Inside Information: Getting the best from your voice
This is a new page on which we plan to post information about the voice, for those who are interested to delve a little more deeply into how the voice works. The first article is about the most important things we can do to make sure we are singing in a healthy way. You'll recognise a lot of the information from things we say in the warm-up sessions but this also gives some background information about why we do those warm-ups the way we do!
Healthy Singing (the real reason we do warm-ups!)
-by Kate 28/2/18
The warm-up sessions at the beginning of each rehearsal are designed to prepare everyone for healthy singing - singing that is vibrant, on pitch, has good carrying power and tone, and doesn't cause damage or excessive fatigue.
The most important factors for healthy singing are:
· Posture and alignment
Relaxing the whole body when you come to singing is important because it facilitates correct posture and breathing, which then helps the tone of your voice to be produced more easily.
Singing does require muscular effort, but in order to be healthy, it must be the right amount and the right kind of effort. By relaxing the whole body at first, it becomes easier to detect areas of unhelpful tension or effort.
Correct, balanced posture allows the body to be as relaxed as possible but also alert and ready for the physical work of singing. Good posture also allows space for abdominal breathing, which is so important for healthy singing.
Posture is important whether you are standing or sitting for singing. If you are sitting, make sure to keep both feet on the floor, the pelvis tilted slightly forward, the back straight and the shoulders down and back. As with standing, the neck should feel long at the back, the chin tucked in and the head nicely balanced on top of the spine.
Standing or sitting, it helps to hold your folder up, so that you can look up at the conductor and down at your music by moving only your eyes.
Breathing low into the abdomen is important for singing, as it then allows you to control the flow of exhaled air. We use a combination of abdominal and back muscles to hold the air under pressure, but without putting undue strain on the vocal folds.
What we want is for the vocal folds to be held together just the right amount so that they make sound (your voice), and with just enough pressure from your abdominal muscles to keep the sound steady by keeping a steady flow of air against the underside of the vocal folds (subglottal pressure). You can test this by holding up a finger in front of your lips and focusing the air onto it. Try to keep the flow at a constant speed from the beginning to the end of the breath. Then try singing different vowels while keeping the air flow constant.
Two things can go wrong here: pushing the air through too hard, and holding muscle tension and tightness in your throat.
Pushing too much air through can be a result of over-breathing - taking in too much air in the first place. You don't need huge breaths - just a normal amount. The secret to singing a longer phrase is not having a huge breath, but in letting the air out slowly and under control.
Pushing too much air can also happen if you are trying to sing loudly. Be content to sing quietly for now - increased volume does come partially from increasing the air pressure (using those abdominals again!), but also from resonance techniques which you will learn over time.
If you feel you are getting tense in your throat and jaw, stop singing for a moment, and run your tongue around your teeth, pretend to chew something, give your cheeks a massage, roll your shoulders, lengthen the back of your neck...and if you can (maybe not in the middle of a choir song!) try softening your tongue and doing a tongue roll or a lip roll (like rolling your Rs or blowing raspberries but with very soft lips). These exercises all help reduce tension around the larynx and jaw.
Resonance, or the carrying power of the voice, comes from the space inside your mouth and nose, and the bones and sinuses of your head and chest. If you have a good space between your tongue and the roof of your mouth, there is lots of room for sound to reverberate before it even leaves your mouth. This changes the perceived volume of your voice without you having to make lots of effort.
Different frequencies (pitches) resonate in different parts of your mouth, nose, face, head and chest. Everybody's anatomy is slightly different, so the combination of frequencies which the body picks up is unique for each person - that's partly what makes your voice sound individual. This is also why you can feel that a particular note might be vibrating in your nose or your forehead or wherever, It can help to try to direct notes forward into the front of your face to increase their resonance.
· Keep well hydrated, especially during rehearsals. This isn't a myth - it's really a thing that your voice works better when you are drinking enough water.
· Try not to shout or talk too loudly. If you need to be heard over noise, try adding some twang into your voice (you know, that slightly nasal sound), or pitch your voice a little bit higher and use a more "sing-y" voice quality. Shouting and loud talking set up a lot of air pressure against tense vocal folds, and can cause real damage, especially over time.
· No need to sing loudly in choir. Sometimes we do ask for more sound and what we're usually wanting is more tone rather than more volume. You can increase your tone by feeling the ring of muscles around your abdomen and back (approximately at belly-button level) forming a strong base on which you can "lean" your air flow. This is what we call the "breath support" or just the "support" and it's much better than trying to push more air from your chest. It just works better for improving the air pressure, is more controllable and helps you make a more pleasant sound.
· But if you know your voice is tired, don't even try to sing louder, no matter what we say from the front! Remember, we can't tell what is happening in that moment with your voice - so you need to look after yourself. Be especially careful if you are or have been unwell - just take it easy!
· Work on maintaining good posture throughout the rehearsal, so that you can breathe well, and so that you stay relaxed. Be especially aware of keeping your jaw, tongue, neck and shoulders nice and loose.
· Work on keeping lots of space between your tongue (low) and your palate (high). And on keeping a yawny feeling in the back of your mouth, with the sound spinning in front of it. This will make much more sound and feel much more satisfying for you than any amount of trying to push out a big sound with more breath and more effort.
· Keeping your vowels tall and round will help a lot with making space for the sound - that's one of the reasons we go on about it all the time!