General Synopsis of Vocal Technique

Vocal technique for choir singers is a wonderful and fascinating subject. Choir singers are just as in need of a good vocal technique as soloists, and a lot of it is the same technique. Here are some explanations of a few basic aspects of technique that may make good singing easier to achieve and more satisfying for us all. It is, after all, easier to sing well than to sing badly. And a lot more fun.

This article consists of the following sections:

I. The Instrument
II. Posture
III. Registration
IV. Placement
V. Diction
VI. Vocal Health

I. The Instrument

“You are your instrument.”

Your voice – your instrument – extends from top of the forehead to the tops of the legs. It is made up of various muscles and organs located in this large area, all of which have other uses in the physiology of the body. For instance, you use the tongue to help you eat food, as well as to talk and to sing. The diaphragm is used to regulate breathing in general, not just to support the breath as we sing. The pelvic floor is used to support the contents of the pelvis during any heavy effort by you, not just during singing.

In learning to sing, it helps us if we take a rather simple view of our anatomy so that we can more easily manipulate the appropriate parts, especially the parts we can’t see or touch. So the following explanation is over-simplified – not incorrect, mind you, just very stylized.[1]

The important parts of the vocal instrument which are visible to us are the lips, the tongue (the only unopposed muscle in the body), the hard and soft palates, and the back teeth.

Most of the vocal instrument is made up of parts of the body that we can’t see:

1. the three main resonating bodies: the nasal cavities (behind the forehead, eyes, and nose); the oropharynx (the throat behind the mouth) and the pharynx just above the larynx. These open spaces in which the voice resonates are of course all connected, so that we could say that most of the head is a resonator. The chest, contrary to popular belief, does not resonate.
2. the pharynx: simply stated, the pharynx is the tube that we call the throat. It runs from the top of the lungs upward past the back of the mouth to the nasal cavity. You can picture it as a more-or-less empty pipe.

3. the larynx: the “voice box”, which contains, among other things, the so-called vocal chords. The larynx is in the throat, not very far down. It’s the hard little round thing which you can feel on the front of your neck. Don’t touch it, please, because it’s very delicate. It has only one bone – the hyoid bone – which runs along the top. The rest of the larynx is protected by cartilage. Within and without this cartilage package are many, many very small muscles which take care of the entire functioning of the voice. It is extremely complex. The back of the tongue is connected to the hyoid bone.

4. the vocal chords: (latterly called “vocal folds”, a much better descriptive name). They are set vibrating by the stream of air which we produce when we sing (or talk), sending sound waves into the resonators (see number 1, here).

5. the diaphragm: a large muscle, extending from the front of the body to the back, which separates the thorax, that is, the chest, from the lower part of the body, the abdomen, which contains organs such as the stomach, spleen, etc. The lungs are just above the diaphragm, the main function of which is to help regulate the action of breathing.

6. the pelvic girdle: a group of muscles which goes right around the body, the lowest set of muscles in the abdomen. It is attached to the spine in the back and helps support the legs. In singing we use this set of muscles as the impetus for good breath support instead of using the diaphragm or the chest muscles.

7. the pelvic floor: a set of muscles stretched inside the pelvic bones which supports the contents of the pelvis, rather like a trampoline at the bottom of the “tank” that is our instrument. Read more on the pelvic floor in the section of this website on breathing technique.

In order to understand what happens when we breathe and sing, it’s necessary to understand the differences between the “real” body, and the “singing” body. I make the distinction because it does seem sometimes as if they are two separate and equally real physical entities.

II. Posture

In singing, posture is most important when it goes wrong. It’s a very simple subject: stand up straight, and avoid leaning over. Keep practicing until you can remember to stand up straight.

If you want to exercise some muscles to help your posture, the only important ones are the pectoral muscles, which run around the chest and under the arms. Hold them up, or out, a bit and your posture will be perfect.

There is also the issue of holding music scores. Raise the elbows a bit to the sides. If you stand with the elbows glued to your sides the chest is squeezed, which is not very efficient, or nice to look at, come to that.

Also, practice standing still, weight equally distributed on both feet. Conventionally, women stand with one foot slightly in front of the other, shoulder width apart and with a turn-out of 30 degrees.[2] We’re not so insistent about this nowadays .

III. Registration

“Registration is not something we do, it’s something we have, like eyesight –
it can be 20-20, or we can be almost blind.”

