The naked truth about singing

In case you hadn’t already noticed, we love singing; it’s the reason why started our podcast, The Naked Vocalist, dedicated to helping people learn more about the human voice.

We’ve had some amazing guests on the show many whom have been asked some thought-provoking questions. Not only is that great for our listeners, it means we get to learn lots along the way too.

Here are some of the useful nuggets of information which our guests have shared on the podcast. There’s everything from confidence and acoustics to nodules and creativity!

Let’s go…

Raising the chin

Use of the constrictor muscles, of which there are three sets in the throat, should be avoided in most singing situations, where possible. Lots of pop/rock singers unnecessarily use the pharyngeal constrictors when creating sound. In healthy pop/rock singing, you can find an optimal sound configuration by allowing the larynx to rise instead. Don’t make it rise or force it up. It will rise on its own because of the vocal quality you want. However, you may need to raise the chin to give the larynx room to do that, especially if what you want to do is “belty”. Most of the time though, the chin can be straight forward. Saying that, you have to keep your neck out of it, your jaw has to be loose, your face has to be alive and the muscles in the throat need to be responsive. Jeanie LoVetri (Episode 49)

Ridding excess lung pressure

An effective way to help reduce excess lung pressure in singing is to breathe out fully in your warm up, and try to get rid of held air in the lungs (or in technical speak, the high residual volume). Try this breathing exercise in your next warm up: Imagine a, long, exhaling breath onto cold glass when you want to draw a picture with your finger. Now do the same, but ensure the breath exhalation is silent, slow and steady. Over this gentle exhale, mouth silently numbers from one to 10, over and over again, until no more breath remains. When there is absolutely no more air left and your body has flattened, allow a breath to come in by relaxing. This exercise assists in ridding the lungs of residual air pressure.

Check you don’t tighten your abs as you do it. There should be no noise on the inhale afterwards. The sensations are not to tighten or squeeze the belly, but rather keep exhaling and allow the body to flatten. The abs are quite high up the rib cage so if you tighten them, they tighten around the lungs and ribs, which is ineffective. It may feel like more work to do this, but it is less work for your voice in the long run. Robin de Haas (Episode 35)

Do I have nodules?

It’s worth noting that a nodular voice can be spotted from regular speech. You cannot have nodules if your voice is clear in all pitches. You don’t speak on one pitch. However you do “dance around” pitches in speech, which would likely show nodule-like tone production. If your speaking tone is clear but your range is affected, it could be acute swelling on the folds. Dr Reena Gupta (Episode 24)

Should I train using a vocal system?

There are benefits to the systems of teaching from a “rule book” or manual, perhaps early on when a student may not be knowledgeable about their voice and may require some initial guidance. When knowledge is developed, a student needs to make their own choices in moving forward to improve. If you limit someone to only using certain shapes or noises, it’s not singing… it’s mathematics. It’s all about the authenticity of the sound created. To avoid losing the unique sound of a vocalist, start with their authenticity and then make it safe. Occasionally, the lack of knowledge and experience from individuals advising singers leads them to the wrong goal or erases their signature sound. This is especially true with commercial artists. The teachers worry so much about getting things wrong or hurting someone’s voice, they almost make the training “too safe”. Dr Daniel Zangger Borch (Episode 32)

Why trapping energy singing into a straw is good for you

The energy we’re talking about is acoustic energy, which is an oscillatory type of energy. Air particles vibrating. If we can trap this energy by singing though a straw, we can encourage more vibration of the air particles in the vocal tract. As they vibrate back and forth, they reinforce the vocal folds movement of opening and closing, which means you expend less effort during and after. Otherwise translated as efficiency. Nailed it. Steve Giles (Episode 42)

Why are high notes hard?

