Shoulder Girdle Movements and Singing

The shoulder girdle movements and singing share an important relationship. Shoulders are complex entities that move in multiple different ways. Yet many of us habitually move our shoulders in only two or three ways, and that can lead to imbalances in muscular development and may cause vocal problems.

Here’s an image of some of the muscles in the shoulder girdle.

Try this experiment: Pick up a piece of music like you always do. Now ask yourself the following questions.Use a mirror if you need help.

  1. Which hand do I habitually use to hold music?
  2. Which direction is my head looking?
  3. Is my head tilted to one side or another? (check your chin)
  4. Where is my right shoulder?
  5. Where is my left shoulder?
  6. Are right and left shoulders doing the same things?
  7. Is my spine straight or did I shift it to one side or another to see my music?
  8. What happens if I switch my music to my other hand? Then repeat the questions.

Work towards evenness in the shoulder girdle. Your spine should be erect and your head centered and straight over your body. Why?

Because what happens in the large extrinsic muscles is reflected in the small intrinsic ones. In other words, unevenness in the shoulder girdle may cause unevenness in the vocal folds, resulting in an uneven vocal sound.

Balance and align your body to find your best voice!

For an interesting read about anatomy trains that addresses the shoulder girdle, check out Thomas Myers’s article The Arm Lines.

Tongue Position for Breathing

My dentist, the brilliant Dr. Erik Graham, told me two years ago that the place for the tongue when breathing at rest is on the roof of the mouth.

It’s supposed to press up towards the heavens on the bone of the hard palate, NOT pressing forward on the upper teeth, mind you, unless you want to encounter some expensive dental work!

I had always been a mouth breather with the tongue laying on the jaw bone. Mouth breathing at rest and at night resulted in dry mouth and dehydrated, tight, and inflexible tissues inside the mouth, including the soft palate.

Making this simple change in tongue position has resulted in increased range, resonance, and beauty in my singing. It has also given me new flexibility in my facial expressions and better posture. Best of all, my body is much more calm now.

Of course, when we’re singing, it’s impossible to maintain this upward-pressing tongue position, because the mouth is open and the tongue is moving to form words. But between phrases it’s possible to practice this calming and re-hydrating breath.

Try it and see what happens!

Note: if you want more information on this subject from a wide variety of perspectives, just search “tongue position while breathing.”

The Devil On Your Shoulder

Judgment in Singing

I used to criticize my voice all the time. When I was practicing, I could hardly make it through a phrase without finding fault with my diction, my intonation, my resonance, and (certainly not “or” in this case) my breath support. One of my favorite teachers told me to get the devil off my shoulder.


The Devil on My Shoulder

At the time, I was working towards my Masters degree at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music and performing a lot of opera roles. During an opera, it’s easy to block that little devil out because there are so many other things vying for your attention. Things like, “Don’t make a fool of yourself by falling off the stage into the orchestra pit,” or “Thank goodness the spotlights are so bright that I can’t see the audience reaction to the note I just bombed,” or, “What the heck is my colleague doing right now because that is NOT what we rehearsed!” Needless to say, there was so much going on in my head that I didn’t fully understand the importance of her words at the time.

After I graduated, I found myself doing fewer operas but a lot more recitals. And that devil had gotten really loud. Fortunately, my next teacher put the same idea in different words, and this time it actually worked its way through my thick skull. She said to sing through my scales for 20 minutes a day without judging myself. Like every good student, I did what I was told. But boy, was it hard.

I didn’t realize what a constant companion that little devil had become! I felt lonely without him telling me how much my high notes sucked and how I couldn’t possibly call myself a professional singer because I couldn’t sing more than two words without gasping for breath. But the more I worked at it, the easier it got. And contrary to what my logical mind had been telling me for years, the more I experienced my singing and the less I judged it, the better it got. And that is when I learned that freeing ourselves from our negative thoughts about our voices is a crucial step.

