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More About the Human Voice

The human voice has been used as a means of expression since the dawn of time. It is the oldest musical instrument. In all its forms, from wailing to whispering, speaking, shouting, singing, the purpose of the human voice is communication.

When we sing, we are communicating a message. Whether it is the message of a beautiful melody or a message contained in the words, the communication is ever present. It is the desire to communicate that spurs humans towards singing. The communication offered may be as simple as a happy feeling, or as complex as the meanings and symbolism contained in some poetry. singing is a positive way of showing and venting emotions, but perhaps that is the very reason some people are apprehensive about the act of singing.

Now, for a startling truth - everyone has the ability to sing. The desire to sing resides in the human soul and spirit. If you have the desire, then yes, you can sing. Every person has a singer, a dancer, an artist inside them that is yearning to be granted the opportunity of expression. The goal of taking singing lessons is to uncover your singer within and allow your song to be heard.

Singing is really a simple process, a matter of speaking on pitch, and trusting that our bodies know what to do. Even while knowing this to be true, many students of singing need to go through a re-education process in order to let go of any muscular tension in their singing so that they may fully achieve this state of simplicity and trust.

In search of their best singing voice, many students and amateur singers fail to realize their full potential because they are trying to sound like a certain singer or have a preconceived idea of how they should sound. They miss the point because the goal for each singer is to discover his or her own free, natural singing voice. Some voices may be characteristically "small" or "light", others "bit" or "heavy". Trying to change an intrinsic part of one's voice will only lead to problems. A lily can't be changed into a rose, and why would anyone ant it to be? Each flower has its own beauty. It is much the same when it comes to developing one's singing voice. the key is to take what we have and work to refine that.

Singers, as with any artists, cannot be free to develop their own abilities to the fullest while trying to emulate someone else. This is not to say that we can't learn from great singers, but we must realize that each person is unique, each with his or her own individual physiology and emotional makeup. These factors combine to produce a person's own exclusive sound. Of course you won't sound just like someone else as you can't have the same fingerprint as some one else. You are unique and what could be better or more satisfying than finding your own natural sound? Every singing star performing today wouldn't be there if they sounded just like someone else. They had to explore and develop their own strengths, talents and individual sound, just as you will.

 

Voice Training

Posture

Good posture is essential for a singer. Quite apart from wanting to appear, and feel, poised and confident in front of an audience, there are technical reasons why good posture is the most fundamental requirement in singing.

What is good posture?

Good posture is optimal vertical alignment of the various parts of the body, with minimum tension. A concept used in jazz and ballet is that of having an imaginary string attached to the top of the head. The string pulls straight up, causing head, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles to become vertically aligned. We want the body to be erect, but as relaxed as possible.

For singing, the sternum is also slightly lifted to expand and elevate the ribcage, and rotate the lowest ribs downward and outward.

Probably the most common student faults are a forward slump of the shoulders and sternum, which collapses the ribcage, and elevation of the chin, which pulls the larynx out of position.

Why is it important? Three reasons:

1) Correct vertical alignment with minimum tension leaves the vocal mechanism (the larynx and surrounding musculature) in as relaxed a state as possible. The larynx is suspended in a web of muscles which are attached to the skull and chin above, and the sternum and collar-bones below. Any unusual tension or alteration in the position of these muscles (such as lifting the chin) affects the functioning of the larynx itself.

2) Having the ribcage lifted and expanded frees the diaphragm to contract and descend as fully as possible with a minimum of resistance. This means you get a maximum inhalation with the least possible strain, and your breathing is as swift, easy and silent as possible.

3) Having the ribcage lifted is also optimal for the contraction of the oblique abdominal muscles and internal intercostal muscles. In combination with the natural elasticity of the ribcage, these muscles exert pressure upon the contents of the torso, and give the singer control of the air pressure being applied to the vocal cords. This control of air pressure is sometimes referred to as 'Support'.

How do I teach good posture?

