Understand Your Own Voice!!
In my opinion one of the most fundamental skills we can have as vocalists is the ability to understand and analyse our own voice.
Most of my students come to their first lesson at my studio at Popcast School of Music with an issue/problem, or maybe several aspects of their voice that they aren't happy with and want to change. Most of us can Identify WHAT's happening and the elements of the sound we create that we don't like or wish were different.
Vocal coaches have a tendency to almost immediately direct the lessons from that point towards HOW we're going to work with the student to improve those aspects of the students voice. I'm guilty of this myself and in fact in many ways it is very important, as improving vocalists, that you feel as though you leave the session we have together feeling as though you've achieve something with your voice that you couldn't do before you walked in!
But actually I believe there's a bit in the middle there that is absolutely crucial to the development of all singers. We need to look at the WHY.
WHY are we experiencing these issues?! WHY don't you like this specific aspect of your voice?!
Most vocalists experience issues with one or more of the following:
FLIPPING - As they sing higher in their range they experience a gear shift, a major change in the tonal quality of their voice from a rich connected sound to a soft breathy sound.
STRAINING - As they sing higher in their range they experience a tightening sensation usually in and around the neck.
BREATHINESS - A light airy quality to the voice. Some singers wish to be able to sing with greater power and strength in their sound.
TONAL QUALITY - The singer is unhappy with the tonal quality of their voice.
Does any of this sound familiar? If you're reading this it's probable that you've experienced one or more of these issues in your singing life. So let's break it down and find out why this is all happening.
Let's quickly look at how the vocal folds work when we sing (check out this blog post for more detail about the vocal folds.) There's two main muscles that we need to look at here. The TA (Thyroarytenoid muscle) and the CT (Cricothyroid muscle.)
The TA muscle is inside your vocal folds and is helps make the vocal folds thick and short so we can sing low notes. (Think of the strings on a bass guitar. The thicker the string the lower the note)
The CT muscle is outside the vocal folds and helps stretch the vocal folds forward and down in order for us to be able to sing higher notes. (Think of plucking an elastic band. The tighter you stretch the band the higher the pitch)
So essentially the TA muscle and the CT muscle have an antagonistic relationship. As we get close to the Passaggio/Bridge/Break in your voice we need a smooth transition of dominance from the TA muscle to the CT muscle. Developing the coordination to be able to do this can be very tricky for some singers! Instead of this gentle transition from TA to CT dominant sound we get a quick change where the TA muscle eventually gives up and the vocal folds change shape rapidly. This rapid change can drastically effect the tonal quality of the voice and that's why you hear this flip into a breathier softer CT dominant sound. If you're in to yodelling this is perfect, don't change a thing! If not then the good news is that with good quality training, it is possible to develop the coordination between these two muscles and sing through the passaggio smoothly.
Unlike the flippers we've just talked about. You guys have a really eager TA muscle that really wants to be involved with every vocal sound you create. It just doesn't know when to chill out.
Essentially what is happening here is that your TA muscle maintains dominance whilst you're singing in a part of your voice where we need to really achieve balance between the TA and CT muscles. The end result is a sound that is tense and strained and a little uncomfortable. Long term this can cause some real problems but again if addressed, with some good training, it's very rectifiable.
Some singers have a breathiness to their voice and they wish to add strength, depth and potentially volume to their sound. So again, let's look at the vocal folds.
The vocal folds essentially clap together at incredible speed (slightly over simplified.) Sometimes, thousands of times per second. This is measured in Hz and essentially, the faster the vocal folds vibrate together, the higher the pitch. Breathiness in the tonal quality of the voice is a result of a large quantity of air being allowed to pass through the vocal folds every time they open after they 'clap' together.
So simply, in order to reduce the breathiness in your voice we can do two things. Firstly, reduce the amount of air being forced through the vocal folds. Literally push less air out while you sing. And secondly, we can encourage the vocal folds to stay closed for longer in-between each clap. This will also increase the volume you are capable of generating with your voice.
The tonal quality of the voice is directly related to the process of resonation. How we filter the sound we create through our resonance chambers. (More about resonation here)
The vocal folds create the vibration that the resonators then shape. The resonators are primarily found in the throat and mouth. Importantly they can either shape the sound in a nice way, or a not so nice way, so as vocal coaches we spend a lot of time helping students with resonance.
You can feel change in resonance and this is why some singers refer to the registers of the voice as 'Chest' and 'Head' voice. You can feel low notes in your chest and sometimes you can feel a buzzing/tingling sensation in your mouth and nose when you sing high notes.
Again with training we can learn to adjust the size and shape of our resonators to encourage shifts in the tonal quality of our voice as we sing through our range.
We can use these techniques to both improve the sound and tonal quality of our voice and also, and equally as importantly, the ease with which we create vocal sounds.
As always for more detail or guidance with how to apply any of the information in this article to your own vocal development please don't hesitate to get in touch! You can book sessions with me via Popcast School of Music and currently we're giving away your first half hour consultation session absolutely free!
Thanks for reading!