The source of tension can come from anywhere.
Below is a series of exercises designed by acclaimed vocal coach Patsy Rodenburg to reduce tension in all areas so that you can have the best starting position from which to work every day.
During all physical exercises which follow, remember to breathe regularly. Breathing is the key to all voice work. All exercises should be gently worked enough. You should experience no stress, discomfort or effort in the exercises.
After each exercise release naturally, never controlling that release. You have nothing to prove or punish yourself over. Always do the work for yourself and in your time. I find that everyone must work at their own level and rhythm.
As you work regularly through these exercises you will gradually master and free yourself from a particular area of tension.
- Standing with feet comfortably apart, stretch your arms out to the sides. Generally stretch the body, arms above head. Shake out the body, shoulders, hips, legs, and feet.
- With arms down to your side, lift and drop the shoulders. Now circle them in the same direction.
- Circle the right arm clockwise, as if you are throwing a ball underarm. When you allow the arm to return to its resting place don’t place the shoulder but let it find its own natural position. Repeat with the left arm. Try this release with both arms. Let the swing go through the whole body (Remember always to take the whole body into account with each part of the exercise.) This should feel liberating as the tension to keep the arms and shoulders stiffly in place relaxes and as the arms find their natural position.
- Standing straight, hold your hands behind your back. Gently lift the arms away from your back and release. Again allow the shoulders to drop naturally and find their own position.
- Stand with your feet close together. Snake or undulate the spine; slowly at first. When you do this even for a few seconds you begin actually to feel your spine for the first time. It is like a coiled spring rather than a rigid pole. You will also feel tension unlocking as you gently do this movement.
- Now, with your feet wider apart and under your hips, let the spine slump, then gently, from the centre of the stomach, lift up through the spine. Try this sitting cross-legged on the floor. In this sitting position, you will feel the spine better. You will feel as you move from a slumped position into the very rigid pulled up the position of the spine how difficult it is to breathe. You might also experience the spine’s central position- a position of ease and balance. What you’re aiming for is this balance between a slump and rigid place.
- Down on your hands and knees, “hollow” (drop) and “hump” (raise) through the spine. The more you keep your spine active and warm the more you’ll stay connected to your whole body.
Back of Rib-Cage and Upper Chest
- Hug yourself with arms crisscrossed and reaching for the shoulder blades, but tenderly, not with a rough grip. Keep the shoulders released in this hold; neither tense nor bunch them. Keep your feet apart beneath the hips and parallel with one another.
- Bend the knees gradually and, still hugging yourself, flop over from the waist. Breathe in deeply. You should feel the back open.
- Still, in this position, take several unrushed breaths. Let the arms drop down and slowly come up through the spine. Once again, do not place the shoulders but let them find their natural position.
- As you come up, be aware not to hoist yourself into place by lifting the upper chest. If this happens, place your hands there to still it.
- Stand centred and open your arms out in a welcoming embrace. Feel the energy flow through your arms. In this position, drop the shoulders. Then allow the arms to return to your side. The upper chest should feel very open and there should be a sensation of breath going into the back.
Neck and Head Position
- Let the head drop down until your chin touches your chest. Keep the jaw free. Using your hands, massage the back of your neck. As you do this don’t tighten your shoulders.
- Swing the head gently across the chest from one shoulder to the other.
- Lift your head until you feel it balanced on top of your spine, neither tucked nor pushed forward. A good check is, if you put your hand on your throat it will feel open and free of tension. To check for this, pull your head off balance and you feel the tension in your throat.
- Let your head gently fall back, jaw free. Then lift it until you feel it balanced at the top of the spine. Then let it drop from one side to the other.
- Gently rotate your head and circle the shoulders simultaneously.
- Always treat the jaw gently. It is the physical mechanism which you can most easily damage. Keep the jaw movement circular, moving the whole facial area in a chewing action rather than swinging the jaw from side to side. Bunch up the face and release. When you release the face, let the muscles find their own position. Don’t replace them. Do this several times.
- Massage the face and the jaw hinges by the ears.
- Smile and open the jaw with the smile in place to a drop that will accommodate the width of two fingers.
- Chew around for 10 seconds.
- With the jaw open, stretch out the tongue and flatten it against your chin. Let the tongue then slide back into your mouth. Repeat several times.
- Work barefoot or with light shoes that enable you to feel the floor.
- Place the ball of the foot on the floor and rotate first one ankle and then the other.
- Plant both feet firmly on the floor. Pitch yourself a bit forward and feel slightly more weight on the balls of the feet and the big toe, not on the heels or the side of the foot.
- Stand in place and gently bounce the knees. When you return to stillness don’t lock them or freeze them in tension. The feet and knees are vital to feeling a state-of-a-readiness position. In stillness, you should feel ready literally to spring into action from the knees.
Stomach and Thighs
- Here is one very simple exercise. Stand with your feet wide apart for good support and parallel with one another. Keeping your spine up, bend your knees. Place your hand just above the groin and breathe in enough to move your hand. Stay there for at least five breaths. When you stand up, don’t lock the stomach or clamp the thighs.
Once you have done this general stretch warm-up a few times and it becomes a familiar routine, it should take only about five minutes to complete.
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The Actor Speaks, Patsy Rodenburg, 2000