The first key component to address is posture. As late as the 1950s, posture was a massive staple for everyday life and general health. Fastforward to today and there are people slumped over their computers and cellphones everywhere. Unfortunately, life styles that are acclimated around these devices and technology do not help to promote good posture. Bad posture negatively affects flexibility, balance, lung capacity and overall quality of life. Working to amend bad posture can have positive residual effects that transcend into singing; most applicably, lung capacity. Ensuring that posture is correct will enhance lung capacity and, in the long run, overall vocal production.
The next key component actually works in tandem with good posture: the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a thin layer of skeletal muscle that separates the abdomen from the thoracic cavity which contains the heart and lungs. As the diaphragm contracts it pulls the lungs downward and causes inhalation. The subsequent expansion of the diaphragm induces exhaling. Maintaining good posture and full lung capacity ensures that the diaphragm can be used to maximum potential.
The diaphragm is also used as a support system while exhaling. When inhaling it is optimal to stay mindful and breathe low. This means that the stomach should expand and contract while leaving the chest level. Breathing low and engaging core muscles also helps maximize the diaphragm potential and ensure constant, steady air flow for vocal production.
Here is a non-example. This voice student is standing with incorrect posture which cuts off lung capacity and effectiveness of the diaphragm. Listen to how it negatively impacts the potential of her voice.
This is the correct way to sing this song and utilize lung capacity as well as the diaphragm.
Once correct posture is mastered and the diaphragm is being optimized, singers can move on to the source of vocal production. The third key component is the throat. During vocal production, many intricate muscles work intrinsically and extrinsically. Almost all correct vocal production is done unknowingly and uncontrolled. The throat must be approached carefully and it must remain entirely unaffected in order to protect it. Although there are strong recommendations to not alter the natural goings on of the throat, it is important to know the inner workings and ways to enhance it. Many people put stress on their throat for higher notes or a raspy, unique sound and they have no idea the damage they are inflicting.
The throat has two parts: the pharynx and the larynx. The pharynx contains the trachea and the esophagus. The trachea is for breathing and the esophagus is for swallowing food and water. The second part of the throat is the larynx which houses the vocal cords. Many people believe vocal cords to be actual cords or even strings inside the throat.
This is false. The vocal cords are actually delicate folds of soft tissue that are manipulated by the pressure of air coming up the trachea. It actually looks more like this (warning: potentially graphic):
With the right amount of pressure, the vocal folds come together to produce noise. Certain manipulations dictate more specific noises such as pitch. The greater the pressure, the more the vocal folds stretch out and the higher the pitch production will be. The lesser the pressure, the shorter the vocal folds become and the lower the pitch will be. This is demonstrated well by a balloon loosing air at a controlled rate.
It is natural for the vocal folds to rub together in s process called phonating, but it does create friction and therefore wear and tear is sure to follow. However, the body naturally prepares for this. The vocal folds are covered in a thin layer of frail stratified squamous epithelial cells; basically very thin skin. This skin get stripped away and regenerates very rapidly. Any extraneous vocal usage such as screaming, talking loudly, whispering or forceful singing causes unnatural wear and tear. If these unnatural uses of the voice continue over long periods of time it wears the epithelial cells away faster than they can regenerate and it causes swelling, irritation and even vocal nodes. To avoid this kind of damage it’s essential to use the voice appropriately and allow time to recover or “vocal rest”. It’s important to keep in mind that singing shouldn’t hurt. If there is pain or rapid exhaustion happening, odds are there is damage happening as well.
Here is a non-example. In this video you can hear pushing and raspy effects in the voice which is a result of damage.
Here is an example of a healthier way to sing the same song and leave the throat undamaged. Performances can still have great emotional impact if sung correctly.
The final component to this physical quartet is the mouth. This is the filter that makes vocal sound unique to an individual. The physical anatomy of each human being is different and that unique physiology is what dictates a person’s sound. When singing it is ideal to optimize the mouth for resonation. The first step to optimize resonation is keeping mouth held open to at least a thumb’s width between the molars. Some people are shy and feel strange standing with their mouth agape, but it is essential. In addition to the open space, the mouth should be shaped correctly for vowels in a tall round position. The final piece for correct resonation is voice placement. The voice should be placed on the hard palate. This will produce a clear tone. Avoid nasally or swallowed sounding tones. These are a dead give away to bad placement.
A commonly overlooked pitfall for many singers regarding the mouth is tension in the tongue and jaw. The tongue is a long muscle that extends down the back of the throat and connects to the hyoid bone.
The hyoid bone is not only connected to the tongue, but also the larynx. Therefore a perpetual tug of war is created between the tongue and the voice box. Any sort of tension in the tongue transfers pressure and tension to the vocal folds. This transfer of tension to the larynx can cause hidden symptoms such as unhealthy added pressure, tiring, throat closing and wear and tear along with more obvious symptoms like fast, uneven vibrato. It is recommended to make sure all tension is relieved if at all possible.
As far jaw tension is concerned it only worsens any pre-existing issues. Make sure to give yourself a jaw massage and be as relaxed as possible throughout the neck, tongue, throat, jaw, mouth and face.
Here is a non-example. This voice students pushes her voice and has a somewhat nasally sound. This is most likely a resonating issue. She also has fast vibrato which could be an indication of tension.
This is an example of how to optimize resonators and remove the effects of tension from vibrato.
When differentiating sound production the terms “head voice”, “chest voice”, “middle voice” and “falsetto” are used. All singing is originated in the larynx, but these terms refer to the place of resonance. For example, the head voice resonates primarily in the head and the chest voice resonates in the chest. When resonating in the head versus the chest the vocal production is much different. The head voice is much more airy sounding and the chest voice is more muscular sounding and similar to the speaking voice.
Most people come to realize while singing from low to high notes there is a “break” where the position of the voice has to move higher and the sound changes. This break is sometime called “middle voice” or the “passagio”. Developing the middle voice is tricky for a lot of singers because it is naturally a weaker part of the voice. In classical singing styles the passagio is developed extensively to assure smooth transition from higher to lower areas of resonation.
In classical music the head is the main source of resonation while singing. Using the head voice allows the vocal cords to thin out easily to reach high notes. Most people do not naturally have a strong head voice, but it can be built up over time. Once a strong head voice is developed and correct techniques are learned, the whole world of classical and operatic music opens up. It is important to note that opera singers do not achieve their large sound by pushing, but by utilizing their resonators correctly.
Adhering to and applying these key concepts to singing will help improve vocal production and incorporate the physical aspects of singing. Everyone has different physical anatomy and using a teacher to clarify, implement and fine tune these concepts for an individual is essential to maximize these tips.