‘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.
Book now by getting in contact here.
Understanding that one to one lessons can be costly, I'm delighted to be giving small group classes to the Actor's Centre so you can really dig deep into your understand of your voice and get on top of repertoire!
To see real progress in singing, we should be working with consistency, so I'll be carving out this time to obsess about singing and to tackle your challenges and goals.
Over the six weeks, we'll break the voice down into the six fundamentals of singing and learn what to strengthen and what to release.
We'll demystify terms such as belt, twang, chest voice, sob, middle voice, legit and give you the tools to understand your own your voice and to fall in love with singing!
Book now to secure one of the limited place:
Own Your Voice - singing to be audition ready!
For those who'd rather sing in a group, I'll also be running a new Musical Theatre choir at the Actor's Centre!
Book here: The Singing Ensemble
I came up with this new theory to give singers ownership of your own voices. I believe that there are six fundamentals that need to happen to ensure optimum vocal production.
I can up with this theory because singing is confusing and ambiguous and filled with a kind of Chinese whispers of confusing terminology: I mean, belt, legit, twang, tllt, head voice, mix, sob, middle voice, chest voice... Aaaaaaah! These are all adjectives and goals!
Let’s put it this way.
When you first learnt to drive a car, you’d break it down into components
You’d learn to use your mirrors, to signal, to have road sense, to steer, to use the accelerator, the gears and pedals. Broken down it’s terrifying but a driver does it instinctively: changing gears, accelerating, slowing down, taking tight corners.
How good would it be if we could sing like that? Drive through your song, changing gears, accelerating, slowing down, taking tight corners.
Belt - for example - isn’t a goal, it’s a terrain. Or road, that calls for an instinctive balance of these fundamentals.
Singing is the only physical endeavour that people don’t treat like a sport. Any sports person knows that to be on optimum form in a race or a match you will have trained with consistency so that when you are playing or racing you can forget the technique and give over to the other type of thinking instinct, or in the context of singing music and story.
Somehow singing isn’t approached like that. singers call in because they have an audition in two days? They show up adrenaline surging I have an hour to get them to where they want to be in two days time. I hear them sing and think shit, you have so much to bring out your potential - damn it - what’s one or two things that will help you one thing that will help you?
I'm going to go deeper in the next blog but I believe that the six fundamentals are: breath, or a steady stream of air connected to your body, jaw release, tongue root release, a free larynx, resonance and adduction.
I believe we should be exploring these six every day! Below are some ideas of exercises that work these fundamentals. You'll see that many of them work all six! These are magic!
I once I got asked to visualise this. Someone made me close my eyes and picture what my ideal audition whilst pressing my finger and thumb together. I’m not sure whether that worked but I had another go before I planned last week's Masterclass and this is what I came with.
You can close your eyes and press your finger and thumb together or you can pick your nose and scratch your ear as you read...!
You hear the first bar of music and you’re instantly transported to a place of calm, focus and heightened awareness. You know how to do this.The music trigger the emotions that will carry this song through, it connects to something deep inside you. You know exactly who you and your character is, and why you need to sing. You’ve done the work. This song is sung in, your muscles used to the leaps and phrasing. You’ve worked each tricky spot technically over and over and now you can just be and do your thing.
If they don’t want you, that’s fine. It’s probably height, hair colour, tone of voice, something impossible to change. But you’ve done your very best.
I hope that resonated with you. We'll be looking deeper into what this means during the courses coming up at The Actor's Centre: OWN YOUR VOICE - SINGING TO BE AUDITION READY, and THE SINGING ENSEMBLE
If you can imagine standing at the side of a stage. One world is in the dark, and cosy and warm and all the rest of the things you know, and all of a sudden you cross a line , and go out into what is absolutely the unknown… You have a house full of strangers and, in front of those strangers you are required to strip naked.’ Janet Baker, In Her Own Words.
Despite being considered last century’s greatest soprano, Janet Baker stopped performing at age 48. I’m sure that every performer I work with can empathise with this decision and has considered it themselves.
Night after night, day after day, you aspire to be your absolute best, then to elevate that even further, to touch ‘that place.’ The one where it all comes together and time stops and you step onto the wings of your art.
Despite days of clunkiness, and insecurity, fears and failure, praying for jobs and feeling inadequate, there will have been moments when the past and the future disappeared and there was only that moment, that note, those sensations, the shared experience of you and the audience.
You will have touched that because, if you hadn’t, then why would you have dedicated your life to this crazy overpopulated career where there are a thousand of you to every job, and the jobs out there barely pay enough to keep you living during the job, let alone to account for the inevitable times in between.
So, you have other jobs, day jobs that you spend the majority of your time doing because you know, you know that that other place is there and worth fighting for.
I know that the singers I work with can find that exhausting at times. Sometimes there are days when the lure and comfort of the dark of the wings is bigger than the audience waiting.
