Translating Imagery into the Language of Body Mapping

Melissa Malde, DMA, Assistant Professor of Voice and Vocal Pedagogy, University of Northern Colorado School of Music and Certified Andover Educator

Many of us teach voice students using imagery. We ask them to ‘place the tone in the mask’ or to “drink in the breath.” These images are not based on anatomy and physiology. Some images work well for some students, but in others they can lead to misconceptions that compromise efficiency and inhibit ease of production.

All teachers know that what we say and what our students hear can be dramatically different things. Translating these images into factual descriptions of movement will help diminish this gap. We can guide students to visualize and refine the movement that leads to the desired sound. This is the power of Body Mapping: If we have a detailed map (or internal representation) of how we are built and how we function, we can bring our entire instrument (the body) into our awareness and learn to sense the difference between adequate, appropriate effort and excess, tension-causing effort.

Taking one of the examples above we can see the power of Body Mapping. When we instruct a student to “drink in” the breath, we might intend for the student to take in a flowing breath and feel the effects down to the abdominal region. Some students might understand this intuitively. However, some might equate breathing with the act of swallowing, which opposes the act of singing.

When we drink, the pharyngeal muscles contract in sequence from top to bottom, guiding the liquid into the esophagus, aided by contraction of the tongue. As the tongue contracts, it pulls up on the larynx. Muscles controlling the epiglottis contract, pulling the epiglottis over the larynx to prevent the liquid from entering the trachea. The esophagus, which is made of muscle, contracts and the liquid is pushed down past the diaphragm into the stomach.

Once this process is clearly described, it is obvious that it has nothing to do with singing. The muscles of the pharynx, tongue and esophagus are passive during a singing breath and release to provide maximum passage for the incoming air. The larynx remains low and the glottis opens wide. A vacuum is created in the thoracic cavity by the action of the diaphragm and intercostal muscles. Air rushes in through the trachea to the lungs in order to equalize the pressure. The trachea is made of cartilage and thus provides a clear passage for air without any effort. The lungs are organs, which effortlessly expand and contract to fill the thoracic cavity. The only movement involving the stomach is the downward pressure on all the organs exerted by the contracting diaphragm.

Using anatomical pictures and models, we may help a student to refine and deepen her body map of the structure and movement of breathing. Once correctly mapped, breathing may occur with appropriate effort, unhampered by misconceptions.
This presentation will translate many of the prevalent images used in teaching voice into the language of Body Mapping, portraying the perils and profits that might arise.

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