Every 121 lesson, I found myself thinking the same thought:
I can give you tips but, really, for you to make progress I wish that you had a place to practise. At best, this would allow you to take ownership of your voice and become your own coach and, at the least, you'd gain a deep awareness and vocabulary so our lessons could be optimised.
Then the vocal gym began to evolve...
When lockdown started, I made a pledge, to offer a daily free guided warm up to my community to stay in touch and to help keep up your vocal stamina. In five months, our community grew from 300 to over 11,000.
During this time, I began to form the structure of the Vocal Gym: the result of twenty years of work on the voice: both as a singer (going through rehabilitation) and a vocal coach.
The voice is a muscle that needs constant practise yet practise is near impossible without guidance. Our voice is an ambiguous concept to many of us and we don't know where to begin or whether what we are doing is taking us in the right direction. I spent ten years trying to 'practise' and often doing more harm that good.
The aim of the vocal gym is to give the singer ownership of their voice and a route to vocal freedom. It is there to guide you as you learn what to strengthen and what to release, and to provide an affordable alternative to 121 lessons. It is there to provide structures, focused and consistent practise.
Below, is a detailed overview of WHY and WHAT happens inside the Vocal Gym. Keep reading for more information... The AIM: take time for practise so, when you perform, you can give over to the music and the story.
In our launch we are offering Sing Space All Access for free when you join us (worth £39.99) - giving you an additional 30 hours of professional training a month plus 20 sessions in the vocal gym (Mon-Fri 10.30am available on catch up)
The core of the vocal gym is based around repetition.
Every exercise was crafted during years of coaching to pick sounds and note sequences that - within their specific order - warm up and work out the voice, balancing muscle engagement and release. Below is list of our exercises which, as we gain familiarity allow us to use each session to focus on a different aspect of vocal production (list of focus below)
I was in my second year at ArtsEd when I was diagnosed with ‘soft nodules.’ Finally. A name for the huskiness, inconsistency and loss of range. I was given a clear treatment plan by an expensive and highly regarded doctor with many letters after his name. After a scope down my throat, he offered his diagnosis with brusque dismissal and impersonal certainty.
The relief of this diagnosis and a treatment plan was second only to the relief I felt, a decade later, when I gave up singing professionally because these treatments hadn't worked. It was only after I started coaching, that I understood why it would have been impossible for me to overcome the vocal issues that remained with me.
I remember everything about that time. The bearded doctor treated me more like a pair of vocal cords than a human being, but that was okay; my vocal cords were the most important thing to me, too. They were the love of my life and I was ready to do anything I could to protect them.
He told me that soft nodules would become hard nodules if I didn’t follow his advice.
'Complete vocal rest for a week,' he said, 'Write, don't talk.' I walked around college wearing a notebook with pride. Any frustration was menial compared to the avenue of hope that had opened up. These nodules explained everything but soon they would be gone and I would sing with ease again! Friday night, in the student bar, I drank water, imagining my high notes gratefully glugging the hydration. He sent me for three sessions with a speech therapist who made me hiss like a snake. She had awards all over her walls. I could feel my vocal cords healing.
Then there was the prescription for Gaviscon.
‘It’s like leaving your violin in acid overnight,’ he’d commented on the effects of the reflux he'd diagnosed, ‘Think about how that would affect it...’
I did. I thought about it all night long, imagining the erosive acid on my fragile, nodule-d vocal cords and couldn’t sleep for fear - fear of losing my future and fear for the performances the following day.
But, this cardboard rectangle with capsules that would make everything okay. The pills were sunlit stepping stones across the uphill swamp to the future: a future in which I could sing again with the freedom I used to feel.
If I’d have known then, that the swamp would last for the next decade, that my prescription would be upped gradually over the next five years until they tied my stomach in a knot, and that I would be chasing stepping stones - or treatments - like an addict, would I have stopped then?
I know the answer with certainty. No. Even after what happened next, singing has still been one of the greatest loves of my life and continues to be so: from the time ‘before nodules’ when vocalisation ‘just happened,’ to now, as a coach. It’s the closest I have got to believing in something bigger, to flying, to being fully alive, and I feel privileged to have spent my life exploring it.
