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Being careful with cueing, part 1: the pelvis, head, and neck.

DURING A RECENT TRIP HOME, my wife and I drove past my high school alma mater. Upon seeing the asphalt parking lot of the football stadium, I was filled with many fond (and some not so fond) memories of summer marching band rehearsals. Every rehearsal began with the recitation of the mantra, "Heels together, toes apart, knees bent, hips tucked, stomach in, chest out, shoulders back, chin high, eyes with pride." Mantras such as these hit the main points of postural alignment in a general sense; they are a useful and convenient way to effect postural change quickly in a large group of people. However, they are generic by nature. What they gain in broad application, they lose in specificity and individuality.

The voice studio is not without similar postural generalities. Teachers in many studios use statements such as, "keep your sternum high," "tuck your tailbone," "shoulders back and down," or "tuck your chin" to provide generic postural cues to their students. In many cases, these statements do help students identify with a more efficient postural alignment. However, no all purpose axiom will be universally applicable. Each student has a unique body and requires individualized cues to effect the greatest positive change.

In order to give student-specific cues, teachers first must have a working knowledge of how the body is mechanically designed to function. This knowledge will better equip teachers to determine what specific muscular imbalance is causing the student's misalignment. Teachers can then create a specific and individualized cue that will guide a student toward efficient postural alignment.

This two-part series focuses on four areas of the body that are of most concern to singers. Part 1 examines the two ends of the spine: the pelvis and the head and neck. Part 2 will examine the two areas in between: the shoulder girdle and the chest and ribcage. Each section is divided into three parts. It begins with a brief examination of relevant anatomy and kinesiology (the study of movement), then moves to a discussion of anatomic neutrality. Each section ends with a list of exercises, cues, and images to help teachers effect positive change in their students' physical alignment.


Due to its direct connection to the lower spine and indirect connection to the upper spine and rib cage, the pelvis can have a profound effect on the functionality of the torso (Figure 1). If the pelvis tips too far forward (anterior tilt), the lower spine's natural curve will exaggerate, a condition called lordosis. In this situation, the overarched lower back restricts the descent of the diaphragm and impairs one's ability to balance the muscles of inhalation and exhalation, thus limiting control of air pressure. On the other hand, a pelvis that tips too far back (posterior tilt) removes the curves of the lower spine, a condition called flat-back. The curves found in a neutral spine help the skeleton support the weight of the body; when they are altered or removed, more energy is required to maintain an upright position. The deep postural muscles must enlist the help of the larger superficial muscles to support the body, leaving those muscles fatigued and overworked. Additionally, a sunken chest (kyphosis) often accompanies a flat-back posture. This will reduce the ribs' ability to expand during inhalation, thus limiting a singer's control over both inhalation and the subsequent exhalation.

The main function of the pelvis is to transfer the weight of the upper body to the lower body. Conversely, the pelvis absorbs impact from the lower limbs in activities such as walking, running, or jumping. (1) It is composed of four bones that fit together to form a bowl-shaped structure (Figure 2). The two ilium form the uppermost portion of the pelvis; they are rounded at the top and can be felt along the sides of the body. A large boney prominence on the front of each ilium is called the Anterior Superior Iliac Spine (ASIS). This boney prominence is often referred to as the hip bone and can be felt on both sides of the hip about two inches down from and four inches to the side of the navel. (2) The ASIS is particularly important in postural analysis.

At the front of the pelvic bowl is the pubis or pubic bone that connects the two halves of the pelvis in a rather immobile joint. During activities such as childbirth, this joint allows some gliding and twisting. The bottom portion of the pelvis is the ischium, more commonly called the sitz bones. (3)

The spine connects to the back of the pelvis via the sacrum (Figure 1). The five fused vertebrae of the sacrum form the foundation of the spine. The joint where the sacrum and the pelvis meet is called the sacroiliac (SI) joint. (4) Normally, the SI joint is rather inflexible; for some people, however, the SI joint is abnormally flexible. These individuals may experience discomfort or even stabbing pain beneath the lumbar spine as the sacrum and ilium rub against each other. This is one cause of lower back pain. Learning to engage the muscles that support the pelvis can be extremely beneficial in reducing or eliminating this kind of pain.

