One of the most critical issues that a classical singer faces is discovering exactly what parts of the singing mechanism need to be relaxed when singing and what parts need to work. The answer is neither simple nor is understanding a written explanation sufficient. Only by experimenting, experiencing the variety of possibilities in your own body, feeling the resulting differences in your voice and getting helpful, knowledgeable feedback can you, the singer, determine what is needed to bring about the best results.
I have noticed over the years how many singers are confused about the most basic elements of relaxation vs. work during inhalation. For the most part, correct inhalation involves relaxation throughout the vocal mechanism. First, the throat needs to be relaxed and open during inhalation. One great indicator of this is whether the inhalation is silent or not. If there is any sound, that proves there is unnecessary tension in the throat. Employ the pre-vomit reflex by widening gently at the very base of the front of the neck and make sure the cords are coming apart on inhalation/not phonating to help with this issue.
Secondly, singers need to realize that inhalation is about relaxing and opening the lower torso and rib cage. In order to do that, the upper torso should remain in place as the abdominals release outwards, the very lowest abdominals right above the pelvic arch release downward, the sides of the torso expand outwards and the back expands outward and slightly upward in a small swing akin to the shape of angel’s wings. While this is happening, the internal intercostal muscles that depress the ribs have to relax, in order to allow the external intercostals that elevate/expand the ribs to do their jobs and open the rib cage in the same angel-wings swing, determined by the pivoting of the ribs at the spine. Despite what many singing teacher teach, the diaphragm actually works (or contracts) during inhalation, when it flattens out from its relaxed, dome-like position, pushing down on the vicera, expanding the space in the thoracic cavity and allowing more air to enter into the lower lobes of the lungs.
Thirdly, singers should be clear that everything else needs to be relaxed during inhalation. Since inhaling though the mouth is quicker and more efficient for singing, the jaw should be slightly open for most inhalations, swinging back and down and released instead of tight. The tongue should be releasing forward away from the back of the mouth. The lips should be soft and loose. The entire neck, front, back and sides, should be open and relaxed during inhalation and the upper torso around the sternum, collarbone and chest should only move very slightly as the lower part expands.
When initiating a tone/singing, the situation changes dramatically. Firstly, the lower torso is now called into action and expected to “do its bit”, as the British say. After inhalation, but the nano-second just prior to singing, the lower abdominals need to engage or activate. Instead of just hanging out and relaxing, they need to tense or firm up slightly and then move inward in a controlled manner while singing. The lowest abdominals above the pelvic arch also activate, but in a different way. They should pulse quickly with a slight fluttery, bubbly energy, while pulling slowly up and in.
Secondly, as the abdominal muscles are working, the solar plexus should have a sense of spinning forward in its very center. To the left and right of that spinning, central area, the muscles should be very gradually and consciously pulled outwards to either side, as the lower back muscles at the bottom part of the rib cage correspondingly pulls outwards to either side. The sternum should also either be moving ever so slightly straight forward or straight backward into the body to activate the pectoral muscles. This active coordination of these parts helps slow the motion of the internal intercostal muscles during exhalation and control the breath as is goes through the vocal cords. It is crucial to realize that you never want to stop the air, but only to be able to control how is flows out of the lungs and through the vocal cords.
Thirdly, everything above the pectoral muscles should remain as relaxed as possible. Many singers are not aware of this fact and its importance. Tension in the neck, oro-pharnx, jaw, tongue and lips are indicators that the breath resistance in the lower torso (all of the work you are doing as described above) either isn’t sufficient or isn’t balanced/coordinated and is allowing too much wild air to blow through the vocal cords. When this tension exists, it is detrimental to sound-quality. The lower body should be doing the work of providing the requisite energy for optimal vocal production and allowing the vocal cords, resonators and articulators to be as free as possible. Is there some work being done by the throat, jaw, tongue, lips, soft palate, etc.? Yes, of course there is. However,the work is so subtlethat it is better for singers to believe that there is little to no work taking place. As soon as you try to manipulate in these areas, you will be creating far more tension than is necessary. So, the real task for singers is to keep all of that as free as possible.
