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.