I like to sing upside down.
It was all a bit of a "for fun" experiment at first. I sing opera and like pole dancing and aerial circus arts. "Do you ever sing AND do aerial?" people would ask. I said, sure, why not give it a try.
Since then, I've sung from my lyra in various variety and burlesque shows in the city, often upside down or from "amazon" type positions, where I am slightly sideways with space between my ribs. I decided to show some videos to my voice teacher (whom I've been studying with for 10 years), just for fun.
What happened next was unexpected.
"You sing better this way!" She exclaimed. "You should sing upside down all the time."
But why is that, exactly? In my last couple voice lessons, we (well, I) decided to find out.
In my late 20's, I started to lose my extreme high notes. Not like, "high C" kind of high notes, but the E's, and F's required of a true coloratura (that's the highest and lightest type of soprano there is in the opera world, for my non singing friends-it requires tremendous agility and extreme high notes). There was a time in my early 20's when the most redeeming quality of my voice was anything above a high C. When I lost my upper extension and started singing standard repertoire well, only then people started asking if I would sing Queen of the Night. Irony.
Around 27, I sang my last Olympia and Cunegonde and decided to hang up my coloratura hat. While I never lost the agility, the range just stressed me out too much. My voice lessons were stressful. They all felt like "you better be able to sing these high notes, or else." The harder I tried, the worse it got. I'm little and blonde and spunky and this is the repertoire people expect from me. I have to sing Olympia, I have to be Blondchen, I have to sing Adele, that's the only way I can "make it." I was miserable. I don't even like these arias or these characters anyways, I thought. I dreaded bringing that rep into lessons, and dreaded being asked for it in auditions.
One day, I said, fuck it. I don't have to sing any of this. Voices change. Tastes change. People change. I'm 35 for Christ's sake. You can't make me be the fucking doll forever. I started getting cast in repertoire I loved and brought that to lessons instead-Handel, Bach, Kurt Weill, lots of baroque and contemporary music. Since then, my voice lined up, and I mean REALLY lined up. People who have known my singing for a long time began approaching me after concerts to marvel at the difference, strangers often ask who I study with in hopes of getting a lesson. It did me a world of good to stop obsessing over what everyone else wanted me to do. It freed me up to make the rest of my range more beautiful and consistent than ever in repertoire that I really loved.
Sure, my loss of extension is probably in part to due to a vocal shift in my late 20's which is not uncommon. But it is also due to tongue tension, one of my biggest issues in singing. They aren't issues that keep me from singing beautifully in most of my range, but they are issues nonetheless. For anyone who knows anything about vocal pedagogy, a tense tongue or depressing the back of it in any way can cause a lot of problems, especially with the upper extension of the voice. My teacher has tried everything to fix it. Putting the tip of my tongue in the web to discourage me from depressing the back of it. Putting a plastic bag over her hand and physically trying to hold on to my tongue to keep me from grabbing in my throat (that was pretty fun, not.) Trying to make me act like I'm going to throw up (you know, the motion when your tongue comes up and out of your throat and almost out of your mouth so that the back of it is up and out) All of these tactics are designed to distract me or give me something else to do to get out of my own way, but my tongue is sneaky and finds a way around everything she tries to go back to its evil ways.
Which brings me to the singing upside down thing. For starters, one reason she thinks it helps is because when I am inverted, my ribs are lifted and extended. You will hear many teachers talk about "keeping the ribs out" for extreme high notes, almost "like you have wings." But you can't be holding or pressing them out. (Holding and pressing are bad words when it comes to singing in general) They need to be lifted without being pushed or stressed, they need to have buoyancy. Another reason she thinks it helps is that being inverted not only keeps the ribs lifted, but it creates space between the lowest rib towards your back and your hips, so that the body isn't being compressed in any way, allowing the air flow of your breath to move more freely and efficiently. Finally, when you are upside down, the core is engaged and the neck and head are hanging there loose and free. You can't "support" by grabbing in the throat or tensing up your jaw-the vocal production can come from breath support alone. We were able to apply a lot of these concepts while standing upright by lifting my arms straight up over my head and then extending to one side to feel the space created between my lower ribs and hips. She had a picture printed out of me singing in the hoop that she would put in front of my face during the lesson as a reminder-you can clearly see the space I am creating in my ribs and between my lowest ribs and hips in the picture. Just looking at it helped give me the lift and extension in the ribs that I needed.
Finally, in another effort to tame my tongue, we took two little bites of baby carrot and put them underneath my tongue. My job was to sing high Ds (the end of Lied der Lulu, specifically) while keeping my ribs lifted, and the carrots underneath my tongue pressed down flat to the bottom of my mouth so that she could not see them when I opened my mouth to sing, which kept the back of my tongue lifted and out of the throat and made it impossible to depress in any way. And bam. The high Ds were flying out of me like they haven't in years. Not that I need them for anything soon, but it's nice to have in the toolbox! Maybe in the next week or two I can make a video of all this, but I thought I would write about it since I just got out of a lesson and don't want to forget. For now, as long as I've got my carrots and a lyra, I guess I can still sing Lulu after all.