So what would I say to myself now, if the young me, from half a life time away, booked in a session, or came for some advice? Would I still use anything from that initial treatment plan or try something else?
I would start with saying this,
'Over the next decade you’re going to see many experts: vocal coaches, doctors, nutritionists, hypnotherapist, and get advice from colleagues and friends. You’re going to read many conflicting articles and spend a lot of money and take a lot of prescription drugs and natural medicines. Although much of this advice is great advice, you will feel lost. They will give you what they can in the hour you see them, but they cannot fix this. This is not their fault. They have their own journeys and this is yours.
I would say that none of the advice or exercises will work, unless you first understand the relationship between the mind and the body and the physical manifestations of stress and anxiety. That the body and mind are, in fact, inseparable. Start inside and build out.
I would explore how that fear would have put my body in a state of high stress, a sense of being under attack, sending my sympathetic nervous system under attack, into a state of fight, flight, or freeze. I’d try to explain how those brain signals inform our physiology. To start exploring the difference between para-sympathetic and sympathetic states and how, in this massively impacts digestion - even with all the Gaviscon in the world, I didn't stand a chance at managing the reflux.
This would start a spiral: reflux caused voice loss, fear of voice loss caused reflux.
I would try and explain how the state of my nervous system - or my sense of ‘safety’ also affected vocalisation. I’d talk about the wonders of the Vagus nerve and how to stimulate it, to activate a state of calm so our vocal system can respond to the signals in the music and storytelling, so our digestion is optimised and our mental and physical health improves.
I'd explore the assumptions or misunderstanding around the direction I'd been given to 'save my voice,' or 'not to push,' and how those words can counteract good singing technique.
In fearing 'pushing,' was I fearing the muscularity of adduction (cord closure)? Was I holding my breath? Were my cords unable to function without the subglottic pressure needed? I remember the days choosing songs that used a light breathy tone that I perceived as a save 'head voice' but that that perpetuated poor support, a high larynx, lack of cord closure and a tense jaw
In caution was I ‘holding’ my jaw. In restraining, was I creating tongue tension?
I’d got through graduation. I was hit and miss in auditions. I'd arrive hours early, sitting in coffee shops across the road from the audition venues in a state of terrified limbo. I'd enter the room on a tide of hopes, prayers and wishes, pleading with anything out there for the notes to come out. I got recalls on good days and was politely steered out the doors on bad days. It was like tightrope walking with crocodiles below.
I got my first West End job, then another one. I loved it. I was covering a lead and thank goodness I had warning when she pre-booked a night off for dental surgery. I had time to go on complete vocal rest, to stop drinking for a week. By now I was learning that I could manage my voice if I stopped everything else: eating, drinking, speaking, socialising...
That was the only way I got through the following years. I was lucky enough to keep getting work, but all other life stopped which only added to the pressure I was putting on myself. Despite seeking out singing teachers and going to the speech therapists my voice was profoundly inconsistent which I think was down to a perception of these people as infallible.
I was so eager to conquer this, that I took everything I was told and didn't ask why: why are you making me sob or hiss? Why is it easier on a certain vowel? Why the chopstick between my teeth?
If I could go back, I could explain that in was probably the tongue position of the EE vowel, the larynx freedom or 'tilt,' and openness on the sob and the jaw release with the chopstick. We could look at how to transfer these techniques into song, via awareness and repetition.
In 2005, during a run of Joseph at the New London theatre, my reflux medication was ten times what was recommended. The doctors kept upping it and I just kept popping. The side effects made me so anxious, I was unable to sit still - god knows what it was doing to my nervous system and the subsequent connections with digestion. The other drugs caused a deep fatigue that pulled me under the covers in the middle of the day whilst the anxiety wouldn't let my body stay still.
I did what the doctors said and kept taking the medication. I paid hundreds of pounds to see a nutritionist but, but then, I was on so many acid suppressants that if I stopped I’d wake choking on my own stomach acid, unable to breathe.