A multitude of muscles attach to the pelvis and work synergistically to stabilize its position relative to the rest of the body. The deepest are the muscles of the pelvic floor (Figure 3). These muscles create a hammock at the bottom of the pelvis and help to support the pelvic organs (e.g., the bladder and reproductive organs). They also are involved with continence. (5) In the back, the lower fibers of the multifidi (one of the deep spinal muscles) attach from the vertebrae of the spine to the back of the pelvis (Figure 4). Contraction of these lower fibers helps tilt the pelvis forward. (6)

The four abdominal muscles are the last set of muscles that affect pelvis movement. Many singers will be familiar with how these muscles assist with the breathing process, but the abdominal muscles' primary function is one of structural support and stability. The innermost abdominal muscle, the transversus, wraps all the way around the abdomen, much like a girdle; it attaches to the pelvis on the bottom, the ribs at the top, the lumbar spine at the back, and to the midline of the abdomen in the front. It is the only abdominal muscle that attaches directly to the spine and is therefore essential to proper alignment. Contraction of the transversus squeezes inward on the abdomen; some people refer to it as the "corset muscle" because its action squeezes and lengthens the lower torso, like a corset or girdle (Figure 5). (7)

The internal and external oblique abdominals run diagonally from the pelvis to the ribs and are partially responsible for side bending and rotation. They are also essential for stabilizing the relationship between the pelvis and the ribs during strenuous activities. (8)

The last abdominal muscle is the rectus abdominus that runs from the front of the pelvis up toward the sternum and causes the body to flex forward. (9)

These muscles support the pelvis in all directions: the pelvic floor at the bottom, the multifidi in the back, the obliques on the sides, the rectus abdominus in the front, and the transversus all around. Efficient alignment of the pelvis can be achieved only through properly balancing these muscles.

Recognizing the key role of the pelvis in efficient physical alignment and good singing, many voice teachers seek to help their students find a neutral pelvic position. Unfortunately, beyond its relative position to the body's midline, it is very difficult to determine the position of a student's pelvis by sight alone. The pelvis of one with developed gluteus muscles and tissue may appear to be tilted anteriorly (forward), when in fact the pelvis is neutral (Figure 6). Such a person might be told to "tuck in your tail bone." Typical responses from the student might include overcontraction of the abdominal muscles and/or the gluteus muscles, which can leave the abdomen stiff, limiting the downward descent of the diaphragm and reducing one's ability to take a complete breath. Overcontraction of the gluteus muscles creates undesirable tension in the lower back, which can also retard the full descent of the diaphragm and will limit expansion of the lower ribs. Both responses are an undesirable result of what was a well intentioned cue.

In order to give an appropriate cue, a teacher must first determine if the pelvis is neutrally positioned. When neutrally positioned, the pelvis's anterior superior iliac spine (ASIS) and pubis will be in one vertical plane (Figures 2 and 7). Though inappropriate for a teacher to palpate, or feel, this area, he/she can lead a student to determine his/her own pelvic neutrality with a number of simple steps. It is often easiest to begin lying supine (face up) and then transfer the exercise to a standing position.

1. Lie supine with knees bent, feet on the floor.

2. Place the palms of the hands on the large hip bones, found on the front sides of the body (ASIS).

3. Place the finger tips on the pubic bone at the base of the pelvis.

4. Rock the pelvis back (flattening the back on the floor) and forward (increasing the space under the lower back), exploring the flexibility of the pelvis.

5. Gradually decrease the range of motion until the hands form a horizontal line parallel with the floor. This is the pelvis's neutral position.

Once the student can feel the movement of the pelvis, he/she should repeat this process when standing. Ideally, the palms (on the ASIS) and the fingertips (on the pubic bone) should form a vertical line. If the palms and fingertips do not form a vertical line the teacher will know that the student's pelvis is tipped forward (anterior tilt) or backward (posterior tilt).

Armed with this information, a teacher can give specific rather than generic cues to affect a student's pelvic alignment. The following exercises are aimed at strengthening the supporting muscles that govern pelvic placement while engendering a sense of flexibility and freedom in the hips. Each section includes several images and cues that will help students discover pelvic neutrality.

Pelvic Freedom and Strength

* Pelvic Floor Exercise--strengthens the deep muscles of the pelvis and the transverse abdominus; helps develop kinesthetic awareness.

1. Sit on the front edge of a chair.

2. The three inferior bones of the pelvis (pubis in the front, the sitz bones on the sides, and the tailbone in the back) form a diamond. Imagine that an elevator shaft extends from this triangle straight up to the navel.

3. Imagine that there are three floors for this elevator: floor 1 is on the ground, floor 2 is between the ground and the hipbone, and floor 3 is at the hipbones.

