When we think of the word “health” we may also think of “happiness”. And from happiness it is a short leap of the imagination to song and celebration. And just as happiness can lead to song, so also can singing can chase away the blues at the beginning, middle or the end of the day. It re-establishes a full, easy pattern of breathing and encourages release of the muscular system, with all the attendant benefits of stress alleviation. It is a way of expressing your feelings and of linking up with other people and the world around you.
For many people who would love to sing regularly, however, the opportunity simply eludes them, the last time they may have sung in a group may have been at nursery school! And while it is occasionally possible to hear workers singing on a building site this is more often than not replaced by the ever present radio. Anyone who sings in their office is likely to attract curious glances. Attendance’s at places of worship, where fifty years ago most people could sing at least once a week, have declined sharply.
Despite all of this the U.K. is still a nation of committed singers, boasting more amateur choirs, opera and musical theatre societies than any other country in Europe. Those who want to sing can find the opportunity – even if they are a bit rusty and in need of a touch of polish before throwing themselves into the vocal deep end!
Sound familiar? Take heart- help is just around the corner! Remember this: we are all born singers! Most people assume that the speaking voice comes first and then we build a singing voice on top of it. The reverse is true- singing comes first and then we learn to speak.
A baby lies on her back making a variety of vowel sounds- ohs, oohs, ahs, eehs etc. She plays with the intensity of the sound, a bit softer, a bit louder and sometimes a hell of a lot louder! She explores a variety of different notes and pitches. As the weeks pass by she moves her tongue, lips and jaw in a greater variety of ways and begins to form consonants. At first the sounds are quite random and are only repeated “accidently”. Soon she finds herself repeating more and more of the “accidental” sound patterns and her voice becomes increasingly melodious and under her control.
The pattern of a baby’s vocal development is remarkably similar to the vocal awareness exercises that a singer or actor will go through during training. However you do not have to go to Drama or Music School to develop your voice. Everyone has a “body memory” of that original vocal exploration. All you have to do is tap into it!
Unfortunately for some people the idea of singing is not a cause for celebration. Many people have been given negative messages at an early age, often from teachers and parents, about their apparent inability to sing. This may have happened publicly. The resulting embarrassment virtually guaranteed that the child would no longer be able to sing, thus creating a self fulfilling prophecy. The effect of these negative messages persists into adult life. During family and seasonal celebrations, when others are singing, the wounded singer holds their breath and clamps their teeth or soundlessly mimes the words.
human skeletonhuman skeletonhuman skeleton
A SIMPLE ANATOMY LESSON
Imagine, for a moment, that the singing, speaking human being is like a well constructed musical instrument. From your pelvis, through your ribs, shoulder girdle, larynx (voicebox) through to your skull and jaw your skeleton is a basically tubular or cylindrical shape- all connected together by the column of your spine. This is the central, skeletal core of your vocal instrument onto which the bones of your arms and legs attach.
the “skeletal cylinder”
Your skeleton is covered in sheets of muscle which wrap around it spiralically to create a perfectly tailored “elastic suit”.
The “elastic” of your muscles can either contract and shorten or it can release and lengthen. Together these two qualities, contraction and release, enable you to move around easily and efficiently. BUT.. because of habit and the lifestyles that we lead nowadays, most of us are using far too much muscular contraction. Medical authorities, alternative and mainstream, warn us about the dangerous effects of prolonged muscular tension. On a mechanical and postural level this mis-directed muscular tension has a distorting effect, causing, to a greater or lesser degree, a tendency to shorten, narrow and twist natural skeletal alignment.
The elastic suit, such a perfect and roomy fit when we were young children, becomes restrictive of our movement. This all has a correspondingly restrictive effect on the voice: inaudibility, shakiness, inaccurate pitch, harsh and grating tone.
COMMON STRESSES OF THE “ELASTIC SUIT”
LACK OF BODY AWARENESS
Perhaps the most common cause of vocal difficulty lies in a lack of awareness of how we use our body in daily life. We are experts at screening out sensory information that is not directly connected to achieving our goals. This is a blessing that allows us to achieve our objectives without being swamped by irrelevant sensory information. An activity as simple as making a cup of coffee would become unmanageably difficult without this ability.
