Thoughts on finding a good relationship between air, vibration at the cords and resonance
Article by Cathy Pope
The vocal cords are highly sensitive to the breath pressure below them. The classical singer studies mentally and physically for a creative three way balance between breath pressure, vibration at the vocal cords and resonance on every note.
I have tried in the article to describe just some of the things that make this balance difficult and why, and some of the ways to help with this balance. Some of these concepts are quite advanced.
How do low notes function in this balance?
There is more cord mass in used low notes and the cords are also shorter, you could say floppier in the lower register. The singer must not lower the focus on the body and just relax in these notes, as that will push too much air pressure at the floppy cords which will result in squeeze. The resonance in lower notes should feel higher on the chest and as you go up in pitch goes gradually down the sternum through the middle voice. There needs to be less breath pushed at these low notes but it is unfortunately on these low notes that the singer is very tempted just to relax listening passively to the sounds inside their head. The opposite should be true.
If the singer relaxes too much in the middle and low voice then the slightest drama in the phrase usually has the singer forcing sub glottal pressure, and overusing the muscles of the throat to try to control the breath to create intensity and colour. The larynx is held tight between the pitches, and during the pitches, and so the relationship between the vocal cords and the resonance and breath is broken. The vocal cords are only efficient when they are freely operating in the optimum airflow to give them the optimum vibration offered to the resonance. The breath must be controlled with the body not with squeeze at the throat. This means that the cords are sucked together just enough on the airflow o that they are meeting ass perfectly as possible to allow the maximum vibration.
If a singer does not acquire an ability to use the body correctly on the low notes there will be over compression of the vocal cords and this compression will be pushed up right through the voice revealing strain. The expression of the instrument will be impoverished with something of a slapdash relationship with the breath and resonance with all sorts of sounds being produced of one sort or another, in parts of the voice, a bit too tight, and in other parts, a bit too loose, compromising the bite and sparkle and expression in the sound.
Of course the classical singer spends their life learning to create a better and better easy balance of the body, the vocal cords, and the resonance thus striving to give the voice emotional authority phrase after phrase.
I come across lots of singers who have been told to keep the resonance very high in the head in the chest register. This usually has the knock-on effect of encouraging them to lift up the back of the tongue creating tongue tension. This is because the singer is trying to put the resonance in a certain place. But resonance must be reflected back into the adjustments in the mouth and down the throat not simply pushed into the resonance and out into the audience. A singer learns to contain and constantly shape their sound throughout their singing life; it is a constant study for us all. If the singer understands what controls the singing functions, it should become much easier to sing, and should be a hugely enjoyable and rewarding process putting new repertoire on the body and voice.
How does control of breath affect low notes?
The larynx must release low but this cannot be achieved by lifting the back of the neck by over straightening it and over pulling it back and up. This stresses the front of the throat. That is replacing the work that the body should do with neck and tongue tension. It is the body which controls the air and it is the body that should happily absorb the stress.
How does this happen?
It is tricky to describe this feeling of going into the body in writing. I could describe anatomy but we have to feel our way so let's make an image - imagine an umbrella. For argument sake let's just imagine one of those larger umbrellas. The point is sticking out of the top and then just a few inches below you have that flappy material of the umbrella that when fully extended keeps the rain off. Imagine the umbrella is open but you could make the material of the umbrella go up and down couldn't you, it could close with you making flapping fluffing closing movement till fully closed. By this I mean to say it is not a still stuck thing that I am describing.
This is a very rough image so I am going to say that the stick of the middle of the umbrella represents the plumb line of gravity that goes through the body and it does not represent the spine itself which has curves in it. If the stick bit of the umbrella is collapsing or twisted you couldn't have that flexibility because it would just keep catching. Imagine that the umbrella has lots of material bits of umbrella one underneath the other all the way down which flap slightly as they close. You want it to come all the way down evenly not weighted more at the front and less at the back or the other way around. The bits of material represent the ribs in this image. This is not a long term concept but rather a way of saying that the ribs must come down fully for the lung to empty.
Human beings are alive of course and not an inanimate things like umbrellas obviously. But such is the difficulty of explaining these things that this makes quite a good image. So anyway because you are alive and you have heavy lungs and other internal organs which are affected by the breath it is even more important that the middle of the umbrella (the middle of you) does not collapse against the constant shifting movement. In fact the rate of this pull through the middle helps to control the breath and the amount of breath that comes through the throat to the vocal cords. The ribs should not be held out i.e. the umbrella should not be held up fully extended, as you would for the rain, and then try to sing on it because that stops the breath altogether. (Hence the hold your ribs out technique is not recommended) A singer has to learn to close the umbrella. How it closes is important. Many singers do not let their ribs come down evenly right down deep into the body and so push sub glottal pressure at some point during a phrase. To put it crudely that would be pushing the held open umbrella at the vocal cords.
