Welcome to Ms. Forte’s Technique Tuesday!
Your Voice is an intricate system containing many moving parts, and some that aren’t used to moving at all. The goal of voice lessons is to help you gain control over each aspect of the process of singing so that you can create the sound you want in a healthy way. Basically, I want to help you discover the muscles behind the mechanism that is your voice and how to control each of them so that you can tweak little things that make a big difference. Most people would be amazed at how simple changes in even one of the parts of this system can create a significant change in the sound you are making. So let’s get started:
First the system. Your voice mechanism is made up of 4 main parts.
- Breathing (it all starts here…Breath support and control)
- Phonation (vocal chords vibrate together and make sound as breath passes through them)
- Resonance (vocal tract—sound waves go into throat, mouth, head/nasal cavity and create “color” and “quality” of sound)
- Articulation—saying words (jaw, tongue, lips)
Right now I’m just talking about the basic parts of making sound come out your mouth. We aren’t even touching on the emotional side of acting/performing the song, the mental side of dealing with your own fears, or even the bigger physical side of how all the muscles in your body are interconnected and stretching your legs before singing is not really as ridiculous as it may sound. But I’m getting ahead of myself!
We are going to start with breathing, because while the system really is cyclical and each part definitely affects the others…I still find that if I can’t control my breathing, it doesn’t help near as much when I mess with the other aspects.
Breathing is typically an involuntary function, which means your brain does it without you consciously thinking about it. So when we start working on breathing when we sing, our brain tends to get a little overloaded cuz it’s just not used to us trying to actually THINK about our breathing. So start by just taking a little time to focus on your breath and feel what your body is doing. Where do you feel your breath going? What muscles (if any) do you feel engage? Does your chest move? Belly move? Shoulders move? Paying attention to what you feel now will help you figure out what you need to tweak when we get to the “it should feel like this.”
Anyone who has been involved with singing for almost any length of time has heard the term “Breathe from your Diaphragm.” I heard it in choirs, solo competitions, and basically any time I asked anyone for tips on how to sing better. Unfortunately, no one ever actually explained to me HOW to do that. (until college when I started taking voice lessons!) It doesn’t really surprise me that the majority of my students who are in choir or done some theatre or had any experience singing have all heard the term…but very few of them actually know what it means. In fact, most of them don’t even know what their diaphragm is! So, that’s why every first time student of mine gets an explanation for “breathe from your diaphragm” …cuz it annoyed me to no end when I was in jr high/high school. I mean, we all know we breathe into our lungs, right? Singers breath may be a little different but it’s not that different!! Why do we confuse people?
What is your diaphragm? And what does it have to do with breathing? Here’s my super basic explanation: Your diaphragm is a muscle that sits under your lungs and separates them from your stomach, your intestines, liver, yada, yada, all your internal organs. When you go to breathe your diaphragm pushes down and creates more space, which creates a vacuum and sucks air into your lungs. Basically, when you fill your lungs with air…they expand, like a balloon and your diaphragm pushes down on your stomach, intestines, liver, yada, yada, to get them out of the way. This is why you hear people talk about “breathing into your belly” or letting your stomach go out when you breathe in. Your lungs don’t go down that far into your stomach, but when you fill them up all the way, it pushes those lower organs out. Then when you go to exhale, the diaphragm pushes back up into its original position.
So basically, “breathe from your diaphragm” simply means “fill your lungs all the way up.” It sounds simple, but you would be surprised how many of us don’t utilize our full lung capacity. I mean, let’s be honest, how many of us really want to let our stomachs pooch out all the time? No way, we work really hard to keep that thing sucked in! This is usually where I give my little speech on why I don’t wear skin tight clothing to sing in! I don’t really wear much skin tight clothing anyway, but I’m definitely picky about what I wear to sing in, and I love empire waist stuff and flowy things that hide how big my middle gets when I’m filling up all the way. This is what I call Breath Support, how much air you are taking in, making sure you are getting all the way to bottom.
The other set of muscles we have to work when we are inhaling is our external intercostal muscles…not super important you remember the name, it just sounds cool and makes me feel smart and scientific. Again, it’s all about allowing the lungs room to expand. Your intercostal muscles are between your ribs and the external ones help to pull your rib cage up and out to all the lungs to expand. I like to use outside things to help me visualize this, like laying down and setting a book on my stomach and watching it go up when I breath in. Or even just putting my hand on the bottom of my ribs to make sure they are going out and not in!
Check out this video to see this in action: