By Ramona M. Wis
“Movement is essential.” Katy Bowman, M.S., biomechanist
I just finished my first week of fall classes: five rehearsals and two non-performance class meetings, all online. While it was different, the experience was enlightening, connected, and inspiring on many levels. The unsolicited feedback from students after the first day of rehearsals was very positive and while I would like to think I had some kind of magic formula, it was clear to me that the breathing and moving we do together are more important than ever for creating normalcy. It centers us and connects us to each other, even from our personal choir rooms on Zoom. Movement has become the new throwback, the essential that has been shelved in an increasingly sedentary and virtual world.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about breath as fundamental to developing the “well” choir. Teaching singers to use breath awareness to change one’s state—from anxious to calm or from lethargic to active—can help restore balance and create readiness for our work. While breath is essential to being alive it is also the tool we carry with us to help cope with life’s challenges and prepare for life’s possibilities. Knowing how to move our breath, and our bodies, can dramatically increase our felt sense of wellness.
There are countless gesture and movement activities we can use in rehearsal. What matters is that we move, that we move mindfully, and that we attach movement to our larger learning goals and experience. Today, let’s consider how subtle movement, built on grounding activities, can enhance our ability to breathe, and be, well.
To start from a healthy seated position, ask singers to come to the front edge of their chair (or couch, bed, stool, whatever they are using). Encourage them to find their “sit bones,” the bony ischial tuberosity (for the biomechanics fans out there) which grounds us in a seated position. Yoga teachers cue students to shift their weight slightly and move the flesh out of the sitting area on one side, then do the same on the other, in order to make room for/feel the connection of the sit bones to the chair. Pause to let singers know that being grounded is not just good for singing but also for our overall sense of stability and security.
Begin breathing practice from here or, to help open the body for better breathing, ask singers to place their hands on their thighs and practice several rounds of “Cat/Cow” (Marjaryasana/Bitilasana). “Exhale as you round the back and let the head gently follow, looking down; then, initiating with the inhale, lift the chest and look forward, continuing slightly upward. Repeat this flow, breathing at your natural pace, and notice the body opening up and releasing tension from all that time spent staring at screens.” Remind singers that when they sing, they want to experience flexibility built on stability, a “both/and” experience.
Ask singers to stand. Help them visualize their feet as having “four corners,” under the big and little toe and the back two corners of the heel. Even with shoes on (though in a remote world, they can comfortably lose them), singers can lift their toes and reconnect them with the earth to feel stable. “Bring your weight to the place where the heel meets the arch, perhaps shifting your weight side to side and forward to back until you find that stability.” Remind singers to keep a micro-bend in the knees to prevent them from locking, especially under performance pressure.
From here, you are ready to breathe more fully, using the breath awareness practices I wrote about in my earlier essay or whatever you choose to do. Invite singers to use simple gestures to “conduct” their breathing, using both arms to balance the body and create more space. Some will prefer a lifting gesture on inhale, arms floating out from the sides and up to shoulder height and then releasing on exhale. Others choose to mirror the movement of the diaphragm by pressing hands down on the inhale, then gently releasing them to their starting position on exhale. As singers become comfortable, they will create and adapt their gesture and breathing for what they need that day and they will develop their own movement repertoire to help them in their singing practice, which we can encourage them to call upon throughout our work together.
Observing singers during this breath and movement exploration allows us to make mental notes about individuals and by extension, about the ensemble as rehearsal begins that day. Are they moving with energy or not much at all? Are they painting an expansive gesture and likely in a positive mood, ready to go? Do they show frustration with any part of this activity? As always, we adapt to the needs of the day and to the singers, knowing we can build on their mind/body/spirit awareness each time we meet.
Even in our virtual formats, movement in breath and body can be the key to our artistic and community-building mission. While we continue to innovate practices and learn new technology, let us remember—that which we know well can be our best strategy as we lead in new territory.
Dr. Ramona Wis is the Mimi Rolland Endowed Professor in the Fine Arts, Professor of Music, and Director of Choral Activities at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois and the author of The Conductor as Leader: Principles of Leadership Applied to Life on the Podium. Dr. Wis is a 500-hour CYT (Certified Yoga Teacher) with training in yoga history, philosophy, meditation, energetics, pranayama (breath work), anatomy, Sanskrit, and the teaching, sequencing, and adaptations of asana (posture-based) practice.
This blog is informational and is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical or psychological conditions. Always consult your medical practitioners who know you and your needs and can advise you accordingly.
For further exploration:
Short video with great visuals by Feldenkrais teacher Alfons Grabher, “Where are your hip joints and sit-bones? EXPLAINED,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O6mBMrX4fss
Katy Bowman, biomechanist, author of several books, including: Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement and Movement Matters: Essays on Movement Science, Movement Ecology, and the Nature of Movement. See her author page on amazon: https://www.amazon.com/kindle-dbs/entity/author/B0057HLJY2?_encoding=UTF8&node=283155&offset=0&pageSize=12&searchAlias=stripbooks&sort=author-sidecar-rank&page=1&langFilter=default#formatSelectorHeader