Tips for Changing Mental Habits

Want to know how to stop thinking those judgmental, biased, negative, hateful, and spiteful thoughts? There are two main ways to silence that little devil on your shoulder. (No, homicide isn’t one of them.) Some people use Idea One. Some people use Idea Two. Others use both. Experiment to figure out what works for you. And then remember to make it into a habit, whether you are practicing your pitch to your boss about how you deserve a 100% raise because you are so awesome, sight-reading repertoire with your coach, or wondering what the heck your colleague is saying during your big presentation to win the ad campaign because that is certainly NOT what you rehearsed.

Idea One:

Focus on your physical sensations when singing or speaking. Pay attention to what the muscles in your body are doing. Begin by feeling the sensations in one particular region of your body, then think about each of the other regions in turn: abdomen, back, chest, shoulders, neck, face. (More details on muscle sensations later, but this is a good starting point for this exercise.) What are the muscles in one group doing and how do they feel? Tight, slack, relaxed, tense, working hard, unengaged, lazy, overachieving? Try moving one or several of the muscles differently, and pay attention to the changes in the sensations. Trust your body. There is a difference between pain and an unfamiliar sensation. Pain is not a good sign. In fact, if something is physically painful, by all means, stop! But an unfamiliar sensation is not the same thing. Work with it awhile until you have a sense of whether it is helping you accomplish your overall goal of creating your voice.

Idea Two:

Substitute “same” for “good” and “different” for “bad.” So often, we trap ourselves by making value judgments instead of making assessments. If I think I made a “good” sound (e.g., warm, beautiful, pretty, floating, limpid, powerful, loud, soft), then I’ll be motivated to try again. But if I think I made a “bad” sound (e.g., ugly, harsh, sharp, flat, strident, white, limpid, powerful, loud, soft), then I don’t want to try again because I think I’m a failure. So give yourself permission to try again by assessing without judging.

Notice also that many of the adjectives I chose to list after the words “good” and “bad” were the same. People have a variety of tonal preferences, and the type of voice a person prefers certainly is an individual thing. There is nothing right or wrong about vocal preferences. In fact, our preferences are something we need to develop intentionally as we create our voices (more on that later, too). But what you like and what others like are not the same thing. For example, say you are a yoga instructor and have developed a soft, limpid, floating tone. Not only do you love your voice, but you get paid a gazillion dollars to do voice-overs on self-help meditation CD’s. But don’t expect that someone, say, looking for a singer with a strident, loud sound to head up a death metal band, is going to fall head over heels for your voice. There’s nothing “wrong” with either one. But if you jump off a cliff because Death Metal Band Guy didn’t hire you, then Houston, we have a problem.

Releasing Judgment

One of my clients, call her Angie, has an amazing voice. It’s beautiful, warm, rich, full, powerful, and loud. For years, she sang in a small church choir. And guess what. Yep, the director had a preference for light, limpid, floating voices. So what did Angie do? Like any team player, she tried to sing softer and softer to make her voice blend. Singing softly, especially on high notes, is just about the most difficult thing to figure out how to do. And unfortunately, Angie didn’t figure out how to sing softly in a way that felt good to her. When we met, her high notes felt tight and strained, if she could get them out at all. After several sessions with her, I realized that she had felt like a failure for years singing in that choir and trying to please a director who preferred a different vocal sound from hers. So when I suggested that she try substituting “same” for “good” and “different” for “bad,” it was though I had set her free from prison. What I actually did, you know, was give her a tool to free herself.

Changing habits takes time for all of us, but getting rid of that nasty little devil on your shoulder is worth the work. As you center yourself in your body, free yourself from your negative judgments, and turn your attention to experiencing your voice, it will respond by growing and developing in amazing ways.

Intentional Exhalation

Approximately one year ago, I completely changed my focus about breathing and air support for singing.

For years, I’d been completely caught up in what my body was doing as I was inhaling. Was my throat open? Was my body free? Did I get enough breath for this next phrase? No was usually the answer to all those questions.