There is more vocal fold muscle activation involved in reaching higher pitches, so there’s more effort involved. Also, in the higher pitches there’s more interaction between the sound wave and the vocal tract. The reflections that happen inside the throat and mouth can become very powerful and energised, which can help or hinder vocal function. As the shape of the vocal tract affects how the sound wave is reflected, we can use vowels to adjust the shape to help us find the best reflections, and hence energy.

Vowel choices and the way we say vowels need to change as we ascend to keep our vocal tract shape in harmony with the sound wave. Classical singers typically “centralise” vowels towards a more neutral shape, like UH (as in mother), blending every vowel with a shade of UH. This gives the classical singer the ability to tap into more energy and balance on higher notes easier. Dr Ingo Titze (Episode 20)

Mental block on that song?

Neural pathways (bundles of neurons that link one part of the nervous system with another) form whenever we do anything new, and strengthen the more we do something. In terms of fear, whenever we first feel fear about a certain something it creates a neural pathway in the brain. Over time, this pathway can become strengthened and ingrained as fear is felt. In the case of singers, this is how irrational stage fright can begin.

As part of the process in someone’s thoughts, the norm is to begin to fixate on the negative outcome. Essentially imagining the worst outcome. But, it’s important to start imagining what you DO want to happen with mental practice. That way, you’ll reinforce the good outcomes and you won’t be afraid! Chip Jenkins (Episode 18)

Why lowering the larynx isn’t always the way to eliminate strain

A raising larynx is one symptom of strain, yes. Only it comes with lots of excess throat tension and constriction. It’s also a very much needed function for singing rock and pop, tuning to helpful resonance and for increasing range. In this scenario is comes with reduced tension and flexibility.

If we’ve had the advice to lower our larynx if it pulls upwards in the passaggio, we may be stifling this important function. If we stifle any important vocal function, we tend to strain as our voice becomes unsupported. Guess what? The larynx will start to strain upwards as a result. We may attempt combat that strain with more larynx lowering, but then we’re stuffed. Sometimes, by allowing the larynx to freely rise in the first place we can avoid the strain altogether! Chris Johnson (Episode 43)

Creativity

Systems can kill creativity. The more regimented and routine you are, the less likely you are to be creative. Chaos equals creativity. Yet the more chaotic you are, the less likely you are to ultimately create what you envision. You need to strike a balance between having systems in place each day to get things done, but also leave room for chaos so that new ideas can penetrate through.

If we don’t use enough air to sing, and we’re often really quiet, there’s a chance that your voice will feel quite strangled when you go to the top of the range. This’ll probably be coupled with going drastically flat. This is because at the top of the range the vocal folds are much stiffer than in the bottom. This means they may require just a little bit more lung pressure to sound consistent and free. Because of this fact we can’t be backing away from the extreme notes just because they might be a bit louder. Dave Stroud (Episode 3)

I shouldn’t feel any external muscles engage when I sing… should I?

The larynx and its interaction with the vocal tract is a big area in singing. Larynx positioning can shape our instrument in ways that increase resonance and acoustic power, and modern research has seen an amazing benefit to sustainable singing and vocal fold function from increased resonance. The extrinsic muscles can lift and lower the larynx and change the shape of the spaces above the vocal folds. This makes them fairly crucial in shaping the vocal tract, capturing resonance and shaping tone, so to say that no external muscle activity should be used is incorrect.

We want them to be flexible and well managed without excessive levels of tension, but not disengaged. That would be a very boring sound! Instead, if we use higher levels of external muscle activity to shape our sound (to scream, for example) then that’s not a problem as long as we can return back to normal afterwards. We also don’t want those external muscles to inhibit vocal fold function, like pitch raising, either. Karin Titze-Cox (Episode 45)

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Chris Johnson and Steve Giles are both experienced vocal coaches working in Southampton and London. They are with the Vocology In Practice teacher network and specialise in training clients in advanced vocal technique, style and improvisation. They are co-founders and presenters of the popular iTunes singer’s interest podcast The Naked Vocalist. As well as coaching and podcasting they are also in-demand performers and manage their own successful soul acts.