She told me to avoid tomatoes and chilli, then asked for more money.
At this point, my voice had started to mysteriously disappear mid show, from all to nothing. There was a new terror. I'd stand in the wings, hearing the sound of a full auditorium and leave my body. There was a high chance at this stage that I was about to implode into a stratospheric failure. This is when I first learn that I was the 'freeze' in fight, flight or freeze. A new default started to occur where I slept walked my way through performing, hovering somewhere above, trying my hardest to flee.
How I wish now, that someone had handed me a straw, some SOVT exercises and taught me some mental strategies to calm the hell down.
Instead, the doctors instructed a Nissen Fundoplication, tying my oesophagus in a knot. I was twenty three and nodded along. They were the grown ups, they were the ones with letters after their name.
I tried giving up the job and going travelling but on the day I booked my flights, I got my first lead role and left for a year on tour. It was a dream come true. A cast of performers I idolised and a director and creative team that made you feel you could be the best version of yourself. Each second in the rehearsal room felt deeply precious. Time moved in slow motion as I tried to absorb each second.
Yet, the cloud of fear hovered. Six weeks in, I hadn't lost my voice yet, but we were moving into theatres now, friends and agents were coming to watch, Andrew Lloyd Webber was in, the director was watching! The memories of humiliation haunted and the fear of losing my voice again started to take over everything.
I used a vocal steamer twice a day for twenty minutes, probably burning my vocal cords on the just boiled water. I was extensively warming up, using endless warm ups from all the expensive vocal coaches I’d seen. I'd warm up with the cast, then alone in my own dressing room, then again before the next act and evening show.
I had started to understand the benefits of using meditation, playing music as loud as it would go through headphones until the fear was drowned out but my warm ups were so acrobatic, and without awareness or sense. I was introduced briefly to Alexander Technique by a fellow cast member and experience a complete vocal regeneration in fifteen minutes of body scanning yet explained it away as, 'luck' because it seemed too easy and I was so used to thinking that success were the result of 'effort.'
Writing helped. That was my only saviour as it offered some of the stabilising meditative qualities yet it brought me too much into my head and out of my body, out of balance, and breath and awareness. I was looking for certainty.
That is probably why it felt such relief when, at the end of that job, I told my agent I didn't want to sing any more.
I had to be perfect, something I could never have been, so would always fail.
I wanted to spend my life singing and exploring singing, but not necessarily performing, and there is a big difference. Ironically, after stopping performing, I've have spent the next decade enjoying singing for a job and never loosing my voice again.
I wanted to share this before this evening's class - and what I've shared is only the surface of it. It's influenced all my teaching since, and my urge to help other singers. In class we'll be looking at the general vocal health rather than rehabilitation and the effects of hormones, fatigue, muscle tension, over work, bad technique, habitual patterns, diet, mental health and some things you can do to on a daily basis to keep in top vocal condition. Book the class here
I'll sign off with this:
Close your eyes, take a deep breath. Your voice is you. It is not a pet to tell what to do, It is not engineering to ask someone else to repair. It is your breath, it is what you use to communicate with the world. It responds to your nervous system, the motions of your limbs, it's intertwined with your memories.
Aim for awareness. Feel how everything feels. You know your voice better than anyone else. Any command, any piece of advice, is one colour in your picture. Stop going to people for answers and instead go to people to learn from them. There is a difference.
It is not your land to conquer and dominate, but to explore and play with. For like our world there are parts we will never fully understand.
Your daily singing warm up - How to and why?
Download this free PDF or read more below then join the Facebook group here to join in live.
Like every other physical activity, your singing voice will benefit greatly from daily practise. These benefits stretch far beyond the act of singing itself, into physical and mental well-being.
Now is an opportunity to work on your voice and to take some time to breath a little deeper.
WHAT ARE THE PRINCIPLES BEING THIS WARM UP?
Awareness: Bringing awareness to the six fundamentals of singing: breath, resonance, adduction, jaw and tongue release and a free larynx so you can be in control of your instrument.
