Here's a riddle:
How can you sing exactly the same three times and sound completely different?
I ask my pupils this questions and usually get these answers:
"Open my throat?"
"No, you have to sing EXACTLY the same."
"No. Sing EXACTLY the same."
"No. EXACTLY the same."
"Relax my tongue?"
"SING EXACTLY THE SAME."
"But how can I sing exactly the same and sound completely different?"
I know, I know. I'm being annoying. What I'm trying to make you think about is how sound changes dependant on the space you're singing in. We've all know that singing in different spaces creates a different sound: the lovely echoey-ness of a shower room, or the way a whisper travels across the room like magic in a Cathedral or amphitheatre, or the dullness of sound in a carpeted room.
So, the answer I was looking for to my annoying question is, of course:
You can sing in different rooms.
But, now here's the point to this: Did you know that there is an acoustic room that we carry around on our shoulders? That there are spaces inside your head and throat that can completely and truly change the sound from its source (at the vocal chords) to what we hear?
The sound produced at the source isn't a nice sound. That is only the starting point: where the sound waves are made. Those waves love to bounce, to ricochet back and forth around hard curved surfaces so that they grow can in resonance and richness. Inside your head are rooms that you can use, spaces that can help the sound grow in tone. Here's a scribble I've drawn to give you an idea:
Although I draw like a nursery school child, you can see that there's a lot of space in the acoustic face playground (the squiggles are sound waves that are ready to bounce around, growing richer and fuller). I'm going to give you some exercises below to play with but you can add your own. The rules are simple. Sound likes big, curved, hard edged spaces and doesn't like small squishy ones.
Look at the drawing and you can spot some of these nice open spaces and you can play around with how to make them even bigger and more open. I'll also talk at the end about how you can direct your sound into the spaces to fill them with even more sound until they are buzzing in a way that is tangible.
Now, you'll probably sing at your best if you employ all of the techniques below: jaw relaxed, tongue root relaxed, soft palate lifted, throat open, but let's look at each of them in isolation first.
1) Dropping the jaw or The "Adele."
For more about how an over active/tense jaw is the singer's number 1 ENEMY, take a look here. But this is one simple and affective idea to instantly change your vocal tone.
- Take two imaginary golf balls and put them between your wisdom teeth. Try singing. Keep the space between your back teeth. Google a picture of Adele and copy her pouty, face! See how she always keeps her jaw relaxed as she sings (she has a lot of space in her lower face so this helps - maybe that's the key to her voice??)
Note whether your tone has changed? Is it fully, richer? Does it sound lower? Somehow warmer and easier? Do you like it? Did you know that your larynx is interconnected to your jaw by muscles so you have now released it to more freely as it wants to do?
2) The top of your mouth or the "Stevie Wonder" Wonder!
Have a look at Stevie Wonder singing. Can you see how he raised his top lip slightly, as if he's found a way to direct the sound higher into his face, using the nasal cavities and raising the roof of his mouth: the soft palate?
Instead of using your top lip, you're going to try something which gives the same result: the inner smile!
As you start to smile, you'll feel your soft palate lift. You'll feel the resonance and sound vibrations rise to the spaces around your cheeks, top teeth and the bottom of your nose as you make more space for the sound to fill. This is a particularly helpful technique to employ as you go higher in your range, especially when you meet the notes in the middle of your range.
Do you like the sound? Is singing easier doing this? Does it help you transition into your middle "register" (NOTE: not "middle voice!" You need various techniques in different parts of your range but you only have ONE voice. ONE VOICE.)
Is it too twangy? Too bright and crisp? Can you add it in when you need it?
You can also try biting on an imaginary apple, or smelling something nice as you sing. You can even employ the beginning or a yawn. For more on getting control of your soft palate, read here.
3) Battling the monster who blocks the cave's mouth ie. THE TONGUE!
The tongue is soft. It absorbs sound. It blocks the space. Did you know that, like the jaw, the root is interconnected to the larynx (voice box) so it can squash it or pull at it so it can't move freely as it needs to to sing.
As singers, we must learn to conquer the tongue and this is one easy exercise to see if it is hindering your sound.
- Stick your tongue out and sing. Easy. Keep it out as your sing a song or scales. Note whether it tries to get involved, to pull back inside your mouth or up. Don't let it. DON'T. LET. IT. Control the beast.
Does it change your sound for the better? If so, you may want to focus on some other exercises for the tongue.
3) The throat or "I can swallow a melon."
