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Voice Culture

Voice Culture – An indepth look.

Voice Culture – What it all means? – Part 1

Voice Culture is a common term heard these days. Pavarotti knew its secrets as did MS Subbulaxmi. For us lesser mortals, what does it mean?Fundamentally voice culture refers to the methodology adopted to train or control the voice to sing effectively. In Carnatic music we also call this ‘sadhaka’.

Voice culture is very important for all aspiring vocalists, from beginners to advanced practitioners. A beginner would face challenges very different from those faced by an advanced student. For example, a beginner would be more focused on singing in tune, understanding the pitch variance of various notes, and being able to hold a note steadily amongst other things. An advanced student faces issues such as voice fatigue, hoarseness, lack of clarity in singing and reduction in vocal range. To avoid or mitigate such issues a vocalist needs both a proper understanding of good voice techniques and an in-depth understanding of his/ her own unique voice.

I will discuss the perceptions of voice culture in Carnatic music today, then move onto the fundamental aspects of mechanics of the voice. Let’s alsodiscuss some techniques advocated by various Western voice experts. I’ve includedlinks to relevant material – just click and see! We round off the topic with video interviews with leading vocalists today and hear what they have to share about this topic. Please share your comments as well, especially if you are a vocal student, I’m interested to get a dialogue, trialogue or log of higher order going on this blog.

Let’s take a student of Carnatic music. A bare minimum of the following is required.

1) Ability to sing in tune with the sruti – A fundamental requirement.

2) Ability to sustain a note without wavering as long as possible. Good rounded tonal production throughout the range.

3) Ability to render gamakas and nuances with control and mastery at any speed.

4) Ability to traverse at least 2 1/2 octaves comfortably.

5) Proper articulation of lyrics.

5) Since voice is the medium that translates the ideas from the brain into music, the actual flow of ideas needs to happen effectively and could also be considered to be an essential aspect of voice training. Listening could therefore be included in voice training as well.

In fact, the aspects of Voice Culture have been discussed in ancient texts of music such as the Naradi Siksha.(excerpt from The Teaching of Music by Prof P. Sambhamurthy) As you can see below, the ‘Don’ts’ far outweigh the ‘Dos’. The million dollar question is, are there techniques to help us achieve the ‘Dos’ and avoid the ‘Don’ts’. The answer is ‘Yes’ but we will discuss that in the following threads.

The ten excellences of ‘gana’ or music are:

1) Rakta – melodic harmony

2) Purna – fullness in utterance.

3) Alankrta – decorated

4) Prasanna – shining, radiant

5) Vyakta , clearness in pronunciation

6) Vikrshta – purity

7) Slakshnam – rendering in apt tempo

8) Samam – uniform melodious

9) Sukumaram – delightfully soft

10) Madhuram – sweetness in rendering

Gayaka Doshas or Defects are:

These points are definitely not to be taken lightly but some humor is added to diffuse the gravity.

1) Singing with a wide gaping mouth (Think fish out of water- bad- fish in water- good)

2) Singing with shrill and trembling voice

3) Singing in a hesitant, jerky or faltering manner.

4) Singing in absent minded manner

5) Noisy singing and breathy singing

6) singing with clenched teeth (Leave your anger off stage please)

7) singing with shyness (Once again- no Bashful)

8) singing with fear (Unless a wild animal happens to be in the vicinity or you are bunking class and the headmistress has spotted you)

9) lifting the eyebrows while singing (Its not Kathakali Folks!)

10) Frequently clearing the throat (We would hope you took care of that during morning ablutions)

11) Singing with bad intonation

12) Singing with faulty rhythm

13) habitually counting the tala in a vishama/misleading style (no swishing folks)

14) making violent/unseemly gestures while singing (I don’t even want to imagine!)

15) singing with too much shake of the head

16) strained and screechy singing.

17)Presence of nasality (Nose should be seen but not heard)

18) Singing with closed eyes. (Don’t you want to observe the audience?)

19) singing with closed mouth (If we wanted a ventriloquist, we’d ask for one)

20) singing like a crow. (Is this really possible?)

21) Singing faulty sahithyas (No adlibbing on Stage please- the composers would prefer to keep it *their* way.)

22) Separating the syllables of words at wrong places.

