From the rank beginner to the elite professional, there are certain things that all singers must do when they sing, no matter what their style, age, ethnicity, gender, talent, or training level. Singers are bound by the laws of nature: physics, biomechanics, acoustics, and several other “ics” come into play when we sing.
What are these must-do things? They have many different names and include posture, breathing, the creation of sound, and tone quality. Over the course of teaching for forty-five plus years, I have organized the must-do things into a system I call the “tions” since all those aforementioned things can be described with words ending in “tion.” Let’s go through the list with a general explanation of each.
“Tion” #1 is BODY POSITION. How you position your body can have a powerful effect on your singing. While you can sing in almost any position, even hanging upside down, a posture that elevates the rib cage sets up the body to function in the most efficient way.
How can you check out your posture or body position? The quickest and easiest way is to simply extend your arms straight up over your head. That action immediately lifts your rib cage and puts everything else in line. If you feel your ribcage move significantly higher when you put your arms over your head, that tells you your body position was collapsed before you started.
“Tion” #1 leads to “tion” #2, RESPIRATION, otherwise known as breathing. You need air to sing (no air, no sound) so getting the air into the body and then using that air to power the voice is a must-do thing. All of you reading this blog right now are breathing to stay alive. For most folks, it’s not a big deal. In fact, very few people even think about their breathing. It sort of just happens.
As singers, however, we should be trying to make our respiration process as efficient as possible. If you’re getting the air in any old way, you may decrease your ability to sustain phrases, stay on pitch, and control tone and loudness.
Most people breathe correctly when they are asleep, but often do not when awake. To learn what natural breathing is really about, watch a person, or even a dog or a cat when they sleep. Unless the creature you’re watching has pulmonary issues or is having a nightmare, you’ll notice the abdomen and lower part of the ribcage rising and falling with each breath as the lungs fill up with and then expel air. That’s what you do when you are asleep.
To breathe like that when you’re awake, put your hands in a V shape at the lower part of your ribs. Your fingers should be on your abs, your thumbs should be on your lower back, and the crook of your hand should be on your ribcage. If you feel your whole hand move outward when you take a breath, you’re doing it right. That’s an “east-west” breath. If you feel your ribs move inward and your shoulders rise when you breath in air, you’re doing it less right. That’s a “north-south” breath and it’s the opposite of nature’s way. Also, that kind of breath can put much more pressure on your throat by over tensing muscles in the neck.
That’s the “in” part of respiration. Let’s talk about the “out” part of the breathing cycle. If we’re not singing or talking, the air goes in to and out of our bodies fairly quickly. However, when we sing and speak, we need the air stay in our lungs for a longer period of time. If you maintain that feeling of a full breath while you’re singing and keep your ribcage expanded, you’ll find you’ll have better control over your voice. Many of us use the Italian term appoggio to describe that feeling of fullness during the exhalation phase of the breath cycle. Here’s a quick way to experience appoggio. Breath in with an east-west breath then expel the air through your teeth in a hissing sound. If you feel your whole lower torso firm up and resist collapsing inward while you’re hissing, that’s appoggio, or as some people like to describe it, support.
Now that we’ve established good body position and efficient respiration, let’s start to make some sounds. But before we can do that, we need to deal with “tion” #3, AUDIATION. It’s a word that describes hearing the notes in our head before we sing. Many of us hear the notes we want to sing without any trouble. But some of us don’t hear notes accurately so we can’t reproduce them properly, causing us to sing out of tune or off pitch. The term you often hear to describe such singing is “tone deaf.” Folks who have this problem, need to learn to listen more intensely for the sounds of the notes they want to sing. With a lot of intense listening work, people who sing wrong notes can get better at this “tion.” When they start match the pitches, which are really vibrations, they get tuned in.
Audiation, or hearing sounds, now leads us to actually making sounds. “Tion” #4 is PHONATION. A device almost all of us carry around and look at constantly is called a phone for a reason. The Greek word phone means sound. It creates and conveys sound and so do you.
