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Author Topic: The Science of Singing
MightyCow
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I was at a party the other day, and several people were discussing singing techniques. They got into all sorts of detail about keeping the vocal cords down, preventing other muscles in the throat from being used, how to produce natural vibrato, how to improve consistent tone... I never realized there was so much complicated technique and anatomy involved in singing.

I know there are a lot of singers on Hatrack. How much technical training do you all have? Now I'm getting really interested in how I might improve my singing voice. How much can a person improve their range and tone by practice, and how much is just what you're born with? Are there any exercises or practice methods a casual singer might practice to build good technique without needing a professional voice coach?

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BlackBlade
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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Songmaster

^^ Mr. Card's guide to singing like a master. Apparently its based on a true story. [Wink]

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Artemisia Tridentata
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The vocal folds, and the muscles that control them, just like your other muscles gain strength and flexibility with exercize. Formal training is great, but sometimes hard to come by. But, you can always exercize by singing along with the radio. When I used to teach, (I was a music teacher and used my voice a lot to model.) I would find a radio station with vocal music, and sing along for the entire comute. I left the windows up, and got some "looks". But my voice was stronger, my range greater, and the tambor more pleasent.
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BandoCommando
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When I was in college getting my music ed degree (to teach band, hence my screen name), I was required to take a vocal pedagogy class. My actual experience with singing is limited when compared to a vocal professor or performer, but I do not a little about the structures involved. AT is absolutely right about flexibility and strength needing to be developed.

I would add that it is very important to listen to a lot of different styles of singing, not just popular music. THEN, be sure to record yourself singing and listen to it objectively. Think about all of those "Idol" contestants that think they are God's gift to singing, when they really shouldn't ever attempt singing again....

As part of my college class, we were assigned to read "The Structure of Singing - System and Art in Vocal Technique" by Richard Miller. This book is VERY technical, but might be of some use to you, even if it does read like an anatomy textbook more than anything else.

If you want some exercises to do, I recommend another book called "Building Beautiful Voices". It has a lot of exercises to work on some of the very techniques your fellow partygoers were discussing, and it's a lot simpler to read that the Miller text. "BBV" is by Paul Nesheim and Weston Noble and comes in a director's edition and a student's edition. The director's edition has all of the instructions and details that you would want to have; I'm not sure that the student's edition by itself would be particularly useful.

Hope this helps!

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kmbboots
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What AT said. Also important is learning how to breathe properly and learning how to listen. Sometimes it takes some concentration to get your voice to match the pitch you want. This takes practice on letting exactly the right amount of vocal folds vibrate and shaping your mouth to form the right space for that note to resonate. Breathing requires getting used to using the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles (around your rib cage). An easy way to get used to this is lying on the floor and concenjtrating on breathing.

It does take some practice and people are born with certain physical characteristics that can help or hinder them. Given that, I believe that most people can learn to sing at least well enough to sing for their own enjoyment. One of my pet peeves is when people are convinced they can't sing at all, or who think they are "tone deaf" when they aren't. Being tone deaf is fairly rare and if you enjoy listening to music, you probably aren't tone deaf.

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MightyCow
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One thing I notice when I sing, is that while I have a fairly good tone and ear, I sometimes feel like I'm straining my voice, even when I'm singing in a comfortable range. Are there specific ways of singing that are more stressful on the voice?

I tend to sing almost every day, along with the radio or while I play my guitar, and I've noticed a lot of improvement as I sing more often, but some days just feel better than others, and I wonder if it's environmental (allergy related) or as a result of not hydrating enough, or too much talking, or any other factor I may be unaware of.

Thanks for all the info [Smile]

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kmbboots
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Like any physical activity, singing can be influenced by a lot of things, allergies are certainly one of them for me. Also irritants, stress, being tired (singing takes more energy than you might think) overuse - especially from talking, hormonal changes, dryness, illness, eating too much, eating too little...

And there are ways of singing that can strain or injure the muscles and otherwise damage the "mechanism". One very common form of damage is to develop vocal nodes (sort of like calluses) on the vocal folds.

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El JT de Spang
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<-- has no formal vocal training.
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Shanna
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I was in choir from 5th grade through 12th grade and took voice lessons all through high school. I almost got talked into going to college for opera but I never thought I was any good and went to school for Liberal Arts instead. I did so-so during solo competitions and was much happier in large and small ensembles.

If the director is any good, joining a recreational choir could help. When I started taking lessons I had ALOT of bad habits that I spent years undoing. It was really invaluable to have that feedback.

