I thought I would jot down some vocal technique ideas that I find universally a problem with singers, and also include some ideas for memorization and tricks of the trade that have helped me over the years. I use these techniques a lot in masterclasses, so if you’ve attended one, you will recognize some of these exercises or concepts. They’re a little jumbled at present, but hopefully eventually, I’ll put them in some semblance of order.
Singing for me is a balance of tension and freedom – there has to be some tension, otherwise the cords would not sound! But too much superfluous tension makes for a wiry or muffled voice, as well. It’s a balancing act. The cords need to be closed when starting to sing, to be parted by the flow of air. But they should not be slammed together shut, nor squeezed together shut to make a huge glottal when you do sing, nor should the air blow apart the cords in a gust of hhhhhhhh’s. It is all about moderation, and of the right amount and kind of tension.
Things to be aware of while you’re singing: keeping your bottom jaw « soft » when opening, open it exactly down, feeling the temporal mandibular joint opening up (that joint right in front of your ear – called TMJ for short.) Your TMJ should not feel compressed. As my teacher Norma says, keep a « soft chin. » If you have TMJ problems, please go see a specialist dentist or orthodontist. CONCEPT: to feel like (irrationally, but it helps) that your upper jaw is moveable and that you’re moving that UP instead of moving your bottom jaw down. … all this without tilting your head back or using/bunching up the muscles at the base of your skull. Your head should not tilt back as you sing. If anything, you should feel the crown of your head moving up vertically, freeing up the base of your skull – the beginning of your neck and spine.
CONCEPT: connecting with your breath – a SPOT about two inches below your belly button – just feel a connection to it, don’t necessarily press it in or hold it, just anchor your sound from there, and lift from there. Connect to your pelvic floor muscles, the INNER muscles in your body, not the surface muscles. The muscles you want to connect with are the « core muscles » they’re always talking about in Pilates classes! You want to keep your surface muscles open so your ribs are NOT compressed.
Posture: keep your shoulders back, arms down (not on hips or on the piano or on the stand in front of you, as you bring up your shoulders when you do that). Keep your palms either a little out towards the audience or straight at your sides. Don’t let the tops of your hands be facing forward – this means you’re hunched over some and are bringing forward your shoulders. T.U. (tits up!) not exaggeratedly but enough to keep ribs off of your lower support area and your ribs out keep the ribs open, expanded, so the work is going on on your SPOT – – as you’re singing, feel that you’re expanding the ribs and working from UNDERNEATH – – from your SPOT. as you’re keeping ribs open, be careful not to let your back and lower back close up, as well (I do this a lot – eek!) with each breath, concentrate not only on keeping out ribs, but on expanding the lower back. expand lower back WITHOUT rounding forward the shoulders!!!!!
CONCEPT: your voice is floating along on this wave/cushion of air that’s billowing from your bowels! SEND your voice out to the far depths past the room, even when you’re singing piano. This helps get your voice out of your body, CONCEPT: Keep everything with an underlying legato, so that you’re singing THROUGH each note to the next, not. just. to. each. note. as. if. there’s. a. period. after. each. note. Feel that there’s a little crescendo from each note to the next, instead of a decrescendo.
CONCEPT: FEEL THAT YOUR VOICE NEVER STOPS VIBRATING – THAT YOUR VIBRATO STAYS STEADY AND DOES NOT STRAIGHTEN OUT IN THE MIDDLE OF A NOTE, AT THE END OF A NOTE, AT THE BEGINNING OF A NOTE – THAT THE VIBRATION OF THE VOICE MOVES FROM THE BEGINNING OF THE NOTE ESPECIALLY INTO THE NEXT NOTE – THIS CREATES A TRUE LEGATO.
