Sing Small for a Bigger Sound


One of the easiest things for a singer to do is oversing.  Many, many singers have fallen victim to the lures of oversinging, particularly when performing with an orchestra in a larger space.  Since we can’t hear ourselves and truly know how much sound we are making, it is difficult to trust that what we are doing is enough.  Oversinging feels better to us as singers because we feel like we are really doing something to create the sound.  But the last thing we want to do is oversing – here is why.

When producing the voice, it is crucial that (1) the air is being held back from overblowing the vocal cords by resistance in the lower body and (2) too much air isn’t damming up underneath the cords, causing excess sub-glottal pressure.  When we oversing, we usually do so by pushing extra air through the vocal cords, overblowing them and increasing the sub-glottal pressure.  So, the act of trying to sing more loudly accomplishes exactly what isunhealthy for the voice.  But the issues don’t just stop there.  By overblowing the poor, little vocal cords, the throat tries to cope by narrowing, cutting down on vital resonance space and color.  The tongue tightens and bunches up in the back of the mouth, pulling the larynx upward and further shutting down resonance space and whitening the tone.  The jaw also tightens as part of this downward spiral of events.  It is difficult to maintain a higher soft palate under those circumstances, so that collapses.  With too much air coming through, a tight jaw and tongue and a low soft palate, the cords don’t have a chance of approximating well and correct ring in the voice is impossible, so that goes as well.  What is left is a pushed, possibly airy, unfocused, less colorful, tight sound that is actually significantly smaller in size.

Singers need to sing small!  Volume is not created at the level of the vocal cords.  Volume is created by resonance and ring.  It is through the use of the thin edges vs. the thick mass of the cords and having a gentle seal of the vocal cords after inhalation that the healthy, thin thread of sound is created that can then be amplified dramatically by the resonance chambers in the oro-pharynx and nasal cavities.  We need to sing easily at all times, never giving 100%.  That does not mean that we should not use our bodies and feel resistance.  We definitely should engage our abdominals, widen our lower backs and activate our pectorals to create the right breath resistance and keep the cords from being overblown.  But the functioning at the vocal cord level should be completely easy and effortless.  From there, we need to learn to maximize the resonance spaces and add ring, because it is these and these alone that add size and carrying power to the voice.

The other aspect of singing small is an important function is ring in the voice.  When ring or correct nasal resonance is present in the voice, it provides natural carrying power that cuts through an orchestra and allows any singer to be heard, even those with small voices.  It is like a miracle!  But healthy ring is a result of the correct functioning of the vocal cords and the oro-pharyngeal space.  It can not be forced into existence, but has to be trained into the voice with care.

When I was in college, we had a workshop on campus with several opera singers who were performing roles in an upcoming production with the state opera company.  It was wonderful to meet these singers and hear them speak about their experiences.  We even got to hear them each perform an aria.  A young mezzo-soprano doing a small secondary role in the opera had a great personality, obviously believed in her own talent and shared with us that she had been performing a great deal in the previous six months and was looking forward to having a lesson with her voice teacher.  I don’t remember much about her aria, except that it was not remarkable and a little unfocused.  However, when I attended the opera performance, I was shocked not to be able to hear a single note that this woman sang!  She was singing, her mouth was moving, but no sound reached the audience.  In retrospect, I believe that, during this period of intense performing, this woman had not trusted her sound was enough and started pushing, trying to create more sound.  This blocked off her resonance space and stopped her ring, effectively shutting down her voice.  Because she hadn’t had trusted ears to give her feedback, she was not aware of it.  She tried to sing big, when she should have sung small and the results were disastrous.

Singing small is counterintuitive for the singer, because the voice sounds small and feels small.  That is because all of the sound is going outside to the audience.  The trusted ears of a teacher, coach or colleague aremandatory to enable the singer to be able to develop complete faith that this small approach to singing is “enough”.  It is only through consistent, positive feedback that a singer can gain the confidence to rely on the fact that singing small actually does create a bigger, more colorful and beautiful sound for everyone else to hear.  Once the singer is convinced, s/he has to carry that conviction on stage and hold onto it, believing that a good technique is more than enough.  There are multitudinous examples of great singers who sang small.  Birgit Nilsson stated that she never sang using more that 80% of her voice, even on the biggest passages.  Kirsten Flagstad sang on the “small thread” of her voice, as did Jussi Björling.  It is this small approach that has enabled the great singers to have long, healthy careers.  It protects the delicate vocal cords from misuse and lets the resonance and ring function as they should to amplify the voice.


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