• Opera and the Body

    By Jennifer Swan
    Jennifer Swan

    We all breathe! Most of us do this automatically, hundreds of times a day, without thinking about it. In some cases, there are reasons to work on breath and breathing more intentionally; the tremendous power and amplification that singing opera requires is one of those cases. In my work with the COC Ensemble Studio, I assess the mechanics of breath and breath management, and the physical patterns that help or hinder sound production in the singers. Put simply, I help them maximize air and the efficiency of air as they produce the incredible sounds we all admire so much!

    I began working with vocal performers in 2008 when an opportunity arose to offer Pilates instruction to artists at a training program for Canadian singers in Italy. This experience provided the opportunity to watch, consider, and reconsider the traditional assumptions inherent in voice training. I looked for opportunities to explore the form-follows-function principle to create a new, shared vocabulary in vocal training. In 2016, I joined the Ensemble Studio as a Core Trainer and am now the Performance Kinetics Consultant for the program. Our work at the COC is unique, and I often think ground-breaking – it is so wonderful to work on marrying traditional voice training with the science behind breath and breathwork.

    Jennifer Swan choreographed Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue's Carmen suite program

    Breath control is vital to singers and some of the science behind it is remarkably simple. For example, maintaining good posture – what’s sometimes called a “plumb line,” the imaginary line running from the top of your head to the floor – is essential to breath management and effective sound production. By going deeper into anatomy and physiology, I can help singers pinpoint the physiological issues that may be hindering them in their performance.

    The starting point with every singer is to determine deviations from their plumb line, which may be due to their individual muscle imbalances. My work with singers is almost entirely focused on their core muscles. We begin with training exercises, followed by strengthening. We focus on restoring the timing and sequencing of deep abdominal and pelvic floor muscles. Once singers can activate this muscle system while sitting, standing, squatting, and in any other positions a production might require of them, then we move on to strengthening.

    Jennifer Swan in a kinetics training session with Ensemble Studio artist Anna-Sophie Neher

    After working on the more physical aspects of performance, many students experience less vocal fatigue, improved vibratos, elimination of jaw and tongue tension, improved breath expansion in the chest, rib cage, and lower spine, and enhancement of free and less-inhibited breath. In their performances, I have observed my students have more confidence, improved stage presence, and better singing endurance.

    The best advice I can share is that every singer is their instrument. Anatomy is, for the most part, a universal equalizer. If we recognize anatomy to be the same in every singer, there should be no discrepancy surrounding the use of muscles required for breathing. The differences may lie instead in the language describing these practices and, perhaps, with the eyes and ears observing the muscle activations that are happening. Ambiguous teaching cues create ambiguous outcomes! My approach is rooted in clear physical language that empowers singers to self-implement change in order to deal with training barriers. My hope is that, by working with the young artists of the Ensemble Studio, I am teaching them skills they can carry with them throughout their long careers.

    Jennifer Swan

    Hear more from Jennifer Swan on Episode 13 of Key Change: A COC Podcast. She's joined by mezzo-soprano (and COC Ensemble Studio graduate) Krisztina Szabó for a fascinating discussion on opera and the body.

    Listen now at coc.ca/keychange/ep13

    Photo credits: courtesy of the artist
    Posted in Ensemble Studio


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