Good posture is crucial because without it, the singer cannot breathe or support efficiently. I use demonstration, some simple exercises and continuous feedback to encourage the singer to adopt good posture. The student's best friend while working on this area is a mirror and/or video camera with which to monitor themselves, in addition to the teacher's correction and feedback.

 

Breathing

What is proper breathing?

Breathing must be swift (sometimes a piece doesn't allow much time to take breath) and quiet (the sound of a singer gasping for air is distracting for the audience). In addition, breathing must involve minimum disturbance of a balanced, relaxed posture.

The mechanism of breathing

To induce air to enter the lungs, the air pressure inside them must be reduced. This is done by expanding the lungs themselves, which are elastic and attached to the inside of the ribcage and to the diaphragm at its base. Any expansion of the space within the ribcage causes an increase in the space within the lungs: lifting the sternum, expanding the ribs or lowering the diaphragm all expand the lungs, and therefore decrease the air pressure within them, causing an inflow of air.

Breathing for singing

Good posture for singing already includes a lifted sternum and expanded ribcage, therefore for singing purposes the diaphragm is the chief muscle of inhalation. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped horizontal muscle attached to the spine, the ribs and the sternum. When it contracts it descends, decreasing pressure in the lungs and causing air to flow in. Due to displacement of the liver, stomach, etc. by the descending diaphragm, the abdominal wall tends to protrude forward slightly, and maximum descent of the diaphragm is accomplished by allowing it to do so, leaving the abdominal muscles relaxed. This is called "diaphragmatic breathing", and you can satisfy yourself as to the naturalness of this way of breathing by lying on your back and simply observing how the breathing mechanism behaves when you are completely relaxed.

Exhalation can be accomplished by elasticity alone. All of the body parts described have a natural tendency to return to their original position, including the lungs themselves. However, singing demands greater levels of air pressure, and greater control of those levels, than speech. The internal intercostal muscles, in combination with the oblique abdominal muscles, are able to contract progressively and, with practice, provide this fine control of air pressure in the lungs. This control of air pressure is called 'Support'.

How do I teach proper breathing?

New students in are often startled, within a few lessons, by being requested to lie down on the floor. In this position, the natural breathing mechanism of the body at rest can be observed. Getting that same mechanism functioning in an upright position can take minutes, or weeks, depending upon the student. I use a number of exercises to help those in difficulty, including yoga-type breath-counting exercises, breath suspension without closing the glottis, and the support of a convenient wall as an intermediate step. Good posture is a prerequisite, as is the ability to relax the abdominal muscles (sometimes a problem for dancers).

 

Support

What is support?

Support is the control of air pressure in such a way as to maintain accurate pitch, consistent volume and tone quality, and to sustain these to meet the requirements of any given phrase of music. Appoggio is an Italian term used to mean the same thing, except that this term embraces issues of resonance at the same time.

How is it achieved?

Air pressure is influenced by how much air is in the lungs, and the extent to which it is being 'squeezed', either by the forces of elasticity or by active contraction of certain muscles.

The internal intercostal muscles (muscles connecting the insides of the ribs) are able to 'squeeze' the air in the lungs, as are the abdominal muscles. However, the central rectus abdominis muscle (the one you use for sit-ups) is too large and powerful for fine control, and the smaller, layered oblique abdominal muscles at the side are used in preference. Contraction of these muscles will cause the stomach wall to remain forward for quite some time during the exhalation/singing process.

A common error in beginners striving for 'more support' is to pull in on the stomach wall (i.e. using the large central muscle). This produces an abrupt burst of air pressure which is then difficult to maintain.

How do I teach support?

It is probably true to say that I avoid 'teaching' support, because I believe that it is a fairly natural phenomenon for most students. If the beginning singer has good posture and is breathing correctly, there will usually be enough support for the modest technical difficulties encountered in the early stages of training.