23) Swallowing or indistinctly pronouncing some syllables and words while singing. (E-NUN-CIATION)

24) Not making eye contact with the audience. (They’re here for a reason- you. Might as well make them feel wanted)

25) Protruding the neck like a camel. (While appropriate in Break dancing, in Carnatic music – not so much)

26) Repeating a phrase many times during alapana or neraval.

27) Keeping the mouth in a crooked or oblique manner while singing. (Narrow and straight, folks)

28) Flat lifeless singing (If you’re bored to sing, just imagine HOW bored we must be, as the audience!)

29) No plan in the development of alapana or kalpana swara. (Melody favours the prepared voice)

30) Singing with false voice (Be true to your voice and you shall be false to no ear)

31) Singing with doubt or indifference

32) Possession of a feeble,unmusical, repulsive , stammering or lamenting voice (Not much you can do about this)

33) Ugly mannerism while singing (If *you* wouldn’t like watching it in a mirror, neither would we…)

34) sitting in an ungraceful and uncomfortable posture.

to be contd

Voice Culture – Lets talk some more. – Part 2

We started off with some general concepts of what voice culture means to Carnatic music singers in our previous post. We even posted a nice long list of ‘DON’Ts’ while singing. This may seem funny to many people, but jokes aside, most of us have been guilty of some portion of the mistakes stated in the ‘DON’Ts’ of singing.

Voice culture has been a relevant and necessary subject of study even many hundreds of years back and across different singing traditions. Whether the style of music is Carnatic, Hindusthani or Western, I feel strongly that the fundamental techniques for good voice production can apply effectively to all systems. Once the fundamentals are understood, we should then strive to work on the specific aspects of that music system and strengthen the foundations.

In my quest for knowledge on this topic, I have learned quite a bit and am happy to share that knowledge here. As an aspiring student of Carnatic music, having faced many challenges in this area, I only share what I have found and by no means claim to be an expert in this area. We will talk about fundamentals of voice production including the voice anatomy and some of the important concepts from a very established school of Western voice training. Having talked about the fundamentals, we can then talk about voice culture in the context of Carnatic music. We will provide references to books , DVDs published by various Carnatic music experts. We will make this topic more interesting by including some expert comments in the form of video interviews with some of the well known singers in the Carnatic music field today. I am quite excited about sharing these things and I hope that many students will find it extremely informative and useful.

In fact, even the greatest singers cannot claim to be experts in this area, if they are not aware of the vocal anatomy and the highly integrated and coordinated actions of various physical processes that need to happen to sing effectively. In order to improve vocal technique, it is essential to understand the basic fundamentals of voice production and seek the help of a qualified voice teacher.

I would like to emphasize the word ‘qualified’, there are many voice training methods being marketed , especially western methods and it is essential that students do not fall into the trap of trying out anything that comes their way. Attempting voice culture, without a scientific understanding or proper guidance can do more harm than good. Also, one of pitfalls of going for just ‘any’ voice training is that of being bogged down by so many terminologies and ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ . One could get totally confused amidst all the jargon.

The good singers who have not thought about the specifics of voice production, are probably naturally gifted and born with an innate ability to vocalize correctly from the beginning. Alternately they may have analyzed themselves while singing and through a trial and error method, have figured out an efficient way to vocalize without strain or tension. These singers are great to listen to and observe, but might not necessarily possess the knowledge to help other students sing better.

contd..Stay tuned.

Voice Culture – Lets talk some more. – Part 3

 

Singing can be considered to be a highly energized mode of expression involving emotions and an intent to convey some feeling. When we see some of the greatest singers of our times, this is evident. Take any one of the great masters, MS Subbulakshmi, GN Balasubramanian, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, ML Vasanthakumari, Alathur Brothers. They never sang with their throats, always with their bodies and a strong emotive expression.

From the point of a view of a listener, we only see the dynamism , perfect control and freedom of the voice and the uplifting and inspiring effect of the performance. But from the point of the view of the singer, the entire vocalizing mechanism involves a coordinated action of various muscles initiated by the brain combined with a sense of purpose to express a thought or idea. It can therefore be considered to be a gentle athletic activity combined with an emotional state.

As in any athletic training, it is important for singers to achieve ‘good form’ through systematic training and develop the knowledge and ability to use their unique god given instrument with the maximum freedom and facility. It is important to not lose track of the ultimate intent of singing, which is to enjoy and convey/share a strong feeling with an underlying sense of confidence and happiness. It is a known fact that certain emotional stimuli has the power to align the physical processes in the right manner without conscious effort. Therefore it is recommended that the training takes place with an awareness and open mind and the singer not lose track of the emotional or joyful aspect while singing.

