Dem Bones, but what about Dem Muscles?

How learners can discover how physicality and breath creates voice confidence.

The song ‘Dem Bones, Dem Bones, Dem Dry Bones’ may or may not be familiar to you. Personally, I enjoy listening to the song’s melody and the lyrics, which clearly suggest the bones’ interconnections. However, since I was a child, I have been curious to know how ‘Dem Bones’ would have been originally connected and how on earth they were ‘gonna walk around’!

One of the first exercises I share with learners is to consider their own body alignment – what some practitioners refer to as posture. I have a model of a skeleton, fondly named Moshi (after the practitioner Moshe Feldenkrais), which I use to help people understand more about their own skeletal structure.

Moshi is, seemingly, an effective learning tool because it allows learners to talk and be interested to know more about their own bones. Bones, in particular the feet, knees, hips, spine, ribs, shoulders and skull, are considered carefully. As well as the learner’s own physicality, this work provides an appreciation of a person’s form (and all its differences) and a visual framework to think about when speaking aloud.

After learning more about the skeletal structure, a discussion follows on how bones move the body. There is usually some awkward laughter at this point, as Moshi highlights bones cannot move without muscle, (generally, I omit the detail of ligaments, cartilage, etc.). This experience helps learners rediscover the work covered by the National Curriculum and aims to embed their understanding further.

Muscles of the body are discussed generally and recollections of what learners have been taught or have learnt previously are shared. All learners are asked which they consider to be the main breathing muscles and I am always intrigued by their answers. From my experience, very rarely indeed does the diaphragm make an appearance. When I demonstrate to learners the diaphragm’s shape, what I metaphorically refer to as ‘a misshapen dome-shaped mushroom’ or ‘magic carpet’, they (almost always) say that they know very little about it at all. For the scientists amongst you, I also refer to the books by Theodore Dimon, ‘Anatomy of the Voice – An Illustrated Guide for Singers, Vocal Coaches, and Speech Therapists’ and B Calais-Germain and F Germain ‘Anatomy of Voice.

When learners prepare to speak aloud to an audience, having knowledge and an appreciation of the movement of the diaphragm muscle is powerful. Not only is this muscle responsible for ensuring the supply of air into the body, but it is also the source which, along with a person’s thoughts, moves the air through the voicebox producing vibrations which, in turn, creates voice. Perhaps if we were all to have a greater awareness of the diaphragm’s function, more people would have a better understanding of how they breathe.

As well as the diaphragm, learners consider the function of the intercostal muscles – how they assist in widening the ribs, not only from the front of the body but the back too – and the abdominal muscles – how they can relax when letting air in and contract on letting air out (more commonly referred to as inhalation and exhalation). There should be no forcing or straining of the muscles (terms such as ‘pumping’ or ‘pushing’ are unhealthy). Learners are given time to contemplate how they breathe. By focussing on their own breath, they are able to apply a greater understanding of what happens to it in various circumstances too (i.e. during relaxation, standing in front of an audience – of varying kinds – and when performing a character).

These initial lessons are key to discovering how voice works and how ‘Dem Bones’ and, of course, ‘Dem Muscles’ are working simultaneously with each other.  If the voice falters under pressure of performance, learners have strategies to manage breath for themselves. It gives them the voice confidence to evolve and develop through their everyday experiences so that they can be heard no matter where they are.

Note on the picture above: until recently, and not long before I discovered this painting by Melissa Gunasena, I learnt the diaphragm anatomically cradles a person’s heart. For me, this artist’s interpretation of ‘Self-Love’ depicts the person’s forearms at the same position of the diaphragm. The tranquillity of the pose and its non-gender specific attributes resonated with me. I hope that, by sharing it for this January’s blog, it gives the reader time to pause for thought and to check-in on how they are breathing at this present moment.

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