I have been working a lot with dancers lately, who often bring a different background of physical work into the studio compared with others. Dancers have amazing physical awareness, however sometimes need to re-calibrate their bodies when preparing to sing.
Here are some exercises I have found to be helpful in opening, strengthening and releasing the dancer's vocal instrument.
1. Deep Breathing - Vacuum Breath
Sometimes dancers have a tendency to take shallow breaths because they are accustomed to tightening their abdominal muscles. I frequently use a vacuum breath with my dancers (and in my own practice), as it has proven to encourage deep breathing by releasing the abdomen and opening the ribcage.
Begin by emptying your lungs on a ffff...exhale until you feel like there isn't a drop of air left in the tank. After the air is expired, allow the air to reach low into your body and swing the ribcage open. Use the image of an umbrella unfolding. The spine should be long and the knees springy. Once you feel full of air, repeat by exhaling fully on a ffff. Inhale again, feeling the lower back release as well as the ribcage. Think about a six-sided box and each dimension moving away from its counterpart. Don't be afraid of dizziness, as it is a common experience with performing this exercise, but do not repeat the vacuum breath more than a few times.
The main purpose here is to strengthen the breathing muscles by using natural reflexive movements. These natural motions are usually best achieved by thinking passively about inhalation - ALLOW air to come in, do not squeeze air. The effort level should be minimal.
Start with a stream of air moving out on an ffff- now, add sound that is somewhere in your natural speaking range. The result will be a mixture between a V and a W. The front teeth should be slightly over the bottom lip. Add a slight yawn and aim to place the sound directly behind the front teeth. Luxuriate in the yummy vibrations that exist in the front of the mouth and face. There may even be a gentle forward facial posture (i.e. small rounding of lips and lifting of cheekbones). The combination of the tingly forward energy and the yawn space will help protect your instrument when you are fully singing at pitch.
Once you've mastered this V-Buzz, add a true EE sound maintaining the sensation of buzz in the front of your face. As a bonus feature: Try sneering and flaring the nostrils!
3. Sigh of Relief
Choose a passage of a song or monologue and say the words very slowly in your speaking range, as if sighing out in a state of euphoria. If it feels silly and little ridiculous, then you've probably got the right idea. Next, repeat the line while adding a gentle turbulence in the air flow. The vowels should feel very stretched out, as if you were speaking under water. Aim for a sense of evenness and continuity in the energy of your breath.
Observe what this feels like in terms of physical sensation. Does it feel flowy and easy? Is it open and released? Work on connecting the sensations of the V-buzz into the sigh of relief.
Now see if you can link all three exercises together. Breathe deep, release into a quick V-Buzz to establish frontal buzz, then sigh out using words.
Acquiring vocal freedom and power requires a lot of repetition, so set aside 10-15 mins a day to do some form of these exercises. I hope you have found them helpful! Happy singing :)
Tip of the cap to Kristin Linklater and her game-changing book, "Freeing the Natural Voice".