Jack is originally from California but he has lived in the Lot – where I live and work – for ten years. He is 76 , practices yoga on a daily basis, makes his own Bulgarian yoghurt and is an avid swimmer. He used to be a windsurfer, which he enjoyed well into his fifties. Today is his first singing lesson and he is completely fascinated by the concept of breath support. For a good part of the lesson he compares breath control with yoga breathing and under water swimming, and his happy conclusion is that singing is basically a sport. ‘So I got a new sport now!’ he chants.
We set to work. Scales and other singing exercises are produced and pursued with gusto. The results are a bit wobbly at first, which is normal, particularly since Jack has never ‘really’ sung before. As the lesson continues, his tone becomes firm as he becomes more aware of what is happening in his body and how the ribcage (for breath) and the head (for resonance and vowel formation) are connected. ‘Wow!’ he exclaims. ‘This feels real good! You know, this would be great for everybody?’ He then explains how he sometimes feels sad when he sees how people of his age – and much, much younger people too – walk around slumped, as if gravity was something they can’t deal with. He demonstrates this by walking around the room and, as he walks he morphs into an old man. Shoulders bent forward, belly outwards, he exudes an aura of utter exhaustion. Then, suddenly, he jumps up again. ‘It’s so imPORtant to breathe well, you know, and stand straight!’ he shouts. ‘Look at Freddy Mercury, or Mick Jagger!’
Mick and Freddy! Now there are a few favourites of mine. Check them out on YouTube and watch how they move on the stage. (I have to say I prefer Mick because he looks more human.) It’s not so much about the way they dance, but rather how they carry themselves, so the best way to study these singers’s attitude is when they sing a ballad. It becomes especially interesting if you mute the sound. No distractions. Just watch, like a research scientist. Ask questions. What aspects of the posture make the guy look strong and dynamic? Check out: movement, head, jaw, neck, shoulders, chest, spine, arms, legs, feet, and more movement.
Even if you don’t have an athletic figure like these guys, or like Jack, for that matter, I cannot stress enough the importance of good posture. I love to think of this Buddhist monk who interrupts his teachings on how to meditate every now and again to remind us: ‘Spy stay!’ Meaning ‘spine straight’. Meaning, in the words of the eighteenth century singing masters in Italy, the noble posture. The noble posture enables you to breathe deeply, which stimulates blood circulation, which stimulates oxygen distribution in the body, which nourishes all vital organs, which improves health, which improves happiness, which improves good posture, and round and round it goes.
Singing combines all that, and more. To sing is to play. To sing is to express your true self. To sing is to be a vessel that carries art: the visionary art of composers and songwriters, whether you sing Cohen or Mozart, or one of those folksongs that have resonated through the hills and valleys of the British Isles for a thousand years. To sing is to resonate with your body, almost effortlessly making it more healthy. No running or weightlifting involved. Your voice asks only one thing of you one: a proud and noble posture. ‘Spine straight’. Many of us have un-learned that posture somewhere during our lifetime. We tend to breathe superficially and bend our shoulders and back forward. Perhaps it is because we have been told not to appear too proud. Or maybe just because we have spent too much time in front of a computer or the telly.
So if you want to do your body and soul a big favour, play a little. Stand in front of a long mirror and do a Freddy or a Mick. Stand tall, chest lifted, shoulders low. Spine straight. Exhale through the mouth. Wait a few seconds, let your mouth drop open. Then inhale through the nose, your mouth still open, lift and spread your arms out from your shoulders. This is the ultimate alpha male or female posture. Keep standing like that for ten seconds, breathing comfortably in and out, keeping your chest high. You will notice that it is in fact possible to breathe without letting your chest drop completely.
Feel good? Feel better? Great. Keep playing. I wish you happiness.