The ability to sing is a human birthright, and something we start doing before we have words. As we grow older, this natural access to our voice narrows, often in response to our efforts to gain 'technique' and learn how to sing 'better'. The Alexander Technique can be an essential tool for recapturing the balance between ease and refinement. Here are a couple of ideas to play with that will get your inner songbird going.
1. Singing Is A Whole-Body Experience
The more trained a vocalist I work with, the more likely they are to have their attention concentrated on a small section of their body--their lips, tongue, jaw, soft-palette, and throat. It is necessary to focus on these areas when you are training in order to refine vowels, open up tone, get rid of pushing etc. The danger of this is that when focusing on these areas, we go dead to the rest of our body. It is my experience that when the whole body is set up well and the breath is moving with freedom, a lot of problems in the articulators and the complex mechanisms of the throat and mouth release on their own. Let's look at a couple of points that will help to expand this idea for you.
2. Support Is Everything--But Not the Support You Think
Singers are all about breath support. This sometimes mistakenly makes us try to push the breath out (usually tensing our abs, backs, and shoulders to do so), as if we have to squeeze our bodies tight to support the breath's movement. My wonderful teacher Liz at the Voice Lab likes to say that it is a misleading term--it is the breath that supports the voice, not our muscles that support our breath. If you tense to try and push breath out it actually results in trapping the flow of air and as a result the parts of the upper respiratory system engage to compensate. True breath support is a release that allows the breath to flow without restraint.
A support relationship that IS important is the way your body meets the ground. When you stand and sing, is the weight more in your heels or in your toes? The majority of people I work with have their weight committed backwards into their heels. This is a symptom of the whole body arching back, particularly the head. As a result, the muscles of the torso and legs tense to keep the body from falling backwards, constricting the breath and tightening the larynx and throat against each other. As an antidote for this, try relaxing your neck and letting your head float gently forward and up (easier said than done, you can see this blog to help), and let the weight shift slightly forward at your ankles until you feel some weight in the big toe-ball sides of your feet. Make sure you release your knees (try softening your inner thighs) a bit when you get there, or else you will feel as if you are falling forward. It also helps to have a supportive width to your feet--if your feet are too wide you won't feel any weight in the little toe side, if too narrow there will be no weight in the book toe. It can be amazing how a sound can transform with a better support relationship with the ground is achieved!
3. Breathing is Dimensional
Most of us know that we are trying to bring breath deep into our bodies when we sing. However, most of us try to primarily draw breath into our front. This often leads to us arching our body back (see point #2) and drawing breath shallowly into our chest in order to feel like it is going deep.
There is a better way. Many people are surprised to hear that a majority of of breathing room is not in our front, but in our back. There is simply more lung tissue there, and the 3 dimensional movement of the ribs actually favors the expansion of the back and sides rather than the rise and fall of the sternum experienced in the front. Allowing the ribs to gently swing in all three dimensions (a full circle around the body, as well as up and down) can provide an antidote to this, as long as you resist the temptation to arch to suck breath in. The bubble exercise is excellent for expanding our attention in this fashion.
4. Exhales Trigger Inhales
This one is potentially controversial and requires some nuance. When we are told to take a deep breath, we usually focus on the inhale. This attempt to pull breath in can activate the accessory muscles instead of the diaphragm and lead to some of the problems discussed in #3. The best way to activate the diaphragm is to exhale to the point where the diaphragm activates and 'does' the inhale for you. This can be a complex process and is best left to an experienced teacher, but once learned it should become an integral part of your vocal warm-up.
In performance, you can try playing with this in a simple way--before the first in-breath of your piece, simply gently exhale to make space for it. As you work breath to breath in your piece, making sure you aren't leaving a cushion of air as 'insurance' in your lungs at the end of each phrase will help you get fuller breath to support your next phrase.
5. Will Getting 'Serious' About Your Music Will Help You Sing Better?
Often, we think the reason we aren't progressing as a musician is because we aren't trying hard enough and we need to get 'serious'. Here's what getting serious leads to: a tight neck, jaw, back, and face and all of the problems seen in #1-4. If you lose touch with the primal joy of singing it is the first thing you must rediscover if you want to be the best vocalist you can be. This non-technical advice will reap copious technical rewards: your body will relax, your sound will immediately become fuller, easier, and richer.
Never let this be the last step: let it be the first.
Check Out Our Workshop for Musicians at the Old Town School of Folk Music
Thoughts on what is going on in the work and the world right now. Many posts to come.