It can also become a curse. As we focus more intensely on goal directed behaviour our body can become increasingly filtered out of awareness. Day by day we accumulate small, seemingly insignificant amounts of tension without even noticing it. Just as constantly dripping water can distort the hardest stone, these small accumulations of tension have a detrimental effect on both body structure and voice.
Most people have only the vaguest of ideas about how their body is put together. And many of us simply have wrong ideas about how the body is structured. How many of us, for example, can accurately locate the full length and circumference of the spine; where the head and spine join each other; where the larynx is; where the jaw joint is; and where the ribs and diaphragm join with the spine? All of these parts, to name but a few, are part and parcel of the singers stock in trade. Misleading ideas have a direct bearing on how we use the voice. It is possible to get a sound out of a trumpet by blowing in the wrong end but the process is wasteful of effort and the sound produced is disappointing.
the startle pattern
FEAR AND ANXIETY
Many people who are confident in all other respects would do just about anything to avoid singing with or in front of other people. In situations of perceived threat a group of responses called the “fight/flight” syndrome comes into force. Adrenalin is released into the blood stream. Breathing and heart rate speed up. The muscles become more tense. The shoulder and neck muscles are among the first to contract, pulling the head down, tortoise fashion, towards the centre of the body.
The person’s face might drain of colour or they may blush. The pupils dilate heightening visual acuity and leading, in some cases, to tunnell vision. For the primitive hunter/gatherer this whole pattern was discharged by actual fight or flight after which everything returned to normal. It is not appropriate, however, to “fight” with your audience or to take “flight” and lock yourself in the lavatory, tempting as both options may seem at the time! Fortunately there are many ways of creatively channelling the energy of the fight/flight pattern to enhance vocal confidence which we will explore in depth in the following chapters.
PRECONCEPTION OF EFFORT
Consider the image of someone lifting a heavy looking suitcase only to find it empty or lifting a light looking case and finding it full of bricks. If the lifter does not pause momentarily to truly consider the weight of the case, they may sustain an injury. Singing, like lifting the case, is equally a muscular activity. Taking time to pause and consider appropriate effort, during practice or before starting to sing, is one of the single most important elements in freeing the vocal and breathing mechanisms.
IMITATION AND MODELLING
How often is grown son or daughter’s voice mistaken for that of their father or mother on the telephone? Why is it that we can recognise certain individuals from a distance? Why do some dogs look like their owners? Young children, especially pre-verbal children, learn a vast amount through imitation and mimicry. The child adopts, to a greater or lesser degree, the postural, movement, breathing and vocal patterns of her carers. Models of vocal excellence are scarce, however, and only the most fortunate of children will find them in their immediate family. This book endeavours to present standards of mind/body and vocal excellence for the aspiring singing student to continuously develop.
When you are exposed to a constant unchanging stimulus you will automatically, assuming it is not too painful, screen it out of conscious awareness. If you live next to a busy road you may have to make a conscious decision in order to actually hear the traffic. The author and Aikido teacher George Leonard talks about this in terms of homeostasis:
“Our body, brain and behaviour have a built in tendency to stay the same within rather narrow limits, and to snap back when changed- and it is a very good thing they do.
… if your body temperature moved up or down by ten percent, you would be in big trouble. The same thing applies to your blood-sugar level and to any number of other functions of your body. This condition of equilibrium, this resistance to change is called homeostasis. It characterises all self-regulating systems, from a bacterium to a frog to a human individual to a family to an organisation to an entire culture- and it applies to psychological states and behaviour as well as to physical functioning.
The problem is, homeostasis works to keep things as they are even if they aren’t very good”
F.M. Alexander, the creator of the Alexander Technique, mentions a case in which he gave a lesson to a young girl who had a severe scoliosis- an asymmetrical sideways bend of the spine. After the lesson she was considerably more balanced and symmetrical in appearance. Rather than being pleased with these changes the young girl complained bitterly about feeling all twisted up! That which was habitually twisted felt normal. And that which was balanced felt twisted and abnormal.
Although this was an extreme case it is still something that we all, to a greater or lesser degree, have to deal with across the range of our activities. Given time the experiments in this book will allow you to “re-tailor” your elastic suit into a more spacious and freer fit. This re-orientation may feel unfamiliar or even wrong in the short term. A basic willingness to familiarise yourself with the unfamiliar will accelerate the ease with which you can reset your homeostats. This will encourage a freer, more confident and dynamic use of your voice and body, regardless of your starting point.