The span or compass (or range, if you like) of the human voice is naturally divided into sections, or “registers”. There are two main registers and several minor ones in every voice and they are joined at what we call a passaggio, or “break.” Some authors insist there are as many as seven (or nine, or 4½, or whatever) registers in the voice, but at first we really only need to recognize the two main ones. What follows is a rather simplified explanation of the subject of registration.

Changing registers is what causes the voice to “break”. As we go up or down, and change from one section of the voice to another, from one register to another, a different set of muscles in the larynx takes over responsibility for the work and the voice “breaks” over into the next register. This also can happen on certain notes as we get louder or softer, which changes the amount of each register in the note at that point.

This is amply demonstrated by yodellers when they change from high to low or the reverse. They intentionally break over the registers, not something that we like to have happen by accident.

Head register and head voice

We call the two main registers the “head” register and the “chest” register, but “light mechanism” and “heavy mechanism” are better, more modern, names.

What we call “head voice” and “chest voice” are not the same as the similarly named registers. They are the result of how we use the various registers.

Men sing mostly in chest voice and their head voice is called falsetto. In general, women speak mostly in chest voice, but classical women singers sing mostly in head voice and female popular singers stay mostly in chest voice. There can, however, be some very interesting register mixtures happening in female voices of all types and repertoires, although not so much in men’s voices.

Register changes

Where are the register changes? They occur more or less at the same places in each voice. In men the bottom break is at around low F (1½ octaves below Middle C) and the top break is at around high E or F (just above Middle C). In women the bottom break is about where the top break is in a man’s voice (this is called the passaggio primo). The top break in the women’s voice is about an octave higher (the passaggio secondo).

Everyone has some registration issues with his or her voice, whether they be very disturbing or hardly noticeable. With untrained singers of classical music we find that the biggest registration problems are likely to be, in men, getting into the top without cracking into the falsetto, or going into the low voice with a decently-sized sound. In women, the problem is usually getting into the top at all, or fading away to nothing on the way down through the middle voice.

The wrong key

For women singing popular music the issue is that of key – music recorded by men and published in the original key may be too low for many women. Some of us, in our youth, got around this problem by learning the harmony parts to pop songs, which in popular music usually lie over the melody. The other solution is to sing the melody an octave higher, which isn’t very satisfactory, as it sticks out and doesn’t sound very “poppy”. Some of this problem has been ameliorated by computers which have made it possible to get pieces transposed to a more suitable key for women.

Balance of registers

Each voice has its own balance between its main two registers. Every note that we sing has both registers in it, but a different amount of each. The aural result of this we call the integration of the registers. Some voices are hardly integrated at all, some are too integrated and some are perfect – and, of course, there are all variations in between. Each voice is different. How the voice gets across the registers will be different in each case. Really big registration problems require intensive work with a good voice teacher, but there are some things you can do for yourself. Work on staying as relaxed as possible, especially the tongue (and I mean relaxed, not tied up in yet another knot), the jaw and the diaphragm. Learn a good, relaxed breathing technique which enables you to keep tension out of the throat.
Good placement, our next subject, can help to build a bridge across the registers which can completely hide the chasm below. This is done with the movement of the air in the head, as described in the next section.

IV. Placement

“We don’t place the voice. Placement is a result of what we do, not a cause.

First, a caveat

Technical methods of improving placement should only be attempted by a trained professional, a voice teacher, in person, in the weekly lesson. Better placement is achieved by changing the technique little-by-little and over time. I write about this with some trepidation because it would be easy to do harm to one’s voice by forcing some of these concepts, ill-understood, on the instrument. However, if you try out the feelings described here in a relaxed manner, without straining, and working a little bit at a time, you could possibly improve your placement. But it would be better to attempt it with a good teacher.

Head resonance

Both for men and for women it is constructive to feel that the voice exists in the head (and not, of course, in the throat – or anywhere else, for that matter). Remember the three resonating bodies in the head? In men as well as women the voice can only resonate in the empty spaces that lie above the vocal folds. Air passes in one direction through the vocal folds, which are in the larynx (see part I), setting them vibrating. This makes sound waves, but the waves must pass through air in a space well-formed for making the clearest, loudest, “best” sound. These spaces are only found above the larynx, in the upper throat and head.

The air is the motivating force for the vibration of the vocal folds and the sound comes from the waves passing through the resonating chambers of the throat and head. This is where the phrase, “singing on the breath”, comes from. We can feel this if we’re sensitive to it, which we need to learn to be if we want to sing well and easily.

