Singing high and low, soft and loud: Art or Science?

  • Author:Angie Arsenault

Singing is as easy as 1 2 3,… when the process is simplified! It begins with the intention to communicate something, a breath is taken, and then a sound is produced. That’s it!

Ok, it may not be so straight forward if you come to understand the process from a more detailed, scientific point of view, since the mechanics behind vocal production tells a complex tale of muscle coordination.

That said, I shall attempt to explain a portion of this process to you in a more simple and straight forward manner at this time, using … a balloon!

The balloon analogy will help demonstrate sound production using the body of the balloon to represent our lungs, and the space just below the elastic band opening of the balloon to represent our vocal cords.

If you blow up a balloon and then close the opening/nozzle so as not to release any air, this is for us, like taking in a breath and holding it;

If you release the balloon’s opening and allow all the air inside to quickly come out, this is for us, like exhaling without control;

If you fill up the balloon again and this time, close the nozzle to make both sides touch together and then pinch the sides and stretch them out slightly, allowing a tiny stream of air to be released through it, what do we have?

Sound with pitch.

If you stretch the elastic band even more, what do you get?

This is basically how the human voice works as well except we can’t use our fingers to help with the process! There are many, many muscles that work together to make this happen after the intention has been sent out from the mind. However, you usually do not feel what is happening directly in the throat.

The balloon gives us a good idea of what is happening in the first steps of vocal production. Luckily, as human beings, we are even more gifted than this party piece of rubber! Yes, not only do we have our mind, lungs and vocal cords, but we also have a vocal tract, which translates as all the space above the larynx (the larynx is where you find that bump that we call Adam’s apple) where the harmonics of the voice (secondary vibrations) get amplified, modified and made into words and phases.

At rest, the vocal folds are relaxed, open in form of a large V and allow air to pass freely as we breathe in and out. When we exert extreme force like in heavy weight lifting, the folds close tightly together, and when we talk or sing, the folds come together and vibrate to produce sound as tiny passing puffs of air come up from the lungs.

When singing up into higher notes, two cartilages pull away from each other, creating more and more tension in the vocal chords, making them vibrate much faster. The exact opposite is what happens when singing lower notes making fewer vibrations per second.

Not only do the folds come together to vibrate when producing a note, but they are opening and closing many times per second at an extremely high speed. For example, to sing an “A” pitch above middle C, the folds will open and close 440 times per second!! We will explore this further in lesson #6 when we work on increasing vocal range.

It is the amount of resistance in the vocal folds that will determine how much pressure is needed from the airflow to initiate and sustain vibration. This resistance can be influenced by the intended loudness and pitch range of a phrase making the intrinsic muscles contract to adjust the tone, length, shape, and elasticity of the vocal folds.

What you will likely feel in your body, are the secondary vibrations (harmonics) that may be felt in the chest and/or in certain areas of the vocal tract, depending on the pitch and volume produced.

For many singers, this process is not known or even questioned. This is fine if the actions are naturally the right ones. But if a singer is pushing and squeezing to produce a high note or to increase the volume level, a better understanding of what needs to happen would really be helpful to get the best results and avoid vocal damage.

Many teachers of the voice also choose not to explain the complete science and opt for a more artistic approach. They may use visualization techniques with their students using imagery to get specific results. The problem with only using imagery is that often, it does not give a correct description of what is actually happening within the vocal instrument.

Imagery is dictated by sensory feedback, and since the teacher and the student may not feel the exact same thing, this can become very confusing for the student. Not only that, but many imagery techniques used by certain teachers are just so exaggerated and… wrong!

I have students who have shared with me some of what their previous teachers had told them during lessons. Here are a few examples:

“To achieve an opened throat, imagine an orange in your throat when you sing”
“Support the sound; imagine you are in hard labor when you sing”!!

As a vocal teacher, the first thing I had to do with these students in particular was to help them get rid of the incorrect imagery techniques which had them singing with all kinds of tension in the tongue, in the throat, and… in other places as well!

On a scientific level, the more you understand about the voice, the more options you will have as a singer; not to mention going about it in a safe and easy manner. On an artistic level, visualization or imagery techniques and analogies can be used to help match sensory indicators to the targeted sounds. Sometimes changing the focus can be good since thinking too much about the vocal cords often brings about unwanted tension in the throat.

I admit that I too use some imagery approaches with my students, but most of the time, I let them make up the images as they become aware of certain sensory indicators when they are doing things correctly. Then, I will recall the images they have come up with as a reminder of how we came to produce certain sounds.

I am constantly asking my students “how did that feel?” – first, because as a rule, singing should never be painful or tiring and second, because this nurtures the kind of awareness that a singer needs to develop. As a student of the voice, it is important that you remain involved in the training process because only you know how things feel within your vocal instrument and you must be the observer when practicing alone at home.

I think both artistic and scientific approaches can be useful – as long as the correct information is given as far as what is actually happening within the vocal instrument. However, once the correct vocal production habits have been practiced into the muscle memory of the body, the artistic approach should be reserved for song delivery during performances; because the last thing you want to be thinking of when singing a song to an audience, is the banana between your ears! lol

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