Broadly speaking proper vocal technique involves the following areas. We will talk about each of these areas in more detail after discussing the vocal anatomy.

  • Posture
  • Proper Breathing reflexes
  • Control of the throat area and knowledge of how to maintain an ‘open throat’. This is of utmost importance.
  • Awareness of the resonators
  • Proper articulation through the knowledge of tongue, jaw and pharyngeal pronunciation.

Vocal Anatomy

The human voice can be considered to be most evolved form of any musical instrument. It has all the components of any musical instrument and an additional component which will be mentioned shortly. Any musical instrument needs the following components to make music.

 

  • Activator – the energy source for the sound
  • Vibrator – the component that produces sound when activated
  • Resonator- amplifies the produced sound

For example in the violin, a stringed instrument, the activator may be the action of applying the bow, the vibrator may be the considered to be the strings and the hollow body of the violin may be compared to the resonator.

In the human body, the activator is the breath energy or compressed air that is a result of the action of the lungs and other abdominal and pelvic muscles. The vibrator is the vocal chords and the resonator is the pharynx or the throat cavity.

Now , what does a human voice possess that an instrument does not? You guessed it, the ability to articulate and produce the human element of communication. This happens with the help of the mouth cavity, tongue, lips and teeth. So the fourth unique component that sets the human voice apart is.

  • Articulator

Not only that, the voice components have the ability to change size and shape thereby allowing the human voice to dynamically alter the pitch, volume, timbre and tone. If only this action can be trained with a definite purpose, there can be no greater joy or freedom for a singer…the ability to express any thought or emotion with the right tools.

We will discuss about each of the above components in detail in our next article. Stay tuned..

 

Voice Culture – Breath as the Fuel for Voice Production – Part 4

Music teachers often like to use the term , “sing with breath support” or sing from the “nabhi” (belly area) when teaching students. These terms are quite abstract and a proper understanding of the physiological mechanism of breathing and posture will go a long way in helping with good tonal production and ability to sustain the tone through long phrases with ease and control. The idea is not to get bogged down by technicalities but understanding just enough to make a marked difference in the ability to sing comfortably without losing breath or control.

Have you ever had the feeling of running out of breath and experiencing awkward moments of gasping for air in between phrases? Do you want to improve your tonal quality, reduce tension and improve your overall stamina while singing? Then read on..what you find here might help you get one step closer to your goal.

Breathing during singing consists of 4 phases: a breathing-in period (inhalation); a setting up controls period (suspension);a controlled exhalation period (phonation); and a recovery period. A conscious effort to control these phases must be made initially until they become fully conditioned reflexes. You might ask..where is the need to consciously control the breathing mechanism during singing alone when we do it naturally all other times.. when we talk , or sleep? When we talk, we inhale and exhale shallowly as we don’t need as much air and the duration of these cycles are more or less equal. However, during singing , we are required to inhale quickly and deeply and prolong the exhalation period as long as possible. ( the process of producing the tone is same as exhalation) We need to be able to not only control the amount of air that we exhale as we sing but also ensure that the air comes out at a steady rate. In order to do this, we need the ability to use our body musculature to help prolong the exhalation phase as long as evenly as possible. This is the basic concept and the point to remember is that singing with an awareness of these details will help any singer in improving their singing technique.

So, now that we have established that singing requires additional conscious effort to connect with the body musculature to produce an improved tone, lets see what typically happens during a respiratory cycle. What are the elements involved in a typical breath cycle?

1) Lungs – Air enters the lungs through the wind pipe or trachea. The lungs are connected to the ribcage and the diaphragm and are directly influenced by the movements of these two entities. An increase in the ribcage and lowering of the diaphragm causes the lungs to stretch, thereby creating a small vacuum and allowing air to enter quickly. Similarly, exhalation is also controlled by the position of the ribcage and diaphragm.

2) Diaphragm – A dome shaped muscle curving upward at the centre that extends across the bottom of the ribcage. During inhalation, the diaphragmatic muscles contracts and the diaphragm moves downward in the body. During exhalation, the diaphragm relaxes and moves upward causing a decrease in the lung volume , creating a positive pressure difference thereby expelling air out. The ability to control the diaphragm thereby plays a key role in breath control.

