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Ribs: cage or wings?

What do you do with your ribs when you breathe? What if you’re going to speak or sing?

When we inhale, the ribs open up and out, expanding the volume of the lungs. This causes air pressure to be lower in the lungs than in the outside world, and air whooshes in. Ideally the abdominal muscles release and the belly expands – because the diaphragm is descending and it presses down on your guts – so you feel as though your entire torso is filling with breath, possibly all the way down to the pelvic floor.

When we exhale, we’ve got a few options about how the abs and ribs move. If we use the rectus abdominis (six-pack) muscles to exhale, the belly gets very firm like it’s bracing for impact. This can be an unconscious reaction to a situation that is perceived as negative or unsafe; the ribs (especially in the front) are pulled down to help protect the soft solar plexus area. Since we feel a lot of our emotions in the belly, bracing this way can reduce the effect of such situations; we feel less when the ribs are squeezed in and the belly is firm. It’s a useful survival technique… but not so awesome for performing.

A similar bracing of the ribs happens when we use the obliques to exhale, but they are attached to the side ribs, so there’s more pulling down action at the sides. The obliques are useful for getting air out fast, like if you have to blow out a cakeful of birthday candles. However, if the ribs are pulling in on exhalation, a lot of air pressure is created suddenly, and the larynx is responsible for dealing with it! Under so much pressure, the vocal folds lose their finesse and the voice gets clunky or hard-sounding.

When the ribs are squeezed, we experience less emotionally and sound hard – we’re literally stuck in our own ribcage!

The most useful abdominal muscle for supporting speech or singing is the transverse abdominis. It wraps around the body horizontally like a corset and compresses the contents of the torso. Because the volume of the guts cannot change, when the exhalation is supported by the transverse the ribs go OUTWARD!! (The guts get squished upward, the diaphragm releases upward, and the ribs expand.) This action creates the ideal amount of air pressure for communication – the exact amount the delicate vocal folds need to vibrate healthily with maximum flexibility and expression.

Here’s the beautiful thing: with the ribs floating open during vocalizing, the belly and solar plexus can stay soft and ‘available’, so we can feel more of our emotions!  We are free to ride the moment-to-moment journey of our experience, and the vocal folds are free to express the subtle nuances of that journey.

When the ribs are open, we’ve got wings: the freedom to take flight and let our voices soar.


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