Pilates and Voice by Diane Radford
This article was written for 2004 Rostra, the annual publication of the Speech Communication Association New Zealand, the professional body of speech and drama teachers (updated 2022)
“There are only a few parts of the body not involved in some way in the process of voice production.”
D. Garfield Davies & Anthony F. Jahn
Teaching voice to the Diploma Students at the Wellington Performing Arts Centre over the past nine years and more recently privately, constantly challenges my teaching abilities (as it rightly should). I am devoted to voice knowledge and to developing the vocal abilities of my students as well as my own.
I have studied in NZ, Australia and the UK the well-known and widely used voice techniques of the Roy Hart Theatre, Frankie Armstrong, Kristin Linklater, Patsy Rodenburg and Jo Estill. Recently, I qualified as Pilates Instructor in The Method Pilates with the PhysicalMind Institute of New York and I have been using Pilates exercises to strengthen my students’ voices, having noticed a greater strength and resonance in my own voice from Pilates. I have also been using Pilates exercises doubled with the Jo Estill techniques to overcome problems with vocal constriction in my students.
How does Pilates crossover to Voice you may well ask. It does this in ways you are familiar with but are described and experienced differently by Pilates. I would like to share these with you briefly.
History of Pilates
Joseph Pilates devised the Pilates exercise system for patient rehabilitation during World War One. Though the principles remain the same, the system has developed into its modern form through scientific evaluation over almost a century. And like everything, is still evolving.
What Pilates does
Pilates works the muscles, elongating, rebalancing and aligning them. The exercises help your muscles and joints build new memories that serve you more efficiently.
The recognised benefits of Pilates includes:
Fewer injuries and improved strength and flexibility
Better postural alignment and decreased back pain
Greater joint mobility and bone density
Lower stress levels and stronger immune systems
A more efficient circulation, breathing and lymphatic system
Pilates Voice Crossover
Voice is made with the body and we can see from the list of benefits above that Pilates assists relaxation, energy levels, breathing, strength and flexibility and this translates itself across to voice.
From head to toe Pilates looks for:
Long neck and high head
Slightly open and lifted chest
Width between and floating down of the shoulder blades at the back
Arms hanging from the shoulders
Ribcage soft and relaxed
Pelvis sitting evenly (in neutral) atop the thigh bones with the tail falling towards the floor
Abdominals are engaged
Leg bones aligned
Knees extended and not locked
Ankles aligned with the knees
Feet evenly placed beneath hips with weight evenly placed beneath the hips with equal pressure on heels and balls, with slight pressure underneath the big and second toes.
Many of these things will ring bells with the teachings of Kristin Linklater, Patsy Rodenburg and Jo Estill.
About the Shoulder Blades
Those of you who attended the Jo Estill Voice Workshop held at various venues around NZ over the past few years, you will remember an exercise we did to anchor the body for voice which included anchoring the neck, shoulders and torso.
Jo Estill’s reasoning behind anchoring was that by using the larger muscles in the head, neck and torso to gain control of the smaller muscles in the larynx gives more powerful tone with less laryngeal fatigue.
My experience of Jo Estill’s anchoring has been correct posture in terms of Pilates.
Where Pilates is concerned anatomically the shoulder blades are important because they:
assist or stabilise the shoulders while the arm is as rest or in motion, and
provide an anchor for muscles necessary for mobility and stability
Muscular imbalances in the shoulder girdle causes dysfunctional movement patterns throughout the body resulting in core-related holding and bracing along the entire spine. This in turn affects the breathing therefore affecting voice production.
About the knees
Those of you who attended Patsy Rodenburg’s Voice Masterclass in Wellington at the end of last year will recall her saying “don’t lock your knees because it causes vocal constriction – recently scientifically proven.”
Where Pilates is concerned hyper-extended (locked) knees misaligns the pelvis which creates muscular bracing along the thoracic and cervical spine which, likewise, affects breathing, therefore voice production.
About the pelvis
Pilates works with neutral (balanced) pelvis when you are lying, sitting or standing. This is when the two hips bones and the pubic bone are on a perfect triangular alignment (no north, south, east, west tilting).