3) Sternum – the long flat bone located in the centre of the thorax (chest), which connects to the rib bones via cartilage, forming the rib cage with them. We just need to be aware of this area, as we will talk about maintaining the sternum upright later on..

4) Ribcage Muscles – These aid the diaphragm and lungs in establishing the movements necessary for breathing. They are the internal and external intercostal muscles.

5) Abdominal Muscles – The contraction of these muscles help to control the upward rise of the diaphragm during the exhalation phase thereby helping to maintain even and steady breath control during singing. You should definitely think about these muscles a lot..

6) Lower Back Muscles – These are muscles that run down the back and sides that are connected to the diaphragm, ribs and pelvis. These work together with the muscles in the abdomen to coordinate everything the respiratory system does. Inhalation, suspension and compression of the breath.

Voice Culture – Breathing and Singing – Part 5

 
In our previous article on “Breath as the fuel of voice production”, , we established that singing involves 4 phases namely, inhalation, exhalation, suspension and recovery.

We also established that inhalation needs to happen quickly and efficiently, whereas exhalation or the actual act of singing needs to be prolonged and controlled to produce an even and well balanced tone. In fact, the ability to control the outgoing breath and release it smoothly without resistance from other areas such as the throat, and mouth (“Singing with an open throat”) determine to large extent , the beauty and evenness of the tone.

Before going into the various phases of breathing , it is important to note what constitutes correct posture. These suggestions are designed, not to ‘stifle’ the freedom of a singer, but to help the body align the physical processes necessary for the smooth and efficient outward movement of air.

1) Maintain good upper body alignment.
2) Maintain a high sternum or chest. (Not too high)
3) Make sure your spine is stable and erect.
4) Ensure your shoulders are relaxed, back and down.

Inhalation
We will discuss the ideal way to take a breath in the following article, “Singing with an open throat” but it suffices to say that inhalation should be quick and deep, reaching low into the body. Some associate this with a mental image of “drinking in the air” and directing the air quickly as if in a quick gasp towards the back of the throat and deep down. Remembering to keep the vocal tract open and tongue flat or out of the way will help in this process. The posture should always be in check. Watching yourself in a mirror is a good practice.

It is a good practice to take a breath in between phrases at appropriate points, without waiting till the last moment of running out of air, when the chest finally collapses or moves inward. This could be quite embarrassing and actually sounds as if the wind has been punched out of you. Small pauses in between phrases, allows the breath to go in naturally and it helps to keep the ribcage expanded throughout the singing process. This can do wonders. If exhalation is done correctly and posture is maintained, along with an open vocal tract, inhalation usually takes care of itself.

Phonation refers to the process by which sound is produced by the vocal cords. Breath energy maybe considered to be the fueling factor for sound production, but it is the actual impulse to say something that initiates the breath energy in the first place. Usually during normal speech, when thoughts and expression give rise to words and sentences, we never run out of breath. While talking , what we intend to communicate somehow triggers the body to produce the right amount of breath to get the words out. This relationship between intent and breath can be leveraged in singing as well.

Singing carefully with a good amount of attention directed to the lyrics and conveying the music with an intent to project the words and the emotions underlying therein, helps with breath control to a large extent. The ultimate role of the voice is to communicate, so when you align your thoughts with the intention to communicate, the voice naturally follows along.

Suspension
This is the period following the inhalation where the body has sufficient air to energize the breath stream and is in readiness to start the exhalation or singing action. The readiness of the body in the ‘suspension’ phase determines to a large part the quality of the tone , ability to sustain the tone without wobble , ability to reach notes throughout the vocal spectrum freely and , ultimately determines the overall quality of voice production during the exhalation or singing phase. During the ‘suspension’ phase, it is important to note that the breath is not ‘held’ in, as one would imagine in the case of someone holding their breath under water. This would cause tension and resistance in unwanted areas like the throat, jaw and mouth. The chest remains upright and little changes from the inhalation stance, except that inhalation is halted and the air is ready to move out swiftly in the exhalation phase. This requires some coordination of the body muscles, mostly those in the rib, abdomen and lower back area.

Exhalation or Singing
We have already established that the exhalation needs to be prolonged and delivered smoothly during the singing phase. How is this achieved?

In Carnatic music, good teachers emphasize the ability to sustain a note without wobble for the longest possible duration. This is indeed challenging, and extremely important aspect for good voice production.

