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Pilates and the Voice

Margi Sharp Douglas, shown here performing in in Magis Theatre Company’s production of “Great Divorce,” is also owner of Pilates Garage in Brooklyn, New York. Below she details how she was able to incorporate a vocal warmup in her Pilates work.

Pilates Garage Owner Margi Sharp Douglas performs in Magis Theatre Company's production of "Great Divorce"As a professional actor and Pilates instructor, over the last couple of years I have worked to integrate Pilates technique into a voice and body warm up for the stage.  Working with fellow Columbia MFA acting graduates, along with some adjustments given by Alexander teachers and less traditional Pilates masters in New York, I developed a “Voice and Pilates” series that has become a staple of Magis Theatre Company’s weekly actor training in NYC.

The goal of the workshop is to create core awareness and strength for the actor in movement, while maintaining an open throat, spontaneous breath and a resonant sound to stay safely and vocally connected, in even the most physically challenging role.

Recently, I teamed up with master Pilates teacher Joan Murray, who had been instructing singers in the Opera Masters Program at Julliard. She discovered that she could help them most by first freeing the musculature of the head, neck and shoulders. Then, she worked with them to strengthen all the core stabilizers in an isometric way, so as to prevent the abdominals from being too short to allow the diaphragm to expand. Her results helped one singer become a Metropolitan Opera Competition finalist in 2007.

We found our goals were very similar and we began doing workshops for singers and actors or anyone who wanted to do Pilates with less tension in the head and neck and walk out with a more open, free sound in their voices.

The exercises below were developed by Joan and myself separately and put together in a series for our workshops. The initial focus is on subtracting external tension and opening up the resonating chambers of the body for a deeper, resonant voice. The work then progresses toward finding core awareness and stability in connection with making sound. And finally, the mover is challenged to work through vigorous choreography combined with simple vocalizations.

Voice and Pilates Exercises:

1.Breathing Prone on Squishy Ball: Lay on your stomach placing a deflated ball under the CPR point at the base of the ribs, hands resting under the shoulders. Breathe very deeply allowing the breath to expand the back ribs. With each exhalation, allow the shoulders and neck release toward the floor.

2. Tapping into Movement of Diaphragm:
Lie in rest position, knees bent, feet flat and squishy ball underneath the head. Hands rest on the low belly, elbows bent. Without changing your rhythm, begin to take note of the breath dropping down filling your hands and then falling back out as air passes through your lips. Wet your lips and then part them slightly open. Feel the air’s coolness as it comes in, and the warmth as it falls back out. Stay with this for a few natural breaths. Now play with suspending the breath: exhale and stay quiet in your center. Listen internally for the need for breath and then soften your belly to let the new breath drop in. Notice how your body reacts to the impulse to take a breath, how the cylinder of your torso opens and expands in two directions as the diaphragm drops and the lungs fill. Stay with this exploration for 3-5 minutes.

3. Nose Circles: Lie on your back with the ball under the heaviest place of the skull. Begin by nodding the head “yes” several times, stretching the back neck muscles. Then imagine you could draw a circle on the ceiling with your nose. Start with tiny circles clockwise and allow them to grow bigger. Reverse directions. End by making figure 8s with the nose.

4. Arm Circles:
Shift the ball to lie on it so it touches between the shoulder blades, knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Reach the fingertips toward the ceiling. Allow the front of the chest to feel wide and open. Circle the arm bones down toward the hips, out to the side and back up to the beginning position. Hold the ball still the whole time.

5. Heel Slides: Leaving the ball under the upper back and between the shoulder blades, flex the right foot and slide the leg long down the mat. Inhale and use the exhale to bring the leg back to the beginning position. Switch sides. With each exhalation, draw the abdominals deeply toward the spine. Feel a line of force from the breast bone through the ball.