Repetition: EVERY exercise works all six areas so each time we do the exercise we can focus on a different area, going deeper into the practise as we become more familiar with each technique.
Balance: The biggest challenge to a singer is coordinating active engagement and release. Which areas are working and which are releasing?
Community, shared resources and support : As these will be live, we can all support each other, wherever we are in the world.
Self-care: taking a moment each morning to deep breath and be mindful is important for us all at this time.
THE WARM UP:
Part one: We will start each session with a short mindfulness exercise including alignment and a gentle stretch.
Part Two: Bringing awareness to the six fundamentals of singing:
EVERY exercise below works all six of the fundamentals.
Lip trills - for breath flow connected to the body
How: Whilst keeping your face relaxed, allow your lips to trill or reverberate.
Why: You are learning to make a continuous flow of air, connected to your body as you sing.
The closure (SOVT) creates a backflow of sound waves which aids cord adduction and can stabilise the larynx. It also gives your heightened awareness of resonance.
As this exercise only works if your jaw and face is relaxed it will also encourage jaw release.
If you also want to target your tongue root release, then have an awareness of the tip of your tongue behind your bottom front teeth.
Puffy cheeks - For resonance awareness.
How: Sigh out and fill your cheeks with air then add sound. Make sure you keep your cheeks full of air as you sing.
Why: The closure of your mouth contains the sound waves within your vocal tract, allowing a heightened awareness of the sensations of resonance (the feeling of soundwaves travelling through your body). These sound waves move at different speeds and shapes depending on different notes (frequencies), how you use your breath and vocal cords (harmonics) and the shape of your vocal tract or mouth and throat (Formants)
As sound waves are a physical thing, gaining a heightened awareness of the feeling of sound will greatly help with placement and register breaks.
Sighing as singing - for awareness of cord adduction.
How: Breath in for two, out for two then sing!
Why: We are exploring the benefits of an ‘aspirate onset’ and awareness of your own vocal cords.
This exercise is especially helpful for those of us who tense up before we sing (holding our breath and tensing the jaw and tongue)
There are two types of onset (how to commence a note):
Glottal onsets mean that the cords come together before the breath.
Aspirate onsets mean that the breath passes through the open cords before they come together to make sound.
Aspirate onsets, can help with jaw and tongue release, a free larynx and breath flow.
“Wee wee wee,” - with a finger/pen between your teeth - For jaw hinge release (add nose hold to check for nasality)
How: Put your finger (or a pen, or chopstick) between your front teeth.
Why: You can’t lock your jaw hinge with this in place so it teaches you to sing without clenching your jaw (which also affects the muscles that surround your larynx)
It will also encourage your tongue mobility.
The ‘W’ we are using is to engage the breath support in the body and the choice of EE is because it’s one of the best vowels for tongue release and acoustic shaping.
The addition of holding your nose tests whether you are sending the sound into your nose allowing you to adjust the resonance placement accordingly!
“Woah,” - For a free larynx or ‘extreme tilt.’
How: Aim for a yawning, dopey, sobby low Papa bear voice.
Why: This one is for those of us who tend to sing with a high larynx, allowing us to feel the other end of the spectrum: a very low larynx.
It is also for those of us who struggle with register breaks, or high notes as it uses an extreme version of the techniques needed to navigate these areas.
The yawny, sobby feeling encourages larynx tilt (The larynx’s makes high notes
The emotive sobbing feeling, can also engage your breath support and cord adduction (and your body’s primal knowledge of vocalisation)
Use an additional F before the W to aid jaw release and breath flow.
“Ng- Gah,” - For tongue root release.
How: With a dropped jaw we are isolating the tongue.
Why: Isolating the tongue will give it a good workout, tiring it out so it doesn’t get involved when you sing. The intermittent closure of the NG will engage breath support, create resonance awareness and engage the benefits of SOVT work.
“Hey hey hey,” - To engage the primal or emotive side of singing.
How: Take a gasped in-breath on the count of four they call out, ‘Hey,’ on an arpeggio as if you need to urgently get someone’s attention.
