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.