Kashudo (歌手道): Appoggio: An Actual Support System

For the last nine months I have been practicing Bikram Yoga and through it became keenly aware of the importance of the “core muscles” in breathing. Some months ago, Martin Berggren, who contributes often in the conversation of this blog, shared the idea of keeping the abdominal muscles in during inhalation. Martin mentioned that he had read somewhere that this practice made for more efficient support (not a direct quote. Martin may comment to correct me). At any rate, between my experiences with Yoga and Martin’s comment and further investigation into the Russian Ballet tradition, it seemed to me there exists some credible reasoning for using the abs as a stabilizer of the breathing mechanism. Both Pilates and Yoga affirm scientifically the importance of the core muscles in stabilizing the spine in order to avoid injury during vigorous physical activity.

Add to this an experience I had some 18 years ago with my then teacher, Ada Finelli, in Italy! In the relatively limited time we spent together, Finelli shared many thoughts, including that the support muscles were not the superficial abdominal muscles but a “…muscular system further inside that felt like a twisting column from the pelvis to the solar plexus…”
In recent months I have become aware of the spontaneous action of the Pubococcygeus (PC) muscle (the so-called Kegel muscle) when I prepare to do heavy lifting. I am not sure if this spontaneous action occurs with every one. However I was aware that this was not spontaneous in my singing and wondered if there might be a useful engagement of this muscle. I had also read often about the use of this muscle in singing particularly among women. What I have discovered has revolutionized my phonation process and provided the missing link to the rest of the process, which seemed to have developed nicely over the past 18 months. It is as if I had reached a point whereby this was necessary in order to go further. This engagement of the Kegel muscles seem to take the pressure off of the larynx (something I was experience in the passaggio) and give credence to the idea of transferring the pressure load from the throat to the body as many traditional teachers insist.
What is significant is that contracting the Kegel muscles (the action of stopping urination and defaction) also activates the contraction of inner abdominal muscles as well, possibly the obliques, transversus abdomini, the mutifidus as well as the glutes, which also get activated during Kegel contraction. A very good discussion of these muscles is found here.
When the Kegel muscles are contracted, I personally feel a column of muscles extending from the pelvic area unbroken to the epigastrium, directly below the diaphragm. In essence a column, not of air, but rather of muscle that stands firmly beneath the repository of the breath. In essence, breathing naturally against this column of muscle will naturally compress the air (when the larynx acts as the valve in the superior end). In such a system, compressed air is available and ready for phonation, making a glottal squeeze unnecessary. As previously discussed hear there are two reasons for a glottal squeeze namely 1) a fold posture that is too shallow requiring a squeeze to maintain pitch, and 2) a low air pressure that necessitates a squeeze to elevate the same. Engaging these core muscles takes care of the second reason.
Besides my own progress, I noticed significant and immediate change in the sound quality of three students yesterday due to this simple adjustment. It is because of these observations (beyond my own success with this) that I share this information on the blog.
I have advocated pulling the abs before as a means of muscular support beneath the diaphragm. With the discovery of the benefits provided by the core muscles, I also became aware that engaging the core actually pulls the midriff in. This is consistent with the contraction of the transversus abdominus.
There are those who equate the holding sensation of the contracted Kegel muscles as interfering with the natural flow of the breath. But as one of my students so aptly put it: “If I have to hold it while looking for a bathroom, I have no trouble breathing naturally!” This is quite correct. The contraction of the Kegel muscles and the inner core muscles does not interfere with the other muscles of respiration. Furthermore, the inner core muscles are designed for long-term contraction and essentially stabilize the spine when we stand or do other physical activity. I also noticed in one particular student that engaging the core muscles lifted her ribcage a few centimeters, freeing her of a tendency to bear down, which normally raises sub-glottal pressure to undesirable levels.
I must add that I began to think directly on the school of singing which advocates the reverse of this action. Some advocate the muscular action of defecation as a means of support. I am inclined to think that this is a misunderstanding of the Kegel approach, which is the reverse. As traditional techniques are passed down by word of mouth, I can imagine one teacher saying: “Simulate going to the toilet” as a means of support, as opposed to “Imagine having to go to the bathroom and you must hold it because there is no bathroom near”. The former requires pushing against the abdominals, which causes a palpable heightened pressure against the larynx. The latter simply provides a substantial resistance to the lowering of the diaphragm, causing what feels like a consistent pressurization across the entire lung structure.
In all the cases I observed this week, onset of phonation was made smooth, gentle and immediate as a result of engaging the core muscles via Kegel contraction. Finally, the contraction of the Kegel muscle must be strong enough to result in contraction of the entire core system. The result is the engagement of the entire core system in a way that stabilizes the spine, provide support to the breathing mechanism (hence the term breath support) and improving body alignment.
© 11/18/2009

17 thoughts on “Kashudo (歌手道): Appoggio: An Actual Support System

  1. It seems this core activation is key to many Classical Schools. You mentioned Ballet in addition to Singing above, and after hearing an excellent explanation of the Riding Seat this week, I can almost absolutely say that we can add that Classical School to the list, too!