4. Exhale--lift the elevator to floor 2. This will be a very slight contraction. Inhale while maintaining the contraction; exhale and release the contraction.

5. Exhale--lift the elevator to floor 3.

6. Inhale while maintaining the contraction. At this point, one may feel a tightening sensation around the abdomen, almost like a girdle. This is the action of the transverse abdominus, which contracts the abdomen in all directions.

7. Exhale and release the contraction.

8. Practice maintaining the contraction at floor 3 for a few seconds. Gradually increase the duration you are able to maintain this contraction. The deep pelvic muscles that are strengthened in this exercise are essential to maintaining proper pelvic placement.

9. At first it may be difficult to feel the contraction of these muscles. The muscles of the pelvic floor do not have many nerve endings and are somewhat difficult to feel. Continue to practice the exercise, concentrating on the imagery and the girdle-like feeling of the transversus. Over time, this exercise will develop one's kinesthetic awareness enough to notice the subtle movements of these muscles.

* Pelvic Tilts--promotes freedom of the pelvis; helps identify pelvis range of motion; increases flexibility of the lumbar spine.

1. Lie on the floor with knees bent, feet flat on the floor, hands on the hipbones.

2. Gently rock pelvis backward so that the lower back presses gently into the floor.

3. Rock the pelvis forward so that the lower back arches slightly away from the floor.

4. Continue the rocking motion, moving from backward tilt to forward tilt. Move as slowly as needed to achieve a smooth, jerk-free motion.

5. Repeat 5-7 times.

* Pelvic Rolls--promotes freedom of the pelvis; increases flexibility of the lumbar spine; atrengthens abdominal muscles, gluteus muscles, and hamstrings.

1. Lie on the floor, knees bent; feet flat on the floor, slightly wider than hips' distance apart.

2. Exhale--contract the abdominal muscles so that the pelvis tilts backward and the lower back presses gently into the floor. It may help to think of gently pulling the hip bones towards the ribs. Press into the legs and lift the pelvis off the floor. Imagine that as the hips rise, the spine peels of the floor one vertebra at a time. Continue to lift the pelvis until the knees, pelvis, and shoulders are in one line.

3. Inhale--maintaining this lifted position.

4. Exhale--gently lower the pelvis back to the floor, articulating through the spine one vertebra at a time.

5. Repeat 3-4 times.

6. Focus on a smooth motion that allows the spine to peel gently off the floor and then gently lie back down as if laying down a pearl necklace one pearl at a time.

Forward (Anterior) Tilt/Lordosis

* Pelvic Tilts--(see above)

* Pelvic Rolls--(see above)

* Cat Stretch--increases flexibility of the lumbar and thoracic spine; strengthens and coordinates abdominal and gluteal muscles.

1. Begin on all fours, hands directly under the shoulders and knees directly under the hips.

2. Exhale--allow the tailbone to drop gently (like a dog sticking its tail between its legs). This will cause the lower back to round slightly. Allow the motion to continue through the entire spine, rolling vertebra by vertebra and eventually causing the crown of the head to drop toward the ground.

3. Inhale--maintain this flexed position.

4. Exhale--allow the tailbone to float upward. The lower back will come into a slight bow. Allow this motion to continue through the entire spine, rolling vertebra by vertebra until the crown of the head is reaching forward and up.

5. Inhale--return to the starting position.

6. During the exercise focus on: reaching through the crown of the head to keep the spine long, contracting the abdominal muscles slightly to protect the lower spine, and allowing both the rounding and bowing of the spine to be a gentle stretch.

* Rolling the Spine

1. Begin standing. Exhale--allow the head to succumb to gravity and fall forward.

2. Allow the rest of the body to follow suit: bend the knees, and roll down the spine into a forward bend. Again, imagine that the spine is moving one vertebra at a time. Pay particular attention that the lower back rolls gently and does not move as one flat unit.

3. Hang in the forward bend for a few seconds, keeping the knees bent to protect your lower back. Breathe easily into the lower back.

4. Exhale--press into the feet and stand back up by rolling up the spine. Try to stack the spine one vertebra at a time. Imagine that there is space between each vertebra as it stacks. The neck and head will be the last thing to stack.

* Postural Cues and Images

1. Floating Pubic Bone-produces the same effect as "tucking the tailbone," but relies more on the abdominal muscles and does not induce overactivity of the gluteals.

a. Begin in a standing position.

b. Imagine that the pubic bone is gently and slightly rising.

