Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
Last week I blogged about how you can use falsetto to free the male voice. This week I’m going to talk about how to modify that approach to clear up a singer’s diction.
To understand why this works, it is important to first understand how we swallow. When we eat, we break-up and moisten food with our jaw and tongue. When it is time to swallow, we move our tongue up and back as we lift our soft palate. This triggers the vocal folds to close and air pressure builds up beneath them pushing the larynx vertically as the epiglottis covers the entrance to the larynx. Finally, the tongue guides the food back into our esophagus, our constrictor muscles engage, and the bolus is guided down into our stomach. The video below includes animation along with an explanation of the process.
When we sing, we move our tongue and jaw to form vowels; some singers intentionally lift their soft palate while for others it happens as a result of forming the vowel. As the singer closes their vocal folds together for phonation, air pressure builds up beneath the folds which causes a vertical force on the larynx – all of which happens when swallowing. It is no wonder that singers will feel their tongue pulling back and their constrictor muscles engaging as they begin to sing – it is all part of the swallow reflex.
In many cases, when you encounter a strong swallow reflex, you will need to work on releasing constriction, jaw tension, and tongue tension. However, using head-voice/falsetto is an indirect approach that frequently produces great results. Because a breathy head-voice cannot be produced with closed vocal folds, the body cannot enter the pharyngeal phase of swallowing. By preventing the pharyngeal phase from occurring, the singer can learn how to produce vowels with freedom on the pitches of the song. The goal is for them to gradually increase the volume/intensity of their voice while maintaining that freedom.
For this approach, you will first need to establish a breathy, relaxed head-voice phonation on a hooty /u/. To find this sound, use a straw with protruded lips while thinking of an /u/ in the mouth. Have the student hold their palm in front of the opposite end of the straw and cue them to “warm your palm with your /u/ vowel.” When they can do that, have them remove the straw while maintaining the fronted lips and generous airflow. Then try other vowels as needed.
Once the vocal folds are capable of producing a free head-voice, it is time to move on to text. Take a phrase of a song, for instance, “Caro mio ben.” Have the student sing the melody word-by-word in head-voice in the key they plan on performing in. Have the student listen closely to themselves and make adjustments to their articulators on each word. Slowly pick-up the tempo until the student can sing the phrase at full-tempo.
When the student can sing the phrase at full-tempo, it is time to incrementally increase the volume. Ask the student to identify the volume level of the sound they are making, between 1 and 10 (they will usually respond 2-3). Slowly increase the volume by 1-2 clicks at a time. If they hit a volume level where they begin to constrict, go backward one increment and bounce back and forth until the next click is free. Continue this process until the student can sing the phrase with freedom at full-volume and then move on to the next phrase.
This is a slow way of working, but the benefit is that you are teaching the student a way to troubleshoot on their own. In most cases, the student will find rapid improvement if they do the work daily.
Do you have similar exercises using head-voice? If so, please share below. If you are not yet following the blog, please submit your name and email address in the comment form and you will be added to the mailing list, ensuring you receive each new post in your email. If you enjoyed this tip, please consider sharing it online to help spread the word about functional voice training.
Also be sure to check out this summer’s line-up at the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute, which includes a special continuing education course with musical theatre vocal styles specialist Edrie Means-Weekly.
Thanks for reading and have a great week of teaching!
Matt Edwards is an Associate Professor of Voice/Director of Musical Theatre at Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, VA, and Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute. He is the author of “So You Want to Sing Rock ‘N Roll” and dozens of articles and book chapters on functional voice training for non-classical styles. For more information visit EdwardsVoice.com