Feeling, not listening

It’s impossible to hear how we really sound when we sing. Because of our anatomy, we can never hear our own voice correctly. The sound that you hear is not the sound that anyone outside of your body hears. We have a wrong idea of what we really sound like, so if you listen to the sound of your own voice, you are listening to (and probably reacting to) a lie.

Hearing, not listening

Therefore, we have a rule: Never listen to yourself. Many students tell me that they feel as if they must listen to themselves to make sure they are singing the right notes. But it is better to make sure you are correct by listening to what else you can hear in the room – the piano, the organ, the recorded music, the other singers and players.

Yes, you can hear yourself. Of course you can. But try to ignore the supremely attractive sound of your own voice and listen instead to all the wonderful things you can hear outside of yourself.

Instead of listening to yourself it is much more useful to feel your voice in your head. Feel where the voice is, where it rests, lives, works. What do you feel in your forehead, behind the eyes, in the nose, teeth, sinuses? Where does the air move? Are there any vibrations? Or, heaven forbid, do you only feel pulling in the throat, and a tense and uncomfortable tongue?

Just like all human beings, all voices are different. Some people have naturally good placement, and some have voices which could be described as “positionally challenged”.

Location, location, location

We can locate the feeling of the voice in our head in four ways: up or down and forward or back. You can think of them as map coordinates. Up and forward are good, down and back are bad. Simple, really.

Our present “placement” is the result of the present shape of our resonators. If we can open and change the shape of the resonators we can change the placement – the focus – of the voice. By doing this we are asking the voice to move more forward and more upwards.

Some of the most important things that we use to change this shape are the cheekbones, which are connected to the teeth and to the hard and soft palates. When we can lift up slightly this system of bones and muscles we can get more space in the back of the mouth (oropharynx) and behind the soft palate (nasopharynx). We call this system of bones and muscles our “structure”.

Stand in front of the mirror and open your mouth, tip your head back and look into your mouth. Do you see the uvula hanging down at the upper back part of the mouth? The uvula is the very end of the soft palate (the back part of the roof of the mouth). The soft palate, as well as the hard palate, which is connected to it in front, is part of our “structure”. The hard and soft palates, including the uvula, are connected to the teeth and to the cheek bones. We can gently lift all this up, just a bit, to create more and better space.

Smile

Can you see the big hole that you have created back there behind the tongue (in the oropharynx) when you lifted up the uvula and hard and soft palates? When this “structure”, including the cheek bones, is lifted, it produces a smile on the face. If you’re trying all this out in the mirror, observe how your face looks – it should not be distorted, but look pleasant and (horrible word) “natural”. You should be wearing a real smile, not some artificial construction.

Another place we can change for the better is the space behind the nose. If you were to find a skull somewhere (or watch archaeology programs on television) you would see that where the nose used to be there is now just a large hole. This hole, in a live person, is covered in mucus membrane and some small muscles. We can manipulate these tissues a bit, opening sideways, which helps us feel that we can open the front of our face. We can breathe (with an open mouth) up into the resonator that lies there, which lets us feel our voice on the front better. It’s like smelling a beautiful rose, wafting the scent into the sinuses.

Movement and air

So now we have lifted our structures and opened behind our noses. We now turn to something even more subtle and necessarily vague – movement of the voice.

The voice moves in us – in the spaces that we have created in the resonating bodies of the head. Music is movement; it is the forward motion of the notes and, in singing we can say that the voice moves, or the line, the phrase, or indeed, the air moves. Air is the fuel of the voice; the movement of the air is what carries the voice into and out of the head. When the air is moving correctly in the head we don’t hear it and we certainly don’t hear the “h” sound at the attack of a phrase. Our goal is not the sound of air moving, but a subtle feeling, which sometimes is more clearly felt by its absence. Check if you’re moving the voice, the line, the phrase, the air in the head. Air in the space: the basis of all good placement and therefore of all good singing.

Feeling the voice

These feelings are very slight and extremely vague at the beginning, but the more you look for them the more present and definite they’ll be. We can feel where our notes are residing. The voice has a general tendency to be better placed in the middle of the range and to shift backwards at the top and bottom. (This is something that happens more or less at the passaggi. See Part 4: Registration.)

There are a few activities that a singer can do by himself to help in encouraging a more forward placement. It’s very helpful to practice while watching oneself in the mirror. Smiling raises the cheekbones and palates. Always avoid tension in the face. A feeling of the tongue being tense in the back can be a sign of faulty placement, as is the feeling of the muscles pulling in the throat.

Remember to feel your voice instead of listening to it. You can, however, listen to your own recordings and try to judge which vowels and which notes and parts of phrases were properly forward and which parts were “back”.