But otherwise, get a good tape recorder and microphone and record yourself. It was important for me to realize that what sounded pretty to me didn't sound as pretty to listeners. Once I started in improving my technique, the sound as I heard it changed but it sounded so much better on playback. (my problem was that I had a hardtime opening my mouth and tended to let the sound stick too much in the back of my throat.)

Learning to breathe and becoming aware of your diaphram is a great place to start. You can pay attention to things like relaxing the throat or lifting the soft palette, but it won't make a difference if you're not breathing correctly. My coach used to make me lift heavy objects (I would hold up his piano or a stack of books) to get my diaphram working.

Then there's the issue of pronouncing words and learning how to say your vowels. I always found Italian much easier than English. Alot of times, I found that even singing in German was easier than English.

And finally proper maintenance. Drinks lots of fluids (room temperature water) and stay away from salty or sweet junks foods. Get lots of sleep. All the technique in the world can be ruined by not getting enough sleep and water.

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brojack17
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Or you could sound like an injured cat... like me.
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Launchywiggin
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I have 4 years of college voice lessons. In those 4 years, I had 3 different teachers, and I learned that there are VERY different approaches to learning to sing, but there are some definite commonalities among them all.

1. Breath support must come from the diaphragm. Believe it or not, I had learned three different ways to do this from 3 different teachers

2. Resonance must be achieved by creating space in your mouth, "placing" the sound in your "mask", and using good breath support.

3. There are very specific ways to form vowels and execute consonants.

Those are the commonalities. It's amazing how many approaches there actually are, and how much arguing there is in the field.

My last teacher made me realize that singing is no different than learning any other instrument. To become a professional, it takes years and years and hours and hours of practice.

But the other truth is that ANYONE can learn to sing.

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BandoCommando
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quote:
Originally posted by Launchywiggin:
I have 4 years of college voice lessons. In those 4 years, I had 3 different teachers, and I learned that there are VERY different approaches to learning to sing, but there are some definite commonalities among them all.

1. Breath support must come from the diaphragm. Believe it or not, I had learned three different ways to do this from 3 different teachers

2. Resonance must be achieved by creating space in your mouth, "placing" the sound in your "mask", and using good breath support.

3. There are very specific ways to form vowels and execute consonants.

Those are the commonalities. It's amazing how many approaches there actually are, and how much arguing there is in the field.

My last teacher made me realize that singing is no different than learning any other instrument. To become a professional, it takes years and years and hours and hours of practice.

But the other truth is that ANYONE can learn to sing.

LW, these are great tenets of singing!

Of course, my vocal professor would take issue to calling it 'diaphragm support' since she argues that the diaphragm is an involuntary muscle. She prefers to call it "abdominal support". Whatever, I say.

To give MightyCow an idea of what we mean by abdominal or diaphragm support, I would like to try to explain (as LW said, there are many ways to explain this, but each, IMHO, are vague and roundabout, but here goes):

1. First, stand with good posture. Feet shoulder-width apart, weight balanced between both feet. Make sure that your spine is tall and relaxed (no tin soldiers!), and that your breathing system is not constricted.

2. When you inhale, try to imagine that you are sucking air in through a hole in your belly button. Your stomach should expand quite a bit, but your shoulders should NOT rise. (To get an idea how this should feel, you might try laying on your back and breathe naturally. If you place a book on your stomach you will see that your breathing will make the book rise and fall a significant amount, but your shoulders will not move. Try to breathe this way when standing)

3. As you sing, try to keep the abdominal muscles firm, as if you were doing pilates or crunches. However, don't cross the line from 'firm' into 'straining like you need Ex-Lax'. The former will result in a surprisingly increased volume of sound and resonance; the latter will sound forced and ugly.

Hope this helps! Again, this is ONE way to describe abdominal breathing. When I teach this to my band students, I often have to continue reinforcing this through their entire first year of playing and on into their second year, because it feels quite different than our everyday breathing technique. I also end up teaching it in several different ways.

For a very technical explanation, please regard a paper I wrote as part of my vocal pedagogy class:

quote:
Many voice teachers will speak of the concept of breath support to students, but not as many instruct their students in the methods of appoggio. Indeed, appoggio can be translated as meaning “support”, yet the execution of proper appoggio technique encompasses more than the support of breath. It is a technique that coordinates the muscles and organs of the body so that inspiration and expiration can be achieved with maximum efficiency, volume, and comfort while allowing phonation to occur with the desired resonance. In a word, appoggio is posture; a posture that allows the muscles throughout the torso – the pectoral, epigastric, and umbilical regions – to cooperate with each other.