Why: Understanding that much of the vocal system is autonomic (or involuntary ie. connection to your nervous system) we need to give over to emotional intention to engage the body’s natural knowledge of how to vocalise.
The H provides the aspirate onset, and engages breath. Just be careful not to tense the jaw, neck or tongue in the urge to communicate.
The quest for the indisputable facts about singing.
Breathing is easy. We breathe all night long in our sleep. It seems that our body is better at it than we are. This system is autonomic or unconscious. We are not the driver. We are passengers on the breath bus. Journeying through life on the perpetual motion, our lungs are billows, inhaling and filling, charging oxygen through our pipeworks, the veins, powering our muscles and organs.
Singing is breath. Breath is singing.
(For more on the six fundamentals of singing, READ HERE.)
As I was exploring how to articulate this, and how to find an answer that qualifies as an indisputable truth about breathing, I asked my students how they approached this subject...
I listened to answers about where they felt like they were breathing into (their bellies), how they inhaled (opening the bottom ribs, breathing into the lower back, stomach release,) or exhaled (from the diaphragm). I heard them discuss support (a feeling of strength around the solar plexor), posture (lifting the clavicle), yawn breaths and imagery (pulling the sound from deep inside you or throwing it at a wall) and physical movement (lifting).
None of this was necessarily wrong but I wanted to finesse; to find a clear truth to build from. A checkpoint to which we could always return. I wanted to find a statement that couldn’t be misconstrued or replaced. A fundamental truth to BREATH in relation to sound production.
I tried to sing whilst removing all of these pieces of advice: I breathed high into my lungs instead of my belly. I could still sing. I tried singing with horribly tense shoulders. It wasn’t optimum but (by being careful to stay released around the jaw) the sound was relatively free. I tried singing with bad posture, with a low soft palate, going against all the advice above. It might not have been optimum but I could still sing. I could cheat, find another way around.
Nothing so far was fundamental or an indisputable truth.
So if we knew that your singing voice is vibrating air particles of breath then what is the one thing that singing could not happen without?
For a long time, I played around with this, singing breath out fast and slow, in fits and starts, increasing and decreasing the flow of pressure. All seemed possible and related to a stylistic choice in singing but I came to release that there was one thing that was indisputable: where there was output, there had to be input. The air had to be constant; a constant flow, and what was more, as soon as that flow was constant, it was connecting to my body.
I could dispute, where I felt it, sometimes, around my solar plexus, or my lower stomach, or the sides of my ribs, but, to attain the flow of air the vocal cords needed to make sound, the body had to get involved.
I tried not connecting the sound to my diaphragm or lower stomach. I couldn’t. Even if there was no movement at the commencement of a phrase, soon a feeling of connection grew around my lower stomach to help the remaining air exit the lungs.
Where there is singing there is a constant flow of air connected to the body.
To take this into practise, we can look at any sounds that do just that: any sounds that engages a consistent flow of air through your cords connected to your body.
These sounds are primarily ones that we can’t get wrong and come under the category of SOVT, or Semi-occluded vocal tract. This fancy acronym basically means half closed mouth. The closure, provides resistance so the body connects with the breath, creating a consistent flow.
As you do these exercises (more details on how below) focus on just the indisputable truth: ‘singing requires a consistent flow of air connected to the body’. By doing this, you teach your brain and body how sound production should be. The brain starts to create new pathways, using this new efficient approach, ready to unconsciously translate this practise into your singing.
In addition to this subconscious, or body memory element to practise, you are also consciously gaining awareness to the sensation of always breathing out and always connecting the body to the breath so you can consciously bring this practise into your singing.
You can use any closed mouth sound but the most common is the lip trill. Here’s a video on The Lip Trill or you can watch the video on breathing below.
We all know you breath in to sing, but how about breathing out?
Approaching singing as sighing helps create maximum vocal efficiency and freedom.
This video explores singing as a release, using sighing, aspirate onsets and silent h’s to release the muscles in the jaw, to bring your vocal cords together and to creates breath support.
