Sunday, August 28, 2011

Singer, Know Thy Voice!!

The voice is an acoustic instrument. Like a fine Steinway or Stradivarius, your sound results from the basic tone produced by the actuator (the vocal folds in this case) being enhanced by resonating inside a box (the throat and head cavities). The instrument should be built to optimize the resonance that will give the finished tone warmth, projection, and beauty well as your unique timbre. This comes through thoughtful and systematic training. We must understand the workings of our instrument to get the most mileage from it.

Nonclassical singing does rely on amplification but that should not mean that singers shouldn't develop their natural tone to its optimal level before stepping to the mic. A pianist will know the spectrum of tonal qualities she can get from her axe through sheer technical facility and musicianship without the crutch of gadgets. We singers should have the same standard. Singers, we need to drop the quick fix mentality and commit to excellence and mastery on our instrument. Whether you sing opera, pop, metal, Latin jazz, R&B, hip-hop, country, or blues shouldn't matter. MASTER YOUR VOICE!! Let's not let technology keep us mediocre!!!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Vocal Cord Closure

One of the essential elements in creating great tone is good closure of the vocal folds. Without it, a singer will be unable to develop a voice that is powerful, clear, and connected from chest register into middle and then head voice. A speaker will lack presence and character. The control of the breath is weakened because the the cords can't efficiently function as a valve for the air flow. Unfortunately, too often traditionall vocal training left its recipients with the misguided notion that the only concerns in regards to technique are 'support' and 'placement'. This has produced a profound ignorance as to the realities of vocal function. But I digress.......

A vocal technique that addresses the concept of vocal cord closure is a must for the modern singer. Tools are needed to condition the voice to create a wide array of sounds safely. Using a bit of 'cry' or 'whimper' in the voice will engage the muscles in the larynx to bring the edges of the folds together more efficiently and create good compression. Vocalize on the syllables 'goog', 'mum', 'no', and 'bub' with the slightly edgy cry. You may feel a bit silly but you will be doing wonders for your instrument. Just know that even Luciano Pavarroti said that singing is crying on pitch. This will aid in connecting the registers and gaining more strength for the mix and head voice.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Tongue Tension

As I previously mentioned, the tongue is often a source of unwanted tensions for singers. It is important to be aware of the engagement of the hyoid or digastric muscles at the base of the tongue, near the chin. Just the awareness of their activity helps in loosening their grip. Place both thumbs under your chin and sing an ascending passage. If you feel pressure from the tongue pushing downward, those muscles are getting in the way of efficient tone production. Also, if when watching yourself in a mirror you notice your tongue pulling backward in your mouth, it is being disruptive to good singing. WE DON'T WANT THAT!!!!!

I like to start my warmup time with some tongue stretches before I actually vocalize. This routine I learned from Nate Waller, who was my speech pathologist when I was preparing for vocal fold surgery. Since then, they have become a regular part of my daily regimen.

So here goes:
1) Stick the tongue out of the mouth pointing upward. Hold for 3-4 seconds and release. Repeat 3 times.
2) Stick the tongue out pointing downward for 3-4 seconds then release. Repeat 3 times.
3) Stick the tongue out to the each side of the mouth for 3 repetitions, holding for 4 seconds each time.
4) With the tip of the tongue behind the lower front teeth, extend the body of the tongue forward and out . Hold for 4 seconds. Repeat 4 times.
Make this a regular part of the vocal warmup process. You will be so very glad you did!!

I like to monitor the activilty of the muscles under the chin throughout my practice time. If I feel that my production of sound is getting more difficult, I place the thumbs under the chin to check for tightening of those evil tongue muscles. Often, that is the source of the imbalance. If you're like me and had a lot of problems in this area early on, you must remain vigilant in self-monitoring.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Using the pharyngeal voice to build a strong mix

There is still alot of debate in vocal teaching circles concerning the healthiness of belting. Even finding a consistent definition is tricky. It's a sound that is often identified with Broadway or gospel singing. It is a big, loud, powerful sound that can be quite stirring. The potential problem with pure belting is that the chest voice range is pushed higher than is optimal, which can make a singer hyperfunctional. In my opinion, it is better to develop a strong mix or middle voice that can can be leaned into for more power.

One exercise that can help in that area is the pharyngeal voice or 'witch's voice. The use of this device dates back to the baroque period and the training of the castrati. This ugly, bratty sound helps to bridge the chest into the middle area easily without pushing or straining. Use the sounds 'nay', 'naa', & 'waa' in your practice. As you ascend the scale, don't get intentionally louder- the pharyngeal resonance will give a sense of more power without your help! Just keep the sound ugly without strain. Be sure not to jam the sound into your nose. It works wonders without taxing the voice.

