Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
There have been so many great books published in the last ten years, it is hard to keep up with them all. “What Every Singer Needs to Know About the Body” has been sitting on my bookshelf for a while now waiting to be read. I was skimming through it this week, and came across this great excerpt that aligns with some of the ideas I’ve been addressing lately.
My philosophy is that all exercises, imagery, and words, can be beneficial. If it works, go for it! However, when an image, exercise, or other directive does not work, I believe it is important for teachers to understand why it may not be working. Then they can use their knowledge of biomechanics to make appropriate adjustments. In pages 191-193, the authors discuss “Common Resonance Images and their Pitfalls”:
“Imagery is convenient. Images act as shorthand for a complex set of movements and sensations. As singers, we often have a strong sensation, both aural and kinesthetic, of what works in our own bodies. Our images make perfect sense to us. Unfortunately, sometimes our images don’t make sense to other people. They may help some people. However, for other people our images may be confusing. We must think very carefully about the possible misinterpretations of the images we use.
Lofting a Parachute in the Back at the Throat
It is tempting to think that the breath flow from the lungs can assist in lofting the soft palate from below, as this image implies. However, the breath flow has nothing to do with this movement. The soft palate is lifted and stretched by the levator veli palatini and tensor veli palatini muscles from above with no relation to airflow.
Feeling as if You Could Swallow a Grapefruit
Many singers strive to create more space in the vocal tract to improve resonance. The only way to increase the space is to release the pharyngeal muscles if they are constricted, to release the tongue to its naturally forward state, to raise the soft palate (which makes the pharynx taller), or to lower the larynx (which lengthens and widens the lower pharynx). Any resonance image that involves swallowing can cause the pharyngeal constrictors to narrow the throat and the tongue to push back. Also, as you saw in the video of the diva and the emcee, the size and shape of the throat changes constantly as we sing. Keeping at a fixed opening would lead to a stilted, unnatural sound.
Holding an Egg at the Back of Your Mouth
This is intended to help singers lift the soft palate and release the back of the tongue to make more space. The implication is that something is necessary to prop up the soft palate. Imagining a space of a certain shape and dimension also discourages differentiation between vowels. This type of image can be especially detrimental for singers with a strong gag reflex.
Placement in the Mask
The face is made of lots of small muscles attached to the bones of the skull and jaw. Encouraging singers to think of the face as a “mask” inhibits the coordinated movements of facial expression. Resonance occurs in the spaces of the vocal tract. The sound wave that reaches the outside air transmits through air in the spaces, not the bones and muscles of the face. Some of the higher overtones in a musical tone have small enough wave lengths to penetrate into the bones and soft tissues of the skull. These sympathetic vibrations do not transmit to the outside air; however,
they give singers excellent information. Still, the idea of “placing the tone” in any specific location can lead to inflexible, unnatural resonance, especially if you are instructing another singer to imitate your sensations. The perception of sympathetic vibrations is distinct for each singer. When producing the optimal sound, one singer might feel vibration in the cheek bones and another might feel vibration in the forehead. Within one singer’s range, those sensations might vary between low and high registers. Each individual singer can explore all the movable structures of resonance and find the best sound. From then on, the associated sensations may be used as a guide to optimal resonance for that singer.
Imagining a Golf Ball Between Your Upper and Lower Molars
This image promotes the idea that the jaw must always be open wide to create a resonant sound. In fact, the jaw moves constantly as we articulate vowels and consonants and in some parts of the range, optimal resonance occurs when the jaw movers are at rest. It is vital to map the dynamic equilibrium between the jaw openers and the jaw closers so that the jaw is free to find the appropriate degree of openness for resonance and articulation. Trying to create space between the molars encourages singers to “drop” the jaw straight down. Forcing the jaw open by inserting any object, even an imaginary one, will not cure co-contraction in the jaw movers.
“Drop” the Jaw
The jaw does not drop straight down when it opens. It swings back and down as the condyle pivots at the TM]. With healthy jaw opening, the distance between front teeth will be taller than the distance between the molars. Even with the widest opening, you would never have enough space between your molars for a golf ball.
Lifting the Cheekbones
This image is intended to aid in lifting the soft palate. However, it is impossible to lift the cheekbones independently from the rest of the skull. In addition, there is no connection between the facial muscles on the surface of the skull and the muscles that lift the soft palate.” (Malde, Allen, Zeller, p. 191-193)
These are all great points that align with past posts on the blog. It is important to remember that a lot of these images come from a time when we lacked the technology to fully understand the biomechanics and acoustics behind vocal production. Health care providers have evolved their techniques with time. As practitioners who also work with the human body in ways that can be beneficial as well as harmful, it is important to always be open to information that challenges our confirmation bias. The payoff for me has always better results, in a shorter amount of time, with happier students. To me, that is a win-win all the way around.
Please feel free to comment below and add to the conversation. If you are not yet following the blog, please sign up to ensure you receive each new post in your email.
Thanks for reading and have a great week of teaching!
Matt Edwards is an Associate Professor of Voice/Coordinator of Musical Theatre Voice 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