  2. Thank you for this information. I read your post this morning, and thought about it a lot during my aerobics cum pilates class. Then I tried out conscious engagement of that PC muscle during my practice session this afternoon, and I can report that it worked wonders for me, especially in the problematic upper-middle voice zone. I immediately felt a sense of security and increased stamina. It's great to be able to focus on just a single set of muscles for a change. It's something to remember on those low-energy days when support is lacking and coordination is poor!

  3. Thank you Arachne for sharing your experience.

    A point of precision is an order. One of my students had a difficult time activating the core muscles via PC contraction. I had been reading that Pilates promotes isolation of the PC in exercise.

    I have also noticed that along with the PC muscle, the perianal musculature that participate in stopping defacation is also active in accessing core strength.

    One of my students who does Pilates explained to me today that it is in fact the contraction of the perineum (the region between the legs beneath the pelvic diaphragm)that contributes directly to core access.

    In short “holding it all” gives credence to the Italian school, which suggests that the feeling associated with resisting urination “and” defecation does indeed help in breath support. Contraction of the entire pelvic floor seems necessary to accessing the core contraction, which provides a firm base against the expansion of the air-sack.

  4. When I first read your post, I was incredulous, but after experimenting with it, I am enjoying it. It adds a definition to onsets that otherwise are more vague in nature. You know that I dislike imagistic teaching, but it really feels to me like the ship of my breath system is dropping an anchor which provides a solid base for the onset. Do any of the old treatises talk about the pelvic floor, and if so, can you refer me to the citations? I'd like to see how it all goes together. Thanks!

  5. Dear TS,

    My comment on the subject of “abs in” was caused by reading an article by J. Iwarsson, Effect of Inhalatory Abdominal Wall Movement on Vertical Laryngeal Position during Phonation, J. Voice 15:3 84-294. I found the article interesting and the conclusions quite surprising! Let me quote the abstract:

    The configuration of the body resulting from inhalatory behavior is sometimes considered a factor of relevance to voice production in singing and speaking pedagogy and in clinical voice therapy. The present investigation compares two different inhalatory behaviors: (1) with a “paradoxical” inward movement of the abdominal wall, and (2) with an expansion of the abdominal wall, both with regard to the effect on vertical laryngeal position during the subsequent phonation. Seventeen male and 17 female healthy, vocally untrained subjects participated. No instructions were given regarding movements of the rib cage. Inhaled air volume as measured by respiratory inductive plethysmography, was controlled to reach 70% inspiratory capacity. Vertical laryngeal position was recorded by two-channel electroglottography during the subsequent vowel production. A significant effect was found; the abdomen-out condition was associated with a higher laryngeal position than the abdomen-in condition. This result apparently contradicted a hypothesis that an expansion of the abdominal wall would allow the diaphragm to descend deeper in the torso, thereby increasing the tracheal pull, which would result in a lowerlaryngeal position. In a post-hoc experiment including 6 of the subjects, body posture was studied by digital video recordings, revealing that the two inhalatory modes were clearly associated with postural changes affecting laryngeal position. The “paradoxical” inward movement of the abdominal wall was associated with a recession of the chin toward the neck, such that the larynx appeared in a lower position in the neck, for reasons of a postural change. The results suggest that the laryngeal position can be affected by the inhalatory behavior if no attention is paid to posture, implying that instructions from clinicians and pedagogues regarding breathing behavior must be carefully formulated and adjusted in order to ensure that the intended goals are reached.

  6. Thank you for posting the abstract Martin! Knowing what I know now, I am not surprised that abs out would actually cause laryngeal raising. I will find the article and read further. But I suspect that the “core” issue is one of readiness of breath pressure. Abs out tend to reduce sub-glottal pressure, which if too far reduced would cause a necessity for pressing, resulting in a high larynx.

    I appreciate this quote. Thanks again.

  7. Dear Bleetenor,

    I will look into Tosi and company and see what I find. There is ample evidence in modern research to connect core strength to good support. I too am interested in seeing what the old masters might have written along those lines. I have quite a bit of other reading (not to mention teaching) in the short term. I will look into this at the first opportunity. If you find anything, please do share.

  8. some good ideas – and glad you clarified Kegel/PC et al – especially for women. The muscles of engagement and anchor for women are further forward in the pelvic floor and lower abdomen and draw through and find elasticity deeper in the pelvis and further back. Core strength has flexibility and elasticity and not grip and contraction in the traditional sense. Glad to see the discussion and discoveries!!!