Much of proper appoggio technique depends on the maintenance of the initial posture after the inspiratory portion of the breath cycle. In other words, as one inhales, the sternum typically will rise, directly causing the ribcage to expand also. This leaves room for expansion of the lungs, but also increases the maximum speed and efficiency of the diaphragm muscle. The shoulders are relaxed and back, again, maximizing the volume of the ribcage. This posture is maintained after the inspiration is complete and during the expiration.

Given that the above posture remains constant throughout this technique, the region between the sternum and the umbilicus will expand during inspiration. However, unlike the big bad wolf, who huffs and puff primarily in this region, expansion should be felt most in the lateral planes at the level of the tenth rib and just beneath, both on the side of the body and in the back. During exhalation, the abdominal area will move inward only slightly, but the posture of the torso should remain largely unchanged.

There should be negligible movement of the pectoral muscles during inspiration in the appoggio technique, excepting that the pectoral muscles have some involvement in keeping the sternum raised. Students should be cautioned against raising the shoulders or the chest during inhalation. Also, though some schools of thought believe it appropriate, proper execution of appoggio technique does not include a pushing out of the abdominal muscles during inspiration or while singing. Also, there should never be a sensation of tension in appoggio. Some students will feel pressure from the muscles during inhalation, and believe that it is because they have taken a full breath. This is not so. Tension in the abdominal region, such as might be caused by an overeager student trying to push out with the abdomen during inhalation, often results in glottal closure and the illusion of filled lungs.

Students may also be fooled into believing they have taken a complete breath when they breathe primarily from the chest and pectoral muscles. Clavicular breathing, as it is called, causes much tension that feels very similar to lungs that are filled with air. Thus, when a student first learns how to breathe using the appoggio technique, it will feel to him or her as if the breath is not complete, but will soon discover that he/she has greatly increased lung capacity.

Another region in which stress or tension often occur is in the throat. Primary evidence of this can be heard during inspiration as the air meets resistance in the throat. The noise produced is undesirable, and it is a primary tenet of appoggio that the intake or breath be silent.

Again, it should be stressed that the appoggio position remains largely unchanged during the inspiration-exhalation cycle. Changes do occur, but are so minimal as to prevent loss of stability. The posture reduces tension and allows more air to flow through the respiratory and vocal systems in a manner that offers the singer with greater control. The result is improved resonance, the ability to sustain longer phrases at more variable dynamics, and generally enhanced performance.


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DaisyMae
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I'm going to second LaunchyWiggin that those are the basics of good singing technique. I have been heavily involved in choir and solo ventures since High School. Through those experiences I was taught many good habits. I do think, however, that improving your singing voice is not as difficult or technical as it may seem. I have had no formal training, but have been asked several times where I trained (sorry if that sounds arrogant. I don't mean it to be). I think the fact that I sang a lot just helped me recognize which things I did that made me sound better and were more comfortable and which things weren't, and the ones that worked ended up being the right things (i.e. breath support, resonance etc.).

And MightyCow is right that so many different things can affect your singing. I swear, not to share too much, that my peak singing happens when I'm ovulating.

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quidscribis
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<--- Sounds like a moose in heat...
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ketchupqueen
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I don't have much "formal" training, but I've been in choirs since the age of 3, almost constantly. When I've not been in a choir I've at the very least sung with the family band. I've picked up a few things (although much of what I've picked up only applies to part of my singing "arena"; I sing differently for choir then I do in the family bluegrass band, and differently there than when I'm singing while washing dishes, and differently there than when I'm singing kids' songs with my kids or hymns in Family Home Evening.) I also watched a very interesting show on the science of singing and the basics of good technique on BYU-TV a year or so back (you can watch it online) and it gave me more pointers. I'm always picking up new tips and techniques and "training" my voice more, in different ways for different things. [Smile]
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MightyCow
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Fortunately, I played trumpet for years, so I learned a lot of good breathing and breath support techniques. I also sang with a barbershop group for a very short time, and with a mariachi band, and both of those experiences taught me a lot about singing with a group, and how much more precision I needed when I was singing with others than alone.

I guess I need to find a group around here to sing with... or start a band [Smile]

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Salsa
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I'm gonna need this thread. I've been playing guitar for a couple months now. And I really need to know how to sing. I'm not horrible right now but I'm not great.
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Launchywiggin
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MIghtyCow, I'm a 2nd-year barbershopper and I've fallen in love with it. I had a quartet for about a month--we were really good, but none of the others were committed.

