Behind the Scenes at the Kidney Cabaret

Glowing Exit Sign
This is not stage lighting.

Imagine this: You arrive at the recital hall. You’re warmed up and ready to sing; your hair and makeup are done, your outfit looks great; the tickets are all sold and the audience is starting to assemble. But the person who is supposed to run the light board hasn’t shown up. You can’t even turn on the house lights. The performance start time has come and gone, the minutes are ticking away, and everyone is still sitting in the dark (yes, this happened).

Take heart. The behind-the-scenes lighting gal might have flaked, but at least your kidneys are still working.

Most aspects of our lives have a “behind-the-scenes” component. For instance, I wouldn’t have been able to cook my breakfast this morning if the stove weren’t working. I wouldn’t be wearing this shirt if all of the buttons had spontaneously unraveled (tell me that’s never happened to you). It’s easy to take these things for granted… and then that lovely day rolls around when we find ourselves contemplating a performance illuminated by nothing more than flashlights and the glow of the ever-present green exit signs.

Happily, we can take precautionary measures to prevent most behind-the-scenes disasters. We decide that in the future, we will only schedule recitals at venues with competent management. We bring along a needle and thread, just in case. And even when we don’t know how everything works, we expand our awareness of the things that keep our lives running smoothly so that the car doesn’t run out of gas on the way to the gig, so that we’re stocked up on groceries before we get hungry, and so the power company doesn’t turn off the heat in the middle of winter.

In the Body

We have a lot going on behind the scenes in our bodies. Even if we don’t understand how it all works (and believe me, no one understands it all), we can do a lot to increase our awareness in ways that will improve our experience as movers and singers.

Take, for instance, the kidneys.

Detail with kidneys from Johannes Sobotta's 1906 Atlas and Textbook of Human Anatomy.
There’s no exit sign here. Rather, we’re looking at a front-view dissection of the abdominal cavity, with kidneys, from Johannes Sobotta’s 1906 Atlas and Textbook of Human Anatomy.

The kidneys are the most retro of the abdominal organs, and by “retro” I don’t mean pompadours and go-go boots. They are behind the scenes, at the back of the abdominal cavity, tucked up against the psoas and quadratus lumborum muscles, and ducking under the back of the diaphragm. Their position gives us a great opportunity to expand our awareness of the back body.

Image of the diaphragm from Gray's 1918 edition of Anatomy of the Human Body
This plate from Gray’s Anatomy of the Human Body (1918) shows a view of the diaphragm from the front and below.

It can be easy to neglect this part of us. We’re designed to move forward, after all. The sound of our voice comes out the front of us; except for the parents among us, we look at our audiences with the eyes on the front of our heads; and the expressive gestures of our arms are pretty much restricted to the area within our field of vision.

But the back body is important. Singers need to learn to feel the movement of the diaphragm in the back as an aspect of breath management. The muscle is bigger in the back than in the front, and we need that part working for us.

Increasing awareness of the back body also supports good alignment, and helps us counter the instinct to lean forward.

So lets give our back body a little love with some attention to the kidneys.

Finding the Kidneys

Start by putting your hands on your back, right at the bottom of your rib cage. You may have trouble feeling the bottom ribs. If so, try feeling for the bottom ribs on your sides, and follow them around to your back. The 11th and 12th ribs are in this general area. They’re also referred to as “floating” ribs, because they don’t continue all the way around to the front.

Ribcage side view.
A side view of the ribcage showing the 11th and 12th “floating” ribs, from the 1909 edition of Sobotta’s Atlas and Textbook of Human Anatomy .

The kidneys are here. The right kidney is slightly lower than the left; at the level of the twelfth rib. The peak of the left kidney is between the eleventh and twelfth rib.

Posterior view of the kidneys.
A view of the kidneys from the back, showing their positions relative to the 11th and 12th ribs. From Gray’s Anatomy.

With your hands on your back, breathe gently. You may already be able to feel the movement of your breath here. If not, think of breathing into the hands on your back, and imagine your back moving gently as you inhale and exhale. Let your belly stay relaxed.

Another view of the kidneys from the back, also from Gray's Anatomy.
Another view of the kidneys from the back, also from Gray’s Anatomy.

We breathe roughly twenty thousand times a day. On the inhale, the diaphragm descends. On the exhale, it moves back up. And just below the diaphragm, at the back of the abdominal cavity, the kidneys also move down and then back up. See if you can imagine this movement as you breathe in and out.

What you’re experiencing is just the beginning of the Kidney Cabaret.