A stable pelvis results from abdominal engagement and pelvic floor awareness, which leads to a strong trunk and better organisation of the front and the back of the body. A balanced pelvis supports the lumbar spine and sets the feet and legs in alignment.
Muscular imbalances in the pelvis will cause dysfunctional movement patterns throughout the body, resulting in holding and bracing along the cervical and thoracic spine thereby ultimately affecting voice production.
About the transversus abdominis
The transversus abdominis is the deepest of the four abdominal muscles which acts as a corset front to back. Contraction (pulling inwards) of the transversus abdominis stabilises the pelvis for movement and activates the abdominal syringe effect on the diaphragm in expiration for voice. The rectus abdominis and the oblique muscles also contract to support the transversus abdominis.
D. Garfield Davies (Laryngologist) & Anthony F. Jahn (Otolaryngologist) said in their book Care of the Professional Voice that:
“When expiration occurs, the diaphragm is flaccid, and is passively pushed by the contents of a contracting abdominal cavity. Supporting the voice from the diaphragm is therefore a concept with no anatomical basis. Support of the voice actually comes from the abdominal muscles, rather than the diaphragm.
A comparison of breathing techniques among actors revealed that the accomplished actor uses more abdominal breathing, and that this abdominal breathing shows greater variation and control.”
Patsy Rodenburg in her voice masterclass last year spent considerable time on breathing and voice exercises with conscious contraction of the transversus abdominis.
Cecily Berry in her book Voice and the Actor focuses on the back of the transversus abdominis to produce voice.
Likewise, in my Roy Hart Theatre training connection of the voice to the pelvis, in fact, the whole body was encouraged.
In term of Pilates, when the transversus abdominis contracts, the Pelvic Floor muscles are also engaged.
About the rectus abdominis
The rectus abdominis is known as that lovely ‘six pack’. Pushing with your ‘six pack’ can cause vocal constriction.
The rectus abdominis muscle is the most superficial muscle of the four abdominal muscles. In movement, its main function is to flex the trunk, but it also assists the other three abdominal muscles (external and internal obliques, and the transversus abdominis) to compress the abdomen.
I identified that if the rectus abdominis muscle is allowed to dome outwards (a sensation of pushing outwards), this can cause vocal constriction. In Jo Estill terms, constriction is when the false folds constrict over the true folds thereby interfering with the efficiency of the true folds and affecting voice production. Jo Estill says this occurs when we push or strain or lift. Kristin Linklater also recognised how the superficial abdominals caused vocal problems.
When we breathe, the abdominal muscles contract on expiration and release on inspiration as the abdomen increases in size. Exactly the same process applies for voice but the muscles are obviously more active for voice production, particularly on expiration. When we create too much tension or try too hard in dramatic vocalisation, we end up by pushing with the rectus abdominis muscle instead of the transversus abdominis creating vocal constriction. The rectus abdominus must support the contraction inwards of the transversus abdominis to assist retraction the false folds.
I have surmised from my understanding of Pilates techniques and various voice techniques that good voice production comes from balanced muscular strength and fitness, and good alignment which enables the breath and vibrations to flow freely through a relaxed and alert body. I also believe that conscious contraction of the transversus abdominis on expiration for voice and movement will give you the best and safest support to your voice and movement. And being aware not to use the rectus abdominis alone to push the voice out can help prevent vocal constriction and thereby the possible long term consequences of vocal fold nodules.
The Pilates exercises require skill, knowledge and precision in their execution and teaching. If you are interested in doing Pilates, I recommend that you be trained by a qualified instructor who takes the time to observe and assess your body’s idiosyncracies. You must dedicate yourself to muscle balancing and alignment over time. There are no quick fix solutions and going straight into advanced exercises that are sold in video tapes can lead to injury.
The Wellington based teacher-trainer is Tania Huddart of Hearts and Bones. Her website is www.heartsandbones.co.nz
Notes from Anatomy of Pilates PhysicalMind Institute, New York.
© 2022 Diane Radford, Voice & Performance, Wellington, New Zealand