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My Approach to Vocal Principles

I have been asked many times over the years to share my thoughts about the process of singing in one of my newsletters. I have decided to do so in this month’s newsletter. There are many different ways to explain this remarkable process. Some people prefer a more technical, pedagogic approach, focusing on what each part of the instrument is doing physically, while others might use a more imaginary world to talk about the feelings they want their students to become familiar with as they sing. Know that there are other equally valid ways of teaching the art of singing, the technical side of our art form. And I’m sure everyone will agree that the most important element between teacher and singer is phenomenal communication and rapport. Without that element, real knowledge and understanding is difficult to achieve. So without further ado, I will plunge in and tell you how I see, hear, and feel this process take place.

For me it is very important to break the singing process into its holistic components. For me and how I approach teaching, there are five elements that need to be achieved and become habit technically, before one can move on to the emotional portrayal of a character.

They are:

  • Create the proper physical space in which the physics of sound can occur naturally.
  • Understand the process of breath within that space and how little it takes to make sound.
  • Make sound without distorting or adjusting the first two elements.
  • The physics of sound tell us that the higher the pitch the faster the frequency moves, and the lower the pitch the slower it moves, so it is important to make vowel modifications to accommodate these physics phenomena.
  • Most consonants are not voiced. That means that the sound travels best through vowels.

“No voice teacher can be all things to all people. You have to gain information from whatever sources you can. You have to listen.” — Rene Fleming

When carried out properly, these few principles allow what we call “the voice” to come through you, rather than from you. We have to allow the sound, rather than try to make a sound. For me, it is more about letting the auto-pilot system of singing run, once you have the basic principles in place. Listening to oneself most times creates unnecessary and unhealthy vocal habits. Physics tells us that what we hear as we sing is not the same as what the audience hears. Getting used to not listening is essential, as far as I am concerned. It is far better, in my opinion, to create out there—using your imagination—what you see, hear, and feel as you observe the process that occurs physically. This will help keep you from trying to replicate in your throat—by tightening muscles and pushing air—the process which occurs as you apply this technique, which will allow your unique and complete sound to resonate naturally. As always, please remember that these are my personal opinions and observations about technique and singing.

Let me elaborate on the components I mentioned above.
#1 – Everyone talks about singing with an open throat. What exactly does that mean, how does that occur, and why is that important in singing? Remember that we are talking about creating the space in which the physics of sound takes place. Try this. With your thumb pointed down, place your two forefingers just between your front teeth, leaving the tongue touching the back of the bottom teeth. If you are not accustomed to opening the back part of the mouth and jaw, it might feel a bit tight and unnatural at first as you do this. You might notice, as you move from the front to the back part of the mouth, that your soft palate is lifted naturally. You have not made it happen, it is just part of what occurs naturally when you release your jaw, and not your chin. The space you have created in the back of your mouth might feel huge. Using the fingers of your other hand, notice how the jaw moves as you put the two fingers between your front teeth, always being sure to leave your tongue touching the bottom teeth. Take time to watch in the mirror, because you will see that your mouth is not actually open that much, even though it may feel like it is. This position creates a throat that is open naturally in the proper manner. One can never “make” an open throat or try to hold your throat open, because that causes the wrong type of physical tension somewhere where it shouldn’t be. Practice this simple process for awhile, take a break, then try it again, each time observing the process, and taking notice of as much as possible about the physical sensations. Try creating this same sensation without using your fingers. To help you get out of trying to “make this happen” in your throat, imagine what it might look, sound, and feel like, if you made this into an imaginary scene, instead of becoming fixated on how to make it happen physically. Imagine a cartoon with a large cave in it. It can be any color, size, and shape, and can be made out of any material that works for you. Notice that toward the back of this cave, there is a huge round hole that seems to go down forever; you can’t see the bottom of it. The rounded wall at the end of this cave is just beyond this hole. Put your fingers in between your teeth as before, and imagine the cave that you have created in your imagination as you physically feel the opening of your throat, and notice the huge back space just beyond the hole of this cave. Once again remove your fingers and recreate this space physically only this time, using only your imaginary cave. This works because of our mind/body connection. What we think in our minds happens physically within us. And because it is a picture we see, hear and feel in our minds, we don’t get caught up in trying to make the muscles in our mouths and throats do something unnatural. Creating this open throat allows the vocal apparatus the freedom to work automatically. It also opens one of the biggest resonators we have that lies just above the voice box.