In reality, I was tight. Constricted. Tied up in knots. My singing, my thoughts, my muscles, my singing were all caught.

The fact is, singing is an action that happens during exhalation. So, I began intentionally guiding the way my body was moving during the exhalation.

Put simply, an Intentional exhalation = Intentional singing.

This change in perspective is the best thing I’ve EVER done for my singing, so I’m sharing it with you.

Here are the basic steps in breathing and air support that I’ve used to create a more powerful and free vocal sound.

I encourage you to explore and play with these methods and to focus on the sensations. It’s your body, your voice, and your sound. So create something you love!

Intentional Exhalation Exercise

  • Purpose: to strengthen the abdominal muscles during exhalation AND to coordinate the even release and relaxation of those muscles during inhalation
    • Slow, deliberate muscular engagement towards the center of the body during exhalation
      • Shoulder blades move together evenly squeezing an imaginary pencil
      • Muscles in the front of the torso move evenly backwards towards the spine
      • Muscles in the back of the torso move evenly towards the front of the body
      • Muscles on both sides of the torso and ribs squeeze evenly towards each other
      • Front, back, and sides of the rib cage lift evenly off the pelvis
      • Collarbones pull gently back towards the spine and down away from ears
    • Inhalation is a release of every muscle you can feel or sense so that the air freely moves into the body
  • Keywords during inspiration are relax, let go, inflate, fill, float, enjoy, bouyant
    • Collarbones are free to move and lift towards the heavens
    • Ribs are free to expand outward from the center of the body
    • Release the muscles inside the lower abdomen, including the pelvic floor muscles

Do the intentional exhalation exercises for at least 5 minutes a day. Work silently at first, then add scales as you please. It’s tempting to focus on the sound as you’re learning what works for your voice and body. Please don’t! Instead, work to develop a deep awareness of the sensations during the intentional exhalation with even, coordinated movements of the body.

Neck Strengthening Exercises

Many of our problems in singing come from muscular imbalance. The muscles in the neck and collarbones are often neglected, yet their ability to contract and relax in a coordinated fashion is directly related to producing a free vocal tone.

Here are a series of exercises that, when executed properly, will ease tension in the neck and shoulders and release the muscular tension blocking your beautiful voice.

Neck exercises*

  • Purpose: to strengthen, stretch, and balance right-left and front-back neck muscles
    • Exhale and engage/stretch muscles while moving head
        • forward (push head out like a turtle, face level)
        • back (push head back on neck and go for a double or a triple chin)
        • up (face towards heavens)
        • down (chin to chest)
        • Look over Right shoulder (eyes, ears, and chin level)
        • Look over Left shoulder (eyes, ears, and chin level)
        • R ear to shoulder, turn L palm up to heavens to gently increase stretch
        • L ear to shoulder, turning R palm as desired to increase stretch
    • Inhale and release/relax muscles as head returns to center
    • General notes:
      • Repeat each pair of exercises 3-5 times
      • Pelvis remains level
      • Lower spine and torso remain stable and centered
      • Before each movement, traction the upper spine to add as much vertical space between vertebrae as possible
      • Keep shoulder blades squeezing gently together during each exhalation

*Thanks to my friend Avril Loy for sharing these exercises with me in yoga class.

singing, soft palate, music, voice

Soft Palate

Ah, the soft palate. That silly little thing that some voice teachers talk about incessantly and others never mention. I bet you’ve heard the instruction, “Lift the soft palate.” Or maybe someone told you to “raise your eyebrows” or to “lift the apples of your cheeks” or to “smile when you sing.” These are all good pieces of advice about how to move the soft palate. Good advice, that is, if you understand.

The soft palate is a muscle, which means that you may develop awareness of it and figure out how to move it in different ways as you sing. Just like all the muscles in your body, it needs to be flexible and strong. How do you know? Well, check in with the muscles in the rest of your body. Your soft palate likely will reflect the state of the rest of your muscles.