The space as the back of your throat is the first place that the sound travels through so it is imperative that it's a nice open tunnel. This is a very easy exercise to feel the space open and, as a bonus, it also helps to control the tongue, relax the jaw and lower the larynx. Hooray!
Try breathing in as if you're swallowing a melon. Feel the lovely wide opening as you breath in. Feel how the air is cold in your throat as you inhale. Now keep that space as you sing and observe whether your throat tries to push and "work" to make sound. We all feel like we want to do something active to help the sound but pushing from your throat (Or tongue. Or Jaw) is not that something. The working action should really be coming from your air flow (starting with the diaphragm and that is another topic). If you take the work load with your throat, jaw or tongue then the diaphragm gives up and goes for a cocktail.
(For more on airflow, take a look here)
Let me know how you get on with these exercises but remember, you can alter the resonating spaces all you like but this is all secondary to having MADE the sound ie. created the airflow to pass through the chords, getting them buzzing and carrying the sound on and into the spaces.
MAKE sound and then SHAPE the sound.
Now, you've opened up the spaces inside your face and throat, you can direct the sound/airflow into those spaces. For more on how to do that, please take a look at this article on FEELING rather than listening, or but, if you can feel the space buzzing then you are on the right track.
This means that the steady stream of support, the air flow through your vocal chords, is always foremost. You can't play around with sound vibrations if you haven't made them!
For more on airflow read here: straw, breathing, blowing, hoover.
Years ago, when I was teaching a lot of children, I started using the straw. I'd ask them to sing their favourite song into a bowl of bubbly water and make as many bubbles as they could. I didn't know why I was asking them to do this but they loved these little plastic goddesses and so I made up reasons like it was good for their ear and for their breath support.
When you start doing something, as the saying goes, "you have to fake it until you make it" and that's what I was doing. I had no idea. Most of my teaching was throwing ideas at a wall and watching to see if any would stick.
Thankfully, many of them did and the straw was one of them.
At the time, I still didn't know why.
The first thing I noticed was the instant improvement in the children's voices after they used the straw. I tried it. I felt like a different singer. Magic. Had I bought 100 magic wands for 99p from Sainsburys? What was happening?
Now, after further exploration as a vocal coach, I know that the straw isn't imbued with magic powers yet it's very real power to improve a singing voice is backed by science and it's not just myself who worships the little plastic sticks. They are used in speech therapy for the most severe vocal problems, they are used by singing teachers like myself and now I hear that some of the West End shows have a thing called "Bubble club".
If you're not in the bubble club, now's the time to get onboard!
For the science based why and how the straw works, read this brilliant piece on the naked vocalist website:
But, for those in a hurry, I'll attempt to simplify the mystery of why singing through a straw is a good thing to spend some time doing.
1) Without trying, it engages the breath support muscles. As you sing you'll notice your lower stomach tightening in organic and natural support. You'll notice that the stomach works harder as you sing higher. This will fix the muscle memory into your support system so it works automatically when you start to sing.
2) You will be making a sustained steady flow of air, teaching the muscle memory needed for singing. Your chords will not vibrate without a airflow. If they aren't vibrating well then you will struggle to sing. We all hold our breath at times when we're singing. You'll can hear breathing problems in in "tightness" and tone loss (often as you go higher and don't increase the support).
Try putting the straw in water.
Making bubbles = steady support visualised.
If you fix your attention on the bubbles or just continually blowing through the straw then you're teaching your body the right thing to do.
3) The tube will bounce the sound waves back into your mouth (pharynx) and offer a cushion to the vocal chords so they don't need to fight to control the force of air coming through them. Like a vocal chord cuddle. Crucial for anyone going through nodules or vocal cord injuries.
What is glorious about using a straw is that you don't need to think. Sing through the straw and all the right things will happen. Try singing afterwards and your muscles will remember. Then you'll sing better.
Try sirens (smooth slides up and down your range), try your scales, try singing the song you're working on. Observe how it feels as you do it and carry that feeling into your singing. Even if you can't do that, your muscles will remember and you'll carry it through anyway.
Also known as the lawn mowwower by my three year old son.
Before I explain what you're going to do, I want to tell you why this works:
To sing you need to have a nice steady stream of air. The air makes the chords vibrate (SOURCE), the vibrations bounce around your mouth, throat and head (RESONANCE) or, to simplify further, you MAKE the sound then SHAPE the sound.
So let's start with MAKING the sound.
1) Creating a steady stream of airflow
I have a few favourite exercises for this (the straw, the lip trill and the blower) but this is today's top choice.
These exercise are my own - some are adapted from an ENT website because I find they work really well.