Why would you want to string a violin with a thick rope when a little string would suffice? The breath to a large extent controls the thickness of the string and its vibration. There must be the correct amount of release of the tension in the diaphragm to help the vocal cords acquire the optimum relationship between their vibration and the resonance of each note. There is a magical relationship that can be acquired between the breath, the vocal cords, and the resonance. Renée Fleming calls it fluffing the feathers. She means I think that, as the ribs come down, they come down in a buoyant responsive lively way. Most singers never understand how to acquire the tools to get this balance in the lower register. They either, push too much sub glottal pressure, and then realise that does not work or, relax the middle of the umbrella, so to speak, thinking that perhaps they just need to release or physically bulge forward or backwards loosening in one area and tightening in another. But then with the slightest drama, the throat becomes overloaded, with no protection. The singer finds themselves reacting to events instead of being in charge of them and it becomes gradually more difficult to find satisfaction.
The appoggio is the tool that, when over used, stretches the umbrella to its fullest extent and attempts to keeps it stuck. This is usually accompanied by over lifting and tight pulling in at the lower abdomen. The appoggio should be felt around the body even in the sacrum and is the leaning against the body with also the feeling of pulling through the middle of the umbrella so everything does not collapse. It must not be stuck because it feeds the onset and the perpetual motion of sound. If you push the abdomen and solar plexus out you can feel that this stops the air moving. There must be pliability!
The temptation with onset is to squeeze the vocal cords to make sound before the breath can get to them -the coordination can get a bit off. Sometimes it is a good thing to ask a singer to investigate putting air before sound and then close the cords on the body for the onset and, as they let the little bit of air out, feel as though they are inhaling instead in to the open throat so the inhale meets the exhale there under the cords creating a buoyant sense of air there. Then imagine the cords are sucking down to it and make a gentle onset with a tender buoyant appoggio. The vocal cords can and need to get the air they want from underneath them.
For the low notes to have the most resonance onset possible there must be just the right compression for them to suck together. There is a lot of cord mass in the low notes, and they are more floppy than in the rest of the registration of the voice. They need to be sucked together to create optimum resonance and the body can cooperate and adjust so that they can take the right amount of air on offer from just below the vocal cords. It is in the lower notes the singer needs to work the hardest physically because they cannot take a lot of air pressure.
The first rib does not move in breathing. The rest of the ribs fold down from it. The ring of the first rib needs to be offered up particularly in low notes, so that the vibration comes high on the sternum. This involves certain buoyancy absorbed deep in the body as the ribs fold down. This is what I think Renee Fleming means by fluffing the feathers.
One octave and two octave cupertos are tremendously useful for realigning the lower part of the voice because this exercise brilliantly teaches the body connection.
What do high notes need to help them function?
In high notes above the passaggio, the cords are thinned out so that means there is less cord mass at the vocal cords. They are tighter and vibrate faster. In order to make this beautiful slimness they have to stretch and less of the vocal cord mass is actually used to vibrate to make the note. The sensation of the vocal tone is different to the low notes. In high notes for the soprano for instance in the head of the singer it will sound ugly and thin and quite straight, for the bass a sensation of some of this but does not hear much in his head at all.
[A note for singers with the high extension -I'm going to straightaway point out here that I am not going to go into the great explanation here of what happens to the high tenor and the high soprano above the high C where they go into another register because at this point the singer is going to another register and in the larynx slightly changes position. It is usually accompanied by a little straightening at the back of the neck. Only singers with this high extension do this. I might add that it can be a little problematic for these singers to find their full middle voice completely freely if they try and go down through the voice with the larynx shifted in this position.]
The vowel shape needs to change above the passaggio. Some types of singer need to modify 'u' umlaut at the top and some to French 'in' shape in order for the voice to be full.
A lot of singers make the mistake of thinking that it is in the high notes that they need to work hard physically but actually the complete reverse is true. It is in the middle and lower registers that a singer needs to work more with deep pliability in the body and an open deep pliable pharynx, and the high register is then the release. This release can only come if the work in the other registers has been done properly. What happens if the singer does not do this? There will be too much weight meaning too much excess of applied force pushed up in a register where the vocal cords need to be slim. Of course, when you sing you must have some compression but not diaphragmatic pushed drive which stops the air. It is this compression that helps suck the vocal cords together but an excess of this makes strain and tightness.
A singer can be half asleep about this usually because they have not got the hang of it and end up having to react crudely too late with too much force here and there, or indeed, sometimes everywhere! The amount of body needed needs to be calculated before the note is sung and with subtlety. The singer can acquire the physicality needed to calculate the degree of breath pressure to be applied to the resisting abducted vocal cords for the given note and the given expression and effect needed. So, it is necessary to make decisions in advance and to know what to use to make them.
Some singers lack the right degree of abduction in some parts of the voice. Sometimes this can happen at the top because the physical relationships are just a bit off. If the singer is over blowing a lot, this can be due to a certain degree of muscular slackness. It is not a remedy to push with the diaphragm and replace abduction of the vocal cords with squeeze using the tongue and the neck. Merely to increase the breath pressure and shove it at a small little place in the forehead is not a remedy. The cords do not deal well with air brutally shoved from the lungs at this slim focus of sound. Rather it is better to think that the sound acquires focus because the throat is open and the relationship between the vibration, the breath and the modified vowel is so well balanced that the sound easily goes where it needs to. Some muscular re-education is the only remedy to help the vocal cords feed from the air just below them.
