Many aspiring singers take voice lessons to improve their vocal technique. We learn about breathing, resonance and how the vocal folds work for the style of singing we want to do. But what exactly is vocal technique? It’s simply “a way” to do something. I like to think of it as taking off layers of inefficient habits and buffing up the loveliness of the voice underneath. It puts a whole new spin on “polished” singing!
We each are born with a certain vocal instrument that radiates from our physical bodies, emotions and spirits. Physically, some people are more coordinated and have fewer physical issues, such as perhaps jaw or tongue tension, so their voices might be freer, stronger and more resonant. They are more in sync with acoustical law. Other folks need to undo habits that extend from ideas about vocal production. If you think about it, it really is the mind that sings or speaks. And the body serves and manifests those thoughts and intuitions.
There are three general areas of the voice that we look at in singing lessons (There are many, but these are just the main ones!): How we breathe. How we use the vocal folds and how we use the resonators. I’ll give an example of what would be a “technique” that a singer would need to work on if his or her approach is not resulting in a good sound.
The breath: In efficient vocal production, one’s inhale is greatly dependent on the quality of the exhale. As air fills the lungs, the ribs expand, and the diaphragm descends. You will notice the belly “pooching.” But what if when you inhale, the belly pulls in? This can be the case and indicates unnecessary abdominal tension. If you are holding in your abdominals on the inhale, you can’t get a full breath. So, in a lesson I might put someone on the table, and we would do the Alexander Technique, so the student begins to recognize that abdominal holding. We would also work to free the spine where the ribs attach so the ribs could be more responsive to the descending diaphragm.
The vocal folds: When we start singing or speaking, the diaphragm begins its upward ascent in tandem with the closing, vibrating vocal folds. What if, when someone begins singing or speaking, the voice is breathy all the time? The “vocal technique” is learning how much “good” torso tension or postural tone is needed to get those cords to adduct more cleanly so the breathiness is resolved. If someone is a “belter,” like in some Broadway singing or rock, that speech-like quality needs even more awareness of this physical “support.” Someone who’s too relaxed might need to learn the kind of physical energy needed to activate his sound. Someone who’s too tense might need to soften and/or pinpoint where in her torso she must “support.”
The resonators: Let’s say someone starts talking or singing and you can’t hear them because their sound is muffled. In a lesson, we would look at what the tongue is doing. A very strong muscle, the tongue can easily retract and block the throat when we start to sing. (Believe me, I know this one quite well!) The “vocal technique” would be to learn to keep the tip of the tongue forward, making all your vowels with a minimum amount of tension in the root. Another “technical” skill would be articulating all the words/consonants without a lot of tongue root and jaw tension or overwork.
So, you can view “vocal technique” as an “undoing” of big blockages so the voice becomes nimble, acoustically efficient and embodied. In singing lessons for kids and adults, you learn this delicate dance. It’s like the story of The Three Bears: You are Goldilocks and you must find “the way” that isn’t too tense or too relaxed. It needs to be “just right” for your body.