This Vocal Technique Tuesday post was written by MTR guest contributor, Christianne Roll (Assistant Professor of Musical Theatre & Musical Theatre Program Co-ordinator at Florida Southern College).
Every fall semester, I teach a course for my incoming musical theatre majors called, “Vocal Technique.” (Occasionally sharing the discoveries of this course seems fitting for “Vocal Technique Tuesday.”) The course addresses the basics of vocal technique in a group setting so that ideally, every singer will have the same understanding of their vocal instrument, regardless of their knowledge prior to entering college. This vocal understanding will hopefully inform their work in private voice lessons during their remaining semesters and beyond.
The main areas of study are, of course, breathing, phonation, resonance, and articulation. During the last day of class, the students are asked to do group presentations that showcase what they learned throughout the semester. This year, the group presentations included a clever “The Office” spoof, a Calvin Harris-esque song complete with DJ sound equipment, and a rewrite of Hamilton’s “Schuyler Sisters.” But what was fascinating to me is that in each presentation, the students incorporated the words “intercostal muscles,” which were discussed during only one class.
The intercostal muscles are located between the ribs. According to James C. McKinney, author of one of my favorite resources, The Diagnosis & Correction of Vocal Faults, the external intercostal muscles engage during inhalation, and the internal intercostal muscles assist in exhalation. In other words, when the ribcage expands, with the help of the external intercostals, the lungs expand and air enters. When the ribcage contracts, with the help of the internal intercostals, the lungs return to their basic shape and air is released.
Although it seems obvious that the lungs, and therefore the ribcage, are involved with breathing for singing, this is new information to some singers. (The phrase “sing from your diaphragm” still seems to make its way into the psyche of young singers.) Based on the end of semester presentations, learning about the movement of the ribcage during the breathing cycle must have really left an impression with my musical theatre students.
I am pleased with this feedback because understanding and utilizing the movement of the ribcage during breathing can be particularly important for musical theatre performers due to an aspect of the art form: dancing. Musical theatre performers are typically moving or dancing while they are singing, and this requirement often goes hand in hand with formfitting costumes or leotards. In such costumes, singers may not be eager to release the lower abdominals for a breath, especially since that movement would be contrary to the typical tight core required for dancing. With this in mind, focusing on breathing exercises that encourage the movement of the ribcage may be a helpful resource for a musical theater performer.
Perhaps my students remembered the term intercostal, this “new” approach to breathing because it solved a problem they had been experiencing in their own performances. I hope that is the case, and I hope that they continue to look for solutions to manage their breathing in the future. And at the start of this New Year, thinking about breathing seems apropos. As long as it’s not “from the diaphragm.”
Thanks for reading and have a great Tuesday!
P.S. Need more help finding musical theatre repertoire to sing? Check out all my professional repertoire guides here. – Kevin Michael Jones