6. Bridging Against Wall: Lie on the back and place feet against wall, parallel and hip distance apart. Staying with a natural breathing rhythm, slowly transfer the weight of your pelvis into your feet. Starting from your tail, peel your spine off of the floor one vertebrae at a time until you reach the base of your shoulder blades. Stay for two breaths and then articulate back down. Repeat 3 times.
* Cues/Voice Specific Directions: At start, think of pooling your energy into your feet. Allow the backs of the legs or hamstrings to hug your thigh bones and pull long into your feet. Allow your back to widen and front to soften. As you peel up think of slipping the skin of your buttocks long to your feet until the pelvis and lower spine begin to float off of the floor. Avoid compression of the spine. Check that your hip flexors (the muscles in your front hip creases) are not working. The tilt of the pelvis and subtle flex of the spine are coming from the hamstrings pulling the back long and the breath opening the back rather than from shortening the abdominals or thigh muscles in the front. It is important as the goal is to open the voice, to keep the diaphragm freely moving – easy breaths out and in, all the way down into bowl of pelvis – try to melt tension away in the upper body or neck by softening the jaw and base of tongue in throat. Keep watering the molars and the back of your mouth.)
* Adding sound: Continue same bridging pattern and begin to stir a hum around inside the mouth. Let the hum buzz your lips, facial bones, chest and belly. Play with different pitches and lengths of suspension. Repeat bridge with hum 5-6 reps.

7. Toe Taps: Stay lying on the back, ball under the tailbone. Bring the knees into table top. Use your exhalation to draw the abdominals deeply toward the spine. Imagine there is a stake pressing you into the ball. Keep the pelvis and ball still as you tap the toes of one foot to the floor, then switch.

8. Side Lying Stretches: Lie on the right side with the ball under the waist. Bend the right knee toward the chest and stretch the left leg as far away from your center as possible. Allow the hip to pull away from the ribcage. Stretch the left arm overhead and breath into your side ribs. Activate your right obliques to support you off the ball. Switch sides.

9. Mini Roll Down with Sound: Sitting up with good posture, knees bent, feet flat down in front of you. Hold onto the backs of your thighs with your hands. Inhale, lengthening up along your spine. As you exhale, curl lower back under and roll down to base of ribs. Stay there holding onto your thighs, inhale and then open the mouth and exhale a slow, whispered “AH” as you roll back up to sitting. Repeat 5-8 reps.
* Cues/Voice Directions: See beginning breath pull into back body and send energy up along the spine. Let the first exhale be a pure, soft sigh, jaw dropped open, abdominals yielding back as you curl your tail under. At bottom of curl, wait for that natural breath to drop back in filling you from top to bottom. Then on the roll up, allow the breath to fall out on a long mummy sigh – jaw dropped, neck long and soft. Picture this wide whispered AH emanating from your low belly and flying freely out of your cheekbones, eyes and temple. Try not to push down on the lungs or compress the throat. Use the energy of your spine and the aid of your hands holding the thighs to make this look and feel almost effortless. A slight smile on the face will help!
* Adding Sound: Try substituting a raspberry – blowing air rapidly through closed lips (instead of the whispered AHH) on the way up. Try with pure breath or experiment with different pitches.

10. Modified Tree With Sound: Take the mini roll down a step further. From a seated position, take hold of the back of one (bent) leg and pick the foot up off the floor. Keep the leg bent. Let the other leg lengthen long on the floor and strongly flex the heel so the back of the leg is anchoring down. Roll all the way down onto your back, pushing the raised leg against your hands to help you sequence smoothly through your spine until your head is on the floor. Extend bent leg long to the ceiling and flex and point the foot three times. Yawn the throat open and imagine you are yawning through the sole of your foot. Next take an inhale, nod and curl your head forward, and then climb your leg with your hands all the way back up to sitting with a vigorous blow through your lips or raspberry. Try to keep both legs long and straight on the way up or modify by bending gesture leg at top. The hands will climb up all the way to the ankle if the leg is straight or stay resting just below the knee if the leg is modified. At top, drop your head over either bent or straight leg. Completely relax jaw and throat. Using hands, gently rock the passive gesture leg side to side as you keep the pelvis grounded and let a hum emanate from your hip socket all the way out through your lips. Think of stirring the hip socket with the sound and movement. Let both hips sit heavy, but particularly the side you are stretching. Then inhale, tip pelvis under and roll back down. If leg is straight, flex foot strongly to ceiling, and walk hands down your leg. On the way back send out a voiced sigh of relief from your soft center: HUH. Repeat the yawns through the foot at the bottom and travel back up leg on raspberry. Each time rocking leg in hip socket and humming out sound at top seated position. Take entire sequence three times on each side and then lay in rest position reconnecting with the natural rhythm of your breath to finish.