In order to increase the singer's awareness of the mechanism in preparation for the greater demands which will later follow, there are a number of available exercises. These include sustained hissing exercises which develop to a delightful degree the ability to alarm one's cat. The onset exercises referred to in the phonation section are also an excellent way of discovering the correct mechanism.

A technical note

There has historically been disagreement as to whether support is achieved by the abdominal muscles alone, or by a combination of the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles working against one another (sometimes called 'co-contraction'). As a practical matter, without the benefit of biofeedback a singer has no way of knowing for certain whether the diaphragm is contracting or not, since it is one of those parts of the body without the necessary nerve receptors. I address this issue by establishing clearly understood objectives in terms of the resulting sound, and letting each individual discover their own personal means of achieving them.

 

Phonation

What is phonation?

Phonation is a fancy term for the making of sound. In other words, as soon as the vocal cords come together and air flows between them causing them to vibrate, you are phonating.

What is good phonation?

As in so many areas of vocal technique, the objective is to discover a happy medium between two extremes, 'pressed' phonation and 'breathy' phonation. In pressed phonation the vocal cords are brought together with excessive muscular effort, and this makes it harder to set them vibrating, so that a great deal of air pressure is needed to force them apart. This results in a forced, shouty quality to the voice, and is very tiring for the singer. The opposite extreme is breathy phonation, where the vocal cords are not brought together vigorously enough, and air escapes audibly between the cords as they are vibrating. The sound is lacking in tone, volume and vibrancy.

The happy medium ("just right", said Goldilocks) is called 'flow' phonation. This occurs when the balance between the muscular activity of the vocal cords and the air pressure beneath them is exactly right for easy, efficient production of high-quality sound.

How do I teach good phonation?

One of the main tools available to achieve this happy state is work on the onset (the very beginning of the sound). The onset should be neither breathy nor glottal (the cough-like sound at onset which is indicative of pressed phonation). These exercises are important because the way that a sound begins is generally the way it continues. A breathy onset will generally result in breathy phonation, and a glottal onset in pressed, or shouty phonation

 

Registers

What is a register?

Unfortunately the subject of registers is one which suffers from wide differences of opinion, and even worse, wide variations in terminology. It is not even clear, at this point in voice science research, to what extent registers are a physical, as opposed to an acoustic phenomenon. The two appear to be inextricably linked.

A simple practical definition might be that a register is a part of the range of the voice which is characterised by a particular timbre (quality of sound). To give extreme examples, a low pitch in a loud, heavy timbre might be referred to as being in the 'chest' register. A high pitch in a lighter, softer sound might be regarded as in "head" register.

Why are registers important?

About the only thing that most teachers do agree upon is that register 'breaks', or audible transitions between registers, are undesirable. One of the chief objectives in developing the voice is to eliminate breaks and achieve a smooth consistent sound throughout the range. When a voice 'cracks', what we are hearing is an abrupt register change.

How do I handle registers?

The heavy mechanism is dominated by the activity of the vocalis muscles (in the vocal cords themselves). A sound produced principally by this mechanism would be referred to by some as 'chest' voice. The light mechanism is dominated by the activity of the crico-thyroid muscles, which cause the vocal cords to thin and stretch. A sound produced principally by this mechanism might be referred to as 'head' voice.

The point is that in good singing both mechanisms should be in use (with the possible exception of high coloratura in the female voice, and the special case of the male alto, or countertenor singer). The balance between the two mechanisms determines the quality of sound, and the ease of production. In a skillful, singer the balance between the two mechanisms is constantly changing in response to the demands of pitch, vowel and dynamics, and this is called 'dynamic' registration. No two pitches are sung identically.

I concentrate on creating the conditions under which the voice can be permitted to make these continuous and subtle adjustments, eliminating breaks. Consistent support, or control of air pressure, is essential. A break can be caused by insufficient support, allowing an abrupt change to a lighter configuration, or by excessive support, sometimes called 'pressing'. Correct phonation, resulting from a balance between muscular activity in the larynx, and air pressure beneath it, is also necessary. Finally, the resonance adjustment needs to be appropriate so that an excessive 'load' is not being placed on the instrument. When these conditions are met, the issue of registers ceases to be problematic.