On Tuesdays evenings, our choir rehearses in a the great St Clemence Danes Church ‘the bells of st Clemence’ sitting on an island between the streams of traffic that surge along the strand. It’s a great domed sanctuary from the bustling winter streets and a fitting place to explore the potential of our voice amidst this external display of acoustically potent architecture.
This week we had a treat: a Masterclass with ‘primal sounds’ expert, Dane Chalfin. Dane is one of the world’s leading experts on the use of primal sounds (or emotive sounds) using our body’s natural knowledge of how to communicate vocally. He’s highly regarded throughout the industry and brimming with knowledge from years of research (on over 2000 studies)
As a vocal coach, I’m totally onboard with the idea that we should be giving over to something bigger than our conscious minds. After millions of years of evolution, our conscious brain is a grain of sand on top of a mountain of primal survival instincts, a little boat bobbing on a deep ocean of potential power: instinct, musicality, primal urges, mental health, physical health the autonomic nervous system and the billion nerves and connections that make us us.
The voice itself is primarily controlled by our autonomic nervous system which mean that much of the important parts of our singing apparatus are involuntarily: the diaphragm, larynx and vocal cords (Read more about the nervous system and it's effect on singing here)
Dane gave is some transformative and enlightening tips and techniques which I’d like to explore below, keeping in mind that it was only 90 minutes and that everything I’ve leant is subject to my personal reinterpretation.
I've also explored what in the context of my own methodology* which believes that we do need to understand of the facts of basic engineering of ‘the voice’ before we can give over entirely to emotion (or any other technique). As with all techniques, and methodologies, they are not quick fixes or to be used in isolation but to be ingested into your singers tool box, explored, interrogated and enjoyed within your own practise, your own knowledge, your own way of learning and the limits of your own instrument.
*methodology: the six fundamentals or the six indisputable truths (things that I believe crucial to optimum vocal production) Once a singer has a deep awareness and understanding of these six simple truths, they can explore any technique and apply it within this framework. Watch the video here
A flow of air connected to the body
An awareness of resonance
Vocal cord adduction
A free jaw hinge
A free tongue root
A free larynx
What I took away from our Masterclass with Dane Chalfin:
1. We are too interfering and too stupid.
Our bodies know how to make sounds to express emotions, from soothing to yelling. Utilise this primal knowledge instead of getting in the way by trying too hard.
2. The best belters are ‘casual’
You can be just as efficient without working so goddamn hard! It was a revelation to see that belt can be attained by pulling back. By pulling back, I mean so much less physical work and transferring that work into the emotion intention and your audition (hearing the type of note you want to make before you sing)
3. Loose knees, heavy bum, neutral lips, drop jaw
Following on from above, these types of muscles releasing and body aligning tips allowed the constrictors to release and the voice be free.
4. Know your limits
We are all born with different shape voices. Idina Menzal has mouth shape inables her to hit sounds that most of us can’t dream of (I think it was ‘the biggest lower pharynx to jaw ratio’?) so sometimes you’ve just got to ‘let it go!’ (sorry) and work within the constraints of what you’ve got. Know your limits and work with them.
5.Every note in your song has an emotive sound that will help you sing better.
Pick an appropriate primal sound based on what you’re feeling, or one that is suited to the tone you wish to create.
6. Belt can be acheived by utilising the ‘Yell’ or the ‘Cry.’
Dane’s research leads him to believe that most people have a preferred on to help them access their belt. Dane mentioned that voice cracks (or stalls) are often when people don’t ‘go all out’ with one or the other. I suggest you find your favourite but stay open to using the one that is most suited to the song or phrase, or even note to retain the flexibility and nuance to your voice.
I love this sound as I feel it instantly engage my body and breath and makes me feel rooted in my body and emotions. I also like how it encourages a natural larynx tilt and adds lower harmonics.
- Yelling with Skill
I feel a hey can be lovely and free but, to me, needs careful watch on the jaw hinge as we often do this with habitual tightness.