TIME FOR A CHANGE !
Find a place where you will not be disturbed for fifteen minutes. Tapping into the full potential of your singing voice will require a quality of self acceptance. Any sound that you make is going to be unconditionally acceptable! Here are my three golden rules for singing classes:
Any sound that anyone else makes is unconditionally acceptable.
Any sound that you make is unconditionally acceptable.
Remember rule 1. and rule 2. !
Application of these three rules leads to a reduction in the fear reflexes that interfere with easy singing. And this leads to increasing playfulness, curiousity and, as anyone who looks after young children knows, a continually developing sense of discovery…
Vocalising and moving from restriction.
Take a couple of minutes to remember a time when you were feeling a bit pressured and restricted. Use all of your senses to recall and relive this memory as fully as possible… what you were seeing and hearing around you and what you were feeling.
Now look around the room. Does it look any less bright or friendly than before? Walk around the room now. Do you feel taller or shorter? Do you feel wider or narrower? Are you breathing freely or are you holding your breath? Is your walking lighter or heavier? Smoother or jerkier? Easier or tenser? Indicate with your hands how wide or narrow your “personal space” seem to be.
Vocalise an “aahh” sound. How easy or difficult was it to vocalise?
Vocalising and moving from ease.
Move around the room and stretch to dissipate the effects of the last experiment.
Use all of your senses, seeing, hearing and feeling, to remember a time when you felt on top of the world. Stay fully in this place for a while longer and allow yourself to take two or three easy deep breaths with the emphasis on the outbreath. Let this feeling spread through your entire body.
Look around the room again. Is it any brighter or friendlier now? Walk around. Do you feel shorter or taller? Narrower or wider? Are you breathing freely? How large is your “personal space” now? Is your walking heavier or lighter?
Vocalise an “aahh” sound. Notice in what way your voice feels and sounds different from the first experiment.
Which state, cramped or expanded, would you prefer to be in when singing?
Congratulations! You have just taken the first step in liberating your body and freeing your voice. “Embodying” a pleasant experience while vocalising a vowel sound, simple as it sounds, can make a real difference to your voice:
In a series of experiments in the early nineteen forties, the surgeon William Faulkner established that when his patients thought of something unpleasant the movement of their diaphragm became restricted, shallow and irregular. These breathing changes were accompanied by a corresponding tightening of the oesophagus. And this in turn was accompanied by negative changes in the quality and characteristics of the patients voice.
When, on the other hand, his patients thought of something pleasant the movement of their diaphragm became expansive and regular and the levels of tension in the throat reduced. All of this was accompanied by positive changes in the characteristics of the patients voice.3.
By vocalising vowel sounds in this positive spirit you will find yourself in good company:
“When I started serious study, I spent the first six months vocalizing only with the vowel sounds. Day after day I would be singing ay, eee, oh, eye, ooo… my teacher, Arrigo Pola, believed it was essential. And he convinced me. Over the years I have become even more convinced of the importance of this.”
Luciano Pavarotti- My World. Page 282
Do some vocalised ahs. Play around with the volume – a bit softer, a bit louder. Play with the pitch – higher and lower.
Experiment with combinations of volume and pitch – high and soft; high and loud; low and loud; low and soft.
Slide from quiet to loud to quiet again on a single note. Repeat the same with a variety of vowel sounds.
Avoid straining your elastic suit as you do this. Continually return to a sense of ease in your vocalising. Allow your breath to return effortlessly and naturally between sounds avoiding any exxagerated sucking and sniffing of the air.
Vocalise an ah sound and then gently bring your lips, but not your teeth, together to make a humming sound. You may notice a subtle tingling or buzzing sensation spreading across your lips and face. This feeling may spread to other parts of your body – throat, chest, fingertips etc. This tingling is associated with muscular release and increased peripheral blood flow. Now sing a song. Sing several songs!
1. Faulkner, William B. Jnr., “The Effect of the Emotions Upon Diaphragmattic Function: Observations in Five Patients”, Psychosomatic Medicine, 3, No. 2 (April 1942).