A singer should feel a slight springy widening at the solar plexus which you can resist against all the way down into the body so long as you are standing open balanced and tall. I would generally say that an upper passaggio lies there is a little more feeling predominately across the ribs east west just above the solar plexus behind the breast. As the singer goes above the upper passaggio this sensation goes lower in the body incrementally.
It is very easy to stop the air at the top of the voice and push. The top of the jaw needs to come slightly off the bottom jaw for high notes rather than the lower jaw shove down. Some singers need to do this more than others. But that little bit of elongation at the top of the pharynx can often help a lot. You might be able to find it by putting your thumbs under your cheek bones and your fingers at the back of the head. David teaches this little trick - it really helps. Get a bit of a grip and then lift the lot up and a little forward with the lose jaw underneath and not pulled back. It is not easy to do if you have been used to thrusting your jaw down
What do middle notes need to help them function?
Most singers make the mistake of thinking that their middle voice should sound focused in their heads whereas it should have a cloudy vibrating oral sensation. It should not sound in the head like it has that beam of sound that you get in the high voice. It should have a certain fuzzy vibrato and not sound still or focused in the singer's head. The adjustable parts of the vocal mechanism are only slightly stretched and have comparatively little tension in the middle voice compared to the high voice. As the singer goes up through the middle voice the cords stretch a little more and a little more and a little more until they are in head. But still a sound does not focus completely slimly until full head above the passaggio. The vowel shape needs to be adjusted in relationship to the pitch to allow the larynx to find its correct level for each note. Whatever the mother tongue of the singer, it would be lucky indeed, if there is one spoken vowel shape that would completely suit the singing voice optimally for a highly trained classical voice. This is because if a singer is to create a performance that can be heard easily over an orchestra without strain then the formants in the sound must be sufficient to the task. In order for these formants to appear the vowel must be modified for the singer but to the audience it will sound like the complete vowel.
When we forget what we are going to say we would say 'uh' wouldn't we? The larynx naturally releases low. When the larynx releases low the vowels are felt differently. In the middle and low voice this shape must be dominant in order for the pharynx to lengthen enough to create an emotive performance of carrying power without strain. The vowels will acquire the formants that allow them to be projected easily over a large space. But to the singer singing them they will not sound like the pure vowels that are just purely made in the mouth. This released and open wide throat and low larynx is the basis for the head voice. When the larynx is too high in the middle voice the top will never have quite the complete release
Impediments to an open throat and released larynx are, tight jaw, tight bunched tongue, a tight neck too much pushed sub glottal pressure or at the opposite end of the spectrum, too much loose air and attempting to sing demanding classical music with vowels formed only in the mouth.
As the pressure mounts up through the middle voice towards the upper passaggio singers react in all sorts of ways that can be unhelpful -the hips go forward in order to try to relieve pressure in the throat or they open their mouth too wide and pull down the tongue at the front, or they pull their head back to try to focus the sound into the ear, or they lift their chests up or conversely to try to relax and release it down. Or there's the singer that lifts their head and neck back and drops the nose also in an attempt to focus the excitement of the sound into the ear and pull the sound up into the head. I could go on. Indeed! I tried it all once upon a time!
But rather it is in the end easier to know what to do to, instead of reacting to the middle voice, to rather be in charge of the middle voice and know what is needed. One of the problems for the singer is that this effect that is so wanted cannot be judged with the singer's ears because the singer will never hear what they think they want to hear. Frustratingly it can only be done by feel.
The sound of my middle voice in my head when it's free is extremely unsatisfactory to me yet quite frankly I can do anything with it. I am used to it now though so on the other hand honestly I find it very satisfactory because it feels free and completely malleable. It's a relief I can tell you and I hope that I can keep this till I am an old girl! I guess I will have to see how it goes.
Anyway, it sounds quite wobbly and does not have that much upper resonance on it in my own ears at all. Yet it has rounded resonance and focus outside of me. I can feel this relationship between the pliable stretch of my vocal chords taking what they need from the lightly compressed air underneath them that is run with tenderness yet with a very alert and flexible body. A singer is often told that they cannot feel any sensations in the throat but I would say this is not strictly true at all. The things that run the throat are the terminals of sensation. These terminals, that is the things that run the throat, are the shape of the upper lip, the movement in the cheeks and of the jaw, movement of the tongue and movement of the body. What you do with these things tells you how your throat feels. They can only work easily if the head is balanced easily on the neck and the body is balanced with flexible buoyancy on the feet and hips from the beginning to the end of the phrase. The legs, hips, chest, back, shoulders and arms will wonder all around if the body does not have a throat ready to receive and instruct its power.
How do you know if your larynx is low enough on any note?
It is possible to feel what the larynx is doing with your fingers. If you put your thumb and index finger either side of it you can sense whether the larynx goes reasonably low in the breath and stays low at the onset. I say reasonably low because this method can encourage the singer to push and hold the larynx low with the tongue. This holding of the larynx is usually accompanied with the jaw being moved open and shut by the pulling of the middle of underneath the lower jaw. Instead the jaw should be run much more from by the jaw joint and not so much from underneath the chin. If you cannot feel the muscles engaging around the joint in front of your ears in a widening feeling then the odds are that you are running it from underneath and holding your larynx somewhat. Worryingly then this seems like the smile technique, which I do not advocate. You see there must be a dip in at the cheeks in front of the jaw bone to create acoustical balance with the aid of the imposto. The width must feel inside, and the impetus for this spread must not come from using the corners of the lips for the following reason. If the corners of the lips are used to form width the palate will come down inside the mouth and compromise the internal space in the mouth and throat.
