Technique Tips Series: The Voice Part #1
By Andrew Sanders
Who Am I?
My name is Andrew Sanders. I am a voice teacher and have been giving voices lessons for around fifteen years now. My current place of work lets me teach all types of singers. I have taught a range of ages from five years old all the way to someone in their 70s. I instruct singers in whatever genre they wish to sing in by helping them master their instrument and truly understand how the vocal folds act and how our body plays a big part in that.
Why do I care about this topic?
I am about to dive deep into how the voice acts from a scientific point of view - without all the anatomical lingo - and give some tips and tricks that might help you and your singers better understand your instruments. Understand that because everyone is built differently, what might work for you might be ineffective for someone else. One of the main reasons I started learning and teaching the way I do now is because I had many professors tell me I did not have a head voice because I told them I could not feel the vibrations in my head when I sang high notes. This was unhelpful since they were training me to be a tenor. I spent hours, years, at a university - so also thousands of dollars - trying to find my head voice, only to eventually learn that, 1) the term head voice means too many things to too many different people and does not accurately describe the timber that is desired, and 2) you just might not be built to feel those vibrations. That does not mean the notes don’t sound good or that you are singing them incorrectly. After learning this, I felt my range open up and now laugh when I think of the notes that used to scare me. While this method might not be for everyone, I feel it is for a lot of us. You would never expect a trumpet player to play at a professional level and not understand how the trumpet makes noise and how they can play high and beautifly. Why should singers be any different? With that said, let’s hop into it.
How The Voice Works- let’s get technical:
The voice works like most acoustical instruments. You have a point of vibration - that produces sound - that is fed to a resonator that then hits our ears. Let’s take a guitar for example. You pluck the string and it vibrates at the frequency you want it to, then it resonates in the body that is then sent to our ears. The voice is no different. The vocal folds - previously known more commonly as the vocal cords before being renamed in the scientific and vocal pedagogy community - vibrate at the frequency you want them to, and then our throat and mouth act as a resonator that then sends the sound to our audience’s ears.
We should dive deeper into how the folds vibrate. I’m sure we have all seen a picture of the folds open, shaped like a V. When open, they let air into our lungs. When they come together, it is to stop air from getting into our lungs and not let air out of them. Another purpose of the folds is to cut the air in order for us to make noises, i.e speech. They cut the air from the bottom to the top. How fast they vibrate/cut will then determine how high or low we sing or speak. Take A-440, the tuning note that equal temperament is based on. A-440 is the middle of the treble clef, or if you base middle C as C4, then it is A4, the closest A above middle C. In order for you to sing that note, your folds must cut air from the bottom of the folds to the top of them at 440 times per second. At a speed that fast, you can see why we say vibrate rather than just cutting air. If you go an octave down from that to A-220, the folds must cut air 220 times per second, and so on. Every note has a frequency that then correlates to how fast or slow the folds cut air.
What’s up with Vocal Terminology?
After discovering this, it was hard for me to keep using the terms “head voice,” “chest voice” or any term associated with them. We use these terms because that is how we thought the folds worked. We did not have the technology we have now, so it was more of a guessing game. People used to believe things like, “You sing low notes and feel them in your chest, and high notes you feel in your head. Also the cords look and kind of work like a guitar so low notes they compress and high notes they stretch.” Hopefully you are able to see how out-of-date these guesses are. It’s Hard to place blame when all they had to go off of was physical sensations and cadivors and not the fancy small cameras we have now. Instead of using “head voice” and “chest voice,” I use the terms Mode 1 and Mode 2. What is the difference between Mode 1 and Mode 2? Mode 1 is the full length of your vocal folds cutting air. Mode 2 is when the back half clamp off and the front half cut air. Let's think of a tenor and bass while we compare the sounds. When a tenor sings an F above middle C, they hopefully have a full rich sound. Now if a low bass was to sing the same note, they would most likely go into their Falsetto, or Mode 2, to sing it. Where it becomes really fun is when comparing altos and sopranos. These singers are typically those who were assigned female at birth, so their folds are usually thinner than people assigned male at birth. The switch from Mode 1 to Mode 2 is different for every voice, but sopranos and altos might switch to Mode 2 around the same note, (usually around Bb, but that is a generalization). I have singers who switch to Mode 2 much lower and singers who do it much higher. It becomes more apparent the lower the notes go. Sopranos will have more trouble getting the folds to vibrate at lower/slower frequencies than an alto would, while an alto might not want to spend all day in their Mode 2 at higher/faster frequencies like their soprano counterparts. Also sopranos, having the thinnest folds out of everyone, will be able to go much higher than most of us without going into our whistle tones.
