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.
Rachel Lynes -vocal coach
These articles aim to simplify and clarify. My aim is to give you clear exercises that make a big difference.