7. Get Stroppier but not louder
Dane had some wonderful advice regarding taking your full voice or belt higher including feeling it go up ‘the back-staircase,’ hearing the strop in your ear, let the throat ‘assume the sad position,’ and my favourite quote,
‘Put the stropiness in your imagination not in your throat. When they’re working well you won’t feel a lot in here. The thought’s enough to do it.’
He also talked about how the human ear is sensitive to sob frequencies due to the primal response to a baby’s crying.
Danes advises that there are only three good vowels on ‘to keep throat in an acoustically advantageous shape, reinforcing the harmonics that we perceive as yelling.’
These vowels seemed to be ‘Hey,’ ‘oi’ and ‘ah,’ but I personally found more success when I let my jaw drop, the hinge fully release and my lips stay neutral rather than aiming for a specific vowel sound. The act of releasing the lip and jaw tensions seemed to land me on a similar one to what he was instructing.
Which leads me onto...
I feel passionately about pre phonatory tuning, which is allowing the ear to ready the voice. I believe that utilising this part of the brain is one of the most successful ways of telling the voice exactly what to do to achieve the sound you want.
We spent much of the class mimicking Dane’s sounds and, as a result finding much success with belt, high notes and general ease of singing. Our brain listened. Our listening parts of the brain communicated do the vocal apparatus what they should do!
I saw how well this was working and was questioning whether we were utilising our primal sounds or our mimicking ears. I think it was a big bit of both.
Rushing off to choir now, so I'll finish and finesse this as soon as I get a chance.
This week we're looking at singing as sighing and how attention on the out breath, aspirate onsets and silent Hs can engage the support, cord adduction and help with jaw and tongue release.
‘I sing better when I feel safe.’
These words were said to me by a singer some time last year. She told me she had a theory it was ‘to do with the Vagus nerve.’
‘If you feel safe,’ she said, ‘The vagus nerve calms down. It affects vocal tone.’
I didn’t look much further into it at the time.
Throughout my singing career and teaching, this connection between mental state and vocal ability has hovered in my eye-line like an aura. My understanding was that she was probably talking about the physical states that manifest due to performance anxiety, like muscles over-firing and holding your breath.
What was just one little nerve in a thousand nerves? I didn’t have the time to explore it then.
Then one morning I found a podcast: a guy called Dave Asprey talking to a neurologist called Stephen Porges about a thing called Polyvagal Theory.
Occasionally, you read a passage or learn something that seems to articulate what you’ve always felt but didn’t know you felt. When this happens, I’m always struck but the relief it brings: a sense that you’re not alone, that you’re ok to think the things you do, behave the way you do. That affirmation can be like a door opening, giving rise to a rush of new thoughts that has now been given permission to multiply now they’ve had nod that you’re not the only one who thinks these things. Especially when the person talking has so many letters after their name and so many years of research behind them.
Headphones on, on the way to Paddington station, I almost missing my train.
I spent the next hour, from London to Wiltshire lost in another world: the world of a nerve that directly connected singing to our state of well being, our emotions, our heart, our breath and our gut; a neurological, scientifically proven connection between feeling and singing from a distinguished university professor.
There are over 100 billion nerves in your body. One of the largest and most important is one called the Vagus Nerve. It runs down the spine from the most ancient part of our brain stem controlling all involuntary commands: from heartbeat to blood pressure to taste, circulation, digestion, gut, fertility and orgasm.
As we evolved from reptiles to mammals, it grew new branches and began to wonder (Vagus means, ‘to wander’) to new areas including hearing nuances within voices, swallowing, recognising facial expressions and controlling the voice (it connects by two branches to the larynx and by one to the vocal cords)
Most fascinatingly, the Vagus nerve responds to our nervous system or ‘feeling of safety,’ adjusting it’s commands accordingly.
When you feel under threat, your sympathetic nervous system ignites (fight, flight or freeze), readying your ancient primal instincts to fight that tiger or run from that cave bear! Adrenaline starts to flood as your heart speeds up, your vision narrows and your digestion stops (no time for a sandwich when the bear is coming)
When you feel safe, your parasympathetic nervous system slows your heart rate, deepens your breathing, allows digestion to happen, nutrients to be absorbed, cells to repair and the immune system to flourish. Happy chemicals are released and you feel clarity, energy and joy.