Your vocal folds (often called vocal “cords”) located inside your larynx (“voice box”) are responsible for creating sound. Air pressure underneath them causes them to close and vibrate. The faster they vibrate, the higher the pitch gets. Slower vibrations create lower pitches. They can vibrate pretty fast. For example, singers trying to sing a high “A” (A5) above the treble music staff need their vocal folds to vibrate (open and close) 880 times per second. Singing an octave below on A4 requires the folds to open and close 440 times per second. Even a low bass note (A2) still requires those dime-to-penny-sized vocal folds of ours to vibrate at 110 times per second. Like a played guitar or a piano string, our folds are a vibrating blur when we sing and speak.
When we phonate, if the vocal folds don’t close fully, the sound is breathy and airy. If they close very tightly, the sound resembles “Kermit the Frog.” Somewhere in between is where most singers tend to go, depending on their style choice. The technical term for that balanced sound is called flow phonation. After you’ve warmed up, sing as low as you can until you can’t go any lower. Then get those vocal folds vibrating as fast as you can by singing as high as you can without straining. It’s like going to the gym and working out trying to get a little more strength, coordination, and flexibility with each workout.
Your vocal folds act like gears on your bike or in your car. First gear is your lower or “chest register” (Mode 1)while second gear is your higher or “head register” (Mode 2). This activity is “tion” #5 and it’s called REGISTRATION. For a balanced and healthy voice, we need to use both major registers.
Unfortunately, the out-of-date and, frankly, unscientific terms for this “tion” (chest, head, middle, falsetto) can confuse people. You don’t have a voice in your head or chest just like you can’t sing from your diaphragm. The fact is, vocal folds for both men and women are basically the same in function. They differ mostly in size. Women’s folds are generally smaller than men’s folds which is why most women can’t sing as low as men. That’s it. There’s nothing false about a man singing in second gear (“head”) nor a woman singing in first gear (“chest”). They’re just gender-neutral muscles at work.
Personally, I like the Mode system of describing registration. Mode 1 is “chest”, Mode 2 is “head” in both males and females and any other gender identification. In addition, Mode 0 is the very low vocal fry (a growl-like sound) while Mode 3 is the very high whistle register where Mariah Carey and Ariana Grande like to riff.
The sound that vocal folds make by themselves resembles the buzzing of a bee. Phonation now needs an open space to get amplified or resonated in order to become the sound other people hear when we sing and speak. Enter “tion” #6 called RESONATION.
We have three flexible resonators that amplify the buzzing vibrations from our vocal folds: the throat, the mouth, and the nose. Depending on how we shape those three open spaces, the sound can go from very thin and nasal (through the nose) to very thick and full (more mouth and throat) as well as lots of configurations in between. Each singing style has its own recognizable resonation or tone quality. Country singing tends to have a bit of twang or nasality in it while classical opera tends towards a fuller, richer sound. Try making all kinds of different sounds from your most nasal to your opera singer voice. It’s a stretch for both your resonators and your imagination.
This next “tion,” #7, is extra special because we singers are the only acoustic musical instrument that can create words. When we shape vocalized sounds into recognizable language it’s called ARTICULATION. For this task we have articulators: the jaw, the lips, the teeth, the tongue, and the soft palate all enable us to make specific sounds. If you want your audience to understand the lyric of a song, your articulators need to work efficiently. Try this little exercise to check out your articulators. Starting with a “yah” syllable, sing a five-note scale using “yah” on each note. That gets your jaw involved. Next comes the “bah” for your lips, the “tah” for your teeth, “the “lah” for your tongue, and the “nah” for your soft palate. Reverse the order and finish up where you started, with your jaw.
I’ve been separating out each individual “tion” to describe it, but you’ve probable realized by now that many of the “tions” are happening simultaneously. For example, you can’t phonate without making a register and a resonator choice. One of the best ways to establish efficient voice technique is isolation, then integration – even more “tions”! Isolate each of the “tions,” develop them, and then integrate them so they all work together in the final product – a song.
That leads us to our final “tion” #8, EMOTION. All of the other “tions” won’t matter much if you can’t communicate authentic feelings when you sing a song. We singers are storytellers and our job is to make our audiences feel and experience our stories. Having the best voice and the best technique you can possibly have is a worthy goal as long as you remember that if your singing fails to connect with the audience, everything else doesn’t really matter.
So, pay attention to your “tions” and you should hear your singing measurably improve. That’s gratification!