How the Words "Sit Up Straight" Have Damaged the Sound of Your Choir
September 23, 2022
If you’ve been around musical ensembles for any length of time, regardless of the type of music, you know that good posture gets harped on repeatedly. Sitting or standing with bad posture reduces the overall wind capacity of the ensemble, and looks sloppy in performance. Specifically for choir, though, bad posture is an immense block to developing a good choral sound. Some of the reasons why:
*Being slumped forward, or to either side, compresses the lungs, and limits the motion of the diaphragm. The stomach is also less able to move freely during the intake of breath. The singer, therefore, is forced into far more frequent breaths, each one being at a highly reduced efficiency. This makes singing extended phrases and smooth lines difficult if not impossible.
*When the body is bent/folded by poor posture, resonating spaces within the body are deformed. This turns what could be a strong voice into a much lighter, less mature sound, often with completely wasted air moving through the mouth. This forces conductors to seek more sound from the ensemble. The ensemble, in turn, has to breathe more often to keep up with their unsupported sound. The same ensemble with good posture would have to work far less to produce an equivalent dynamic, with a much cleaner quality.
*Poor posture generally indicates inattentiveness, whether in a job interview, on a parade ground, or in an ensemble. It encourages singers to talk more, listen less, and pay less attention to the sound of the choir. Inherently, a less attentive choir won’t be listening to each other for blend, will take longer to learn music, and is more prone to errors.
To combat the issue of poor posture, choral directors have a standard phrase (learned from their parents): “Stand up straight!” Alternately, in rehearsal, “Sit up straight!” That simple command tells the ensemble several things, some of which fix problems, some of which create them. To further explain:
*It tells the ensemble to straighten their backs. A straight back can remove pressure from the internal organs, open airways, and let each breath be more efficient.
*It tells the ensemble to suck in their stomachs. This looks good, but means that the ensemble can’t let their stomachs out when breathing in. If they’re also still not allowed to let shoulders go up an down when they breathe, they’re back to really small breaths. (For the record, shoulders don’t need to move to breathe, as long as the torso is free to expand and contract properly.)
*It tells the ensemble to pull back, or “square”, their shoulders. Pulling them back too far can lead to tightness in the chest, and again damage the room available to breathe.
*It tells the ensemble to stiffen their bodies into rigid forms. Any guesses as to where this is going? That’s right, limited motion means limited breathing. An ensemble focused on their appearance can’t be as focused listening and blending.
In order to correct both extremes, a happy medium must be found. The single easiest way to do that is in rehearsal– we perform the way we practice. I know that every ensemble has the power to step up a notch when the spotlight is on. Every ensemble goes the extra mile the night of performance. The difference is where the “extra” mile begins. A choir with good posture to start with will be stellar, instead of acceptable. Ways to be a stellar choir (at least for posture and free breath)?
*When rehearsing seated, ask your singers to sit on the front edge of their chairs, and to elongate their spines. The head should rest, almost float, on top of the neck. The spine should continue straight down the back into the pair of “sit bones” on the pelvis. Feet should be evenly spaced, and both on the floor. This distributes weight and pressure evenly into the chair and the floor. (Feet should have a small percentage of the weight.) Weight and pressure are directed to support structures, not to individual joints that were never intended to carry load.
*When standing, have the ensemble place their feet almost directly beneath their shoulders, and arrange themselves so that the weight is carried smoothly into the floor. Weight should be balanced on a tripod between the heel, big toe, and the ball of the smallest toe for maximum stability.
*Encourage your singers to expand from the stomach through the chest when breathing. If they were filling a glass, they’d fill it from the bottom up. Do the same thing with the body.
*Practice long tones in warmups, to ensure that everyone is thinking about how to get the most air.
Doing these things will create an ensemble capable of going with you through the longest phrases, achieving the most diverse dynamics, and the richest sounds possible. Be a stickler for well-supported but not rigid posture in rehearsal. The resulting sound is well worth your investment of time, and the “extra mile” will be fantastic.