Le violon d'Ingres by Man Ray
The voice, if you think about it, is a very strange instrument. Unlike a flute which uses air and manipulation of the fingers, or a violin that uses a bow, resonating chamber and strings, in singing, the instrumentalist and the instrument are one and the same. And unlike an instrument which has a fixed body, singers change the shape of their instrument whenever they move their throat, tongue and jaw.
It’s thanks to this flexibility that we humans have such an amazing variety of sounds at our disposal. Just look at the plethora of languages in the world. And like chickens that have forgotten their wings can be used for flying, there are probably sounds we can make that we don’t even realize we can. Part of the fun of singing is that it gives us permission to explore those sounds.
Nearly every vocal experiment is an exploration of resonance. If you imagine for a moment that we are headless, the sound our vocal cords would make all by themselves would be like that a trumpet player’s lips make without the actual trumpet. It’s the body of the trumpet (and in a singer’s case, the throat, mouth and nasal cavities) which resonates with the flow of air, vibrating and amplifying it to make actual recognizable notes.
The way your voice resonates is determined by the body of your instrument: the anatomy and bone structure of your head, which you can’t control, but also by your tongue, throat and soft palate (mouse-over definition) which you can. To see just how much control you have, try this exercise:
Singing up and down a scale (do-re-mi-fa-sol-fa-mi-re-do), experiment with the following:
1. On a round “oh” vowel, increase the space in your pharynx by relaxing your throat and lowering your larynx 1 cm, while at the same time widening your laryngeal ventricle and pyriform sinuses.
2. Now, on an “ee” vowel, try lifting your larynx back to its original position, firming the tonus of your throat walls and lifting your soft palate so it closes off the nasal port.
Did you end up with a rich, dark tone full of depth for the first exercise, and a bright tone full of ring for the second? No? Well, just in case you are still doubting yourself, this exercise was to prove that, while we have an amazing amount of control over our resonators, little of it is direct or conscious. Resonance is where voice lessons get weird, because teachers must employ imagery and the illusion of “placement” to help the student brighten or darken the voice. Try the same two exercises on a scale again, (the first for a darker resonance and the second for a brighter one) but in singing terms:
1. As you inhale, focus on the sensation of the beginning of a yawn. Feel how your jaw hinges down, the throat deepens, and the space in the back of your mouth increases. Sing on “ah” or “oh” from this sensation.
2. Now, cultivate the feeling of an inner smile. Direct the sound vibrations to your upper front teeth as you sing on “ee”.
Scientifically singing, a bright voice has strong high partials (“ring”), and a darker voice strong lower ones (richness). How much of either you incorporate is largely a matter of taste, but the best voices find a comfortable balance and move flexibly between both.
One of the easiest and most common ways to add resonance to the voice is simply by listening and imitating. A good teacher should be able to demonstrate both. In case this way of talking about resonance is new to you, here are some audio examples:
Just as we use different tones of voice when we speak to get our point across, the amount of brightness or darkness a singer uses will vary from song to song, from style to style, and from one person’s preferences to the next. Have fun exploring both, and never underestimate all that your voice can do.
"The foundation of all vocal study lies in control of the breath" - Giovanni Battista Lamperti
Isn't it one of life's miracles that the same biological function that renews our blood's supply of oxygen also allows us to renew the lifeblood of our souls through singing?
We breathe deeply and naturally when we are infants. Perhaps that's why babies can reach such startling decibels of sound! As we age, bad posture, self-consciousness, stress and rigidity take over, and we often forget how wonderful it feels to release the abs and take a real, low breath, fully in and out.
Singing helps us remember this. Every time you sing, you breathe. Like the wind rustling through the leaves of a tree, breath is the invisible power behind every vocal sound. It's the foundation on which you build beautiful tone, expressiveness and legato.
We're all professionals at performing this task - that is, we breathe in and out about 20,000 times a day - but breathing for singing is a special process. Instead of three stages (inhale, exhale, rest), there are actually four (inhale, SUSPEND, exhale, rest), and they are each slightly modified in order to accommodate singing.
...deeply, as if breathing in a wonderful scent or drinking in the air,
...quietly (a noisy inhalation is sign of a constricted throat)
...through both nose and mouth
BELLY: Place a hand over your belly button. Inhale into your hand, feeling the expansion of the belly like a balloon. Exhale through rounded lips.
BACK: Sit down while slouching forward. Feel the expansion of your lower back as you inhale.
RIB CAGE: Put one hand over your belly and one on the side of your rib cage (as in drawing). Practice inhaling until you feel both your belly and rib cage expand. Practice in front of a mirror to make sure shoulders and chest stay in place throughout the entire exercise.
This is the stage that readies you for singing. The breathing-in and breathing-out muscles in the rib cage (called the "intercostals") actually start working against each other, and the right balance between them supports a smooth, sustained sound.
Inhale as before, feeling the belly, ribs and back expand. Once you are comfortable full of air, pause for a count of 5. Your throat should remain relaxed and open, as if you were still taking in air. Exhale on a hissing sound, "sss."
In singing we want our exhalation to be as smooth and consistent as possible, without any gripping or jerking. To accomplish this, we use the breathing-in and breathing-out muscles we just engaged to try to slow the ascent of the diaphragm. That way, the air doesn't rush out all at once.