11. Hamstring Stretch with Yoga Strap: Lie on your back and put the right foot up in a Yoga strap. Rest the elbows at your sides. Keeping the pelvis still with your abdominal strength, stretch the hamstring by pulling the leg toward you. Repeat on the other side. Finish by shaking both legs vigorously up to the ceiling. Send first a hmmm of sound down through the leg bones and up through the soles of your feet to the ceiling, and then open your mouth into the wide AH position and let sound fly out from your belly through the soles of your shaking feet. Let the legs do the work and keep your belly soft and receptive to the vibrations pouring through you.

12. Sounding Your Series of 5: (Note: It is important to keep the neck/throat as free as possible even in the nod and curl position of many of these exercises…be sure to take rests for the neck, releasing it down or let the head stay down for entire series if necessary. As our goal is speaking/singing AND fitness we want to maintain the ability to emit sound easily from an open throat at all times.)
* Single Leg Stretch: Bend right knee and take hold of it with left hand. Take right hand on right ankle. Elbows wide, shoulders easy. Stretch left leg out long at 45 degree angle. Nod and curl head up. On an exhale, begin to alternate legs stretching in and out. The arms will change with the legs so that opposite hand always takes the opposite knee. Adding Sound: Blow through lips at gravity point, or as knee pulls in toward your belly. Let air fall back in (inhale) during switch to next leg and repeat blow through lips as next knee comes in. You need to vigorously blow through the lips so the air rushes back in on the change and is free to fall back out on the next pull in. Try on pure breath or add pitch. Find your own tempo. 6-8 reps.
* Double Leg Stretch: Begin with both hands on both shins, knees folded in like table top legs and head curled up – You are curled in like a little ball. Air drops in to your back lungs as Arms reach up and back on diagonal and legs extend either straight up or out to 45 degree angle (modify for your back and fitness level). Make sure to keep your lower back stable and heavy. Then Circle arms around, bend knees and pull them into your chest. and melt your hip sockets. Adding Sound: At the gravity point as center softens in and hips stretch, drop out a “HUH” from open released throat. 6-8 reps. (Note: Allow the sound to drop out as a result of the movement – try not to muscle the sound from the front of your throat – it should feel like a release rather than a push of effort.)
* Scissors: Yawn your right leg long to the ceiling and place both hands behind the leg. Use the hands to help you plug the thighbone into the pelvis and at the same time reach your energy up through the heel toward the ceiling. Nod and curl head forward and lift the back of the heart up toward the ceiling as you climb your hands toward the calf or ankle. Now extend the other leg out at 45 degrees. Keep upper body and head suspended in curl and begin to alternate legs, scissoring them back and forth. Adding Sound: Breath drops into the body as the legs pass each other in suspension, and sound falls out as a blow through lips at gravity point as you catch the next leg and pull it gently toward your head with the hands. Use the sinking of your thighbone into your pelvis on the pull to help you emit vibrate the sound from your hip sockets. 6-8 reps.
* Double Leg Lower and Lift: Place hands underneath the lower spine toward tail bone. Bring legs up into a diamond shape – heels together, toes apart, knees open in external rotation (think feet open like a ballerina). Lower and lift the diamond shape while you keep the lower back heavy and the spine stable. Keep the movement very small – maximum lower point is 45 degrees. Work for a soft and subtle deepening of the lower abs rather than bunching or shortening around the groin. Look for an easy glide of the thigh bone in the hip socket. Adding Sound: Find a gentle “huh” sound falling out at the top, just as legs return over the hip sockets. (Note: Head can stay down or curl up – find the position for you of least stress on the neck muscles. If the head is up think of spilling the weight down through the front of your spine and use the inhale breath in your upper back and ribs to help you open the top of your lungs as you challenge your low core support.)
* Series Pause: Take one or two banana stretches. Clasp the hands together and reach them overhead. Roll to your side and open the body into a banana shape extending and twisting the spine. To transition to other side, curve head, arms and tail toward each other as your roll to center like you are a little ball and then unfold to the other side. Try to find more space in your intercostals (muscles between your ribs). Stretch the oblique (your twisting side ab muscles) as long as you can. Take big breaths in and out through your side body. Yawn and open the soft palate.
* Criss-Cross: Now keep that long suspended feeling in your sides and place hands behind your head. Nod and curl the head up, legs come into table-top position. As you pull the air into your sides and stretch your lungs, twist left elbow to right knee and stretch right elbow back following the elbow with your gaze. Then come back to center nod and curl position and repeat twist to other side. Pelvis stays grounded. Now add the legs in a bicycle moving in opposition to the arms so as you are twisting right your right knee bends in and your left leg stretches out. Repeat 4 or 5 sets. Adding Sound: As you bring body back to center in deep curl, pause and release sound on a HUH. Each time, inhale on twist, yawning breath in to side, armpit area of your lungs, and let “HUH” drop out as you return to center.
* Dessert: Lay flat and return to natural breath cycle. Take several big belly breaths – letting the belly fill with air and then drop away. Place hands on belly and feel the energy of your center subtle, warm and present under your palms.