I always thought about starting a barbershop thread, but was pretty sure it wouldn't go very far.

The biggest tips I have to give to just about every voice student I've coached (I'm a theatre accompanist/vocal coach).

1. Relax. Stop concentrating so hard. The only thing that should be working is your abdominals, providing a steady flow of air through your instrument. (I almost always have to re-teach breath support so they understand how much work you're actually doing down there)

2. Now that you're relaxed, get into a better posture. High sternum, head tilted neither up nor down.

3. Make the sound fill your head (this expression is what works for me) so that you create a resonance that BUZZES your face. I also use the phrase "sing through your eyes" because this gets them smiling, placing the sound higher, and communicating their music better.

4. Relax your shoulders and neck again.

Placement, vowel formation, and tone are the hardest things to teach. For people who are looking to hit high notes (or if you feel yourself straining while you sing) my advice is to RELAX the rest of your body while PUSHING from your abs. The reason you're probably cracking or straining is because you're squeezing your neck muscles and throat muscles to force the note out. A trick that also works is to "open your mouth wider", though I had 2 voice teachers abhor this trick because it's not actually necessary.

I've always loved singing. It's definitely one of my favorite pastimes.

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Brinestone
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One of the coolest singing techniques I learned was to keep my tongue relaxed at the bottom of my mouth when at all possible. I was tensing it in the middle of my mouth for some reason, which limited and strained the sound of my voice. It was amazing how loud I could be when I just relaxed!
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MightyCow
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quote:
Originally posted by Salsa:
I'm gonna need this thread. I've been playing guitar for a couple months now. And I really need to know how to sing. I'm not horrible right now but I'm not great.

That's one of the main reasons I want to improve my singing. I've been playing guitar for a few years now, and after much practice, I'm starting to feel like it's worth listening to myself play [Wink]

Now I want to get my singing further ahead of my guitar playing, so I have another goal for the guitar to reach.

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Narnia
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quote:
Are there specific ways of singing that are more stressful on the voice?
Indeed. This is where terrible habits come in and you really need someone to watch you sing and give you constant feedback sometimes. A mirror is also good and you can help yourself.

I've studied voice since I was 16, I've sung solo, oratorio, opera, and ensemble since then, and now I teach kids to sing for my bread and butter. I'm still learning how to do it, and I'll probably go back to taking lessons for myself. You can never stop getting good feedback, no matter what you know.

The one thing you have complete control over, and the one thing you can see yourself (in a mirror) is your posture. Here you go:

Feet-shoulder width apart. Not too wide. Feel like they're settling into sand, very solid.

Knees- slightly bent

pelvis- tucked in, like you're doing a standing crunch and so your spine is a smooth line all the way down, instead of a ski jump.

sternum - floating and up. not stiff. You should be able to place your index finger on your chin and touch your sternum with your third, fourth and fifth fingers...

...which means, that your chin is further down than most people think. You can feel like you have a string leaving the very top and back of your head (like a marrionette), which stretches the back of your neck nice and tall and pulls your chin down just a little. make sure your shoulders aren't hunched forward, but back and comfortably set.

And your head should rest right between your shoulders. So many singers push their heads forward when they sing, or tilt their chins up.

[Smile]

After this, you're completely set up for all of that other stuff...resonance, deep support, etc. When you breathe, concentrate on expanding your entire ribcage. What this does is pulls your diaphragm down, makes more room for your lungs, and then the laws of physics pull the air in. [Smile] Do slow breaths and long breaths and then try to do the same thing in a quick breath now and then. It's great practice. As you look in the mirror, make sure your shoulders don't move at all when you breathe. Everything happens below the sternum (which is different than trumpet training for a lot of reasons. [Smile] )

None of the stuff about resonance and muscle tension or tongue tension or anything else can be fixed without proper posture and breathing. Everything else is free to work well once you've mastered that.

Sorry. tangent. It's summer vacation, so I guess I was going through withdrawal. [Wink]

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Bob the Lawyer
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quote:
Everything happens below the sternum
and

quote:
When you breathe, concentrate on expanding your entire ribcage
Don't seem to add up. I agree with the second, in part. I guess.

Really, it's of great value to try and learn how to tell how you breathe, understanding that as soon as you pay attention to your breath it starts to change. Breath work is intensely emotional, personal and ever-changing. If you ever have the opportunity to study it I'd leap at the chance.

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Narnia
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Your sternum doesn't move. It floats on top of everything. [Smile]
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Nathan2006
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The hardest part for me was always the articulation. "Mah, meh, me, mo, moo."
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