Singing technique has developed over many hundreds of years, passed down from generation to generation, teacher to student who then becomes teacher who teaches student once more, and so on. Over those years many things have been tried and tested through trial and error to achieve a certain thing. But there remains one thing that echoes through the mists of years of tradition and still causes heated debates among different schools of thought on the subject of singing...
Having taught singing and spoken voice at institutes such as Italia Conti, Urdang, American Musical Theatre Academy and The MTA and having trained with Anne Marie Speed, the countries leading expert on voice, I've learned or thing or two over the last 12 years.
If the following phrases sound familiar to you, then I'm sure you'll be interested in reading on:
'Sing from your diaphragm'
'Give your stomach a push'
'Pull in your tummy'
‘Sing from your stomach'
Ringing any bells?
I am a Holistic Vocal Coach and I hugely respect all traditions and schools of thought on the subject of singing. After all, their only aim is to help us all become better vocalists. As somebody who originates from a background in classical music, I bow down to the masters of voice who precede me and I look up to all those who used their instincts, experimented and dedicated their lives to discover the aspects of singing technique that we still swear by today. I give thanks to every vocalist and composer of the Baroque and Classical eras for the tilted larynx, a position that most of us sing in pretty much all of the time.
However, over the last 30 years we have made huge advancements in the understanding of voice, how it works and it's relationship to the rest of the body. By using advanced technology, cameras and ultrasound we are able to physically see what happens in the body when we make sound. There is one thing that is true, clear and real. We sing from our larynx. We do not sing from our diaphragm, stomach, bum or any other part of our anatomy that isn't the larynx and vocal cords - although it could be argued that one sings from ones heart very occasionally!
When we are in the delicate and confusing realm of the voice and all the intricate tiny parts that come together to create it, we have to be very clear and accurate when we talk about how sound is made and where it is coming from. When we talk about singing from any part of the body except from where the sound is actually made then we are taking focus and attention away from the very thing that needs it most; the larynx and the vocal cords.
The diaphragm is an involuntary muscle with very few nerve endings in it (it can very occasionally be voluntary but to even try is pointless in this context!). It is one of those beautifully designed parts of the body that has been working for us from the day we were born without us ever needing to get involved. Any expert will tell you that we do not control our diaphragm. We can not control our diaphragm. It is a reactionary muscle that simply reacts to our breath, drawing the lungs down and pushing them back up to take in and expel air.
We are talking scientific, physiological fact here. This is not tradition, opinion or method. IT IS FACT. And it is a fact that could change your life, your singing and the way you approach everything from this moment on.
Another fact: If you push your stomach in, try to sing from your diaphragm, or tense your abdomen in any way when singing, you will cause constriction and a tightening of the larynx and the muscles surrounding it. What we should be focussing on when singing is contact of the true vocal folds and resisting too much breath passing over them. The relationship between the larynx and the abdomen and diaphragm is not for making sound – it is for taking air, water and food down, and pushing anything back up that may be life threatening. The larynx’s primary function isn’t actually to make sound, let alone sing. Making sound is a secondary function. When we tell students to "sing from your diaphragm, use your diaphragm, support the sound with your diaphragm" we may well be adding to the very serious issue of tensions and constriction. The teeniest, tiniest amount of pressure from the belly can make such a huge change in the larynx and voice, that very few teachers, let alone students, are able to use the mechanism sensitively enough. What ensues is wrenching, pushing, tensing and crunching of the abdomen, and it is causing problems. Add in to the equation nerves, possible dance and movement, high octane, energised performances and you have a recipe for disaster.
SO WHAT DO I DO NOW?!
Try this; stand with your feet shoulder width apart with your hands on your waist and say ‘good morning’ at an average volume. Notice what you feel around your hands… a small movement in your muscles right? Now repeat ‘good morning’ adding about 25% more volume. But don't add 'support'. What did you feel around your hands? More engagement? Yes! Did you add that yourself? Did you control it? NO! Now add 50% more volume to your ‘good morning’ (basically yell it!) But don't add 'support'. What did you feel? More engagement? Did you control it? Did you add it? NO!
The abdomen and diaphragm are beautifully designed to work on their own by giving the larynx the support it needs to work efficiently. Your body is really clever. Basically your larynx says to your diaphragm and abdomen ‘they didn’t hear, can you give me a bit of support’ and it responds with ‘yup, sure thing!’. The second we start getting involved we come up against all kinds of problems. Try this; push you tummy in with out making sound and see what you feel around your neck and larynx… Constriction? Strain? Pressure? Useful for singing?
Of course we need to support the larynx and the sound it makes, but we need to be clear about how… support starts with the feet and legs, and making sure you are well grounded and connected here is the first step. Try sliding from a low note to a high note bending down into your knees as you get higher, without using your abdomen. You may feel like your voice is well supported? Your abdomen will do something, but try trusting it to do the perfect job on it's own. Experiment with this for a week, allowing instability to occur as you try something new. There are other muscles in your body, which are much healthier and more helpful ones to use such as your Latissimus Dorsi muscles just under your armpits and down your back. For more information on this please find a good vocal coach.
This article is only intended to be empowering, informative and useful. I do not doubt that many of you reading this swear by using your abdominal muscles and diaphragm to hit the high notes, and I believe it works for you, and nobody can take that away from you. All I ask is that you have an open mind, experiment and try out new ideas. You might be surprised.