It is very obvious when the larynx finds its freedom, in which it is actually allowed to move a little bit up and down between the pitches and on the consonants. The larynx does not feel so much pushed either high or low but can find its own position and easy function for every note. The voice becomes larger naturally and when singing piano, the voice still spins. When air is shoved at it of course it cannot find that.
What kind of face posture do I need to try to protect my vocal chords from being pushed?
Please bear with me while I say again that the larynx must have some movement in it. If it is held too high or too low it will not move appropriately. The larynx needs to move up and then down between every pitch. Pulling the head back, risks pulling the front of the neck into the back of the neck and grabs the larynx. This tightness often accompanies dropping the nose, and tucking in the chin which grabs the larynx, On top of which the singer is probably pulling their jaw back too much thus closing the throat. Jutting the jaw forward and holding it there too harshly or jutting it by pushing the back of the neck forward also closes the throat and sticks the larynx. A middle road needs to be found so that the voice apparatus can hang freely in front of the posture of the neck.
If you put the tip of the tongue against your upper front teeth, behind them in fact, just behind the tip of the top front teeth, and so then release your jaw and release your neck and let the back of the tongue release softly down your throat. You might be able to feel that the tongue is held up there softly by the part of the tongue that forms the front of the throat. While you are doing this try to feel a little width in the side of the jaw and across the eye teeth with width also at the front portion of the tongue. Perhaps you can feel this helps stimulate more width in your throat allowing it to open east west? The release of the larynx under the tongue allows for a longer pharynx (a necessity for the classical singer). This, it is true to say, makes it difficult for the singer to say any vowel in the mouth! If the singer phonates in this position the predominant sound is 'uh'. This is the predominant sound in the classical singing instrument. It allows the formants to appear in the resonators so the sound easily projects in the theatre. The vowels can be perfectly clear to the audience in the middle voice but are pronounced mostly in the elongated pharynx which can adjust itself to project the vowel clearly and still keep this carrying relationship to the resonators. Of course, the lips and tongue help with vowel formation too. But the vowel has to sit within this 'uh' shape. In the upper extremes of the voice it is often more difficult to hear a singer's vowel in the theatre as the modifications to the vowel are different and it is very removed from speech and carries much release of emotion in the music.
How does the jaw function to help vocal balance?
Where does the lower jaw need to start from when it opens is a useful starting question. Some singers do not have to think about any of this at all but others do not necessarily find vocal freedom by opening their jaw from precisely where their teeth bite closed.
I, for instance, have to move my lower front teeth nearly in front of my upper teeth and open and shut my jaw from there. Some singers it is just the tiniest hint of an adjustment and just the mere fact of thinking about it for a little bit frees something. I was working with a singer today who needed to put her lower teeth and front teeth directly underneath each other and then open her jaw down a little from there and then it wrapped back easily. This was not where her natural bite was at all. Her face moved in a much more pliable way and she had much more pliable opposition in her cheek muscles. The voice was much freer. This is quite an advanced study though because unless the singers understands the pliability in the cheeks the jaw will just be jutted forward and used as false resistance to the breath.
On the other hand another singer this week seems to need to think of sending her jaw more or less straight back because of the anatomy of her jaw and because she has been jutting her chin forward.
When people cry they do not pull their jaw back and strangle themselves and over straighten the neck. Not usually anyway from what I have seen. At any rate, it's not what I do! I find my bottom jaw makes a wide chewing feeling and the muscles of my cheeks are working, my jaw wraps back of its own accord. There is a kid of pliable opposition in them which massages the throat open. I use this word 'massage' to create a sense that it is stimulated open because the throat cannot be held open with a stuck face posture. A stuck facial posture will close the throat. A stuck vowel position in the mouth will close the throat too.
The cords should not be slammed together harshly at the start of notes. Vibration should start from the small tiny place - the imposto. The depth can only be drawn from the imposto. The vibration in the head must not be pulled away from the head voice into the chest. In other words the 'uh' shape in the throat must not pull down the cheeks, or pull down the palate or tighten the lower jaw back and overstretch the neck etc. The imposto is formed with the top lip and the cheeks. It needs to be formed just under the cheek bones, under the apple of the cheeks. It is formed by a slight pulling in. This pulling in is underneath the apple of the cheeks just in front of the jaw joint between the molars accompanying a slight forward movement of the upper lip. This pulling in under the cheeks bones pushes the apples of the cheeks up. This is not pulling up by scrunching under the eyes because that will pull up the larynx which is not what a singer should want. The pulling of the lip forward and a slight flare in the nostrils accompanies this. Some singers have this more naturally than others. So much depends on the physique of the singer.
In the opening and closing of the jaw this opposition of muscles in the cheeks becomes very malleable and pliable thus massaging the palate and the movement of the throat. It is then possible to feel what is happening in the pharynx through the terminals of feeling that come under the nose and in the cheeks and at the side of the throat.