13. Plank with Knee Drops:
Kneeling on all fours, place the forearms on the mat with the hands in a fist. Step the legs back until you are in a flat plank. Gather your waistline in. Drop one knee at a time, alternating knees. Do a total of 20 knees.

14. Child’s Pose From Plank: Rest your knees down and round your lower back and bottom back over your heels to sit in child’s pose. Breathe into the bottom of your lungs and feel the diaphragm massage down your lower back all the way into your pelvic floor. Notice the belly and back expanding as breath flows in and the natural softening as it drops out. Feel your whole spine from head to tail, contract and expand like a slinky subtly shimmering over your legs. Bring your hands back underneath your forehead and send humming vibrations down through your palms into the floor. Play with singing a song or speaking a line of text in this position.

15. Sounding Your Finish: Keep sound, breath and vibrations flowing along your spine and out from your center as you slowly roll yourself back into a squat – letting pelvic floor open up. Stay here and play with a hum or blowing through lips or try HUH on different pitches – make it playful. Ease your legs up toward straight and keep the head hanging forward. Then slowly roll up stacking the spine up one vertebra at a time over grounded feet. Play with humming on different pitches buzzing your spine, and softening for new breaths to drop in. Let the head float back up on top of the spine and find your self standing. Open your gaze fully and think of radiating sound and presence through your eyes, cheek bones and forehead. Face muscles released, jaw and lips easy. Blow bubbles through your lips and send the sound down your body from top to toe. Open your mouth into an “AH” and jump the sound up and down your spine springing on your feet. Now let that all go…stand quiet and feel the energy running through your whole body… you are ready to perform!

Posted on Friday, June 8, 2007 at 12:16PM by Registered CommenterJessica Cassity in | Comments2 Comments

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Reader Comments (2)

Thank you for this wonderful article! A few years ago I started taking vocal lessons and I must say...It was really difficult!
Both breathing patterns have differing purposes and circumstances, therefore their process is not alike. Each one of them have a unique approach to it. But...what happens when we get used to one?
If we train our bodies in a single breath gesture this becomes a dominant pattern. Then all the structures and muscles involved in this gesture will be somehow affected by it, wheter it is by rigidity or hypertonicity. I always try to include in my classes a moment to work on dissimilar ways of breathing besides our posterior-lateral Pilates' pattern in order to improve:
- flexibility at the ribcage level
- mobility of the costovertebral joints
- flexibility of the great muscles of the thorax
- especially stretching exercises or postures referring to the diafragm.
I usually dedicate quite a few minutes to guide the class to explore and experience either:
- diafragmatic or costal inhalation
- diafragmatic or costal exhalation
- (upper or lower, anterior or posterior)
- rithms and volumes of breath.
- the combination of breathing movements
Beath and emotions are intertwined so this works wonderfully as it also leads them towards relaxation. Something we could all use in our fast pace world we live in.

March 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAna Cardozo

Great article--when next in NY I hope to investigate this studio. As a young singer, I've spent much time in alexander lessons, yoga class, rolfing, massage fitzmaurice voice workshops etc. to try and attain that full bodied singing...

I did some pilates (probably awfully) in High school, however, I had a scoliolsis operation at 13 and now have 2 rods in my back....so upon starting my alexander training, I ditched pilates---found it way too stressful on my neck.

But this has me intrigued---could some specify what the CPR point is? IS this the axis but on the back side of the head? Also, what kind of ball--squishy? What size etc...

Many thanks!

June 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterZerbinetta

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