Just before the pandemic hit, I finished a 8 year long tour with a small band of classical and jazz musicians. We had sung in concert halls, theaters and festivals and usually I would stumble off stage in my high heels with excruciating back pain. I blamed my heels every single time but it didn't occur to me to wear something else. God forbid I wouldn't be considered 'attractive’.
The pandemic made it difficult for me to perform because all concerts got cancelled and I wasn't allowed to see my students, so it seemed like the perfect time to start working on the cause of my stiffness and back pain. A former and very trusted Pilates teacher spoke very highly of my Rolfing® professional Kostas Stavridis (in The Netherlands), and I decided to give it a go. Today, with my tenth session planned, I can say that it has made a huge difference in my overall wellbeing and I think all singers can benefit tremendously from Rolfing.
As in all performing arts, singers try to make a very difficult thing look easy. Singing can place high demands on very specific muscles, and the body needs to be free to breathe. Contrary to what many people think, singing requires not a huge amount of breath, but a lot of freedom to release the breath in a well controlled manner. When the vocal chords and breath supporting muscles are sufficiently stretched and flexible the voice starts to flow and the breath can move freely. This is not an easy thing and it takes years and years of practice.
Common tensions are tensions in the neck, jaw and tongue (jokingly called the three musketeers, 'all for one and one for all') and 'over supporting' the breath, which causes rigidity in the diaphragm and other muscle groups that are responsible for breath support.
Moving around on stage when singing in opera or musical theater can have its challenges, but it can also free the voice because of the movement of breath. But all other genres of classical singing tend to have a quite static appearance. In choirs, oratorio and art song (lieder) performances the singer usually stays more or less in one place. Finding freedom in this very restricted format is quite the challenge and Rolfing treatments can help with that.
For me personally (and I think for all singers) the first session was liberating since it focused on opening up the diaphragm and the ribcage. Another interesting aspect was working on the pelvis. It's not easy (especially when nervous), but very important for singers to keep the pelvis open while singing, but not push it too hard. (I remember a quote from the late and great tenor Luciano Pavarotti who stated he sang like he was sitting on a toilet, which is a picture I can’t get out of my mind ever since).
But in fact all sessions that emphasised the core were interesting because singers want freedom of movement there.
The session where we worked on opening up nasal cavities and the pharynx was very surprising (and also a bit weird..) but highly effective because this is, of course, where the actual vocal sound, produced by the larynx is being projected.
I think Rolfing can benefit singers in the beginning of their career, but it is also priceless for singers like me, who have been around for a while and noticed tensions slipping in.
In my daily life my back pain has disappeared and the stiffness in my back is rapidly improving. I bought a pair of barefoot shoes, that I wear on long walks with my dog and on normal weekdays. I'm curious to see where my new and improved posture and freedom of movement will lead me when I get back on stage. I'm not sure yet if this diva can hold herself back though when it comes to wearing high heels on stage. Maybe you Rolfers® can put in an extra session to address vanity 🤪.
Author: Professional Mezzo-soprano, Hetty Jansen - The Netherlands
Photos: Header - Hetty Jansen, Below - Kostas Stavridis