It is quite a fascinating and daunting aspect of the Carnatic music practice regimen. It is also easily one of the most overlooked aspect as there is scope for a singer to hide his or her’s weakness in the inability to master this technique and hide in a dazzling and fast-paced brigha oriented style of singing. Here is an excellent article written by Shri Chitravina Ravikiran on this topic.

Coming back to to exhalation or singing, its mostly a science but a bit of art as well. We will talk about science first..

The amount of air used on the out-breath should be carefully balanced with the amount of pressure or compression produced by the body muscles. Two things are of the utmost importance, quantity of air and level of compression in the air. People sometimes push more air to reach for higher notes, its counter intuitive. You need LESS air and more compression.

If you’re wondering about compression, its the ability of the body to hold back ‘wild’ air with the help of the rib-cage muscles, abdomen and lower back. To experience this , try singing a note on a low note. Without altering the pitch, increase the volume of the tone without causing tension in the throat or clenching the jaw, making sure the posture is in check. After raising the volume, slowly come back to the original level. The resistance felt in the body during the volume increase can be attributed to the compression effect. Another example of compressed air is what happens when you cough or laugh suddenly. A good exercise to experience compression is to try a sudden laugh like ‘Haa’ and then continue that sound into a sustained tone on a particular pitch.

If you work on getting the compression going whenever you need, you can then working on balancing that with the right amount of air. Make sure that the sternum and chest are upright. This has to be discovered by each student carefully and patiently. Stamina and balance have to be built gradually over a period of time. The student has to take time to know his or her body, understand what it takes to produce a particular tone and understand the complicated process of re-alignment to strengthen or balance the tone. It is indeed a personal journey for every singer!

Now we come to the artistic nature of breath control...Assuming you have a good ear and a good sense of pitch, your body actually needs no help from you physically to produce a tone with the intended pitch. I actually found this fascinating. The length and thickness of vocal folds determine the pitch of the tone, and in turn are tuned by the inner ear. The inner ear actually drives the whole action. “Trying’ to reach for a note with your throat and tightening up , is not needed. This is one example of how ‘not doing’ is actually what is needed.

Did you also know that expansive deep breathing makes the body more attune to emotional and physical sensations as well? There is a direct correlation between emotions and the breathing process and in turn the singing process. If you are a person who likes to control your emotions and keep them under the surface, constantly shutting down your breathing to maintain self-control, you might actually be inhibiting or training your body muscles to become dormant. This also creates chronic tension and affects your respiratory muscles. Sometimes, students tend to focus on the technical aspects and put off the emotional aspect of presentation, to the last stage of training. It should actually be other other way around. Emotions get your body going and help to align the right physical processes in place in preparation for singing!

 

Voice Culture – Breathing and Singing – Part 6

 
In our previous article on “Breath as the fuel of voice production”, , we established that singing involves 4 phases namely, inhalation, exhalation, suspension and recovery.

We also established that inhalation needs to happen quickly and efficiently, whereas exhalation or the actual act of singing needs to be prolonged and controlled to produce an even and well balanced tone.In fact, the ability to control the outgoing breath and release it smoothly without resistance from other areas such as the throat, and mouth (“Singing with an open throat”) determine to large extent , the beauty and evenness of the tone.

Before going into the various phases of breathing , it is important to note what constitutes correct posture. These suggestions are designed, not to ‘stifle’ the freedom of a singer, but to help the body align the physical processes necessary for the smooth and efficient outward movement of air.

1) Maintain good upper body alignment.
2) Maintain a high sternum or chest. (Not too high)
3) Make sure your spine is stable and erect.
4) Ensure your shoulders are relaxed, back and down.

Inhalation
We will discuss the ideal way to take a breath in the following article, “Singing with an open throat” but it suffices to say that inhalation should be quick and deep, reaching low into the body. Some associate this with a mental image of “drinking in the air” and directing the air quickly as if in a quick gasp towards the back of the throat and deep down. Remembering to keep the vocal tract open and tongue flat or out of the way will help in this process. The posture should always be in check. Watching yourself in a mirror is a good practice.

It is a good practice to take a breath in between phrases at appropriate points, without waiting till the last moment of running out of air, when the chest finally collapses or moves inward. This could be quite embarrassing and actually sounds as if the wind has been punched out of you. Small pauses in between phrases, allows the breath to go in naturally and it helps to keep the ribcage expanded throughout the singing process. This can do wonders. If exhalation is done correctly and posture is maintained, along with an open vocal tract, inhalation usually takes care of itself.