The imposto and that pulling in at the cheeks must not narrow the 'uh' shape in the throat. If you feel that it is narrowing then say a big wide 'ah' on big width in the back of your throat and under your chin, widening the tongue and keep that as far as possible and then say 'uh' with the imposto and the dipping in at the molars as described above but still keep the width. The throat must remain wide and supported by the body. If the throat is not wide the voice will be a little tight and falsely diminished in size. So, once you have found the width then find the imposto. Perhaps this will be easier for you.
These things can help a singer sing contained and voce chiusa. The resonance rumbles from head to chest and into the body creating the harmonics and turning the singer into a wonderful resonant tuning fork.
As the decades go by singers may need to experiment more with these things. Even when singers are young and their pharynxes are flexible it would help them to have some idea about it. So much depends on a singer's physical makeup as to what they need to do. If you look at a singer like Thomas Hampson who has a long face for instance he knows where all these muscles are and will use them to create the effects he wants. His jaw has quite a forward posture as it opens and this works well for him: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ldqHu71bjXQ. Then look at Furlanetto: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pNMdfjN_Bxwbass. And Renee Fleming: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C430PKW0hOk.
If you just use the imposto without the width in the 'uh' in the throat then the palate will be lifted and the sides of the throat drawn in. As David Jones says you need a 'domed feeling in the palate to feel acoustical release'.
The smile technique (width without imposto) produces a tight tongue. Maybe a singer gets some way on it but they would have to have a fantastic instrument to be able to withstand it and eventually the tightness it produces in the tongue and throat will weary the voice enough to show obviously in the sound.
Every singer is different. It is not possible to impose these things on a singer with a 'stay like this way or that way' of course! It should be a cheery exploration. It is cheery because, it is a good feeling to have the body respond more easily and that little by little the instrument feels more whole and free.
What are some exercises in which I can find this correct function?
Most singers do lip trills and tongue trills and rolled r's and these are good things to do because the body responds. But have you thought of actually trilling on whole tones is a good exercise for singers? A singer might try this on all pitches in the middle voice. Starting slowly and then gradually quickening until the larynx yodels from one pitch to the other in an easy rocking motion. If it is tricky, well it is something to play with and might be a long term study. The 2 notes must be clear and clean, even when the trill is fast so it is necessary to go slowly for a long time at first. Be completely honest with yourself about whether the two notes are clear particularly the upper note. If there is too much push from the diaphragm and not enough 'inhalare la voce' the trill will be impossible. As singers go up in pitch they need to throw the weight off the voice, this will help. If you think you sing a bit tight, try singing a phrase, and trill as you go on all the notes. This might help loosen things and help the air flow.
As you go up in pitch, the cord mass is less. So in order for a singer to not pile on cord thickness as they go up in pitch a tiny release is necessary between each note even on a legato line. This is because you need to take only the little filament of voice from note to note instead of pushing one note into another. If this can at first feel like a terrible risk and an awful loss of control then there has been a bit of driving the voice going on.
Sometimes in the course of work to find these balances it can be quite freeing for the singer to literally yodel the weight off across the break from the chest voice up into the head voice and back down again in a fun release. 'a....u....e' several times fast. Notice the 'u' sound as in 'hoot' at the top of the yodel and also the tongue needs to be kept forward otherwise the body will not even begin to come under it with the appoggio to support it. Without pliable support this will be uncomfortable.
The lower the break in the voice in the yodel the better, so it is a good idea to do this, in slow motion if you can, to make sure it is a low break. This is generally more fun for the heavier voices. Lyric singers find it particularly easy to do this in the throat too tightly without any appoggio. So it is necessary to help them find some connection and this can be quite tricky. (Some high tenors and high sopranos will find this exercise well-nigh impossible at first and gently doing the cuperto is preferable)
In fact when singers are very troubled and need to take the pressure off to find freedom it takes a while to get them to a point where they can do this at all because yodelling can seem completely terrifying, or the cords are so unable to come together properly that they cannot find a chest voice to yodel from let alone a middle voice to go through on the way up. There needs to be some work on freeing the neck and the body and the tongue.
But here are some examples of how this has been useful although it took a while to get to a point where we could use it but having said that, it was the thing that got the voice completely free.
This singer was trained as a soprano. The sternocleidomastoid muscles were tight. Among other things we worked on was to encourage her to yodel as she freed her tongue and neck. We didn't even yodel up to head just across the low break lots and lots. She went home and wrote to me telling me her voice had got so big that she had to put the recorder outside the room because it blew out the microphone. Now that her voice was free, it was obvious she was a mezzo. We worked hard together over about two years. She has got going now.
Another singer who was having great difficulty eventually was able to yodel the weight off and allow her body to respond but here again it was not possible at first as there was no middle voice and the top was terribly strained. Once we had opened the chest voice a bit and relaxed the sternocleidomastoid so the middle voice felt more comfortable again it was the yodelling that allowed that extra bit of release so the full voice could appear. Frankly it is hard to no what kind of voice someone is until there is some sort of released coordination. It became clear she is a spinto soprano.
A baritone had difficulty with the high G's in Rigoletto and just was not making the right sound for the role. Yodelling between the notes gave him the top g's easily and created the appropriate vocal personality for the role.