1) Yawn. Feel the throat open and the soft palate lift. Let that yawn out in a soft deep throated sigh. Hmm.Feel the lovely vibrations in the base of your throat, down your chest and into your sternum.
2) Now, around that lovely low note, make a strong sustained sssh sound with the vowel OR vocalised in your mouth (Say or then close your mouth in a ssh and continue the sound)
Feel the vibrations. Let them fill the resonating cavities around your eyes and cheeks, let them flood through your mouth and throat, down your chest and into your sternum. Make your self a vessel for sound and enjoy. Do this for as long as your like. It will be engaging your breathing muscles without you having to think about them (feel your stomach tighten as your make the noise). It will remind the muscles of the job they're about to do.
Look at your neck, it will be widening and relaxing as the muscles release despite the flow of sound.
Focus on your pharynx or mouth. The closure at the front will allow the sound waves to bounce back and support the chords so let are not straining to control the gush of air from the lungs.
Let your cheeks relax, maybe puffing out slightly
Let your jaw relax as if there is a nice open gap between your wisdom teeth.
Let your tongue hang. That beast can get tight and now is the time to let it loose.
Keep going until you literally feel warm: warm and buzzy, loose and ready.
Go as low as you comfortably can to let the larynx drop and relax. Watch it lower in a mirror.
After this you can take the same sound up and down, sliding smoothly making sure to keep the air flowing (you should always be able to hear a steady ssssh with this sound). Try to feel the vibrations everywhere as you move, keeping the chest resonance as you go high and the cheek bone resonance as your go low.
When I do this exercise, I feel a little like how I imagine a monk might feel. I could feel a little silly, making noises like my three year old son behind a "yawn mowmower" but just give in and enjoy the feeling of being a vessel for sound. Letting your instrument play through you. I promise it works.
One of the things I found most frustrating about being a singer was the inconsistencies day to day. Why, some days, was it so easy, yet other days my my voice felt like an unwieldy beast, pushing through a swamp to make a sound?
I used to worry that those days might be a sign of vocal harm and then came the downward spiral: afraid to push the voice, I'd hold back, tighten, stop breathing, panic!
When you have an off day, it's important to understand whether it's a sign of vocal misuse or just.... an off day!
Like everything else in life, some days the voice tries to hibernate. We've all had days when our brain feels slower, when our limbs feel like rock and doing exercise feels like some kind of torture. Sometimes it's plain tiredness, sometimes it's to do with emotions or, for women, that time of the month (yes, it affects the vocal chords t00. The water retention caused the chords to thicken making high notes harder. Here's an article why http://www.totalsingersupport.com/singing-your-best-at-that-time-of-the-month/)
Assuming that you have ruled out any vocal problems (ie. if your voice was fine yesterday, but today it seems muzzy/stuck/tight) then what can you do?
We embrace that, in life, we all ebb and flow, we have good days and bad. If this is your career then you need to manage that. You all know to get your sleep and eat healthily and drink your water. What I want to talk about is how, on those days when it's just not really happening, where you're under the weather or just "under", what can you do?
Have you ever felt rubbish - flat, tired, foggy - and then something has happened that woke you up, that shook the fog away? Let's look at some of those things so you can use them on a day when you need it!
1) Running! Yes, might be the last thing you want to do but exercise WILL wake you up. As a singer, I always hoped that they'd be a dance call first because (even though I have two left feet) it would wake me up and make me sing better. It works. Your heart starts pumping blood to your muscles, happy hormones flood and you're ready to go.
2) Music. Loud. On the way to rehearsals, I always listen to music. During Aspects of Love, I had two albums that would get me ready: Too Many Dj's and Hairspray the Musical. If it gets you buzzing then don't be ashamed. Find whatever works for you.
3) Coffee. Uh oh. Am I recommending caffein for singers? I love coffee. It does dehydrate so match with lots and lots of water but sometimes a big coffee is what is needed.
4) Walk. If you're too tired for exercise, get off the tube early and walk to where ever you need to be to sing. Put your headphones in and walk with music.
5) Meditate. My favourite. Something there is too much weight from the day to day stresses. Sit. Observe your breathing. Feel what you're feeling. Count down from 100 and go back to the beginning if you lose count. Let your breath relax and your mind calm. (walking with music is mediation too - anything that still a chattering brain)
6) Chat to someone who makes you excited. You know, that friend who gets your buzzing. Call someone and get out of your own head.
After that, be kind to yourself. Life isn't constant, it ebbs and flows, joy passes and sadness too. If you're down then you'll be up again so give yourself a break if today isn't your best day and do the best you can do for today.