Is it any wonder than many singers decide one day that it’s taking too much?
As well as having an astonishing talent for singing, Janet Baker manage to commit to every performance with every cell of her self - connecting to something deep in her audiences. To do that, she had to access a deep, fundamental parts of herself each time, parts with most people don't have to share day to day, especially not with thousands of people who grow to expect it, and need it from her.
I know that artists need to be able to access that deeper place that engages their entire being and that’s exhausting but vital. They are amazing and we need to support that and help them sustain it without losing too much.
I believe deeply in artists and their ability to let the rest of the world know we’re not alone: The singers who bring us into the present moment or allow us to feel something amongst mundanity, the performers who show us their truth and vulnerability in a world surrounded in social media shininess, who can reflect our inner feelings when we feel alone. I believe in music’s tangibility to affect and transform. We need art, we need artists and artists need to be artists.
In a world of mobile phones, any performance can be captured and shared. There’s little room for artistic exploration in case of public failure.
So rather than giving up, how do singers manage these delicate balancing act: of growth as a performer under a public gaze?
What do you do with the exhilaration and adrenaline that keeps you flying for hours after a performance? If you give your soul to a show then what is left afterwards? Does the joy and commitment to your job and craft balance within family, partners, children and the wider world? Is there space for both?
This is why my aim, as a vocal coach, is to breakdown and demystify the voice. To clarify what we mean by technique, how the the mental state affects the voice, or what terms like “belt” or “light” or “on voice” or “twang” really mean!
I want to help singers understand when to engage and when to step off the wings and appreciate the beauty of reality around them as that too will feed into their work as an artist.
My theory of the 'six fundamentals of a singer,' aims to do that. We break singing down to six simple yet crucial aspects: breath, adduction, resonance, jaw release, tongue root release and a free larynx, then every exercise, technique or warm up applies must apply to one of those. For instance, a lip trill works all six if you do it correctly.
But, more compellingly, we can also include all the more illusive parts of singing including: meditation or mindfulness, finding your 'self', using primal sounds, using your emotions, imagery and sensation. These, too, can connect into the six fundamentals - usually engaging your breath support, resonance awareness and adduction whilst often also release tension.
This is for singers like I used to be when I was performing: who feel inconsistent and confused about their voices, or, who aren't sure how to be performance or audition ready.
On those big days, I'd wake terrified and spend the day until performance or audition in a strange state: numb, tense, distracted, jittery. I'd warm up all day long and try everything. If it went well, I'd surge out of the room, on top of the world, but if it didn't it was like stepping into a hidden pot hole and continuing to fall for days after.
Using the six fundamentals, a singer can become aware of what impact each part of their body and mind has on their instrument so you can ready yourself and know that it will get you to the place you need to do.
I'm in the process of creating the optimum warm up: from some brief cardio to get your heart pumping, to some stretching and meditation to bring yourself into your body, then a fifteen minute warm up that really focuses on each of the six fundamentals, releasing the parts that need releasing and strengthening the parts that need strengthening.
Each day, in anticipation of next week's Masterclass at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, and courses at The Actor's Centre, I interrogate this regime and tweak it - trying it out myself , exploring it will my students - so it's nearly ready to share!
Watch the the Janet Baker documentary on BBC iplayer:
Look away if you like things neat and tidy!
Don't worry, I'll make this much prettier soon!
This was created in anticipation for my Masterclass at The Theatre Royal Haymarket and the new course at The Actor's Centre.
Off we go! Five new singers. Lots of goals ahead. Let's do this!!
Own your Voice. A twelve week course to demystify your instrument, to tackle your goals and challenges, and to fall in love with singing again!
Week One: Overview of the balanced singer
Week Two: Resonance
Week Three: Breathing and connecting your body
Week Four: Jaw release
Week Five: Tongue release and your articulators
Week six: a free larynx and ‘tilt’
Week seven: Emotional connection and acting through song
Week eight: Your body knows best: dynamic movement to release tension and mindfulness.
Week Nine: SOVT
Week Ten: Sing on the vowels, use the consonants for energy and support.
Week Eleven: Belt
Week Twelve: Recap.
An ode to the 'BRRRRR'
Most of us love this simple little exercises because suddenly singing feels so easy - suddenly there are no breaks in our voices, suddenly the high notes just fly out - but why?
A lip trill works all the fundamental components of your instrument creating a perfect balance of breath and muscle release. Also, being SOVT (Semi-occluded vocal tract or half shut mouth) it sends the sound waves backwards which, when they meets the air coming upwards, sandwiches your vocal cords between air and sound waves bringing them together without any tension.
But how do you transfer the lip trill into your singing?
Doing your lips trills daily will strengthen your breath support, release tension and teach your cords to stay together throughout your range without tension.
It really is that easy
Rachel Lynes -vocal coach
These articles aim to simplify and clarify. My aim is to give you clear exercises that make a big difference.