Why learning how your organs move can improve your voice and reduce stage fright

A plate from Julien Bouglé's 1899 anatomy atlas.
From Julien Bouglé’s 1899 anatomy atlas: Le corpus humain et grandeur naturelle. You can browse plates from this atlas at the National Library of Medicine’s online exhibit of historical anatomies here.
When I was a young lass, my brother taught me this one neat trick: if someone – say your kid brother – is about to punch you in the stomach, and for some reason you can’t block him, you can tense up all of your abdominal muscles to protect yourself. He and I diligently (and noisily) practiced this skill on one another, generally until some adult would separate us, or threaten a month of nothing but mushroom ice cream for dessert.

How old were we? Seven and nine? Eight and ten? Whatever the age, I’m sure I already knew how to protect my vital organs by tensing my muscles. It’s instinctual. Just as the rib cage protects the heart and lungs, the abdominal wall musculature can protect the organs in our abdominal cavity.

Unfortunately, this protective tensing can also happen when our vital organs are not under immediate threat. Stress and anxiety can provoke the same response. For instance, if, as I sit here at my desk typing this post, I say to myself: “Oh no, I’m going to be late!” I feel my abdominal muscles tense up. It’s a lovely evening, and I have nowhere else to be. Nevertheless, my body responds to the mere idea of being late by tensing — part protection, part anticipation of the movement needs for jumping up out of my chair, grabbing my bag and running out the door.

What I experience here is a little flutter from my sympathetic nervous system – the “fight or flight” instinct. Many of us, in situations of chronic stress, will spend a huge amount of time in this space. Over the years, I’ve had students describe the concomitant abdominal tension with statements such as: “I feel like I’m always holding my breath.” And: “I don’t know how to breathe.”

Sometimes, it works to tell someone to just relax the belly and focus on the breath. Without the unnecessary muscle tension, the abdominal organs are then able to move as we breathe; the breath becomes deeper and easier, and the “fight or flight” instinct takes a little snooze so the body can get on with the important business of digestion, sleep, some good old-fashioned hanky-panky, or a really satisfying sing.

But for those who are very practiced at their abdominal tension, “Just relax” will only provide at best a temporary respite. For singers, this sort of chronic tension will contribute to problems in breath management, posture, performance anxiety, and tone (to name a few). Even though a singing exhale involves some amount of abdominal wall muscle contraction (though nothing like the amount when you’re preparing to get punched), it must be balanced with a release on the inhale. In any sort of performance-stress situation, maintaining this ability to release when the sympathetic nervous system is screaming: “All hands on deck! Protect the vital organs!”… well, that can be challenging.

Enter organ movement. When we learn organ movement, we learn where that organ is located in our bodies and how it moves as we breathe, both in real space, and in relationship to the organs and connective tissues around it. Changing the focus from the abdominal wall to the organs gives us a different sensory experience, one which can provide an alternative point of focus that effectively interrupts habitual abdominal tensing.

The result? You will feel more calm. You will feel like you have more lung capacity. Your posture will improve. For starters.

Moving the organs is essential to our long-term well being and health. Organs, like muscles, need tone, tone which comes from movement. This movement supports the activities regulated by the parasympathetic nervous system such as rest and digestion.