Voice teachers and singers understand that physical posture directly affects the quality of the singing voice. Posture is usually addressed in the first voice lesson, and in this age of more casual stances, singers typically need numerous reminders about this issue.
In my first years of voice teaching, I often noticed the slumped and rounded shoulders of my musical theatre singers. Their physicality could be fixed by suggestions such as “stand up straight,” “shoulders back,” and “keep the sternum lifted.” Proper alignment usually appeared, and overall singing ability improved.
Millennial Forward Head Posture
However, in the past few years, I realized that those suggestions of “shoulders back” were no longer completely effective. Although the shoulders moved back into alignment, the head was still jutting forward. To address this more forward head posture, I started using the phrase, “put your ears back over your shoulders.” This phrase worked! With this simple suggestion, singers were able to correct the alignment of their heads. And in most cases, the singing voice improved, especially in perceived ease and pitch accuracy of singing high notes. (Which is, of course, often a main goal for a musical theatre singer!) But I was baffled with this new and different posture of the millennial generation.
Searching for a Cause
I also had experienced a more forward head posture at one point of my singing career. Right after having my first child, I started to prepare for an upcoming vocal recital. When returning to my standard repertoire, I found that I could no longer produce my belt sound with the same ease and consistency. A “belter by birth,” I found this change in technique extremely troubling. After several weeks of no improvement, I flew up to New York to have a voice lesson with my teacher to see if she could help me. After hearing me sing, she told me to fix my posture. On cue, my shoulders rolled back into place. But apparently, my head did not. She adjusted that new physicality, and suddenly, I was able to belt again. Truly, an easy, quick, and physical adjustment was all it took. But we began discussing why my posture had changed, and decided it was most likely due to the fact that I spent most of my day looking down at my baby. Looking down as I held her. Looking down as I fed her. Looking down at her stroller. Problem solved! So, although I was aware of how to address the forward head posture of my musical theatre students, based on my own experience with the physicality, I was pretty sure that it was not caused by them looking down at their newborn children!
Around this time, an article was published in the Washington Post that addressed the exact phenomenon that I was seeing in the voice studio. They called it, “text neck,” which is defined by The Text-Neck institute as an “overuse syndrome involving the head, neck and shoulders, usually resulting from excessive strain on the spine from looking in a forward and downward position at any hand held mobile device…This can cause…breathing compromise, and much more.” To learn more about The Text Neck Institute, please visit text-neck.com, and to read the Washington Post article please see the following link: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/11/20/text-neck-is-becoming-an-epidemic-and-could-wreck-your-spine/
Although this article addressed the effect that society’s reliance on smartphones can have on the spine, it was the answer I was looking for to explain the forward head posture of my voice students. Problem solved! (Although I like to call it “text-head.”)
“Text-Neck” at The Voice Foundation
Recently, this issue was addressed at The Voice Foundation Symposium in Philadelphia in June 2016. (The Voice Foundation is “the world’s oldest and leading organization dedicated to voice research, medicine, science, and education.”) During the Vocal Pedagogy session of this symposium, S. Thomas Scott presented his research with male singers, finding that if their heads were in correct alignment, as compared to “text-neck” positioning, they self reported that they had a better ease of production, and generally, their resonance improved. (For more specific information, his oral presentation was titled, “The Effects of Tactile, Singer-Initiated Head and Neck Alignment on Postural, Acoustic, and Perceptual Measures of Male Singers.”)
Needless to say, I was thrilled to see that research on this topic confirmed what I was experiencing in my daily work in the voice studio, and was so relevant, practical, and up to date. Hopefully, there will be more!
What to DO about it?
As voice teachers and singers, it is important to understand what to do with this awareness and research on this forward head posture, especially since smartphones are most likely not going to lose their appeal and efficiency anytime soon. Adding the phrase “put your ears over your shoulders” may need to be added to the check-list of physical reminders voice teachers use, as common as “stand up straight.” And singers may need to consciously check the alignment of their heads before heading in to an audition, particularly after they kill time on their smartphones waiting for their audition appointment.
I first noticed this posture with my millennial voice students. However, all it takes is a quick look around a shopping mall or restaurant to see that text-head is not age-specific. (But first, you would need to put your smartphone down!)
P.S. Need more help finding musical theatre repertoire to sing? Check out all my professional repertoire guides here. – Kevin Michael Jones
Like Christianne Knauer Roll, I have found that head position can have a major impact on vocal efficiency and I’m ecstatic she put together this article.
It’s important to note that the study S. Thomas Scott presented found mixed results with participant preferences (they did not agree that the “fixed” head position created more vocal ease, but were divided half and half from what I remember), and found no statistically significant differences in acoustical data between conditions. I believe this is his first study in this area, so I suspect the small sample size (N = 15) and a few confounding variables unfortunately clouded the results of this particular study.
You will find in my dissertation that I submitted in May 2015, a complete 40+ page review of literature on this topic. I have done a great deal of empirical research on head position and singing. In fact, all but one of the studies S. Thomas Scott listed in his presentation were mine. I’m in the process of getting these studies published so that you all can have access to them. Last year, I presented at the Voice Foundation on the differences in head position and jaw opening with female singers between belt and legit as I have found, like Christianne, that head position can especially impact belting which requires a larger jaw opening and therefore slightly elevated head position in order to accommodate that jaw opening.
I’m also the first one to do studies on heel height and singing which is how I became interested in head position as 100% of the singers I have tested exhibited lowered head position as heel height increased. This year, I presented my dissertation data on that subject at Voice Foundation. The full dissertation is available on ProQuest if anyone is interested.
I wanted to throw this out there in case anyone wanted further information on the topic. I have spent the majority of my time researching this topic, so it is very important to me! If anyone has any questions, please feel free to contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I also hope others will continue to research and publish on this topic. Thank you, Christianne for this article!
Interesting piece, though I wasn’t surprised at your findings. Hunching over a computer all day can produce similar bad posture. A dance instructor used to tell us “ears over your shoulders over your hips over your heels” to remind us of proper alignment. When I applied that to singing, I was surprised to find that it worked there too (I was new to voice lessons at the time). As long as I remember that, especially after extended computer work, I’m better off.
Great article that makes so much sense. Osteoporosis can affect women going through menopause as the body stops producing calcium and one’s bones are weakened, allowing poor posture to increase the effects of this disease. Although not easy to do and requiring a concerted effort, I have begun holding my phone at eye level rather than waist level. Not always practical, but it forces the head into a better posture.