Sustainable Sound (Part 1)

Sustainable Sound (Part 1)

Some “notes” on endurance through core stability

    The more I listen to choirs perform from within and from an audience perspective, the more I realize that endurance is an underrated quality as a choral singer: from the world’s longest fermata at every cadence to the challenges of standing and singing through a two and a half hour performance of Handel’s Messiah. What does it take to be a “good” chorister and outlast these kinds of challenges?
I want to explore how understanding the anatomy of your instrument can help you sustain your sound effectively.

          At the note level, sustaining is achieved by controlled expiration. Contrary to popular belief this is not a direct result of sole focus on contraction or control of the diaphragm, so thinking about using your diaphragm in this instance likely isn’t going to do you much good (not to say your diaphragm isn’t important, just as more of a passive player).


          There are actually two components that contribute to a singer’s ability to hold a note for a long duration: core stability and support of the breath (which will be spoken to in part 2). The core stability is provided by postural muscles running along the length of the spinal column (from base of skull to “tail bone” or coccyx) and the rectus abdominis (or six-pack muscle). We spoke about the importance of this core stability when we discussed squatting earlier.

          An interesting thing you can try to keep a note going that extra little bit, is to straighten out the spine and raise the chest slightly as you feel you are running out of air. Why does this work? Because when we exhale, our ribcage compresses and the natural state of our lungs is deflated, so we have a lot of compressive forces working against us just wanting to get that air out. But, if you straighten out and up, you elevate your ribcage and stabilize the release of the air by a process called checking.

          Our bodies do this naturally in a smaller scale to avoid total collapse of our lungs from all the compressive forces. All that checking really is, is using the muscles of inspiration (that cause expansion to allow a breath in) to counteract the muscles of expiration (that cause compression). We can cheat the system by actively checking the compressive forces and allowing a slower more controlled release of air.


Try This: Standing up, take a deep breath in and breathe out forcefully on a “shh” sound ([∫] for those who know their IPA). Take note of how your ribcage naturally compresses and lowers, and your shoulders and upper spine probably compresses slightly as well. Let this happen and when you feel as though you are running out of air, raise your ribcage. A little extra air becomes available. Now when that surplus has expired, think of straightening your back as if it is being pulled up from the base of the skull by a hook. More air!

          As singer’s we often try and combat these compressive forces by actively staying tall, but even if we are trying to maintain posture, the compressive forces tend to win. So thinking up and out with your posture can cause the slightest difference and result in you finally making it to the end of that challenging phrase!


A little bonus: This theory can be used in reverse! Sitting down with your spine slightly slouched and elbows on a flat surface take as much of a deep breath in as you can. Hold it. Now, sit up and drop your hands to your sides: take more breath in. Hold it. Now, think of elongating your spine from its base to your skull: take more breath in. This is a little exercise that has many variations, that shows the importance of posture on getting the most out (or I guess…in) of each breath you take.

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