This week, Ming talked about the physiology of singing, leading us through a chart that shows how consonants are formed, using this chart as a guide:
Julia warmed up our voices and gave a spectacular talk about Brahms’ Schicksalslied. Paul played some Scarlatti, and led us in our weekly singalong, Dream a Little Dream of Me.
We also had a special visit by Eric Choate and Ellen Leslie. They began with a performance of a song by French composer Déodat de Séverac. Ellen then gave us some great tips for getting rid of the stress in our bodies and voices—very appropriate for the current times. Ellen sent us afterward a note with a summary of the techniques that she introduced to us. Thank you, Ellen, for these valuable lessons:
Hello, wonderful members of BCCO! Here are some vocal technique tips and exercises that you can employ throughout your singing practice, or even just through your daily life. Remember, one of the building blocks of vocal technique is efficiency and freedom from tension. Here are some ways to work on that, both vocally and for the whole body. Enjoy!
You can massage your vocal mechanism anytime–in rehearsal, at the computer, at stoplights in the car.
- Very gently, with your fingertips, you can move your whole “throat” from side to side. It might feel firm, but it’s designed to be buoyant (fun fact–the hyoid bone, one of the major bones in the larynx, is the only free-floating bone in the body, held in place only with ligaments/muscles and not with other bones.)
- Take your thumb and gently press it into the underside of your chin–your tongue base. Massage in side-to-side or circular motions to keep it nice and loose.
- Take your thumb and index fingers and massage the two long muscles on either side of the throat with motions like you’re turning a car key.
- With several fingers, massage the big, long muscles that run on either side of your neck from your ears to your shoulders.
- Give your cheeks a nice massage, too! The soft space halfway between the cheekbones and the jawbone is especially nice. Facial Stretches Your face does a lot of work in singing! Try stretching it by making a really big face, exaggerating all of your features, and then the opposite, making everything small. Then try gentle chewing motions to loosen up the jaw. Alexander technique Alexander Technique is a concept of retraining our body movements to be free of tension. It’s good for our overall well-being to make habitual movements–moving our hands, standing up/sitting down, etc–as tension-free as possible.
Sitting upright at the front of a chair, slide your feet a little bit back under the chair. With the rest of the upper body staying in a nice straight line, hinge forward at the hips until your weight is transferred far enough onto your feet that you can press into them and stand up.
- Sitting down: In front of the chair, bend at the knees while you hinge forward at the hip joints, again keeping the upper body in a nice line.
- Fingertip rule: For any hand/arm movements, try leading with the fingertips so that you avoid engaging muscle groups that don’t need to be used (like the back/shoulder blades, for example).
- Standing: find a nice, buoyant-but-firm placement for the feet. Rock onto the heels, then onto the ball of the foot, to find the two extremes, and then find the happy place in between. I like to be a little more forward onto the ball of the foot (again, still grounded, not too far forward) so that the whole body feels dynamic and engaged beneath me. It also looks nicer for the audience–it looks like you’re inviting them in and having a conversation with them, rather than leaning back into a more passive posture.
- Sitting: maintain a nice, relaxed neck and feel as though a string is pulling up the crown of your head. Oppositionally, feel your sitbones grounding into the chair, creating a big, free space between the chair and your head.
- To find the best positioning for your head and chin, gently hold your head in your fingertips. Tilt it forward and backward, until you find a nice neutral position where you don’t feel crunched or stretched in either the front or the back of the neck. This is probably a little higher than you’re used to holding your chin–my teacher calls it “singing to the second balcony of the opera house.” You can also try singing to a corner of the ceiling, tall bookshelf, “EXIT” sign, or something else that’s a bit higher than eye level.
Breathing should feel natural and easy–we don’t need to “gas up” as much as we think we need to.
- Raise your hands to the ceiling, palms in, like you’re holding a giant beach ball above your head. It’s impossible to take a shallow breath in this position, so this will help you feel that nice, low breath. Try to maintain this low-breath sensation as you lower your arms.
- As you breathe in, imagine that you’re filling up a water balloon–from the bottom up.
- Hiss out for as long as you can (and then a little more–and then a little more again!). Then open your mouth and just feel the air drop in. We don’t need to try as hard as we think to get a good breath–trust the body’s instincts to fill the lungs!
To feel your “support mechanism,” try saying these consonants aloud, and feel how your low belly participates in the action:
- FF FF
- SS SS
- SH SH
- TSS TSS
- V V V V
- ZZ ZZ
Lip trills (“buzzing your lips” on pitch) are also a great way to activate support, because you can’t do them properly without using the abdominal muscles. Try going up and down scales on “mi-re-do-re-mi” and then “sol-mi-do-mi-sol.” Great to do in the shower, car, or anytime you feel like your voice needs a little pep!
To find a big, full sound that involves your support and your breath, try the following:
- Hold your fist in front of your mouth and sing any vowel, pushing against the fist. Then move your fist away and hear how loud you can be!
- You can also try puffing up your cheeks and humming/vocalizing with your mouth closed. (This is a good one for when you’d like to warm up, but need to do it quietly!)
- If you have a drinking straw handy, try singing warmups into the straw.
To isolate the feeling of the soft palate lifting, try the following:
- Say: Sing-ah, sing-ah. You should feel the lift on the “ah” as the “ng” releases.
- Snort like a pig (or mimic a snore!).
- Imagine drinking through a straw. The soft palate automatically closes to prevent the liquid from going up into your nasal cavity. So, see if you can feel that lift/closure, and keep it there.
- Imagine taking a big bite out of a big (honeycrisp!) apple, and feel how the back of the mouth widens and lifts.
- Imagine that the back of your mouth is a dome or a cave.
- Imagine your voice is coming out of your forehead like a unicorn horn. (Or, like Renee Fleming says, imagine that you’re serving the audience spaghetti that’s shooting out of your forehead!)
- Try singing “ng-ah” and “ng-ee” (the “ng” being the same one that you used in the soft palate exercise above), on one note, on scales, or whatever you like. Focus on the sound coming out of your “unicorn horn!” Vowels Your tongue, not your lips, is what primarily drives vowel changes. Try singing, on a monotone, “ah-eh-ee-o-oo.” While you sing, keep your jaw relaxed (you can massage it, or try shaking your head gently back and forth while you sing) so that you’re feeling those subtle shifts in the tongue.