Phonation refers to the process by which sound is produced by the vocal cords. Breath energy maybe considered to be the fueling factor for sound production, but it is the actual impulse to say something that initiates the breath energy in the first place. Usually during normal speech, when thoughts and expression give rise to words and sentences, we never run out of breath. While talking , what we intend to communicate somehow triggers the body to produce the right amount of breath to get the words out. This relationship between intent and breath can be leveraged in singing as well.

Singing carefully with a good amount of attention directed to the lyrics and conveying the music with an intent to project the words and the emotions underlying therein, helps with breath control to a large extent. The ultimate role of the voice is to communicate, so when you align your thoughts with the intention to communicate, the voice naturally follows along.

Suspension
This is the period following the inhalation where the body has sufficient air to energize the breath stream and is in readiness to start the exhalation or singing action. The readiness of the body in the ‘suspension’ phase determines to a large part the quality of the tone , ability to sustain the tone without wobble , ability to reach notes throughout the vocal spectrum freely and , ultimately determines the overall quality of voice production during the exhalation or singing phase. During the ‘suspension’ phase, it is important to note that the breath is not ‘held’ in, as one would imagine in the case of someone holding their breath under water. This would cause tension and resistance in unwanted areas like the throat, jaw and mouth. The chest remains upright and little changes from the inhalation stance, except that inhalation is halted and the air is ready to move out swiftly in the exhalation phase. This requires some coordination of the body muscles, mostly those in the rib, abdomen and lower back area.

Exhalation or Singing
We have already established that the exhalation needs to be prolonged and delivered smoothly during the singing phase. How is this achieved?

In Carnatic music, good teachers emphasize the ability to sustain a note without wobble for the longest possible duration. This is indeed challenging, and extremely important aspect for good voice production.

It is quite a fascinating and daunting aspect of the Carnatic music practice regimen. It is also easily one of the most overlooked aspect as there is scope for a singer to hide his or her’s weakness in the inability to master this technique and hide in a dazzling and fast-paced brigha oriented style of singing. Here is an excellent article written by Shri Chitravina Ravikiran on this topic.

Coming back to to exhalation or singing, its mostly a science but a bit of art as well. We will talk about science first..

The amount of air used on the out-breath should be carefully balanced with the amount of pressure or compression produced by the body muscles. Two things are of the utmost importance, quantity of air and level of compression in the air. People sometimes push more air to reach for higher notes, its counter intuitive. You need LESS air and more compression.

If you’re wondering about compression, its the ability of the body to hold back ‘wild’ air with the help of the rib-cage muscles, abdomen and lower back. To experience this , try singing a note on a low note. Without altering the pitch, increase the volume of the tone without causing tension in the throat or clenching the jaw, making sure the posture is in check. After raising the volume, slowly come back to the original level. The resistance felt in the body during the volume increase can be attributed to the compression effect. Another example of compressed air is what happens when you cough or laugh suddenly. A good exercise to experience compression is to try a sudden laugh like ‘Haa’ and then continue that sound into a sustained tone on a particular pitch.

If you work on getting the compression going whenever you need, you can then working on balancing that with the right amount of air. Make sure that the sternum and chest are upright. This has to be discovered by each student carefully and patiently. Stamina and balance have to be built gradually over a period of time. The student has to take time to know his or her body, understand what it takes to produce a particular tone and understand the complicated process of re-alignment to strengthen or balance the tone. It is indeed a personal journey for every singer!

Now we come to the artistic nature of breath control...Assuming you have a good ear and a good sense of pitch, your body actually needs no help from you physically to produce a tone with the intended pitch. I actually found this fascinating. The length and thickness of vocal folds determine the pitch of the tone, and in turn are tuned by the inner ear. The inner ear actually drives the whole action. “Trying’ to reach for a note with your throat and tightening up , is not needed. This is one example of how ‘not doing’ is actually what is needed.

Did you also know that expansive deep breathing makes the body more attune to emotional and physical sensations as well? There is a direct correlation between emotions and the breathing process and in turn the singing process. If you are a person who likes to control your emotions and keep them under the surface, constantly shutting down your breathing to maintain self-control, you might actually be inhibiting or training your body muscles to become dormant. This also creates chronic tension and affects your respiratory muscles. Sometimes, students tend to focus on the technical aspects and put off the emotional aspect of presentation, to the last stage of training. It should actually be other other way around. Emotions get your body going and help to align the right physical processes in place in preparation for singing!