Fourthly, the oro- and naso-pharynx, including the larynx, need to learn their jobs for best vocal functioning and the jaw, tongue, lips, etc., each need to be trained to do their job and to relax when another part of the vocal mechanism is doing its job. That means that when the tongue is making an Italian “L”, “D” or “T”, the jaw should not be involved. When articulating a “B”, “P” or “M”, the tongue should not be bunching up in the back of the mouth. Through proper guidance with a qualified teacher, each of these parts can be isolated and learn to do only its job.
Although a blog format does not allow a comprehensive exploration of this topic, here is some insight into what parts of the vocal mechanism should be working during inhalation and exhalation. Not all singers will feel all of the sensations – so much varies for each individual. However, these guidelines are a starting place for your own self-exploration. Again, a good teacher will be able to give you feedback and to work with you to find the right balance of relaxation vs. work for your voice and body.
It is extremely helpful to have an intellectual understanding of the mechanics of singing, but as anyone who has ever actually sung knows, experience is what is crucial for singers. It is only by trying, feeling and making adjustments that we can build up the physical sense of good singing coordination. However, when it comes to relaxation vs. work, it is much easier to control the work part compared to the relaxation part, which can lead to a downward spiral of more and more work and less and less relaxation. Too much work ties us in knots and affects our singing detrimentally. So, how are we supposed to figure out how to relax, in order find the right balance in coordination?
That is the salient question for singers and one that I grappled with as well, until I got lucky and found a modality that teaches first how to experience less tension while being both still and in activity and then to learn to release that tension without any help. I was so excited by the possibilities it offered for improving my own singing that I decided to study this modality in depth after I finished grad school and become a certified teacher of it. That modality is, of course, the Alexander Technique.
The Alexander Technique is unique in my experience. There are no sets of exercises. In fact, there is really nothing to hold onto at all. That’s the point. It is all about letting go and experiencing what it is like to do less work and to relax. And you can feel a tremendous difference in your body from an Alexander lesson – a palpable sense of freedom, lightness and ease that comes about from a calmer nervous system and improved body coordination. Those are passed from the teacher to the student directly through the teacher’s hands. The teacher is able to evoke significantly more relaxation and freedom in areas of the body that have learned to overwork.
Studying the Alexander Technique gave me much more awareness of my own habits of tension I had built up over the years. I was able to experience what it felt like not to engage those habits and also was given the tools to enable me to release that tension on my own. It was a tremendous gift to have the opportunity to study this wonderful technique. My body coordination improved tremendously and it opened up a whole new range of possibilities for my singing. I was so much more aware of my own sensations and how I was using my body when I was breathing and singing. With heightened awareness and more control, I was able to make any necessary technical changes much more quickly and effectively.
As discussed previously, it is very important to relax on inhalation, so that a low breath can be taken and the rib cage can fully expand. We want to take advantage of the reflex I discussed in a previous blog, Breathing for Singing – Part II, for maximum freedom in the rib cage. By putting hands on and using the Alexander Technique’s methods with my students in voice lessons, I am able to give them the experience of a significantly freer torso and rib cage while breathing and help trigger the breathing reflex that we all possess. When they let learn go of the unnecessary work, an expanded, free breath can become the new norm.
Other critical parts of the body that need to remain relaxed when singing are the throat and jaw. Overwork in these areas is usually indicative of insufficient or malcoordinated support and/or too much breath pressure. However, once the support is corrected, the tension does not always magically disappear. It is like any habit and needs some loving attention to leave for good. Using hands on, I encourage my students to release that unnecessary tension, layer by layer, allowing them to feel a new sense of effortlessness while singing. The results also improve the tone quality, often dramatically.
The Alexander Technique offers a peerless opportunity for singers to experience freedom in specific areas of the body that can directly improve the balance in singing coordination. For a number of singers, this relaxation part of the relaxation vs. work equation is the missing link that is holding them back from uncovering their true voices. I would encourage all singers to try the Alexander Technique and see what new doors can be opened, some of which you were not even aware existed.
For more articles and information, visit my website, http://www.thebricelandstudio.com