In an episode of the TV show, Frasier, Niles Crane talks about a paper he wrote about a narcisisstic opera singer. The title of the paper was “Mi, Mi, Mi, Mi, Mi” (That’s pronounced ‘Me, Me, Me, Me, Me’). Get it?
It brings to mind the question of why vocal teachers have students doing such weird stuff in the lessons. We might be told to stick our tongue out, make a cackling noise like a witch, sing baby syllables such as ‘goo’, try to sound like a dope, hiss like a snake (do snakes even hiss?), or make a motorboat noise by flapping our lips.
People don’t generally hiss like snakes, or make baby noises during songs. What good is this stuff? Why would a vocal teacher have us doing this stuff?
Your Singing Teacher Is Trying To Trick You (In A Good Way), That’s Why
Put your hand down flat, on a table (palm down). Lift up just your index finger, and then drop it down. Now, just your middle finger. Now ring. Now pinkie. If you play piano, or guitar (or any instrument that involves finger coordination), this might be pretty easy. But many of you will find that other fingers want to move when you’re just trying to move one.
If you wanted to get good at the finger lifty thing, you’d practice, and eventually learn to lift only the finger that needs lifting at that moment. And that’s the way learning most instruments is. It’s in good part about learning how to make only the movements you need to make, and getting rid of the unnecessary movements.
Good, Healthy Singing Is Largely About Coordination, Balance, & Relaxation
When we sing, lots of things are involved. We’ve got our breath management — how much to let out, and how much to hold back (support), and it’s different for different notes and styles. We’ve got the amount of vocal cord closure (regular singing has a fair amount of closure, but in falsetto, the vocal folds separate more, and the sound becomes ‘airy’, or ‘breathy’). We’ve got where the voice resonates in all the holes and spaces in our heads. We’ve got the muscles in our face, jaw and tongue, and external to our throat.
As you sing higher, the balance between the air, and the vocal cord closure changes. Get the balance wrong, and the sound chokes off, or the vocal cords get too much air and come apart, resulting in your voice flipping into a yodeling sound. Get the balance right, and you smoothly go up into higher notes, with little indication that you’ve moved into a new range.
The challenge is coordinating the air and the closure, without other factors getting in the way.
Tension & Relaxation In Singing
For instance, I’ve had a problem with tensing various throat muscles I don’t need to tense, as I go higher (my larynx rises and sometimes the back of my tongue tenses). That tension makes it more difficult to maintain good closure, and so my range is limited. It’s like trying to sing with someone grabbing your throat.
I just need a tiny bit of tension in the vocal folds, to maintain closure, and some breath related tension (more support as the notes get higher). The problem is, my body has equated going higher with all kids of tension. I need to train that out.
So, how do I do that?
Letting Singing Tension Go
Well, one way is for my body to get used to just the sensations of closure, with proper breath support (and compression, which we haven’t talked about). Once I hone in on that sensation, I can concentrate on singing higher and maintaining only that tension. I let the rest go.
It’s just like the finger lifting exercise. Once I get familiar with what it feels like to lift only my pinky, I can practice lifting just my pinky.
And this is where the tricks come in.
Divide & Conquer
Your vocal teacher is probably giving you exercises that isolate one or two of the components of singing, so you’ll know what that feels like. Hissing like a snake isolates the feeling of good breath support. Cackling like a witch forces the sound to resonate in places that are good for producing certain vocal effects, such as distortion. Sounding like a dope forces the larynx to lower (unnecessarily raising the larynx while going up a scale is one of the main ways singers introduce unneeded tension). The ‘goo’ sound naturally creates closure (plus it’s kind of dopey sounding, so it probably promotes a lowered, or neutral larynx, as well). Singing with your tongue out, isolates any tension you might have at the back of the tongue, and if it’s isolated, you can more easily focus on letting it go.
The smarter you get about what these exercises do, the more quickly you’ll get better.
For instance, if you have a passage where your larynx raises, and the sound chokes off, you can practice singing it sounding dopey, or as if you’re almost yawning. That way, you can isolate the feeling of a lowered larynx. Then, you can go back to singing it ‘normally’, but focus on adding that lowered larynx sensation.