 

Voice Culture – An open throat – Part 7

 
In our previous article, we established the processes involved in breathing and how a good understanding of breathing anatomy could help a singer maximize their potential.

In order to allow air to flow out swiftly and smoothly, we need to ensure that the path from the lungs to the mouth and nose are free from resistance and tension.

When air is expelled from the lungs it rises up the trachea or wind pipe and runs into the larynx, also known as the voice box where the vocal cords are housed. This causes the vocal folds to vibrate or buzz and the sound is created by the ‘chopped up’ air stream. It isn’t the impact of the folds coming together that produces the sound, rather the modulation of the airstream.

Technically, ‘opening the throat’ refers to a technique whereby the pharyngeal space is increased. This involves raising the soft palate (the back of the roof of the mouth), lowering the larynx and assuming ideal positions of articulators such as the jaw, lip and tongue, as well as shaping of mouth and use of facial muscles.

The expression also refers to the sensation of freedom that one experiences during good singing. This helps avoid constriction and tension that would otherwise stifle the tone. The desired output with an open throat is a pure rich, vibrant and warm tone that is well balanced, even and consistent. Additionally, if singing is done with an open and relaxed acoustical space, the singer will be able to traverse the scales smoothly without breaks.

There are 3 direction in which the throat could be made more ‘open’.

1) The upwards space can be increased by lifting the soft palate. One could achieve this by assuming an expression of a ‘sudden pleasant surprise’ or a sensation of what happens when you let out a sudden gasp. Sometimes it helps to assume a soft chewing position while singing to unlock the jaw and allow it to remain flexible.

2) The lower space can be increased by the keeping the larynx low and keeping the root of the tongue from depressing on the larynx. A good experiment is to find and place your fingers on the front of your neck where your Adam’s apple would lie, a slight bump. As you traverse the scale from low to high, check for any movement in this bump. If you are straining, most probably you will see the larynx rise. Try to check for the rise of the larynx while singing and make an effort to keep it in the normal position as much as possible. Keeping the eyes wide and lifting the eyebrows helps with this. Another exercise is to position the throat in readiness to utter the sound ‘uh’ as in ‘duh’, it helps to keep the throat open as well.

3) Backwards – Sometimes visual imagery helps to aid with the increase of space in the back of the throat. Imagine that you are pulling the breath from above, not ‘pushing’, upwards from the bottom of your pelvic floor into a space behind you and then releasing it to the audience in front of you. Imagine the breath taking on the path of a ‘question mark’. This visualization helps to not only increase the throat space but also allows the vocal cords to vibrate freely and alter freely according to the pitch and reduces tension.

The jaw and tongue tend to cause resistance to the flow of air and should be maintained in the correct position and out of the way. A helpful hint is to allow the articulation to arise from the tip of the tongue and not from the back of the mouth. This would allow the tongue to stay in the front and prevent bunching up of the tongue at the base which would otherwise affect the larynx. The resting position of the tip of the tongue is forward, just below the lower front teeth. Of course, it may rise and move position to articulate some sounds and consonants but it should be kept forward as much as possible.

In Carnatic music, there are specific rhythm or laya exercises that can help with take the role of ‘tongue twisters’. These rhythmic syllables could only be articulated correctly with the optimum tongue position and will serve as a good practice routine to train the tongue to do as bid.

The jaw should remain relaxed and flexible. The way to approach articulation is outlined in this simple exercise. Put your knuckles in your mouth and try to speak. Now remove them but continue to speak as if they were still there. The jaw needs to move only as much as it would during talking, there is absolutely no difference. Singing does not require dramatic movements of the jaw and mouth.

 

Voice Culture – The nasal twang and resonance – Part 8

 
Vocal resonation refers to the process by which the basic sound produced by the buzzing sound of the vocal cords vibration is enhanced in timbre or intensity by the air-filled cavities through which it passes on its way to the outside air. The actual resonance of sound produced by the singer or the complex tone that a listener perceives is different from the sensation of resonation that the singer feels internally such as the chest, nasal area , sinus and head cavities. The sensations that the singer feels in the various parts of the vocal anatomy is actually termed ‘sympathetic vibration’. These sensations can however serve as a very useful guide to the singer to achieve resonance balance. These sensations or sympathetic vibrations vary from person to person but by understanding one’s own body, it is possible to fine tune the resonant tone produced.