Yodelling is a sob if you think about it. Singing is sobbing, moaning, laughing...! If this concept works for you at some point, then you have felt how it works. Once incorporated into the freeing of the instrument and you never particularly have to do it again unless it seems like a good idea! Just the cuperto will suffice.
I remember going through my yodelling moments with David Jones. It helped.
I have had many singers here who come with this difficulty of separating the feeling of depth from their larynx. I can help to think the larynx separate to the depth. So, the Larynx in front, loose, is moving just under chin and then depth as separate. So this depth is behind the larynx and nothing to do with it. So this depth is going down to base of neck and on down into chest. So the larynx is allowed to lift up a little with every consonants and returns down a little afterwards when the vowel comes. This concept might seem strange but this can be the short term concept that can help uncouple a deadly grip of a tight tongue on the larynx, for some singers.
Renee Fleming suggests a singer try putting a little sweet on the front part of the tongue to encourage it to lift and widen a bit. This then helps the tongue release the back of the tongue wide, down the throat, without bunching or narrowing.
The concept of "inhalare la voce" is to help the singer not drive the voice. The singer feels as if they have a slight feel of expectant inhaling under the larynx as they sing. Even though the voice is connected to the body, it must be a connection that is buoyant enough to never blow away, that feeling of inhalare in the open throat. So, then the cords can stretch and the mucous membrane helps to suck the cords down together. I think the word hover is useful -a sense that the air hovers under the cords in a subtle pre-vomit feeling which is there to encourage the throat to open east west. The cords suck down and vibrate on the hovering air. The diaphragm must not over blow that feeling nor must the tongue jaw or neck tighten.
You can also try breathing out through a voiced 'V', let a sense of wide 'uh' be in pharynx. Let air go over the back of the tongue which forms the front of the throat at the top. Let this air go towards the soft palate. The front of the tongue just naturally floats behind the bottom teeth. This would mean that your upper teeth chomp firmly down into the wet of your firm forward lower lip. Try to keep your teeth as open as you can so your bottom lip has to stretch up to the tip of your front teeth. After you have breathed out then breathe in through your teeth as if you were reversing the voiced 'V'. Then sing five tone scale viviviviviviviviv 123454321 trying not to change anything at all. You will feel a little idiotic because there is not much pliability in this but nevertheless it has some mileage in it as an exercise if you can do it. If you can manage to do it then the shapes that your lips and cheeks form and the fact that your tongue remains floating forward in the mouth allows a reasonably good sense of balance between the breath and the cords and the resonators releasing the larynx.
What strategy can I used to help me control the breath so I do not push breath at my vocal cords?
It is so easy for the singer to over breathe or rather to breath in ways that mean that breath comes in loosely or in some manner which makes the singer unable to control things easily. It means that the onset is by turns either starved of breath or pushed with too much. It can be difficult to find the balance.
A too high larynx is often established in the breath and onset by taking too much air which means there is too much loose breath driving at the vocal cords. The trouble with the umbrella analogy, which I used earlier, all these things it is only useful on one level. It can give the impression of loose flapping ribs and this is not accurate. It is understandable that many singers lift their ribs deliberately to let the breath in but this compromises onset, as too much loose air can be pushed at the vocal cords, and it can feel like a bit of a fight to control it. Instead of feeling loose when the breath comes in the singer should feel really quite compact as if there is still some bodily strength in the 'outside of the cylinder'. If the singer is too loose in the tummy when they breathe in, they may find themselves at the end of the phrase too tanked up with air and will have to breathe out the excess before breathing in again for the next phrase. Ideally one wants to be able to have a strategy whereby you take only the amount of breath that you need for any phrase. Intention is always formed on the emotion of the breath out during the previous phrase when the thought should always be turning to the next phrase and conceiving it. Short phrases are short because they intend to be short for reasons of emotional expression. The intent not to take much breath must come from the emotional energy of the breath out in the phrase before.
Most singers also never get rid of the breath properly and so become tanked up.
It may help if I try and express how to do another exercise for the breath here in writing but that in itself is always fraught with communication problems but here goes! The old saying was 'feel you are sitting down when you are standing'. I am going to suggest an exercise in sitting.
Sit on a chair with your knees at right angles so that your feet are firmly planted on the floor. Sit up with your shoulders relaxed and your arms out in front of you pressing your palms on top of your thighs with your arms inside almost straight. Make sure that the pressing down is coming from your back and inside your body and not from the top of your shoulders. (If you find that hard to do then this exercise is not useful for you at this time but there are plenty of others which would serve you well) Breathe out and as you do press with your hands on your knees. Notice whether, when you do that, if you are scrunching down or whether you are pulling up through the middle of you and letting your ribs fold down. Imagine that the usual piece of spine that is between your shoulder blades is pulled up higher in relation to your shoulder blades as you breathe out - this, having the effect of making your shoulder blades feel as though they are going down as you're pulling up past them through the middle of yourself in relation to them. Feel the first ring of you ribs go up a little as the ribs fold down and let air go out very slowly through you pursed lips -a little like you were almost whistling but with lips more soft than that. Allow the ribs to come down. In order for that to happen the intercostal muscles must be softened enough to allow it. It should take a long time for this out breath to happen. The shoulder blades also come down with the ribs at the back. If they do not, then the muscles around them are very tight and so also possibly are the pectoral muscles a bit too tight perhaps? This could be inhibiting the movement of the ribs. Deliberately pushing out at the solar plexus and/or abdomen also stops the movement of the ribs and shuts the throat, and pulls down a good posture. If you try it, is pretty obvious.