“Certain young singers take in an enormous breath, stiffening every muscle in order to hold the air, thus depriving their muscles of all elasticity.” — Luisa Tetrazzini

#2 – Breath is everything in singing. It is the energy that sets the vocal folds in motion and what makes sound. Managing breath is for me the biggest job a singer has. And remember that I said it takes almost no breath to sing? Most singers tank up or try to fill their lungs with air by sucking as much as they can down their throats or breathing through their nose. Try that now. You will feel the top part of your throat close down and tighten. You might notice that your abdomen and chest become tight and held as well. And your body stays that way when you begin to sing. Instead try this: create the correct singing position as we discussed in #1 above. Leaveing your fingers just inside your mouth with your thumb turned down, take a slow, wide, soft, peaceful breath that you feel moving over the whole tongue, the inside of your cheeks passing over the roof of your mouth and over the hole in your throat as it finely and gently curls touching the back of your mouth, throat and soft palate. It feels like you are breathing in slow motion; barely taking in any breath. It almost feels like a soft curtain being blown into the room or perhaps an animated Disney breeze that we can see because it is a cartoon, which when it crosses the hole and reaches the back of the cave, curls softly upward and then leaves in the same slow, soft way it entered. Do this several times. You can notice that your throat is not closing down, but staying in exactly the same position. Notice that your body remains relaxed as it responds by moving in and out with each in and exhale and feels relaxed right down to where your legs begin. This amount of slow motion breath is the perfect amount to sing with. Practice this several times, softly, slowly, feeling the coolness of the small breath move in and out without stopping. It is one action. There is no sound to it. There is no pause between the two. Yes, that is enough breath to sing with.

#3 – Select a note in the lower middle portion of your range. Now without moving any of the parts, especially closing the throat, allow that slow motion, small, peaceful, wide breath in and as it reaches the back wall of the cave and you can feel it touch the back wall of the cave and without stopping to adjust or listen, make the pitch which is already in your ear because you have just played it. Notice how quickly and completely you engage the sound. Notice what the effect is in your body. This is not so easy to do so practice it a few times, take a break and try it again by setting up the process first. You might notice that your first inclination is to stop the breath before you make that pitch to make sure you have it in your ear and to get ready to listen and judge it. If that happens look at and feel it as it happens. Try it again with the intention of not stopping before making the note. How does this work for you? If the note is played before we sing, our brains have it memorized so we don’t have to think about it anymore, it just happens. It’s part of that automatic pilot thing. And I hope you recognize that we cannot think and do at the same time. So think about what you want to do and then do it. Once you have the hang of not stopping the breath before making a pitch, try moving the voice once it is properly engaged. Do a 5 note scale up and back without adjusting anything keeping your focus only on where you engaged breath which is a wide “x marks the spot”. Notice as you engage sound which happens just before the exhale would happen, how you feel a small amount of pressure from the air wanting to escape. Notice how your body responds. You can feel the relaxed pressure of the air in your body. You will have a great desire to drive the breath up to where you hear and feel the resonance of the pitch. Resist!! Vocal chords are in your throat not up in your head. Breath is in your lungs and stopped by the glottal, it does not stay compressed if you push air against where you are feeling resonance or the pitch. Incorporating this new method, your throat and body remain relaxed, your air is properly compressed and stays in one place as the sound, notes, resonance and pitches move around inside of us. That is only for you to observe. Your job is to manage breath.

“When sound strikes a surface, some of it is absorbed, some of it is reflected, and some of it is transmitted through the surface. Dense surfaces, for the most part, will isolate sound well, but reflect sound back into the room. Porous surfaces, for the most part, will absorb sound well, but will not isolate.” — The Physics of Sound