CONCEPT: there is always an underlying legato in every song, even if the lines are interrupted by breaths, rests, or the notes are staccate – you’re always going forward with WHAT YOU HAVE TO SAY on this stream of breath. KEEP YOUR BODY UP UNDER YOUR VOICE EVEN IN THE « EASY » PARTS OF YOUR VOICE – i.e. anywhere that’s not the top!!!!! vowels – practice things on EE and AY, with the corners of your mouth rounded (not tight mouth corners, as this also adds to jaw tension) the « lift » is INSIDE, not at the corners of your mouth. Don’t lift your eyebrows to get that head voice spinning – instead lift the corners of your ears while keeping the forehead flat – this raises things inside and releases the jaw. Look at yourself in the mirror – locate that little nub that goes in your ear from your cheek. Try to make that little nub move up and back. If you concentrate on this instead of PUTTING your jaw in a certain place (which can make it lock in a new bad position), you may feel the freedom of the open jaw joint. It also seems to lift your soft palate. This seems to be a Trish MacAfree technique. Figure out your OOOH! vowel so it doesn’t sound like EEYUW!! We English speakers tend to avoid a true oooooh for some reason, and end up sounding like surfer dudes in every other language as a result. It can and ideally will buzz your top lip up to the tip of your nose. Round your lips more (bring forward the CORNERS of your mouth) – there is a little change in the FRONT of your tongue from an ee vowel for ooh, but not the back of the tongue. Keep the sound forward in the mask. (Exercise: on the same middle to low note, sing the sounds BOO-JEE-WOO-JEE-WOOOOOOOOOO, keeping the lips exaggeratedly rounded the entire time without bringing forward your jaw, not moving your teeth or lips for the J sounds, then descend a fifth 5-4-3-2-1 on the last WOOOOO.)
PLACEMENT: feel with your tongue where your hard palate begins. Aim THERE with your voice or in front of it, never behind it. This doesn’t mean that you don’t lift the soft palate, just that you’re not aiming the voice there. Move your neck around as you’re singing. Sometimes we lock down into that « shoulders forward » position sometimes, and the neck comes forward. Concentrate on your breath (your SPOT under the belly button!) and move your shoulders and neck around to make sure you’re not locking down.
EXERCISE – for help on getting a good mixture of head and chest in the middle and bottom of your voice. You need to have the facility to use either, and strengthen each part, so you can choose how much chest or head to put into a note. On a low note in your range (this is for women only) – Using your support, start your note with a good attack (not glottal, not aspirated HHH’s) in straight chest voice – switch directly into pure head voice on the same note, then back to chest, then back to head, then back to chest. Go up one note at a time. DO NOT take this exercise up further than about an a in the staff at the limit. This is weird and will sound like you’re changing gears in the middle when it’s right. Practice that CHEST-HEAD thing not further up than an A to get a better feel for each part of your voice, and which part is weaker and where… You need to make sure your body’s up under your voice when you’re doing this exercise, otherwise you can hurt yourself!
Concept: DON’T squish the vowels in your middle voice to try and spread to get a « clear » sound – your voice will clear up if you have your body/breath connection, and the right forward/vertical placement in your mouth. Don’t try to impose another problem on top of the two (breath, placement) to try and put a bandaid on the problem. Tackle the other two issues instead. I find the number one annoying thing about sopranos in this country is that they spread in order to get a clear sound, instead of working on their breath support and their correct voice placement to make that happen.
Take phrases out of context (this sometimes will help with memorization as well) – try to sing each and every phrase well out of its context: get a good breath beforehand no matter how long that takes, and attack the phrase well. Only then, move on to the next phrase. Use this exercise idea to see if you’re grabbing a note once you get there. Sing the note staccato, staccato, and then SING IT and hold it out. The placement should be the same as it was with the staccato once you sustain it. Use your breath to sustain, not your throat. Also, remember the GOOD ATTACK – not air-y, but not grabbed and glottal. no « H » in sound – especially at the beginning of the vowels of « ah » or « oh » , even following a consonant. example: the word « karp » becomes « kHarp » many times without singers being aware of it. Taking out this added H takes out the woofiness in your voice. Listen for it and correct it!
- Sing through your entire song on an EE vowel or AY vowel to get it placed in the most forward, buzzy, mask place, concentrating on your breath and legato.
- then sing through it with the consonants on an EE or AY vowel, keeping the legato line going, so it’s not note. note. note. note.
- Then, and only then, sing through it on JUST the real vowels, trying to keep the legato going through the lines.
- If you feel woofiness coming through, sing through that line on EE or AY and then immediately again on the real vowels, trying to keep the voice buzzing in that same place as with the EE or AY. (support!)
- Then, only then add back your consonants, and VOILA! your song will be much more forward, in the mask, and on the breath.