An ideal tone is one that is balanced (between all resonating cavities) free flowing, (no tensions or restrictions) resonant (with all overtones present and has a ring) , pure (the timbre is not contrived) and is supported by good and steady breath pressure. It is also defined by good clean articulation.

A singer should have the ability to analyze and understand their own body and the relation to the quality of tone produced. For example, it might be good to experiment with the sensation felt when the tone is made more nasal , or more breathy or somewhere in between. Also, the sound heard by others is very different from the sound that the singer themselves perceives when singing. It is a good practice to make a recording and observe the tonal quality and make adjustments so that the voice sounds resonant and you can hear a ‘healthy’ ring or twang in the tone.

In order to sing with a good tone, it is important for any singer to understand the various resonant cavities in the vocal tract and the sensations associated with that.

Taking a look at your speech habits is also relevant to improving the tone in singing. If you have the habit of talking in a monotone, without any resonance, it can affect your voice adversely as well. If you feel you are missing out on resonance when speaking, try to talk with an open throat, add a ‘hum’ component to your tone and support your sound with your breath. Imagine saying the word ‘mmhmm’ as when agreeing to something. Try to bring that sensation in your other words as well, this helps move the sound of your throat and more forward into your mask or nasal/eyes area.

It is important to note that posture, open throat , breath control and support are very important in contributing to resonance. Refer previous articles on this topic.

A good exercise to help discover the various resonant cavities is to practice the ‘siren’. Place your hand in your chest and make a sliding ‘oooooo’ sound from your lower chest voice up into your head voice and try to imagining pulling the sound from above rather than pushing from below. Keep your jaw loose and notice where your feel the vibrations. It should change places from your sternum or chest, through your mouth and nasal area and then through your upper head. You have to ensure your breath is continuous without breaks. After this one could try humming on various notes from the bottom end of the scale to higher pitches. It is important to ensure that the vibration is NOT felt at the throat but rather higher up near the teeth, nose and head. It is important to maintain a steady breath flow, maintain an open throat and not push the air. Once humming feels comfortable, you could try alternating between a hum and a vowel. Finally try to sing a whole song on a ‘hum’ . This is a powerful exercise and is known to perform wonders if practiced in the right manner.

The goal is then to make sure that these sensations persist when singing as well. Being able to feel the buzzing or humming sensation when singing , is a very important factor to producing a well rounded tone. This would also help increase the breath control and stamina.

 

Voice Culture – Good Articulation – Part 9

 
It is important for any singer to have a goal in mind when singing, usually to communicate a feeling or meaning to the listener or even to evoke a certain response. In this regard, good articulation plays a key role in helping the singer communicate their ideas effectively to the audience.

Articulation primarily refers to the act of producing sounds (particularly consonants) in order to form words. These involve the muscles of the tongue, lip, cheeks, soft palate and jaw.

In Carnatic music, singers are required to sing compositions written in various languages. It is essential to have a understand of the lyrics and their structure when singing to be able to communicate and sing effectively. This also helps in the breath control process, if the mind has an idea of the words included in a phrase, the body automatically is able to regulate the correct intake of air to the sing the phrase effectively without running out of air.

Good diction requires the crisp , clear pronounciation of consonants especially. Sometimes, singers get so caught up in their emotions that they inadvertently introduce some amount of distortion. A good way to keep this in check is to record yourself and make sure this doesn’t happen.

Another problem students face when articulating is to try to do something totally different when singing compared to talking. Example is trying to make big movements with their mouths, attempting to push or punch out the words, rather than just articulate freely as one would while talking.

Its better to go with the instinct to communicate rather than put too much thought into the sound. Also, speaking the phrases first before singing them help immensely.

Here is a helpful guide:

1) Jaw should be relaxed, wrapped up and back. The jaw should neither be too low or clenched tightly. It helps to do chewing motions while humming or singing small phrases to unclench the jaw if this problem exists.

2) Cheeks should be lifted under the eyes, as in a sudden expression of surprise. This helps the soft palate rise as well.

3) Soft Palate should be high and wide.

4) Mouth should be rounded.

5) Tip of the tongue should always have its resting position at the bottom of the front teeth. For good articulation, the tongue should move minimally. Tongue twisters are helpful for ‘taming’ the tongue. In Carnatic music, there are rhythmic exercises stressing the various syllables which are immensely helpful in this aspect.

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