Friday, October 2, 2009

Still Trying to Get to Bottom of the Role of the Abs During Support

The thread on my NFCS (New Forum for Classical Singing) message board where they are talking about whether to hold the abs in while taking a breath to start to sing has been on my mind a lot and provoked me to do some further exploration and thinking. These ideas of mine here about how the ab muscles are used during inspiration for singing are a "work in progress." I posted a big long post on the NFCS message board, and worked hard on that post, but because I'm not sure if anyone is going to see it or read it (since they are kind of moving on to a new topic now), I thought that I would post my writing here as well. If you want to see the discussion on the abs, it is here at NFCS, a thread titled "TS - What is your view on support?"

So, what follows here is Frescamari's post from that discussion entitled "Muscles are so complex, and there are so many ways to keep them in a state of activation"

What I have written here is meant to be a kind of reply to your concern about muscle fatigue, but also serve the purpose of a more general reply to the entire discussion going on in this thread.

I have a keen interest in this subject and have been following this thread very intensely. It has been fantastic because it stimulates me to understand more why I choose what I choose.

I have chosen, as I wrote in a post above, to keep the muscles in an active and engaged state while taking a breath in, as part of my support for my singing. The reasons I gave above were because I felt it was part of pre-loading the muscles, getting them ready and "primed" for the support activity and application of breath pressure they would be recruited for.

I compared it to the way an athlete will have engaged muscles before springing into their routine. Sprinters do it. They don't start from a relaxed state, but pre-load the muscles and get them poised for action.

There might be some confusion about this because there are so many ways the ab muscles can "contract," and they can be partially contracted or more fully contracted.

One word that some people have been using in the thread is "tensing" the muscles and I don't think "tensing" is a word that is good to use about this kind of loading of the ab muscles because it's not exactly the kind of action that is occurring. The kind of engagement, or activation of the muscle can be very supple and flexible. Muscles can be in a state of engagement without being tense, and their ability to remain engaged for longer and longer periods without fatiguing can be developed.

Yes, in the beginning, especially if it is a person like me, who had VERY weak and underdeveloped core muscles, the process of engaging those muscles might be fatiguing. But over time, when the muscles become healthier, stronger, more flexible, responsive, and more adept at their task, ultimately they will become more efficient tools, and develop a more efficient way of working that will put out more for less effort. There might be a period of time where they will feel like they are working harder because they might not be used to behaving in the way they are being asked to behave, and the muscles have a learning curve. Once you show them what you want of them, the muscles have a way of figuring out how to perform the task in a more efficient manner, so you don't 'have to work as hard.

As I go about my day and have been thinking of all the things people are writing in this thread, I felt that to support (ha ha "support") what I believe about this, I might have to read more about how muscles behave. I have been reading a little, and my knowledge is so sketchy, so lacking in thoroughness, that I still would not be able to explain adequately. I would have to be a scientist to really get it (and singers do NOT, as Susan mentions above, have to be scientists and understand how muscles work in order to train and develop the strength and endurance of the muscles). But one might have to become a scientist in order to get past a block about what seems to be a contradiction. (That's what I have to do)

However, in my attempt to try to understand more deeply why I am able to take a breath while my lower abs are engaged, and still not be tense (and the glottis DOES NOT close when I do this), I have been looking up articles.

Here is one I found, an abstract from a respiratory professional publication (not the whole article) called "The behaviour of the abdominal muscles during inspiratory mechanical loading," (Martin JG, De Trover, A., Respir.Physiol. 1982 Oct;50 (1):63-73)

In the abstract they conclude "that abdominal muscle recruitment during inspiratory mechanical loading may facilitate inspiration by increasing diaphragmatic length."

Hmmm, that sounds so interesting and pertinent to the discussion. Here's a link to the abstract: (Behaviour of ab muscles)

I have also been reading about the role the muscles play in stabilizing the body during ordinary standing and maintaining posture. I found out there's a lot of people measuring and studying how the abdominal muscles are engaged while standing, and while standing and during inspiration and expiration.

It seems in order to stand up we have to have somewhat of an engagement of muscles. And we can stand for long periods of time. It's true that we do fatigue the muscles while we are standing, but the fact that we can do it for such a long time is kind of amazing. The muscles are able to remain in a state of "tonic activity" (whatever that means; I read it in one of the abstracts) while we are standing or sitting there. They are not completely limp and passive and they can go for long periods of time.

Another thing I found interesting while looking around was that there are a number of different kind of contractions, and here is where I think there is confusion as singers try to describe how they are using these muscles of support.

The four kinds of muscle contractions (at least in the article I read, and God knows there is probably more) are concentric, eccentric, isometric, and passive stretch. Here's a page that explains this: (Muscle Physiology: Types of Contractions)

When we are talking in this thread about "pulling in the abs," it can be confusing because we may be talking about an isometric contraction or something like that, but for lack of better vocabulary we are saying "pulling in the abs" or "tensing" instead of really getting to the bottom of what the muscles are actually doing.

Finally, there is the matter of the activation of the deep muscles. Sometimes when we are trying to "do something" with our abs when we are singing, we are using superficial muscles, and maybe we have to because the deeper trunk muscles are not developed because they have not been ask to handle tasks of deeper strength and stabilizing. I read in another article in my travels (sorry, do not have link) that something about trunk muscle forces and internal loads that stabilize us as we're engaging in activity.

This is where we get to the part that Susan talks about. DOING it. These muscles get developed. Sometimes the more intrinsic musculature is not accessed until sufficient activation and recruitment has occurred. We don't feel anything there because they are kind of "silent" until they become stronger and more developed.

When presented with seemingly contradictory approaches, which one the singer adopts CAN matter a lot because it could mean the difference between the muscles developing in the specific way they need to for the task. All the more do the TEACHERS of singing need to understand and get to the bottom of this, because singers who want to develop themselves pay for instruction on how to best get there and expect the teachers to know about what they are doing.

No need for too much fear though, unless you are in a hurry for a spscific kind of career path. I did not approach singing in a way that developed me correctly (on many fronts), and now have been able to begin to develop at a really late date.

I know this is a long post, and congratulations to anyone who has gotten this far. I hope I haven't taken up too long a portion of your morning/afternoon/evening. happy.gif

I have merely brushed on some deeper questions about this topic. What I hope to achieve with this post is to provoke people who are personally attached to one view or the other to realize that our first thoughts about it might not always be what we think they are, and to defend one WAY or another without flexibility and an open mind MAY cause a person to miss out on something that could really help them become a better singer.

Also, while we "discuss" and "argue" about the topic, the reasons why we want to know should be kept in mind all the time. Ultimately, we want to be able to have creative freedom for expression with our voices. Any techniques or methods to develop ourselves are with that end in mind, and whatever theory one is attaching one's self to must serve that end goal. If the end goal is not being achieved, then it can be good to question one's attachments.

The reason I care so passionately about this is because the underdevelopment of my support system and my lack of knowledge about how to get developed was part of why I did not develop my voice properly while I was younger.

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