Monday, March 19, 2007

Vocal Architecture

Some of my recent lessons have inspired me to write about a subject that is extremely important to good vocal production. I call it Vocal Architecture. Good posture is a must if one is to breathe properly for singing. But Vocal Architecture has more to do with the efficient use of body structures and how they interact.

The main area of concern is usually the neck and head. The weight of the skull sits precariously at the top of the spine and is continuously balanced by various muscles. A reasonable parallel would be the Segway Human Transporter which has an onboard computer that calculates and adjusts changes in balance at the microsecond level. An improper tilt can cause a great deal of unnecessary tension which will cause vocal fatigue and can also completely change the sound of the voice. Many questions can best be answered by looking back into primitive human history. The question here is, what is the proper position of the head and why?

I find that many singers hold their head a bit too high which causes multiple problems. The weight of the back of the skull compresses the neck muscles, the throat muscles are stretched unnaturally, causing tension in an extremely vulnerable area, and the entire balance of the body is put into a precarious attitude. Head tilt seems like a small detail, but once a singer achieves the proper balance, everything changes for the better... immediately.

I teach singers to "Lead with their forehead and look intently to the horizon." I also teach the importance of dropping the jaw to open the mouth wider as opposed to raising the head. Here are a few reasons why this is so important:
1. This position allows the skull to be balanced equally by all the muscles around the neck.
2. Focusing on "leading with the forehead" is a mental image that tends to help the singer picture the sound as emanating from the resonant chambers of the mask.
3. Dropping the jaw eliminates tension in the area surrounding the larynx which must be absolutely free of undue tension in order for the voice to be produced correctly.

Dropping the jaw also has a massive affect on what happens inside the mouth and throat. The very tip of the soft palate or, the roof of the mouth, is called the uvula. When the jaw is lowered, this little guy points downward creating a wider passage for sound waves to pass up into the sinus area. This could be compared to turning up the high frequency tweeters in a stereo system. The difference in the sound of an AH vowel when the jaw is dropped just a small amount is amazing.

As to posture, I prefer that a singer do vocal exercises standing with feet shoulder width apart and one slightly in front of the other. There are certain exercises that include slight crescendos or extensions of energy and I like to see a singer shift weight forward on the crescendo and back on the diminuendo. Merely shifting weight from one foot to the other will expend energy in the legs and usually results in better support from the torso.

I think of singing as a very physical process and these slight variations in balance will have good results without clogging the mental process. The physical aspects of singing, when drilled and practiced extensively, should become second nature. Good habits will allow more "CPU" usage to be alloted to the interpretation of a song.

So...getting back to the dawn of human history, I imagine primitive man as a hunter-gatherer who had to have finely tuned scanning skills in order to provide himself with food and to anticipate both the danger of predatory animals and the presence of food animals in the distance. Primitive man walked erect, thereby making use of his built-in periscope. To anticipate what was in store for him, he looked to the horizon...out and down. His horizon was much different than ours. When we look for what we need, we look at shop windows and billboards...we look up. Our scanning and awareness has deteriorated to the point that any distraction can cause us to trip or step off of a curb.

My take on Vocal Architecture may seem a bit quirky, but it works. Become primitive man and look down and out to the horizon. Sing with a purpose, as if survival were hanging in the balance.

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