One of the most difficult concepts for the beginning student of voice to grasp is that singing consistently well takes much time and practice. The singer is training muscles in the body to respond in a coordinated fashion. As William Vennard once said:
Learning to sing is a slow and patient undertaking, in which a good ear is the prerequisite, the imagery is an aid supplied by the teacher, and the experience is gradually accumulated until it is so powerful that merely calling up the memory will reproduce it.
There are three basic elements involved with what is considered good classical vocal technique: Breathing, Space, and Focus. This is probably a little bit oversimplified, but let’s begin by examining each of these in a little more depth.
Breathing and posture are intimately related. While there are many postures that a singer might choose, or use for performance, it is generally accepted that good posture for singing will include the following elements:
- Feet about a shoulder’s width apart with one slightly in front of the other.
- Knees slightly bent, not rigid.
- A relatively high chest position with rib cage expanded and shoulders back.
- Head fairly level or perpendicular to the ground.
- Hands comfortably and lightly touching the sides of the thighs.
Good posture also has an important side benefit in addition to helping the singer breathe consistently well. It looks good to the audience and helps the singer exude confidence and energy.
Once the posture has been established, the singer is ready to breathe. Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, is preferred primarily because of its efficiency, but also because it looks better. Extended use of high clavicular breathing (shoulders), or intercostal breathing (ribs) tends to tire the singer more quickly and often may make the audience nervous for the singer because it appears as if he or she is working too hard.
The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle that separates the thoracic cavity (chest) from the abdominal cavity. It attaches to the lower ribs and vertebrae. During inhalation the diaphragm contracts, which causes it to lower and flatten out, pressing on the contents of the abdominal cavity (viscera). This causes the abdomen to expand in an outward direction in a way that is very similar to taking a balloon, placing it on a hard flat surface, and pushing down on it. At the same time a partial vacuum is formed in the lungs and air rushes in to fill it. The lungs are elastic, but cannot move of their own accord.
In normal breathing the diaphragm then returns to its natural position quickly pushing the air out of the lungs. During singing, however, the singer needs to be able to regulate the outflow of breath in order to sustain phonation over the duration of the musical phrase. This may be accomplished by contracting the abdominal muscles slowly and evenly. The sensation is one of the “abs” pulling gradually upward and inward and should feel comfortable and not labored.
Another term used for the classical singing concept of space is “open throat.” In classical singing singers are taught how to raise the soft palate in the back of the throat in order to create more space. Lifting the soft palate does give one the sensation of openness in the throat, hence the use of the term.
There are a couple of reasons for doing this. One is that the added space amplifies and enriches singer’s tone providing these benefits without the singer expending more physical effort. The other is that for most singers opening the throat makes it easier to produce higher pitches.
It should be noted that this primarily a classical technique. One of the major differences between classical and pop singers is that pop singers tend to maintain an openness of the throat that more closely approximates natural speech.
An easy way to feel the sensation of the “open throat” is to take in a breath quickly (without sound) as if someone surprised you. Another is to try to maintain the feeling of the beginning of a yawn. In both of these the soft palate is raised. What is difficult for most new voice students is to then maintain the muscles in the raised position as they begin to sing.
Some voice teachers use the term “vocal placement” for the classical singing concept of “focus.” Primarily this refers to maintaining the natural forward feeling of vibration that a person has during speech. Singers often as they develop the ability to create more space in the back of the throat allow the focus or “placement” to creep or pull back as well. This results in a muffled and covered tone and also tends to decrease the number of higher partials in the tone that allow it to project over a distance. The advice from teachers to “sing as you speak” originates from the desire to maintain good forward focus.
The goal then for the student of classical singing is to maintain a well-supported, open and focused tone on every pitch and vowel throughout their range which is why if we go back to Vennard, “learning to sing is a slow and patient undertaking.”