Inhale as before, with one hand over your belly button and the other on the side of the rib cage. Pause ("suspend") briefly to feel this expansion. Exhale on "sss", but as you do so, keep the expansion around your middle for as long as possible. The lower abdomen should be the first to come in, like a tube of toothpaste being squeezed from the bottom up.
Muscles always perform better when they get moments of rest (however short those moments may be!). Remember and cultivate what it feels like to be totally at rest, while keeping good posture, and always find specific points in the music where you can remind yourself to rest your breathing muscles.
With your chest comfortably up, lower abdomen comfortably in, and upper abdomen free to move (think to yourself "comfortably up", "comfortably in", "free to move"), practice the four stages of breathing:
Inhale 3 counts
Suspend 3 counts
Exhale 3 counts
Rest 3 counts
Breathing is a wonderful part of the study of singing because you can practice it anytime, anywhere: on the train, driving, or when you're bored in class or a meeting. Our relationship toward breathing determines our relationship toward singing, so spend time with these exercises, enjoy them, and above all trust the breath to guide and power your sound.
This month we'll explore 4 core areas of singing technique: posture, breathing, resonance and tone. These are the topics that start most voice lessons, and also the ones that even the most experienced singers refer back to time and time again.
The first time I went in for a professional massage, I was about 15 years old. At our first session, the therapist told me that my neck and shoulders were so tight, she should take me on as a charity case. This continued, until two years later, when suddenly everything changed. “Are you less stressed now?” she asked me. “Did you meet someone?”
The truth was, I had picked up a new love: dancing. While I had always been an exercise geek (my parents owned a fitness center), it wasn’t until I started dancing that I learned the fundamentals of good body alignment. It’s more than sitting up straight; good posture is the foundation and core of every movement you make, as well as a resting position that rejuvenates your body.
For singers, that means cultivating a fluid body position of strength and vitality. Contrary to what many voice teachers teach, no body part should ever be locked when you sing. It’s a similar case with dancing (however, while we’re on the analogy, I would like to point out one important difference with singing: ballet dancers pull in their abs and lift their chest, while singers must never grip in with their abs or muscularize the lift of the chest).
Posture is one of the first things we notice about a person. It tells us a lot about his or her psychology, whether or not they are confident, healthy, and open to conversation. Before you start to worry, though, remember that just as the action of smiling can improve your mood, good posture can actually improve your confidence.
There are many warm-up exercises you can use before a singing session to improve your posture. If you practice yoga, Pilates or dance regularly, you might need nothing more than minute of quiet breathing, bringing awareness to your body as a whole. Use this mental checklist throughout the day, until and even when good body alignment becomes second nature:
1. Feet hip-distance apart, with weight balanced between feet
2. Knees soft and slightly bent, allowing pelvis to tuck in slightly
3. Most important of all: the spine stretches and lengthens from the tailbone to the top of the head
4. Shoulders comfortably back and down, level over hips
5. The chest is buoyant and open (I often imagine a beam of light flowing out from my sternum)
6. Jaw is relaxed, hinging back and down
7. The tongue is relaxed (similar to "ng") position
8. Soft gaze, inner smile
Butoh performance by Syv Bruzeau, photo courtesy of Jacopo Gianninoto
When starting a new blog, you never know if readers will get past the first post. Thus, I decided that I should start this blog for singers by writing about the single most important thing that every singer should know.
The problem was, I had no idea what that was. Certainly many things came to mind; singing often and well, enjoying the process and art of singing, engaging and emotionally connecting with an audience; all topics I am eager to further explore in this blog. None of them, however, seemed so important when considered all by themselves.
The answer came to me a few weeks later, while meeting a friend in a local café to go over some Italian text I was singing. He introduced me to a woman, a French dancer from Singapore who would be performing Butoh in that same café later that night. She was full of joy, full of life, and we talked about traveling and Bangkok and the city life. A few hours later, she disappeared to get ready for her performance, and re-emerged from the dressing room as a completely different character. Her face, lips and neck were painted in pale, ghostly white, with red streaks at the corners of her eyes like tears. She moved like a statue, with painstaking, livid awareness, and it seemed the space around her was also alive. Her gaze was at once unsettling and deeply beautiful, like someone staring straight into the face of pain and death, who, by doing so, saw beyond them both. There were no tricks or special effects, and what became apparent to me was the depth of her honesty and courage.
Good singers have solid technique, beautiful or moving voices, and a talent for language and lyricism. They might even have winning personalities and a commanding stage presence, all things we put loads of money and years of effort into achieving. Great singers, however, are honest. They’re honest to their own emotions, to the nuances of a character, to the human experience, honest to great degrees of vulnerability. They surrender to the music, letting it shape them, free them, transform them. Such openness and honesty, more than anything, draws us in and makes us want to listen for hours on end, because we feel as if we’re listening to someone sing about ourselves.
Great singers don’t stop at honesty. They must also cultivate and possess great amounts of courage in order to share themselves with others. There are many self-help books for business people, artists and singers alike which promise to increase your confidence and sense of self-worth, but I myself would be a liar if I didn’t confess that the only lasting confidence I have ever experienced comes from the truth that,
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”
1 John 4:18
For many, this is love from family, or from friends. As a singer, I’m eternally grateful for both, but the only perfect love that I’ve experienced - perfect in constancy, in power, and in character - is God’s.
I know there are many people and things in life which give us the peace and security we need in order to be courageous, to get onstage and sing from our hearts. For me, that is my faith, but I’d love to hear what gives you the courage and confidence to sing, and what you think makes a singer truly great.