Sunday, June 9, 2013

Using Tai Chi and Qigong in the Voice Studio

I’m presenting two sessions at the MMTA convention tomorrow.  You can read about the Music Teacher’s Helper session here.  I’m also teaching a session on using tai chi and qigong in the voice studio.  I’ve had a few other people ask about it, so I thought I’d flesh out my notes a little bit and make it into a blog post.  Sorry for some of the weird formatting as this includes some copy/paste work from several other documents.  

First, I want everyone to understand that although I will provide a big list of books, articles, and videos as references, you can’t expect to learn tai chi or qigong from a book or video any more than you can learn to sing from a book or video.  You need to take the time to study with a good teacher.  

Second, I don’t use tai chi and qigong in every lesson.  Nor do I use it with every student.  It is one of many tools in my voice teacher tool kit.  

My Tai Chi Journey

I was first introduced to tai chi many years ago in a sociology class taught by Dr. Aho at Idaho State University.  As part of the class, we watched Bill Moyer’s Healing and the Mind.  I was fascinated, and for years, I kept my eyes open for a class that was affordable and fit into my schedule.  Finally, in the fall of 2009, I saw a listing in the Community Education catalog for a class that seemed like it would work for me.  

I started class in January of 2010 and fell in love with tai chi.  For the first time in my life, I could do something well that required physical coordination.  A classmate even commented that I looked graceful.  The teaching philosophy of the Tai Chi For Health programs is one that works beautifully for me, and for many other people too.  It allowed me to grow and progress at my own pace without the need to compete or compare myself to others.  

I was soon enrolled for 2 classes, polishing the first form I learned (Sun 31, which was later revised to become Sun 41, adding more symmetry as requested arthritis experts), and learning Yang 24.  Then I added Sun 73, and then Yang 40.  Along the way,  I’ve also studied Moving Stillness Fan Form, the Five Animal Frolics, Soaring Crane Qigong, and Radiant Lotus Qigong.  Each new form has brought more depth and understanding to my practice.  

I found my singing improving and becoming easier as I applied the principles I was learning in my tai chi classes.  I learned to free my body, allowing the voice I knew was in there to come through unimpeded.  And I learned to trust myself and listen to what my body was trying to tell me.  

In February 2012, I took my first Teacher Certification Course.  It really was a momentous occasion for me.  You can read about it here.  One of the things that really impressed me about the course is that it wasn't just about how to do the form correctly.  It was about successful teaching strategies.  I learned new things and we also covered several ideas that were already part of my own teaching philosophy.  Although I didn't immediately start teaching tai chi classes of my own, those ideas made their way back into my voice teaching.  

Using Teaching Hints from the Tai Chi for Health Programs to Improve Voice Instruction

  • Always be comfortable
    If it hurts, don't do it. If it doesn't feel good, it's not right yet. Teach body awareness.
    Rest when you need to. 
  • Step-wise Progressive Method.  Watch Me. Follow Me. Show Me.
    Work in small sections using frequent repetitions. 
    Students need models. Have them listen to professional recordings. Demonstrate the change you want them to make in the sound.  Sing along with them and then ask what they hear or feel differently when you are with them.  Ask them if they have questions.  
  • Revise instead of correct.  Keep it positive. Phrase refinements positively.  (Avoid don’t and not statements).
    Ask the student to do it another way and compare how it feels and sounds--weird, strange, different are acceptable answers. Some students may even say that it feels totally opposite of what they have always done. (And they are right.)
  • Pace. Give time for breaks.
    For some students, this means stopping to talk about interpretation. First of all, you need to do that anyway, and if you can do it when they need a little bit of a vocal rest, it's even better.
  • Sandwich
    Make sure that you are complimenting as well as giving things that need revision. Starting with a compliment, then doing a small revision, and then adding another compliment builds their confidence.
  • Deal with safety issues first.
    In tai chi, this means adjusting things that affect balance or that may cause joint strain. For singers, the first things we should address are the things that cause tension or strain.
  • Ask students what they need help with.  Students teach you how to teach.  Listen and watch.  Ask them what it felt like.  Ask them where they have questions.
    As teachers, we could literally go on all day with things that they need to improve. If we just work our priorities, a student will go home still frustrated about something. Target their issues and then they are in a better place emotionally and vocally to address the things you want to do. Sometimes, the way they phrase their problem gives me a clue to how we need to proceed to accomplish their goals and mine. A student sang through a section one time and I complimented her on it. The second time through, it was not as good and both of us knew it. I asked what she had done differently and she said that her knees were locked the second time. That opened the door for me to once again address body alignment and we found some things that took her to a new level.
  • Ask them to tell you what they were thinking about that helped it work. Some of my best ideas I have actually stolen from my students.
  • The internal benefits are more important than what we see (or hear) on the outside.

What is Qigong?  What is Tai Chi? 

  • Qi (most common meaning is air, life energy), Gong--exercise that requires a great deal of time in which to become proficient.   Qigong=energy practice.  
  • Tai Chi is the most prominent Chinese martial art of the Internal style.  Internal styles place emphasis on breathing and the mental component of their training.
  • See the links below to Eric Borreson's blog posts.  I love how clearly he defines things for new students and how he challenges those with more experience to go deeper.  

