise either leg easily without overworking in the “front corridor,” it is possible (but not necessary) to raise the difficulty level of the exercise. Lift one leg. Leave it off the ground, and then lift the other leg. You can alternate which leg is up first. For even more difficulty, try lifting and lowering both legs at once, keeping your knees together. This exercise is included on my DVD, Voice at the Center. Singing from a strong core means working from the inside out. It means not having to choose between strength and ease in your singing. As you do these exercises, you will notice immediate improvement in your singing. Over time, you will also notice great improvement in your physical well-being: in your energy, balance, and overall strength. Maintaining a strong core will serve you well, not only in singing, but for the rest of your life.