At the end of the podcast, Porges was asked how best to improve Vagal tone (and all the parasympathetic, positive feelings of safety that come with that). Porges recommended - wait for it - singing (or playing wind instruments!) due to the profound effects long out breaths, vibrations could have on the body. Singing could make you feel physically and mentally better. Singing was good for your health. All this would be enhanced, he said, in a choir environment as group singing further enhances the bodies feeling of safety.
Now, although it's nice to hear that what we love best is also good for us (for once!), I was equally as interested as singing's effect on our health, as our state of mind's effect on our singing voice.
Ie. Is it really true that we can to feel safe to sing at our best?
I've already been exploring the physical effects of stress and fear on a voice (the detrimental consequences of retraction of breath or jaw and tongue tension's effect on the free movement of your larynx and vocal cords) but, if much of the vocal system is involuntary (connected to the nervous system) then maybe physical commands weren't enough?
Maybe we have to go deeper?.
I wanted to take this new knowledge and see if there was a way of using is as a tool in our vocal practise, treating the nervous system with just as much importance as the breath, larynx, vocal tract or cords - maybe more, as it effects them all!
Cont. after the pic....
I started to read everything I could find, leading me to a paper by Joanna Cazden on the connection between Porges’ research and the voice, primarily for her for an actor’s state, titling her work, 'Stalking the calm buzz.'
And, what was more exciting (if I could take anymore!) was that both nervous systems could exist at once: they could both be high or both be low, or one could be very high and the other very low.
This meant that we can acknowledge the benefits of both states and apply them to our singing practise.
We can use the heightened adrenaline that surges with our sympathetic ‘unsafe’ nervous system to engage the primal response to call out, or cry, for belt and the inner calm of the parasympathetic ‘safe feeling’ nervous system, to access deeper breathing, happy chemicals to aid freedom of muscles.
The body knows best.
We are born with the urge to communicate with our voice and the primal knowledge of how.
The urge to make an emotion engages optimum vocal production in a way that the conscious mind perhaps could never achieve?
The open vowel of a laugh bounced from the diaphragm, send sound rocking through us, our cords coming together so hard that our stomach strains against the closure in aching pleasure.
Or grief, the outpouring of feelings that we can’t contain, poured forth from our guts through cords that ache. We find vowels that utilise our bodies capacity to transfer feeling into sound, leaning into oooh, or aaah, naturally choosing effective vocal practice.
if we can access this primal knowledge then we can access the best of our vocal system across the range of vocal styles: the urge to sooth a child can bring on a soft light middle range voice, a whine can create optimum vocal cord adduction (closure), a sigh can lengthen the cords and allow the breath to flow freely, a moan of pleasure, or an aching ow of pain can engage deeper closure and lower harmonics, a yelp of surprise can give vocal energy and access to higher notes that we thought possible, the yell or cry can remove the register breaks from a voice and allow it to soar upwards with ease and power.
The deeper I explored, the more I started to believe that the way into any song, was finding an emotive sound to suit every phrase, to connect the vocal system and to bring out the music and story.
On a side note, it also connected to a darker time in my life, when I was struggling with nodules and acid reflux (an under or over production of stomach acid which can rise up the oesophagus effecting the vocal cords and the singing voice). Without going into it now, it now explains why no amount of medical treatment could stop the reflux when I was so worried about it effecting my singing voice and career. In that state of panic (how am I going to sing in front of 1000 people tonight) I imagine that your sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight or freeze) is sky high so consequently digestion just about shuts down.
This is just the beginning of he exploration but it affirms the belief that our voice is connected to everything and that practise must be approach from all angles: physically, holistically and neurologically or mentally.
For now, I urge you to watch this video below with Stephen Porges and Dave Asprey.
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Rachel Lynes -vocal coach
These articles aim to simplify and clarify. My aim is to give you clear exercises that make a big difference.