So the folds vibrate/cut air at super high rates which make us sing higher or lower. If we take a moment to sit and think about how our body is all constructed we can come to the conclusion that any muscle in the body is only a few degrees of separation from the folds. Meaning any sort of tension would result in us and our folds not performing at our peak efficiency. It would be like adding weight to a sprinter. They could probably sprint with extra weight on their back, but they would be more efficient with no weight on them. What does this mean to us as singers? This could mean your neck, your tongue or even your hands. Yes, I have singers show a night-and-day difference once they just simply relaxed their hands! Now obviously we need some tension in our body to help us stand up or move our jaw and tongue to sing, etc. What we don’t want is extra tension that is not needed to do the bare minimum, i.e standing in a relaxed fashion, or talking and only moving the muscles necessary for that action.. Just as a sprinter will lift weights to build their muscle mass so they can move their body more efficiently, we must look for ways to help us strengthen the muscles we need and relax the ones we don’t. This is where a voice teacher who understands these concepts comes in handy. They can hear what is tense and what needs to relax.
Let’s talk about your tongue. Have you ever thought about how big it is? You can look up MRIs or photos on Google, or go to your local authentic Mexican Restaurant where they serve cow tongue and see a size for comparison, (while I support going to those restaurants, because the food is bomb, don’t actually ask to see the tongue unless you are truly ready for it...it’s traumatizing). All of that is to say your tongue is huge! take a finger and poke right under your chin where the bottom of your tongue would be. When you poke upwards, it should feel nice and soft and squishy. This is your tongue relaxed. If it is not, then these exercises will help you greatly. Now take your tongue and shove it to the roof of your mouth and poke your finger in the same place again. It should be hard. This is your tongue flexing. This flexing happens to a lot of people when singing. In fact, I have yet to meet a singer who hasn’t had some sort of tongue tension. Why is this a problem? The tongue is only one degree of separation away from the folds, and what holds it back is called the hyoid bone. The hyoid bone’s function is to hold up your tongue and suspend the larynx - that's the house for the vocal folds. The hyoid bone is very thin and the tongue is very large, so when the tongue is tense it affects the vocal folds greatly. How can we combat this? This is where I tell my students we are about to get weird, but lean into it and you will be much happier - trust me! I want you to stick your tongue out as far as it will go without hurting yourself while keeping the jaw semi closed. No need to over open. Now sing like this. Don’t worry about words - you can just think of an “ah” sound. The uglier the sound while still being in key, the better. “Uglier” usually means a high larynx which gives us a not-so-resonant sound. I recommend doing this exercise frequently. I do it during every warm up, and it's usually the first one I do. If you feel the tongue going back into your mouth, you can hold the tip of it with your hand, or you can get a pencil and put it underneath your tongue parallel to the ground so it lines up behind your bottom canine teeth. Then put your tongue over top of it and stick it out again. This way you can monitor exactly when your tongue wants to creep back into your mouth. After a few minutes of this exercise, try singing “normally” immediately afterwards. You should feel a night-and-day difference in ease of singing, and you should hear a more clear, free tone. With this exercise alone, I have seen singers who are often vocally fatigued after a one-hour rehearsal be able to sing for four or five hours without even breaking a sweat. Not to mention the added range, clearer words, and the overall tone being more pleasant.
That’s all for now!
I hope this was helpful in understanding how the folds act and you took something away to help you be a more successful singer! Stay tuned for parts II and III where I will discuss alignment and my technique pet peeves.