#4 – Now that you have a small taste of how this might work, let’s talk about moving up to the highest and down to the lowest registers. Because of the physics of sound, we know that the higher the pitch the faster the frequency of vibration and vice versa. So it stands to reason that trying to put a big fat vowel on a higher pitch won’t work because it will be too unwieldy, big and heavy to hold there. And like wise trying to make a thin, driven vowel on the bottom doesn’t allow the breath to support this big, slow moving mass. This is where vowel modification comes in. As the notes move higher on the scale, we need to see in our imaginations at the imaginary “x marks the spot” place, a big fat vowel like “awh” morphing into more of an “uh” shape allowing whatever the words are to fit into that shape as we move from the middle range to the upper range and back to the “awh” space when we return to the middle and bottom of our vocal range. This “uh” shape is not pulled down into you’re your throat, but is made in the same place as the “awh” vowel like saying the word awful again at where “x makes the spot”. To me it feels like the “awh” vowels fill a half circle sitting just at the back side of where the hole in the throat is, all the way across, and up and over from side to side of the soft palate. Making this adjustment or vowel modification will match up the frequency of pitch with the shape of the vowel. Think of the vowel standing on the shoulders of the pitch. They have to be the same size and weight in order to be successful. You might notice that the breath feels stronger when singing higher pitches. That is because it has organized itself to match the fast frequency of the pitch and the ”uh” shape the vowels are placed in. The vowels and the frequency of the pitches have to be the same if they want to work together. Likewise, when moving the pitches down, often because we don’t hear that much sound coming out and others might be saying so too, we tend to drive the breath against the sound manually. The sound may fall down into our throats as well. The idea for me is that whether singing higher or lower pitches, the process emanates from exactly the same place using the same process of space and breath. The physics of sound tell us that lower pitches move at a much slower frequency so vowels and breath have to match that as well. The vowel shape of “awh”, like in the word awful works for me. It is not made down in your throat but rather as I mentioned above. As the pitches get lower, I find that there is plenty of breath which matches the slowness of the vibration of the sound if one thinks about stretching out whatever vowel you are singing making it as wide as it needs to feel comfortable and sustainable and see that take place in your imagination. It might even feel as if its width needs to, in your imagination, move outside the perimeters of your physical head, just under where your ears are. If I imagine making the vowels just beyond the hole at the back of my cave where there is a flexible structure shaped like in a half moon that holds the vowels and it can stretch automatically as I move from an “awh” vowel in the lower and middle part of my voice to an “uh” shaped vowel as I move into the passaggio and upper range by simply adjusting the vowels of the words to fit those two shapes, it allows me to easily focus on and manage breath.. This morphing “x marks the spot location” can be stretched in either direction up and down or by lengthening the width sideways, in accordance with the demands of the frequency of the pitch. I simply watch the process as I stand and observe from where “x marks the spot” in my imagination. I don’t try to make it happen.

“Words fashioned with somewhat over precise diction are like shapes turned out by a cookie cutter.” — Peter De Vries

#5 – How would it work for you if you thought of putting your lips back where the imaginary hole in the cave is? Create this picture in your imagination. You have made a slit just in front of each ear, slipped your lips through to the other side, attached ear pieces like on glasses to fit over your ears to help hold these lips in place. Now think about using those lips to pronounce with. In this new configuration, they can never allow your jaw to shut down. The back of the cave always stays lose and open. Think of your jaw as the springboard for enunciation. Have you ever noticed that the really great singers with wonderful vocal technique and sound rarely overuse their lips to enunciate? Don’t you wonder how that works? Well, now you know the secret. The most amazing diction is accomplished by using this process. The consonant is made quickly and strongly which gets you settled strongly on the vowel on which sound can be made. Words are important. Great diction is not about mush mouth, or sloppy, unformed vowels and consonants, but by using this process on purpose. Give it a try. It allows you to make fast consonants and long beautiful vowels without using diphthongs’ or rushing to the next consonant to help you hold the pitch in place instead of using breath. Breath needs to be free to do that work. Want a long bel canto phrase? This is how it is accomplished. If you want to test it, try saying “my” using your lips to make a strong “m” sound and going straight to the diphthong. You will feel tightness at the top of your throat and in your diaphragm area that throws the whole natural process of managing breath and making sound impossible. Not what you want.

“The unity of breath, alignment, and word is like three children playing in a ring...If one lets go, all become helpless.” — Giovanni Battista Lamperti

Well, I hope that those of you who have asked me for this information over the years are now satisfied. If you have questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me. And again I say, this is only my opinion and my way of how to put this process in place. There are many different ways to describe and teach this process, whether that is using more technical terms, or different physical/muscular practices, to using your imagination, as I do. Everyone learns differently, and what is really important is finding a teacher with whom you have great rapport and who speaks your language.

As a former singer myself, I have had many wonderful teachers who have helped give me the pieces to this puzzle, so that I could put it together in a way that made sense to me. Experience is still the best teacher. It’s in the doing that you discover the right answer for yourself.

Avanti, and ciao until next time,

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