Principles of Tai Chi (as outlined in Teaching Tai Chi Effectively) 

  • Outward Movement
    • Make your movements slow, smooth, and continuous.  (The flowing motions of tai chi teach students about legato.  The idea of continuous air flow, or sound, or even physical movement is often difficult for young students.  By finding it first through motion, we are then better able to bring it into the sound.)
    • Imagine moving against a gentle resistance...This will cultivate inner force.  (Even if you don't buy into the energy theories behind tai chi and qigong, this idea of resistance improves breath support by gently engaging the same muscles that we want to have working when we are singing well.)
  • Body Structure
    • Alignment.  Qi (energy) flows best in an aligned body.  (Aligned bodies allow free tone to emerge.)
    • Weight transfer and balance.  (Where your weight is engages different muscles that can help or get in the way of good singing.  Many students are not even aware that they are standing almost exclusively on their heels or on the balls of their feet rather than on the full foot.) 
  • Internal
    • Song the joints.  Song means to loosen and relax. We often talk about song as creating space within the joints.  (When I have my singers imagine creating space within the shoulder joint/arm structure, the tension in the surrounding muscles releases.)
    • Jing your mind by focusing on your movements.  Jing means mental quietness or serenity. (All singers need to learn to quiet the critics in their heads and just focus on the task at hand.)

Why use this in the voice studio?

  • Slow down and deepen the breathing.
  • Better alignment means better, freer singing.
  • Calm nerves.
  • Body/mind connection
  • Legato
  • Breath support

Specific Exercises and How I Use Them in a Voice Lesson 
(For this section I will be teaching each exercise and showing applications through warm-ups and songs.  I won't be defining the exercise in this blog, but if you are unfamiliar with them, feel free to contact me or check the resources at the end of the post.  Vocal warm-ups are indicated in scale degrees with _ following the longer notes. Someday I might figure out how to import stuff from Finale so I can show the actual music for the exercises.)

  • Rocking 
    • A great exercise for kids that can’t stand still.  This actually does calm them down.  It also teaches them to feel weight shift.  Some kids are not aware that they are moving when they sing.  By doing it consciously, they learn to feel it, and then stop it for performances.
  • Open-Close (Breathing and alignment exercise that appears frequently in Sun style forms.)
    • I teach this as a way to help with pre-performance jitters. This can be done with just the hands.  
    • I use a full-body version with rising and falling though the knees to talk about alignment and balance.  
    • I also use this to calm down and/or focus students in lessons.  
    • Although I usually use it as a stand alone breathing exercise, it can also be combined with singing to help students pace the breath.  (You push the hands together slowly as if against resistance, taking a long time for the exhalation.)  
  • Separating Heaven and Earth (Qigong exercise and also one of the TCA warm-ups)  
    • Vocal warm-up:  Ti-ro (18_78987654321) pushing up and down for the octave jump and the highest pitch of the turn around, or bella signora (1358_531) pushing for the high note.  
    • Great for high notes.  
    • Also focuses on alignment.
    • Song application:  In the A section of Where E'er You Walk at  "trees where you sit (long pause then the high note)...Shall" 
  • Single Whip (Sun style)  
    • Vocal warm-up: 1345_43421 on oo
    • Song application:  I love this move for 2 part phrases like “Il tuo fedel sopira ognor” from Caro mio ben.  
  • Parting Wild Horse’s Mane (Yang style) 
    • Vocal warm-up:  1_23_45_31_ 2_2123_1 on oo or ah
    • To keep things simple, I just do the arms on this exercise with my voice students.  In the Yang forms, it is combined with the walking pattern listed below.
    • Great for creating legato in a longer phrase.  
    • Great for keeping the energy going on long notes.
    • Song application:  The Water is Wide--first line
  • Brush Knee (Yang style) 
    • Vocal warm-up: 13531 on any single vowel
    • To keep things simple, I just do the arms on this exercise with my voice students.  In the Yang forms, it is combined with the walking pattern listed below.  
    • Great for keeping the energy going on long notes.  
    • Song application:  The Water is Wide--high phrase.
  • Walking (This pattern forms the basis of the footwork for many Yang forms.)
    • Learn to feel continuous motion (legato). 
    • Once learned, it can also be quite meditative.  
    • I do not use this with singing. 

For further exploration:

If you are interested in learning more, please contact a certified instructor.  

There are many tai chi teachers in the Twin Cities.  Two great resources are:
Linda Ebeling at
Normandale Community College Continuing Education

If you are not in MN, you can find a Tai Chi For Health instructor here.  

Beginning Tai Chi
Overcoming Arthritis by Dr. Paul Lam and Judith Horstman
Tai Chi for beginners and the 24 Forms by Dr. Paul Lam and Nancy Kaye

Teaching Tai Chi (Many of the teaching principles also apply to teaching singing.)
Teaching Tai Chi Effectively by Dr. Paul Lam with Maureen Miller
Tai Chi as Spiritual Practice by Caroline Demoise (Chapter 4 deals specifically with teaching, but I found teacher helps in other parts of the book as well.)

Qigong  (This document gives a nice introduction to qigong and also provides basic instructions for Eight Brocades, a set of qigong exercises.)
The Way of Qigong:  The Art and Science of Chinese Energy Healing by Kenneth S. Cohen  (This book is wonderful, but probably more information than a beginning qigong student would need or want.)

Books Incorporating Tai Chi and/or Qigong with Singing
These authors apply the movements differently than I do, but the philosophies are similar.  
Tao of Voice:  A New East-West Approach to Transforming the Singing and speaking Voice by Stephen Chun-Tao Cheng
The Circle of Sound Voice Education:  A Contemplative Approach to Singing Through Mediation, Movement, and Vocalization by Doreen Rao with Bill Perison

Books and videos by Dr. Paul Lam are available at

Other Articles:

No lotus position needed: Neuroscience pushes meditation into the mainstream

What I wish I had known in the beginning by Eric Borreson

Seven Essential Questions about Qigong and Tai Chi by Eric Borreson

Relax and Loosen in Taiji by Eric Borreson

No comments:

Post a Comment