2. Imagine a line of energy runs from the pubic bone up the front of the body. It catches your sternum and gently lifts the ribcage. It extends through the back of the head and lengthens the entire spine.

3. Imagine a fishing weight attached to the tailbone, gently pulling it downward.

4. Currents of the Pelvis (10)

a. Gently brush up the front of the hips toward the waist with the fingertips, encouraging the hipbones to float upward.

b. Gently brush up the front of the hips, over the top, and down the back.

Backward (Posterior) Tilt/Flat Back

* Pelvic Tilts--(see above)

* Cat Stretch--(see above)

* Multifidi Contraction--strengthens and increases awareness of the multifidi, one of several deep postural muscles that run from the spine to the pelvis posteriorly.

1. Lie prone (face down) with feet shoulder width apart. Rest the forehead on the floor or on a folded towel. It is important that the head remain in a neutral position and not turn to the side.

2. Without using the glutes, allow the pelvis to rock slightly forward so that the tailbone moves toward the head. Hold briefly and release. This action contracts the multifidi.

3. Repeat step 2 and only imagine that the pelvis will rock forward. The thought of the tilting one's pelvis should be enough to contract these muscles. Be sure to use the muscles of the back, not those of the hips or legs.

* Postural Cues and Images

1. Bend the knees almost into a squat. Notice the crease in the hips. Stand and maintain a feeling of softness across the front of the hips.


Because of the position or the larynx within the neck, the relationship of the head and neck to the spine and torso is essential for a freely produced sound. Misalignments of the neck can result in unwanted tension in both the larynx and the articulators (particularly the tongue and jaw).

The neck, or cervical spine, is composed of the top seven vertebrae (Figure 8). These vertebrae are extremely flexible, which allows the neck and head a wide range of motion. The spine meets the head at the occipital joint. Calais-Germain states that the "articulating surfaces [of the head/neck joint] lie essentially on the outside of an imaginary sphere whose center is inside the skull. Thus, the occipital-atlas joint could be viewed as a ball-and-socket joint, potentially allowing movement in any direction." (11) Various muscles and ligaments, however, restrict the movement of the head so that it favors forward and backward motion over the other directions.

In ideal alignment, the head balances easily on top of the spine with minimal muscular effort. When viewed from the side, a straight line should run from just behind the ear, through the middle of the shoulder, through the hip joint, and just forward of the anklebone. When viewed from the front, the head should face straight ahead, not turning to one side or the other, nor tilting left or right. The neck will maintain its even and natural curve. (12)

Faulty postures of the neck and head will generally fall into one of two categories: those that exaggerate the curve of the cervical spine, and those that remove the curve of the cervical spine. In the former, the extensor muscles at the back of the neck will be overworked and the front of the neck will be stretched, shortening the back of the neck. This places unnecessary tension on the larynx and will often cause it to rise, a position commonly found in young baritones and tenors as they sing through the passaggio. The head will be generally forward of midline. This fault is common among people with kyphosis (sunken chest) (Figure 9) and is prevalent in younger, untrained singers.

In the second fault, the flexor muscles at the front of the neck will be overworked and the back of the neck will be stretched. The head may shift behind midline. The compression felt at the front of the neck will often cause the larynx to lower forcibly. This will darken the sound at the expense of laryngeal freedom and is, therefore, not advised.

Two common cues used to address faulty head alignment are "tuck your chin" and "lengthen the back of the neck." Both cues have merit, but as with many directives, misinterpretation can lead to further complications. The first, "tuck your chin," is often given to students who raise the chin and extend the neck as the pitch rises. In the process of tucking his/her chin, the student is likely to overwork the flexor muscles at the front of the neck and will exhibit the second postural fault described above. Though the posture might appear aligned, the inappropriate muscular balance will not allow for free phonation. The cue "lengthen the back of the neck" may produce similar results. As the student reaches with the back of the neck, the reciprocal action is to lower the chin. The same muscular patterns associated with "tuck your chin" might also present themselves with this cue.

In general, cues regarding the head and neck relationship should encourage a lift of the entire head, not just one portion. The following images and exercises will help students find a balanced head alignment that allows for free movement and phonation.

Head and Neck Exercises and Images

* Bobble Head--encourages length and freedom of the head and neck (requires two people). (13) A partner/teacher lightly grips the two boney points at the base of the student's skull (occipital ridge) with the thumb and middle finger of one hand and lightly grips the student's forehead with the thumb and middle finger of the other hand.