The good news is that you can bring all your muscles, including your soft palate, into balance if they are out of balance. The bad news is that you can’t easily see the palate or touch it, so you’ve got to train yourself to become aware of it.

As we’re first developing the ability to feel the soft palate, we can use other muscles we can see to move it. Try these exercises.

Exercise 1. Try singing in all parts of your range while lifting your
1. cheeks
2. eyebrows
3. corners of your mouth

Exercise 2. Now as you lift your cheeks, eyebrows, and/or the corners of your mouth, add these different movements into the mix. Don’t get stuck in any one of these positions. Instead, find the movement, flow, flexibility, and/or motion so that these things become activities instead of postures.
1. pull the tip of your nose down towards the ground
2. pucker your lips (like you’re making a kissy-face)
3. lift your nose away from the ground
4. stretch the inside back of your mouth in both directions towards your ears
5. channel the sound from between your eyes down your nose like it’s a slide

Why are there opposite instructions in the list? Well, because everyone is shaped a little differently, so what works for some people won’t work for others.

How do you know if it’s working? Ah, I thought you might ask. Here are a few descriptions that might point you in the right direction. Your voice rings, creating a thrilling sound in your body. The sound glides like a bird along the roof of your mouth. The voice plays in a dome or a hot air balloon. The sound shoots out of the top of your head like a star traveling towards the heavens. Tone spins within your head, a part of you yet not touching you.

There are as many different images for beautiful singing as there are voices on this earth. What’s your image?

learning to exhale, singing, breathing and air support for singing

Learning to Exhale

Learning to Exhale

I invite you to entertain a new perspective on breathing and air support for singing by learning to exhale.

How often do we hear instructions on how to breathe in voice lessons? “Lift your chest!” Expand your ribs!” “Open your throat!” What other common pieces of advice on breathing and support for singing have you heard?

Yet when do we learn about the physical process of exhalation? And who trains singers to use the body to exhale the air smoothly and efficiently?

Usually instructions about exhaling are tied up in other concerns. It’s a wonderful exercise in clarity to look specifically at the many ways the body moves during exhalation. Then we can correct imbalances and work towards coordination of the many muscles involved in exhaling.

learning to exhale, singing, breathing and air support for singingWhen we change our focus, however, we gain new insights. So I invite you to consider a fresh perspective on singing. Deepen your body awareness, improve your confidence, and free the expressive power of your voice by learning to exhale.

Check out a series of exercises to give you ideas about learning to exhale in this article.

This masterclass, Learning to Exhale, was first presented by Dr. Sarah Ellena Hogrefe in April 2015 in Pensacola, Florida, to students of Dasha Teelin Voice Studio.


Breathing IS Acting Workshop

Breathing IS Acting: Voice your magnificence!

Few actors tap into the tremendous power of the breath in their acting. The practical workshop Breathing IS Acting: Voice your magnificence! teaches you to understand and use the interplay between the two. You learn powerful breathing and voice techniques. You apply them immediately to your acting. You make choices with intention from your creative, intuitive self. Your acting gains depth and truth. You stand out in auditions and performances.

Saturday, September 13, 2014
9 am – noon
Best Western Atlanta Airport East

Space is limited, so reserve your spot now at World Oceans Breathing IS Acting

Bring your favorite monologue (prepared for performance) and a personal journal
It’s a workshop, so we’ll be working our bodies and our voices. Wear something you’re comfortable and you can work in.

Questions? Call me at 812-391-3337.

Dr. Sarah Ellena Hogrefe, operatic mezzo-soprano and singing actor, combines her 20 years performing experience and pedagogical knowledge of the voice and body in her dynamic teaching. She lives and breathes the philosophy that awareness is the key to transformation. As we observe the flow of the breath and voice into and out of the body, we can use their movements to intentionally create characters we experience and inhabit fully and deeply. In addition to her daily singing, teaching, and yoga practices, Sarah walks, hikes, cooks, and writes. Visit her at