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.