Make sure when you do this that you do not collapse behind your waist but rather send your sacrum back a little bit with a light thought. This is achieved by a lengthening from your sacrum going back and your knees going away forward, so the sacrum and knees are going away from each other - A sort of lengthening in your pelvic floor and leg muscles - this, being in contrast to the pulling up in the middle of you, and the pressing of your hands on your knees. Thinking of your neck starting down below your waist can sometimes be a helpful way to think. If you find you feel you are sticking your bottom out then it means there is pushing forward at the waist or upper body. So to try to be clearer the lower body expands a bit all around to allow the diaphragm to drop in the inhale. The tummy must not become loose and floppy and flaccid as this prevents the back working properly. The singer ideally should not need to drop physically or loose height to inhale nor ideally should the singer need to try and make room for the breath consciously.
The in breath in is always the result of the breath out. It is very important that the ribs do come down and that you feel the sense of very slowly lifting up through yourself in relation to them. As if you were pulling the quill of the feather and leaving the feathers to go down. Most singers go through a little stage of running out of breath because they do not allow their ribs to come down in relation to that pull up. There are many reasons for this; it may be that they collapse in the back and the back ribs hold, or hold on to the shoulder blades. Perhaps they breathe too much in the tummy or too much under their chests. Perhaps they do not find the dynamic relationships internally and relax too much and so emotionally detach. Sometimes a singer will hold at certain vowels, consonants or pitch combinations or even right at the start of a phrase. Once this holding gives a signal to the ribs to halt, the airflow stops. The singer thinks they have run out of air but they have not actually. There are many combinations which result in stuck ribs which sabotage the relationship of breath to vocal cords, unfortunately! Sometimes a singer can just think they have a small breath capacity just because they do not realise they are holding.
Anyway going back to the exercise, to help the sense of breathing out it might feel at first as if your ribs are folding right down over your bottom from just under your shoulders. I said to someone today imagine that they are beetle wings folding right down and into you and you pull up slowly through the middle of you as they go down. It seemed to help at the time.
When the breath comes in, you do not deliberately have to lift the ribs. The breath simply comes in and moves everything for you. The subconscious knows better how to breath and keep you alive than the conscious mind because 'nature abhors a vacuum' and will fill it! The body should feel more encased and not loose. The in breath should feel more internal than external. In the inhale encourage yourself to leave the ribs down around you and the opposition of the pull up intact through the middle. Then let your jaw go, keep that length from your knees to sacrum and let your air come in without making any room on the outside of yourself. I mean without making your ribs lift deliberately. You could even make it hard for the breath to go in, once or twice, make it feel as though it has to push against your body. Make it feel somewhat encased. Then just loosen it a bit and see when it gets you.
Breath will come into you in a way that you can control only if you understand how to breathe out. Breathing out is the forerunner of breathing in and it is not the other way round.
So the air has to come through the middle of you and work a bit hard to displace the ribs. Another way to say it is to say your ribs and arms and upper body weigh a certain amount. Breathe against the weight instead of trying to make yourself lighter or lifting your ribs to lighten them. So let the lower ribs move first right up to under your shoulder at the back and at the front.
I seem to remember Mable Todd in her book 'the Thinking Body' said feel that the ribs are pushing slightly into the spine instead of going away from them. That can be a helpful for some people who have been lifting a lot in the in breath.
Ok, if you hold yourself completely stuck down and completely pulled up through the middle of you, then of course you will find it difficult to get much air in. But you don't have to release as much as you probably think you do. Let the air do the work for you when it comes in so the internal reflexive nervous system does something for you.
As you sing, the pull up through, which goes slowly past as the ribs go down, creates opposite pulls and therefore a sort of deep internal pliable freeing springiness that absorbs all the stress. If you have managed to understand what I'm saying, you will feel the filling in you and against your body internally right from the base near your leg up to the second rib, and a satisfying feeling of being encased and pleasantly pressured all around your body. This is using nature to help you have authority over your breathing mechanism without force. It creates an immediacy and precious little gap between breath, vibration and resonance for the singer to fall through.
When singers are too stressed they lift at onset or for high notes and stop the breath. On a phrase it does not matter whether the notes go up or down, the ribs go the same direction. It is like a meditation or an alternate state, which is as far as can be, from fright and flight. In this place you can be the full instrument in which the music can simply be.
You could try this -breathing out through the slightly pursed lips, already described, and then after a few second sing a phrase but keep physically on the same course of breathing out as you would have if you had just kept going without singing the phrase. Go the same way with the ribs no matter if the pitch rises or falls.
A singer can easily mistake their instrument for their posture. The vocal instrument is in front of the spine i.e. in front of the bones that go through your neck not in them. The vocal apparatus hangs forward. You can think of vocal apparatus as being underneath your chin if you like!
