Singer Basics: Posture – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Stand up straight! Chest out! Back straight! Chin up! Legs under shoulders! One leg in front of the other! Don’t lean forward! Lean slightly forward!

I’m sure many of you have heard all of these before. You could go to five different voice teachers and be told five different ways to stand while you sing. With so many conflicting ideas and thoughts on the matter, how do you know which one is “correct” and best for you to use? There’s a complex answer for that, but first let’s figure out where all of those ideas came from in the first place.

Much of the information found in the next section can be further studied, researched and documented in Richard Miller’s National Schools of Singing: English, French, German, and Italian Techniques of Singing Revisited.

Vocal pedagogy, or the science of teaching people how to sing, has been an ever-evolving process over many centuries. The great vocal pedagogues (singing teachers) of the past such as Tosi, Porpora, Marchesi, Lamperti, and now Richard Miller have written down numerous treatises, books and papers on the art of singing and how to teach it. Today’s vocal pedagogues are trying to carry on this tradition and hone the science of teaching singing into an even more efficient state.

From the many studies of various tomes and treatises, basic western vocal pedagogy can be broken down into one of four big schools of singing: Italian, German, English and French. However, nowadays, especially in Northern America, a conglomeration of styles is widely used – drawing on what any given teacher feels are the best aspects of each of the big schools. Next I will give a brief description of each school and the pros and cons of each set.

Teacher’s Note: All schools keep hands at the side, loose and relaxed until the singer is using them for a purposeful dramatic gesture appropriate to the text of the song.

English: When one thinks of the epitome of a “classical” singer, one may often picture a choir of schoolboys singing with their hands clasped in front of them. This comes from the English school of singing. The English school is drawn from a heavy choral influence. As such, much of the singing posture can be seen in a singer holding a book in front of him. The visual of the English school is: feet under shoulders, slight lean forward and toward (but not completely onto) the balls of the foot, a slight forward bend of the hips with the back high and wide. The English school posture utilizes breathing into the upper back and chest. The chin is neutral to face alignment or slightly above and the jaw drops down and back.

Pros: The forward lean and the forward bend of the hips give a naturally large expansion of the upper back ribs during breathing. This allows for air to easily enter into the mid-to-upper ranges of the lungs and allows for the upper back ribs to remain open, light and maintain a spongy feeling. This posture also allows for an easy feel of the lower back support muscles and the upper abdominal support muscles at the solar plexus. Being based on a choral tradition, this posture more easily accommodates holding a book or folder and maintaining and ability to efficiently sing.

Cons: Due to the forward lean and the automatic engagement of the upper abdominal muscles, the English school posture can lead to shallow dorso-clavicular (upper back) breathing and a locking of the solar plexus. It takes more active release of tension during the release phase of the Breath Cycle to prevent locking of the solar plexus and build up of “bad air.” Being on the front balls of the feet and with the forward bend at the hips, body balance can become difficult. This posture helps to automatically find the upper abdominal support, but the singer may find it less effective and more difficult to feel lower abdominal support muscle engagement.

Here is a video showing a representation of what the English school of posture looks like: Russell Oberlin (countertenor)

French: Much like the French feelings on life and liberty, the French school embodies a very laissez-faire approach to posture. As such there are veritably no special positions or stances like the other schools. The body is at ease and there is no lean either forward, backward or downward. The breathing is natural breathing. The French school has a rather Alexander Technique approach to breathing – one breathes to sing as one would breathe for anything else. The chin is up, the mouth is wide and the jaw out (but not forward). This can be seen as a “singing to the rafters” head position – without the rest of the body being in line.

Pros: The balanced body posture is easily maintained in a naturally-balanced person. Because everyone’s posture is different, every French school singer will stand slightly differently. This can make the French school posture very accessible for most singers as well as the easiest one from which to adapt. Again because of the “let it be” idea, French school breathing is not likely to be accompanied with posture-related tension, as long as the singer already breathes without posture-related tension. The neutral position allows for the singer to easily feel and adjust all support muscle engagement.

Cons: The French school’s reliance on how a singer would normally do something while not singing can lead to whatever poor postural habits a person carries with them while not singing. Natural breathing can lead to a back-up of “bad air” if not careful, due to the high demands and amounts of athleticism used during singing that one may not be accustomed to in speaking. The high chin position can lead to high larynx, which must be balanced with an elongated neck. Having a wide mouth posture can lead to tongue/jaw tension and a spreading of vowels. This can lead to a bright and shrill sound at times. The following disjunction between body and neck can lead to improper support balance of the lower body and can increase tension in the neck, larynx and jaw.

