The Secrets of Singing: Your Instrument

One secret to singing with your best voice is to think of yourself as an instrument.  Your instrument is divided into essentially three pieces that work together to create a supported singing sound. Mastering the coordination between these pieces of the instrument is the key to creating a compelling vocal sound when singing (or speaking, for that matter).  Singing is essentially a skill we want to execute as an integrated bodily experience.  If we understand the components of our singing instrument, we can become much more viscerally aware of how we sing and, ultimately, that awareness makes us much better singers.

The supporting first piece is the bellows or workhorse of the instrument and consists of the lower body muscle actions that control the ebb and flow of air and the role of breath in singing. The singing is created then by the second piece of the instrument, the vocal folds or cords, which connect together in thicker and thinner configurations to create a range of lower and higher notes respectively. The resultant sound then reverberates throughout a resonating chamber, the third piece, itself divided into approximately three pieces, comprising the throat, the nasal cavity, and the upper skull. Basically, our singing instrument is an acoustic instrument that combines elements of wind instruments (breath and airflow) and those of string instruments (thinning and thickening of the vocal cords) with a uniquely shaped acoustic resonator (the human head).

The three pieces of this uniquely shaped acoustic resonator deliver three qualitatively distinct resonances. The lower resonant space is housed in the throat and is the type of resonance with which we are most familiar. It has a distinctly guttural quality and is the space where we spend most of our time speaking to each other throughout our lives. The higher resonant space is located in the upper skull behind the forehead and the eyes and exhibits a definitively squeaky quality. Many people use this resonant space when they become particularly excited during speaking or find it in an occasional high pitched yawning sound. The middling resonant space is found behind the nose and cheeks area and produces a whining quality of sound that many people create during moments of earnest or heated communication (though without the tension of certain sounds associated with yelling).

This middling resonant space and the transitions into and out of the lower and higher resonant spaces are generally considered the most difficult area to create quality sounds in the singing voice. One slang term that has developed for it is the ‘mix voice’ as it is often interpreted as a sound that seems to mix the qualities of throat resonance with upper skull resonance. The higher upper skull resonance is commonly referred to as ‘head voice’ while the lower throat resonance is often denominated ‘chest voice’ (since the chest feels a greater vibration in this resonant space than in the others).

The transition from throat resonance chest voice to nasal resonance mix voice is considered the first ‘bridge’ while the transition from nasal resonance mix voice to upper skull resonance head voice is labeled the second ‘bridge’. In actuality, there can be a third bridge that crosses into a ‘super squeak’ head voice and further bridges that lead to sounds commonly referred to as whistle tones (imagine Mariah Carey’s voice on the song ‘Emotions’). Though genetics will play some role in exactly how high (or how low) an individual voice can develop, everyone has an ability to learn the creation of quality sounds through two and perhaps three bridges (which means you can have a quality singing voice that can handle numerous genres in a wide range even if you don’t qualify for a Mariah Carey cover band).

To understand exactly how a bridge feels, we can reference the feeling of a ‘crack’ or ‘flip’ in the voice. We all have the ability to notice an example of a bridge space by swooping higher in our voice from a regular part of our speaking voice until it ‘cracks’ or ‘flips’. This crack or flip is the action of the vocal cords disconnecting and the ensuing falsetto sound is being created by the bouncing of air off of the outside of the vocal cords (the ventricular folds, sometimes referred to as the ‘false’ vocal cords). Sometimes people will interchangeably make reference to falsetto as head voice and vice versa but, technically, head voice is a connected vocal cord sound while falsetto is not. One way of describing falsetto is as a ‘wind’ only creation of sound that is not engaging the ‘string’ aspect (vocal cords) of the instrument. In order to continue higher in the voice with a connected vocal cord sound, we need to learn the coordination of crossing through bridges with ease and freedom in the instrument.

This bridge point is the area of our vocal range where our instrument is wanting to shift from resonating sounds in the throat through bridges that lead to a nasal resonant space and upper skull resonant space. If we don’t develop this ability to cross bridges with ease and freedom and we try to avoid the falsetto flip of the voice while moving into these higher tones, we can find ourselves exerting a tension in the neck that yields a yelling quality in the voice. In this case, notes that would naturally want to resonate sounds in the nasal and skull cavity are being required through muscle tension to resonate these higher tones in the throat.

Though, occasionally, some vocal guides may encourage the regular use of this tense approach, the quality of the sound is limited compared to an approach that stresses the importance of ease and freedom in the neck and shoulders. And, more importantly, this style of singing can more easily lead to vocal harm and a shortened singing career.

A final note on bridges involves the differences for male and female voices. Because of hormonal differences that impact the development of the voice with the onset of puberty, male first bridges occur approximately half an octave below female first bridges. And the female first bridge area is the same area where men cross through a second bridge. So when women enter their mix voice nasal resonance, men are passing out of their mix voice nasal resonance into their head voice or upper skull resonance.

Now that we’ve explored an overview introduction to the singing instrument, our next step is to examine the component skills of singing.

For individual coaching on the techniques in this article and the development of your singing voice, contact Janak for voice lessons.

Copyright © 2010 Janak Ramachandran. All Rights Reserved.

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