Another thing that can get in the way of the larynx finding its freedom, are the consonants. Most singers make movements with the tongue that are much too large to get form a consonant to a vowel. The back of the tongue can be used to lifting up in reaction to movement from one note to another. This lifting of the back of the tongue yanks the larynx out of position and stops the vibration at the vocal cords at the end of the vowel in preparation for the consonant, and during the consonant. In fact the larynx needs to feel more released and the back of the tongue more released before a change of note or before consonant. The back of the tongue only releases when the front portion of the tongue is lifted somewhat like a seesaw. Oftentimes what happens is the singer drops the front of the tongue and this causes the back of it to lift up causing bits of unnecessary tension in the throat which gradually mounts up through piece of music. Vibration at the vocal cords must not be stopped at the consonants.
The ear can cause problems when moving from one note to the other as it can be very used to listening for pitch. Instead the voice should sound cloudy and wobbly to the singer in the middle and bottom of the voice. You should be able to hear the vibration very much more than you can hear the actual note. It will sound cloudy chaotic and indistinct to not drive weight from one pitch into another to satisfy the ear in the middle voice.
I find that when I sing I over blow my vocal chords because my upper chest at the front caves down and in. How do I deal with that?
I am going to deal with this question by talking about curves in the spine. The singer gains much energy and strength, and it is an athletic strength, from the opposite curves in the spine. As you probably know the spine has four curves. They are terribly important. Someone who is used to collapsing at the chest loses their curve at the back of the waist under stress, almost certainly. Experiment with exaggerating this curve slightly as the phrase progresses at the back of the waist perhaps? The curve from the bottom of the sacrum goes up and forward towards the waist and then turns and goes back on itself.
On the other hand it is very important the singer does not collapse by pushing the waist forward distending the muscles of the abdomen as this is a recipe for dreadful posture and back pain! The thing that saves one from this back pain is that quill, the plumb line, going up through the body from the legs, and good tone in the muscles of the front of the body.
The ribs will be unable to go down if the singer has over straightened the back. It is also by the way not useful to tell a singer to tuck the bottom under as this takes the curve out of the back from waist to neck and collapses the front of the chest under stress. Generally people who are over lordotic would benefit from realigning the upper body in relation to the pelvis. This is over simplification but just tucking the bottom under usually just produces other problems. Both over lordotic and over straightening of the back can both be accompanied by too much pulling back of the head or too much pushing forward of the forehead or both. I have a tendency to be over lordotic. It is caused by a locking of my upper back so I lose some of my refined coordination in my movements. I think it is exacerbated by sitting at piano looking at singers! I end up moving my neck a lot. I put 2 tennis balls either side of my spine about 2 inches under the base of my neck and lie on them on my back and open my chest. It is one of things I use to remind me to involve my whole spine when I move my neck.
Most postures, either lordotic or with the chest collapsing are often accompanied with a listing of the body to one side or the other. Perhaps this is because of some accident - the body thinks it needs to pull to one side away from the pain and years later it is still has not dropped the habit. For instance, I go a bit too much to the left. I have to make a conscious effort in my life to make my body work towards my right side. In fact, I am inclined to rotate as well and have had to learn what I do to free myself from the tendency.
When someone with a collapsing upper chest first starts to try to correct this by putting the curve back in at the waist they will probably alternate between two extremes. Neither is useful! One will be, they will stick their bottom back and push their upper body forward and over bulge the solar plexus which in itself creates push in the voice. The other they will lift the chest, looking for the pull up in the wrong place, too much up of the front of the body and push sub glottal pressure under the cords. That's why I would advocate sitting down and trying to find these opposite pulls as described above on the breath out and try to notice what is going on in the back and chest. It takes a lot of careful and difficult monitoring to try to deal with this by yourself.
A good Feldenkrais practitioner should be ale to spot what you are doing, explain it to you, and communicate effectively ways to deal with it through touch and with clear communicative instructions in a one to one FI. These are the Feldenkrais practitioners I have worked with - Günther Bisges who works in London and also Scott Clark has helped me and my students, also I believe Rebecca Meitlis is good although I have never worked with her. There is also Uta Ruge in Berlin who I have enjoyed working with. All these are excellent Feldenkrais practitioners and I am sure there are many more. It is just finding someone who is right for you. I like Moshe Feldenkrais' books. He describes good posture so well. There is a very useful chapter (chapter 17 the Abdomen, the Pelvis and the Head) in his book The Potent Self for instance.
The only thing to remember when you do Alexander or Feldenkrais or any of these things is that unless you are really skilled as a singer you cannot know the kind of things that you need to do internally to sing. Singing is a stress and the body has to learn how to absorb that stress in a springy and pliable fashion and the throat has to be thoroughly open. Most of these therapies are ways to drop tension whereas in singing because it is a rather strange athletic occupation it is about internal movement. It is about standing still but actually creating opposites within you and going to the end of your breath without collapsing time after time. It is how to make tension pliable, and emotionally useful and not brittle and stand there and find inexhaustible internal strength look as though you are not doing much.
I have given some ideas in this article; a lot of which I think are quite advanced. I hope this article is useful so far and to avoid the risk of going on and on and on and boring or overloading the reader (which I have probably done already) I am going to stop now. Thank you for getting this far with me!