A great scale pattern to start with is the octave arpeggio with the top note repeated:

nay- nay-nay-nay-nay-nay-nay-nay-nay-nay
1 3 5 8 8 8 8 5 3 1

The repeat of the top note give the muscles a greater opportunity to remember the proper response. From here, you can add the octave & a half pattern as well as the mixed octave scale. These two amp up the challenge by covering more range more quickly.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Daily Vocal Warmup

The modern singer is a vocal athlete. Dancers and elite sports professionals know the importance of preparing the body correctly for performance. Vocalists need to be the same way! Just like the skeletal muscles should be systematically stretched before demanding usage, so should the muscles of the larynx that are involved in phonation. The principle of veisel dilation is the same- blood needs to nourish the muscles with oxygen to increase flexibility and decrease the chance of injury. DON'T SKIMP ON YOUR VOCAL WARMUP!!!!

A singer should NEVER go into a lengthy rehearsal, recording session, or performance without a thorough warmup. It should last somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes to make sure that all the musculature is properly coordinated, with the head and chest registers easily connected and the full range engaged. Physical stretches are also helpful as are stretches for the tongue.

I begin the vocal warmup with glissandi, or slides, either on a hum, 'oo', lip trill, or tongue trill. Either starting lightly in head voice and descending or sliding up easily from chest voice work well. The first scales will be on sounds that serve to stretch out the voice- lip trills, tongue trill, and the 'ng' sound. I use the octave and a half pattern and then into the mixed octave scale. These exercise sounds allow for a very effective warmup over a wide range without undue pressure and unwanted muscular interference. And they can be revisited throughout the day to keep the voice fresh.

Now we move on to the dumb or crying sounds. These exercise syllables will help you balance good cord closure with efficient air flow- not too much, not too little. Use syllables such as 'mum', 'goog', 'bub', or 'wun' with a slightly exaggerated goofy sound. This will keep the swallowing muscles from pulling the larynx up and constricting the throat. Then change the sound from the dumber approach to more of a whimper or cry, bringing the larynx to a more natural, neutral position. This is not supposed to be a pretty sound. Its job is to deactivate those overactive swallowing muscles that interfere with easy tone production.

Then, the ugly but invaluable pharyngeal sounds are employed. They were referred to as 'the witch's voice' in times past and that's exactly how you should sound!! No sounding pretty here!! With a bratty, witchy tone, we will use the syllables 'nay' and 'naa'. These sounds will allow again greater air flow and a produce a tone that is deceptively powerful but actually quite easy to make- no strain needed. The exercise allows a very easy, effiecient connection of the chest and head registers, creating the much needed middle voice or 'the mix' that is so important for most modern vocal styles. Remember, the goal is not prettiness. The ugliness in the exercises is helping to build a solid technique, so enjoy the chance to sound like a looney as you build a killer voice!!

Once you have gotten through this portion of the warmup, you may move onto exercises that work on agility, sustains, and dynamics, but only after the voice feels loose and the cord closure is well coordinated with the breath.

This is a map of the basics of the daily warmup. It will vary according to many factors, such as energy level, time of day, amount of sleep, the size of the voice, and many others. But this is a general approach that we will use as the core of regimen. It is very imporant to find a knowledgeable voice teacher to help you develop the proper routine for your voice and its unique demands.
Remember, you are a vocal athlete and you must train with that idea in mind.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Dealing With a Rising Larynx

A common problem for vocalists is the rising of the larynx, or voice box, which houses the vocal cords. For the most part, your larynx should not move up much when singing higher. The vocal folds stretch and thin to create higher notes and that's most efficiently done if the larynx stays more neutral or slightly lowered for classical singing. When it rises, the lifter muscles responsible for moving it for swallowing purposes are engaged. This is not very efficient for most singing and can lead to fatigue and other unwanted problems.

When practicing, monitor the voice box by lightly placing a finger over the larynx and pay attention to any tendency of it to move too much when ascending. To combat a rising voice box, add a pouty or dumb approach to your sound. Use syllables such as 'mum', 'goog', 'bub', or 'wun' with a slightly exaggerated goofy sound. This will keep the swallowing muscles from pulling the larynx up and constricting the throat.

So here goes!! Using 'goog', we will phonate on the following pattern. Make sure it is produced with a Bullwinkle or Rocky Balboa dopey sound or as if saying 'duh'.

goog goog goog goog goog goog goog goog goog goog
1 3 5 8 8 8 8 5 3 1

This is not supposed to be a pretty sound. Its job is to deactivate those overactive swallowing muscles that interfere with easy tone production. Remember to keep a finger placed lightly on your larynx and you should notice it staying down even as the pitch rises. It may also helpful to do the exercise with your fist lightly on the chin to make sure your jaw stays loose. One you get the hang of it, you can move on these patterns:

1 3 5 1(next octave) 3 5 4 2 7(in original octave) 5 4 2 1

1 5 3 8 5 3 1

This is an extremely effective exercise......and its silliness makes it fun!!!