  9. I stumbled across this post just after having read 'The Invisible Actor', by Yoshi Oida. Among other things, he makes a big deal early on about how “[in] Japan, the martial arts and theater traditions place great stress on keeping the anus tight while working,” and that it's especially important when you need to “strike a powerful blow” or “use the voice with great power” (p. 8). I assume this is what he meant!

  10. Thank you for contributing mweyandt!

    This concept has been articulated in similar ways in Kung Fu, Karate, Yoga, Ballet and classical schools of Horsemanship. In our times, science is able to share light on what the ancients understood proprioceptively. I am happy to receive your commentary. Don't be a stranger!

  11. May I suggest that you concentrate your attention on a point slightly more anterior than that which you describe. I think you would be better served to avoid the coarse gesture involved in the Valsalva maneuver, associated with bowel evacuation, or even the Kegel exercise which holds back a urine stream (both of which rob breath energy), and to employ the Mula Bandha, or Root Lock of Hatha yoga. It is an extremely subtle gesture which seals in and activates the energy which will allow you simultaneously to support your breath and to free up unwanted abdominal tensions. It is a tiny tenseness, a mere scintilla of precisely focused sensation which, assuming you have already developed some core strength and some flexibility in your intercostals, is capable of holding you completely together. It requires constant mindfulness and renewal; you must be present in a way that feels like perpetually cresting a wave. This has more to do with sexual sensation than excretory function, but isn’t sex the origin of all creativity? Not a bad basis for art, in my opinion. It does take a little training to become aware of. Here I quote an enlightening passage—from Anatomy of Hatha Yoga, A Manual for Students Teachers and Practitioners, by H. David Coulter, a brilliant anatomist and yogi—which may prevent a lot of straining and heaving on the part of new practitioners:

    “In ashwini mudra we strongly activate the pelvic diaphragm, the anus, and the gluteals. Mula bandha is more delicate. Here we mildly activate the pelvic diaphragm plus—more strongly—the overlying muscles of the urogenital triangle….Unlike ashwini mudra, which is often a response to sharp and sudden increases in abdominopelvic pressure, mula bandha (the root lock) is a gentle contraction of the pelvic diaphragm and the muscles of the urogenital triangle. It does not counter intra-abdominal pressure so much as it seals urogenital energy within the body, controlling and restraining it during breathing exercises and meditation.”

    There is an accompanying illustration clearly showing that the urogenital triangle is the forward section of the perineum, as Susan Eichhorn-Young has described.

    I have found this useful in my yoga practice, and although I am not a singer, I believe this may be a refinement of the excellent ideas you have put forth in your post.

  12. Thank you Lady XOC,

    If you read the comments, you will notice that I do not advocate bowel evacuation which induces the valsuva maneuver but rather the reverse. I practice Bikram Yoga which gave rise to the entire discovery. Many singers have never accessed these muscles and so the entire pelvic floor being activated at first is an excellent beginning. Then later as in Pilates with the PC musscles and the mula bandha, we can gradually learn to isolate specific muscles of that area. It is particularly a new sensation for men.

    I will look at the sources you mention.

    Thank you as always for your excellent commentary.

    I encourage you to offer your expertise whenever.

  13. First time i tried this, something happened to my phonation, it become smooth and easy. Larynx does not move an inch even on my highest note. Not sure it how it affects resonance and placement of the voice, need to play with it more. Everynow and then i lose sight of what exactly i need to tense in a body to achieve the support and i end up just tensing everything in body but i think i will figure it out somehow. Great post, thank you alot.

  14. When i first tried it, my phonation become smooth and easy and unusually even. It feels like there are no high and low notes. Larynx does not move an inch even on my highest note. I can sing softly now on high notes too. I mean it is wonderful, i still dont understand what is happening but something changes for good. I am not sure about vocal placement and resonance though, need to experiment with it more to see where it takes voice. Also sometimes i cant find exact muscle that i need to contract in order to achieve the support and i end up tensing abs which does not work of course.

  15. Hi there Ron, I was just emailing to see if you still hold to this approach?? (I ask b/c I think I read a more-recent post of yours, that seemed to not put such emphasis on these actions).
    But if you do still practice it, may I ask: the engagement you’re talking about- do you think it’d be similar to the laugh, or cry, function? It seems when I slide into singing from a good chuckle, that TA is engaged along with the lower abs. I also find it by a strong ‘mm-hmm’ agreeing sound. Just curious is all these things are synonyms. Cheers to you, Jeff

    • Hi Jeff, in the article I wrote: “….It is as if I had reached a point whereby this became necessary in order to go further.” The technique works I believe to bring the singer to an awareness of these muscles. I don’t remember when I actively stopped engaging the Kegels, but as I practiced today I realized they do engage, but in response to my tone concept as opposed to a separate action. My advice would be use it as long as it’s helpful. But I would guess that at some point, it will be integrated in the organic technique.

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