If you’re relaxed enough you can practice whole songs, but lightly and easily, on the vowel ‘I’ (‘ee’). If sung without pressure, this vowel can encourage the voice to move toward the front.

An image

Think of the bony plate of the inside of the forehead as a wall which extends to both sides of the face and from the top of the nose to the hairline. It is an ornamental brick wall, or a wooden one, or anything beautiful. Imagine when you sing that all the vowels flow forward on the air in your head to the front of the face and lie against this wall. They touch the wall – not only touch, but caress, and not only the centre of the wall, but the whole width and breadth of the wall. The feeling thus produced is necessary to good production.

The anchor

A gentle pressure on the pelvic floor at the end of the action of accepting breath, at the moment of attack, can help you start a phrase with a better placement.

Remember that we don’t “place” the voice – we provide a proper space for the voice to live in and come out of. Always avoid making faces (which you’ll see in the mirror), and pushing the voice into the front of the face (this makes a nasty sound). Always make sure your neck and shoulders are relaxed. Placement is a very subtle thing – take it slowly and wait for the feeling to grow. It’s not something that can be got by forcing more muscular effort.

Good diction can also help move the voice more forward.

V. Diction

Words consist of two elements: vowels and consonants. The vowels carry the emotional content of the words and the consonants are just noise.

Good diction means clear, understandable words. There’s a lot of nonsense given out about how to make clearer words, but it’s easier than you might think. For some reason, singers imagine that hitting the vowels and consonants harder will make them clearer; we should all know by now that it doesn’t work that way. A little analysis will help you understand how you sing words and then how to sing them more clearly.

Unclear diction is usually the fault of a combination of tense, distorted vowels and lack of end-consonants. Singers get so tied up in knots with the vowels that it’s impossible to say the consonants crisply and speedily enough. Singers sometimes must be able to sing a lot of understandable words very quickly and sometimes in a foreign language. Tense vowels and consonants will slow you down and make you more incomprehensible.

Vowels

Note: For an explanation of the notation used to represent the sound of vowels, see the Vocal Technique article, “Transcription of Vowel Sounds”, on this website.

It is easier and makes a more pleasing sound when we are open. We need to be open when we sing. That is, the mouth should be open – this seems only logical. To understand how to open up more easily, it’s helpful to understand the idea of the five “pure” vowels: ‘A’, ‘E’, ‘I’, ‘O’, and ‘U’ (that’s the Italian spelling, or German if you prefer).

All five of these vowels are related to “ah”, and all the other vowels are related to these five, and we want to learn to sing them in a clear and easy manner, and consciously, so that we understand exactly what we’re doing.

The vowels should be open and relaxed, by which I mean that the mouth should be open when we sing the vowels. The mouth is the most open on ‘A’, ‘O’ and ‘E’ (which is more like “eh” when you’re practicing opening). Keep your face relaxed and do not strain to say any vowel – that defeats the purpose.

The vowels ‘I’ and ‘U’ are called “closed” vowels by linguists and the like, but we singers don’t allow anything to be closed! The only difference for us between ‘A’ and ‘I’ is that the bottom lip is necessarily allowed to come closer to the upper teeth on ‘I’ and also on ‘U’ by raising the chin a bit. Inside the mouth and head, we are still open.

Luckily we don’t need to consciously move too much to change vowels. The brain sends a message to the back of the tongue and other associated muscles and the vowel is changed in a flash – far more quickly than if we had to consciously form the vowel. We’re responsible only for a few small actions such as raising the chin for ‘I’ (because if you don’t, you get “eh”), or bringing in the upper lip toward to centre of the face (a bit) for ‘O’. All the pure vowels are based on the vowel ‘A’, and are related to it, so that ‘O’ is only ‘A’ with a bit of lip. This is very helpful, because we don’t have time and energy to be exaggeratedly making vowels with our lips.

When your diction is unclear, there is a specific reason. Often it’s because there is so much tension in the lips and tongue that words are distorted. Check your face in the mirror. Look at your lips and chin. Can you see your bottom teeth? Probably your chin is jutting out. Relax again. Many people use a closed, spread mouth and very tight jaw to say ‘E’. This leads to a raft of difficulties. Let the chin relax, open the mouth and sing ‘E’. Relax. And relax again, until you can open your mouth for the vowels without distortion.

You cannot sing a vowel “harder” to make it clearer – it’s not possible to make “more” vowel. Relax the lips and tongue and think about opening. You can always move toward the “pure” form of a vowel, especially on long notes.