Appropriately, this French countertenor can be seen employing much of the French School of posture: Dominique Visse (countertenor)

German: Carrying on with tradition, the German school of singing claims a posture which is orderly, neat and efficient. The stance of the German school has the feet under and parallel to shoulders. This allows a firm “root” to the ground where balance is found and maintained. Like the French school, there is no lean forward or backward. The chin is slightly tucked with the jaw hanging back and down. This allows for space in the back of the pharynx for a darker sound than would normally be made. The breathing of the German school can be described as a muscular downward pull upon breathing, thus allowing for an immediate vacuuming of the larynx and resulting in a low larynx position at the onset of phonation.

Pros: The no-nonsense approach to standing with feet and shoulders in line makes for an easily balanced body position. The lack of a lean helps to keep the body from rocking due to nerves or balance issues. The muscular breathing allows for quick body-wide ribecage expansion. This allows for air to rapidly fill into the lungs. The vacuuming that happens from breathing in the German school makes it easy to find a low larynx position due to breath pull. The insistence upon feeling one’s weight into the ground (rooting) makes it very easy to feel grounded and balanced.

Cons: The muscular postural-breathing motion can cause undue tension in back and neck. Popping out the ribcage and holding it firm can be often seen in this school, which can cascade to laryngeal, neck, jaw and tongue tension. This can lead to rigidity of the ribcage and holding of the solar plexus. Like the French school, because there is no lean to automatically engage certain support muscles German-school singers must make all support muscle engagement directly. The tuck of the chin can also lead to pressing of the larynx and an over darkening of sound.

The German school can be seen in German countertenor Andreas Scholl: Andreas Scholl (countertenor)

Italian: The Italian tradition is firmly rooted in operatic singing. As such, the Italian school focuses on posture that can be easily accessible on stage and is meant to drive a sound as far as possible without amplification. The hallmark of the Italian school is the usage of Appoggio. Appoggio means “to lean.” Several pedagogues teach that this is about body connection and awareness. I disagree. I believe that the appoggio is directly referring to the stance of the Italian school. In the Italian school the singer stands with one foot slightly in front of the other with most of the weight on the back foot. There is a slight lean backwards at hips, and the head is above the shoulders (still in line with the rest of the torso). The slight backwards lean places the chest up and out without effort and the jaw uses gravity to naturally and freely swing down and back. Research is pending upon proving this method of appoggio (will be shown in a future article).

Pros: The slight-backwards lean at the hips (not the the head or the chest – they stay in the same stance except repositioned by the change of angle at the hips) sets an automatic engagement of lower abdominal, transverse abdominal and lower back support muscles. The chest is automatically in an elevated position and the head is in line with the body, but able to sing over a crowd or to the back of a hall due to the upward angle brought on by the appoggio. The neck is in an easily-elongated position and it is easy to feel “deep” breathing because of the lengthening of the torso by the slight lean backwards. Because most of the weight is on the back foot, it is easy to keep, and stay, in balance due to being less able to shift weight.

Cons: Because having a slight backwards lean at the hips is not a natural thing to do, using Italian school posture can be difficult to find and utilize at first. If one is not careful, it can lead to over pronation of the back which will over-engage abdominal support muscles and under-engage lower back muscles. This can lead to built up tension in the abdominals, which makes breathing difficult and support next to impossible. Because of gravity, the backward lean can make it easier for the shoulders to fall back unsupported, which will lead to upper back rigidity and cause breathing and tension problems.

This Austrian-American tenor makes heavy usage of Italian school posture. Pay special attention and notice his usage of the appoggio. The more he needs support (as he sings higher), the further back the lean is: Kurt Streit (tenor)

With all of that technical gobbledygook aside, I have good news: there is no one “correct” posture. From the videos above, it is easily shown that each of these postural techniques can produce world-class singers. Even in those singers one entire school is not always utilized. Keep in mind, however, that while there is no one “correct” way to address posture, there are several wrong ways. Anything in extremes can be bad. Working with a vocal pedagogue and someone who specializes in teaching (not coaching) singing is the best way to find out what technical issues you may have in regards to your posture.

So what does this mean for you, as a singer? All of this opposing and, at times, conflicting information between the styles is a boon in disguise. It allows you the liberty to experiment and figure out which school works best for your vocal needs. You , as the singer, can determine which school, or portions of each school, work best for you through practice and the guidance of your teachers, coaches and technicians.

Best of luck and keep singing!