1. The partner/teacher gently lifts the entire head very slightly, encouraging a lengthening of the entire spine.

2. From here, the partner/teacher can move the head in small circles, shake the head yes and no, and move the head from side to side. Be careful to make these movements very small. Movements of a quarter to half an inch are sufficient.

3. When finished, the partner/teacher should gently remove his hands in an upward and outward motion, which will continue to encourage the spine to lengthen.

* Brush Strokes--encourages length and freedom of the head and neck (requires two people). (14)

1. This exercise works best if the student is seated in a chair.

2. The partner/teacher steps behind the student and places the backs of the fingers on the student's cheekbones.

3. The partner/teacher lightly brushes up from the cheekbones across the temples and up the head.

4. Repeat four or five times.

* Head Circles 1-encourages freedom in the neck and head. (15)

1. Imagine that a horizontal plate extends through the center of your head at the level of your eyes.

2. Imagine that a marble is placed in the center of that plate.

3. Very slowly, imagine that you could move your head to roll the marble in a circle around the plate.

* Head Circles 2-encourages freedom in the neck and head.

1. Use your nose to draw tiny circles in the air.

2. Both of the head circle exercises can be particularly helpful to use while a student sings. It encourages the neck to be free while the tone is produced.

* Helium Inside the Head--encourages freedom in the neck and head and lengthening of the spine. (16)

1. Imagine that the head is a balloon filled with helium.

2. The head rises away from the body.

3. The neck and spine are the string attached to the balloon.

4. The shoulders fall away from the rising balloon.

* Diagonal Alignment--encourages length through the entire spine. (17)

1. Imagine that your body is connected through the following diagonal lines:

a. Tailbone to pubis.

b. Pubis to sacrum.

c. Sacrum to sternum.

d. Sternum to T7 (the vertebra in the middle of the upper back between the scapulae).

e. T7 to jugular notch (the hollow space at the top of your sternum).

f. Jugular notch to the base of the skull.

2. Imagine that each point along the diagonal alignment moves up and away along its diagonal line from the point beneath it.

The exercises presented above are by no means exhaustive. It is the author's hope that readers will use their understanding of anatomic neutrality and functionality to support and augment their teaching in whatever way is most helpful.


(1.) Blandine Calais-Germain, Anatomy of Movement, rev ed. (Seattle: Eastland Press, 2007), 43.

(2.) Ibid., 44-45.

(3.) Ibid.

(4.) Ibid., 52.

(5.) Ibid., 98.

(6.) Ibid., 73-74.

(7.) Ibid., 94.

(8.) Ibid., 95.

(9.) Ibid., 96.

(10.) Melissa Noble, interview by author (Bloomington, IN, December 16, 2010).

(11.) Calais-Germain, 69.

(12.) Florence Peterson Kendall, Elizabeth Kendall McCreary, Patricia Geise Provance, Mary Mclntrye Rodgers, and William Anthony Romani, Muscles: Testing and Function with Posture and Pain, 5th ed. (Baltimore: Lippincott, Williams, and Wilkins, 2005), 60.

(13.) Noble, interview.

(14.) Ibid.

(15.) Ibid.

(16.) Eric Franklin, Dynamic Alignment Through Imagery (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1996), 241.

(17.) Noble, interview.

Dr. Sean McCarther serves as assistant professor at Westminster Choir College of Rider University where he teaches studio voice and undergraduate voice science. He holds a doctorate from Indiana University with a minor in postural analysis and movement for the stage. An advocate for physical theater and mobile singers, Dr. McCarther has created a movement-based performance pedagogy called Body, Mind, and Voice Performance Training (BMV Training). The training draws upon multiple movement disciplines to create a multifaceted movement pedagogy that frees the body from unnecessary tension, allows both effortless movement and easy, organic phonation, and helps students actively engage their environment, their scene partners, and the audience with the highest potential expression. Much of the training is influenced by the work of Tadashi Suzuki, Stott Pilates, and the Dynamic Presence Project. Dr. McCarther has presented workshops in the BMV Training at numerous universities and is on faculty for the CoOPERAtive summer program where he teaches Movement for the Performer. In July of 2014 he presented a lecture/demonstration of the BMV training at the NATS 53rd National Conference in Boston.
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Author:McCarther, Sean
Publication:Journal of Singing
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2014
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