It helps to practice fast passages slowly and work up to a faster tempo.

Note: Sometimes it’s difficult to convince everyone to open fully. Hardly anyone refuses to open on general principles – people think they’re fully open when they’re not. Recourse to a small hand mirror is helpful. Students are often surprised at themselves when they see their tiny little mouths.

Consonants

Consonants come in two kinds: voiced and unvoiced. And some of them can be arranged in pairs: “b” is the voiced version of “p”; “t” is the unvoiced version of “d”; “s” (sounds like “z”) is the voiced version of “ss” (sounds like a snake).

In unclear diction it is mostly the end consonants (consonants at the ends of words) that fail. All consonants, and especially ones like “d”, “t”, “p”, “b” and “k”, need to be expelled with some air. Here is how that is done:

Consonants are formed by two of the following three things coming together and exploding apart. These parts of your consonant-forming apparatus are the lips, the tip of the tongue and the upper teeth or alveolar ridge (the bony ridge right behind your upper teeth). For instance, “t” is made by touching the tip of the tongue to the alveolar ridge and then exploding the two parts open with a burst of air; “p” and “b” are made by putting the two lips together and then exploding them apart. We explode air through the two touching parts, puffing them open. And we do it quickly. This business of getting air to bring out the consonants is related to the rest of good vocal technique. Air is what moves the voice and air is what moves the consonants on, out of us.

Consonants should be “short, sharp and late” (by which we mean as late as possible given the rhythmic context). The singer does not earn more points for making “m”, “n”, “l”, or, heaven forbid, “s” last for whole seconds. Go directly to the vowel. Unclear diction is caused by distortion of the consonants and vowels. Get rid of the consonants quickly and they will be clear.

Make sure you’re not imploding them, or holding them in the mouth. If the lips and tongue stay relaxed you can get around a lot of words, clearly, quickly and with plenty of energy left for expression and for enjoyment.

The beginning consonants of words generally are inclined to be clearer than the end consonants. Just check for implosion and lengthening. “Short, sharp and as late as possible” applies to ALL consonants.

VI. Vocal Health

All singers should always warm up their voices. Do some easy exercises, beginning in the middle of the range. It is more productive to start higher and go down the scale, rather than starting your scale or arpeggio at the bottom of the voice and going up.

It’s important to know your own voice and if, when you begin to sing, the voice is breathy and raspy and you can hardly carry a line, then start with that, and warm up very easily. Never start with the sound that you want to end up with, but feel your voice – feel what is really happening to it.

Begin with the actual state of the voice and gently coax the voice warm, using your best relaxed technique, taking some time. Many singers need about 20 minutes or so, but it depends on the time of year (central heating in the winter and a high pollen count in the summer seem to make warming up take longer) and on how much we’ve been singing lately. If we’re performing or practicing a lot every day and are in good condition the voice seems to stay quite well warmed up. Remember, feel your voice; feel that there is no straining going on, no pushing or squeezing.

Note: Sopranos should never warm up below Middle C or the b-flat below. Do not show off by singing warm ups with the basses. It’s counter-productive and very unhelpful. In extreme cases the soprano can injure her voice by wallowing around down there.

Throat clearing is completely forbidden. DO NOT EVER CLEAR YOUR THROAT. PERIOD. It’s horrible for the voice and produces (not gets rid of) mucus. Don’t do it. Ever. The function of the mucus membrane is to protect the tissue that it is covering. When you grind away “clearing” the throat, the mucus membrane, feeling itself to be threatened, produces even more phlegm. It’s a never-ending vicious circle and terribly annoying to listen to.

Coughing and singing are not compatible! Sometimes singers become ill (colds and inflammation from allergies have about the same symptoms). Coughing can injure the voice – go to the doctor and get something for it. It is very important to have something that inhibits coughing at night. Do not sing when you have a cough – it can be dangerous for the vocal apparatus.

Strong cough drops are bad for your mucus membranes. Avoid anything with eucalyptus and/or menthol. Drops made from sage are helpful, as are drops made from Icelandic Moss or tea tree (Melaleucha alternifolia). You want to soothe your mucus membranes, not ream them out.

What you should do is drink: water, water and more water. And remember to relax.

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[1] For diagrams and explanations of your actual anatomy, try ask.com (just input the name of the part of the body you’re looking for) and/or, of course, google, or Gray’s Anatomy.

[2] Someone actually did research, and found that the 30-degree turn-out was the most efficient for supporting the body in singing.

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