The Passaggio

Passaggio is an Italian term for a series of notes in which a transition is being made between registers. Or, in the terms used above, from an area of the voice in which the heavy mechanism tends to dominate, to an area in which the light mechanism tends to dominate.

The necessity for 'dynamic' (constantly changing) registration has given rise to some of the more interesting theories of registration, for example the concept that every note is a register, or conversely, that there is only one register, both perfectly logical ideas. Of course, from the point of view of a 'one-register' theorist, the phenomenon of a passaggio should not exist. However, especially with beginners, these passaggi are predictable points at which the singer is likely to experience difficulties.

Resonance

What is resonance?

Almost everyone, at some point in their artistic career, has picked up a bottle and blown across the opening, making it sound like a small foghorn (this seems to be a particularly popular activity with beer bottles, for some reason). The pitch of the foghorn changes as the level of liquid goes down ­ or, more importantly, as the amount of airspace inside the bottle increases. This is a simple example of a resonator, and of its natural resonant frequency changing as the resonant space is altered.

What do these observations have to do with singing?

The human voice consists of a sound source (or periodic disturbance), and a resonator. The sound source is the vibration of the vocal cords as air flows between them, inside the larynx. This could be considered roughly analogous to playing the reed and mouthpiece of a saxophone (and sounds equally horrible if heard in isolation from the rest of the instrument).

The rest of the vocal tract above the vocal cords ­ the upper part of the larynx, the pharynx (throat), the mouth and perhaps the nose ­ constitutes a complex resonator. The size and shape of this resonator can be altered by various means (movement of the jaw, lips, tongue, soft palate, or the larynx itself) in order to change the frequencies at which the space will naturally resonate.

Why is resonance important?

Resonance is responsible for the accuracy of vowels, and for the overall tone quality of the vocal sound. (This section may be difficult for those with slight knowledge of musical acoustics).

A well-produced periodic disturbance (vocal sound originating in the larynx) contains not only the fundamental frequency (the pitch being sung), but also a series of harmonic overtones above it. In other words, a number of different frequencies are present in the sound, although the fundamental pitch is the one chiefly recognised by the human ear. The complex shape of the vocal tract resonator causes some of these frequencies to be amplified, because the vocal tract has been adjusted to resonate at those frequencies (like a complicated beer bottle). Other frequencies are reduced in volume due to lack of resonance. The sound which we hear outside has been filtered in this way so that some frequencies are stronger than others, and whether we hear an 'oo' or an 'ee' depends upon which frequencies have been become dominant.

If the frequencies which are being amplified, or resonated, are reasonable balanced between high and low frequencies, the sound will have a combination of dark and bright qualities (the Italian chiaroscuro), and be pleasing to the ear. An imbalance will cause the sound to be either too dark or too bright. Thus resonance determines the overall quality of the voice sound, as well as the vowel sounds.

Resonance also affects sound production. If the resonator is correctly adjusted for the vowel, pitch and dynamic (volume), then producing the sound is relatively easy. The vowel sounds correct, and a rich, beautiful tone can be obtained. If the resonator is adjusted for some other set of frequencies, the vowel sound will be incorrect, and producing the sound will be hard work, or perhaps even impossible. Having to work too hard to produce a sound results in a forced, shouty tone, and is stressful on the instrument. Continued singing in this manner may eventually cause damage.

How do I teach resonance?

By example, feedback and correction. A resonant sound is louder, richer, easier to produce and altogether more satisfying to the singer (and the teacher), so there is never any absence of motivation. As the principles are understood and the singer improves the control of the resonator, optimal coordination between support, phonation and resonance can be approached. The mirror, the video camera, the taping of lessons are indispensible.