My instrument of choice? The voice
I was born like this, I had no choice.
I was born with the gift of a golden voice.
– L. Cohen and J. Warnes
Some people, as Leonard Cohen sings, are “born with the gift of a golden voice.” Others, well, Coleridge had them in mind when he wrote, “Swans sing before they die; ’twere no bad thing should certain persons die before they sing.” But blessed or not, it seems everyone can learn to improve their singing.
The voice is akin to any other wind instrument: It works when air vibrates through a resonating chamber. With the voice, breath from the lungs sets the vocal cords in motion to produce sound. This sound is amplified and colored by the resonating spaces in the throat, mouth and nose.
So if we’ve got all the necessary parts and air is still free, why can’t we all just rise up singing?
Tuneful singing requires a paradoxical relaxed control of both breath and resonators. The trick is to move air through your instrument with consciousness, not coercion.
Though the ebb and flow of our breathing is typically on autopilot, voice students learn to take control of the myriad organs and muscles required to breathe – trachea, lungs, diaphragm, abs, ribs and their surrounding muscles. When you know how to breathe, you can influence the quality and color of your sound, how high and low you can sing, your ability to move between soft and loud, and your expressiveness.
“I’m in tune, right in tune, and I’m gonna tune, right in on you.” Roger Daltrey is in tune mainly because his voice is resonating well. When the vocal cords vibrate, the air in the resonating chambers moves. This creates overtones that enrich the original sound produced by the vocal cords. If air cannot move freely in the resonating spaces – say your throat is tight – you’ll get few overtones, and you’re notes will sound flat.
Voice students learn to enhance the quality of their tone by working with their resonators. Changing the size and shape of your mouth by using your jaw, cheeks, lips and tongue, for example, changes your tone.
The main difference between singing and playing a wind instrument is that singers get to use words to help convey meaning and emotion. Techniques for clear enunciation are not reserved for opera singers. Whether or not a singer prefers to flip his Rs, he can still practice ways to ensure that the listener hears not “the girl with colitis goes by” but “the girl with kaleidoscope eyes.”
So how do voice students practice? Do they just turn on the radio and sing along? Not quite. Voice teacher Elissa Daly recommends a routine that begins with physical stretches to release tension in the face, jaw, neck and shoulders. Warm-up vocalizations follow. The session then centers on techniques such as singing arpeggios and octaves. Then comes breath work followed, at last, by song study.
When practicing, it’s best to wear a sense of humor and check your ego at the door. Then you can have fun as you make the sound of a motorboat and “mee meh mah moh moo” a bovine Gregorian chant. There goes art again, teaching humility.
Thanks to voice instructor Elissa Daly and voice student Ed Bussa for sharing their experiences with us.
Meadow DeVor is director of Tahoe Conservatory of Music. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ann Pelletier is a writer and student of music. She can be reached at email@example.com.