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