CONCEPT: say the words, feel where they are in your throat – sing each vowel as you would speak it. It’s not about chesting everything, or starting on a glottal, it’s getting your body and the « core » of the voice up under your voice (this is from using your body – your support of breath) It will also help get rid of excess air by making you say ONLY the vowel – without the added « HHH » (air or woof) in it. Don’t bring your JAW forward or out to pronounce certain consonants – use your lips and tongue. Keep that jaw soft.
TRICK OF THE TRADE:
- Take long phrases out of context, and start from the back of the phrase – – sing the last half (or third or whatever) of the phrase with a good breath, so you work into your muscle memory what it feels like to sing the END of the phrase with good breath support.
- Then sing through it, adding on incrementally to the phrase backwards until you have the whole phrase comfortable all the way to the end.
- By the time you’ve added on all the back to the first part of the phrase, the long phrase will be a piece of cake. This is also a great thing to do with long coloratura lines.
Problematic notes (FLATTIES!) – see where you’re approaching from!! It’s your « jump-off » note, the note beforehand, that is placed wrongly, which is why your top note won’t spin like it should. So instead of just looking at the one note that’s flat, look at the notes directly before it and where they are placed! Concentrate on breath! Sometimes singing the top note (staccato, staccato, sustain in the same place without grabbing) and then sliding down to your « jump-off » note can help you figure out what the quality of the jump-off note needs to be. Usually the placement between the two doesn’t need to be so drastic a change. Make sure your breath and your body comes up under it before you even think about changing the note. And watch that jaw!
ANOTHER ANNOYING THING ABOUT YOUNG SINGERS
Don’t get all macho and squeak out a line without breath because you just want to make that line all in one breath. TAKE MORE BREATHS IN YOUR MUSIC! Nobody cares if you made that line all in one breath; I SWEAR! If there’s a place to take the breath in the text and it will help the end of the phrase be stronger, MAKE something of the breath and paint the word after you’ve breathed. Your communication will be all the more strong for it. Work your breathing into your text and song. USE it and use your rests to concentrate on breathing. i.e. instead of thinking what your next text is, think, « inhale deep, relax lower back, connect with spot, » THEN sing your next line. If you treat your rests as moments to concentrate on your breath in rehearsal, and you use them in the context of the song to mean something, they will seem so natural and meaningful instead of just moments when you’re not singing. The rests are a big part of the music (think John Cage !) Silence is also a part of music. So put it to your own good use. If you don’t have enough time to breathe well, get the hell off the note before it early (make up a reason for yourself with the text) so you can breathe well and get back IN on the NEXT beat. Nobody notices when you cut off. However they do notice when you come IN. If you need to shorten a note, make a reason for it in your interpretation of the text – bite off the last consonant, or really attack the starting consonant after it – as if to say , I’m breathing here ON PURPOSE so I can paint the text and this very special word!! This is preferable to making your accompanist wait for you and creating a big hole in the music. Learn your music early, and learn it backwards and forwards. Even though you may feel like « Ok, I know that one already for my juries, NEXT! », the more you take apart your music in your head, and vocally, as well, the more you can interpret it. If you’re just trying to get the memorization right now and trying to get the notes and the placement, etc right, you’re not really communicating as much as you can. Get the memorization part majorly out of the way, so that you can then address the technical aspects, and usually only then, in conjunction with your technique, can you start to interpret it. You need to look at your pieces again from a characterization standpoint, and see where you need to give special effects, make contrast between the dynamics or play up the differences between the articulation of the lines to go along with the words, and really USE your text’s possibilities. Darker vowels and brighter vowels are written in the poetry for a reason, and set in a certain way for a reason, as are certain consonants – figure out WHY they’re there for you, and give meaning to them, and bring out the text as a result! This always involves breath, as that’s what energizes your consonants – make sure you’re not adding HHH’s to your vowels or the HHH’s to the vowels after consonants. If you can energize your characterization of the songs, this will help you energize your breath under things. Have an opinion about these songs and tell us what it is in the way you sing it!! Communicate, baby!! more soon…
- On the Art of Singing by Richard Miller
- Bel Canto in Its Golden Age: A Study of Its Teaching Concepts by Philip A. Duey