Imagine this. You walk into your first guitar lesson and the teacher hands you a piece of wood and some strings. By Mark Baxtor – VoiceLessons.com
He shows you a picture of a guitar and says, “Before we can begin, you’ll need to make yourself one of these.” Anxiety would surely be one of your emotions. What if you made a lousy guitar? Obviously, that would have a negative effect on your ability to learn. Unless you were already a skilled woodworker, your hopes of becoming the next Les Paul would be dashed. This scenario can be applied to your think about your voice. Before you can learn to sing, you have to build an instrument. It is a luxury to wrap yourself around a well-made guitar. All you need is the desire to learn and you’re well on your way to becoming a player. Unlike voices, instruments are ready to play. All of the pianos, drums, woodwind, brass and stringed instruments we use today are the result of centuries of refinement. But when it comes to singing, you are both the player and the instrument. Address these factors separately, and you’ll develop much faster.
The Law Abiding Singer
Some people are born with beautiful sounding instruments; most of us are not. Some people want to sing; some do not. It’s a spin of a wheel which combination of mind and body you fall into. Just to make life interesting, it seems we always long for the abilities we do not have. Therefore, the most common situation is that you desire to sing but have a less than desirable voice. Take heart; you can improve. The problem is that we tend to skip over the fundamentals in favor of performance tips. Before long, we ask for things the instrument can’t deliver . . . yet.
What makes for a great sounding voice are the same principles which make for a great sounding guitar. Every instrument can be reduced to just two components. There must be something that makes a sound, called a vibrator, and an area around the vibrator which colors the sound, known as the resonator. The size, shape and texture of these components are what determine the characteristics of an instrument. There are universal properties governing sound, so consistent we call them laws, which every instrument-builder strives to embrace. Singers should have the same agenda. It’s actually very simple, you’ll sound better if you obey the laws of sound.
Balooning Your Frequency
The strings on a guitar, the reed on a saxophone, the head on a drum are all examples of vibrators. Your vocal folds are the vibrators of the voice. They are thin membranes, right in the middle of your throat, which extend over the top of your windpipe. The best way to understand how the vocal folds work is to inflate a balloon and then stretch the neck to create a tiny slit at the opening. As air escapes, a high-pitched sound is produced. You can’t see it with the naked eye, but the walls inside the opening of the balloon are moving very rapidly.
The speed of a vibration is called the frequency. Vary the tension as you stretch the neck of the balloon, and you’ll change the frequency. We refer to different frequencies as pitches or notes. Notice how a small difference in tension produces a big change in pitch. Since the opening of a nine inch balloon is the same size as an adult’s vocal folds, the tiny movement required to change pitch is the same. Remember this the next time you’re beating yourself up to reach a high note.
The Six Foot Resinator
A vibrator alone is worthless without a resonator, which is why bands and orchestras don’t include balloon players. Resonators give instruments their tone. You don’t have to be a scientist to imagine a piano, guitar, drum or horn stuffed with towels. A resonator adds color by providing an empty air space around the vibrator. It’s that simple, and what’s true for an acoustic instrument is true for the voice. Cavities, like the windpipe, throat, mouth and nose, are all potential resonators. The bigger the space, the richer the tone. That’s why good stereos have big speaker cabinets and why grand pianos are at least six feet long. The more you create inside you the bigger your voice will sound.
The relationship between vibrator and resonator is also crucial. The less contact the two have the better. Guitar strings are suspended across the instrument, only touching at two very small points. The harp inside a piano floats on rubber bushings so it never touches the wood. There is a strip of cork which separates the mouth piece of a saxophone from the brass of the horn. Your larynx, too, should float inside your throat. Independence is what allows freedom of the vocal vibrator, increasing range, pitch accuracy and consistent tone (so your voice sounds big from top to bottom). The problem is that people have emotions which trigger muscles to shut down the resonators — guitars, pianos and saxophones do not. Here’s where training pays off.
We are creatures of habit. Culture, family, emotions and personality shape our behaviors until they become second nature. If singing is a part of your surroundings when you are young, chances are you will sing well. If not, your habits are most likely the problem. At first they seem necessary, but tendencies like tensing the jaw, tongue and throat, over-compensating air pressure or squeezing the eyes all compromise your instrument. Pitch change, for instance, should not show up anywhere on your face, neck, jaw or tongue. Your throat should remain relaxed, just as the wood on a guitar doesn’t care what note is being played. I’m not suggesting that releasing negative behaviors is easy, just necessary. If you’re willing to work, though, you can develop into an instrument that’s easy to play. Hey, if a balloon can change pitch without effort, so can you.
A simple exercise to gain independence begins by placing your finger on your tongue. Then, just as you would at the doctor’s office, say “AH.” Sustain the “AH” as long as you can. Keep it plain; don’t try to make it sound like singing. Now, with your finger still on the tongue, change the pitch of your “AH.” Try something lower first, then vocalize higher. Does the tongue wriggle around beneath your finger? Does your jaw want to move to help you change pitch? Did the quality of your “AH” change? Keep working until the answer to these questions is no.
So, what does all this science have to do with entertaining an audience? It’s simple. Musicians trust their instruments, most singers don’t. Any doubts you may have about your voice will show up in your singing. It’s too easy to become preoccupied on stage with the mechanics of pitch, breathing and projection; yet all an audience wants to hear is a song. Trusting the instrument allows a singer to be present, to dig into the emotion of the lyrics.
Just as every musician knows that a great instrument will allow them to soar, every singer should work toward becoming one. Be patient. Some vocal exercises seem silly or a waste of time. Remember that the process to make a guitar does not resemble playing one. The laws of sound apply to everyone, regardless of how old you are or how long you’ve been singing. This should be good news for all frustrated singers. Chances are you’ve been playing an inferior instrument. It means you can finally have the voice of your dreams. But first, you’ll have to build yourself a better instrument.
This article is from the Level 11 Media Archives – originally posted in 2001