The Two Most Important Aspects of Singing
When you sing, there are many things that you must focus on. In fact, it can be overwhelming trying to drop your jaw, expand your rib cage, raise your soft palette, put it in your mix, add more diction, squeeze your diaphragm and watch your intonation all while trying to stylize a piece. It is a mental and physical challenge that tests you in several ways. However, whether you are a beginner or a professional singer, it can be easy to lose sight of the basic technique behind singing. Acknowledging the physicality behind the art form can certainly help you succeed but, if the most important aspects are ignored, one may never achieve their desired sound. I have found through personal experience (many years of being a vocal student, observing teachers, and a couple years of teaching others) that there are two important features of singing: breathing and placement. Now these are very broad terms. Everyone understands the meaning of generic breathing. But vocal-breathing is much more specific and localized. Placement may seem vague but it is perhaps the greatest tool a singer can use. These two characteristics are essential to technique and development.
As for vocal breathing, there is one specific part of the body that must always be engaged: the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a combination of tendons and a “thin skeletal muscle that sits at the base of the chest and separates the abdomen from the chest. It contracts and flattens when you inhale. This creates a vacuum effect that pulls air into the lungs. When you exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and the air is pushed out of lungs” (Santos-Longhurst 1). Without getting too deep into the anatomy and function of the diaphragm, it is located under the ribs and can be found by gently pressing into the abdomen below your ribcage. When you take a deep breath, the muscle is engaged in order to force air from the lungs into or through the voice. Once you develop a relationship with this area of your body, you can easily feel from where and when you are breathing.
Concentrating on diaphragmatic breathing is something I ensure my students practice on from the beginning of lessons. It is important to have a low “belly breath” rather than lift/puff out your chest. This kind of breath is unsustainable. Now technically, we cannot direct our diaphragm to do anything because it is an involuntary muscle. Telling a singer to use their diaphragm is the equivalent of telling a runner to pump their heart. It is impossible. When instructors or singers engage the diaphragm, it means they are using the muscles surrounding the diaphragm and their core in its entirety to breath. It is also noteworthy to mention that when you breath from your lungs, you are not selectively breathing from your chest or the front of your body. Your lungs reside in your chest cavity, which extends towards the front AND back. Therefore, expanding your ribcage from all angles will provide you with an even more full and sustainable breath. Breathing fuels your vocal energy, the high and low notes, your phrasing, your stamina, and your placement. If you do not support your voice with proper breathing, you simply cannot give proper attention to other goals or areas of need. Although breathing is a common activity, singers control the length of their exhalation and inhalation in order to sustain phrases.
Breathing exercises are crucial to strengthening the muscles around the diaphragm and understanding how it feels and works in your body. Some of my favorites include standing against a wall with your knees slightly apart and bent, your spine curved so your upper back and bottom are leaning against the wall but your heels are several inches away from the wall. As you feel your weight center over your knees, as if you are skiing or ready to squat, inhale from the lower belly and expand your ribcage, and allow your breath to move up through your back and chest. Something else you can try several times a day is letting out all of your air, taking in a slow breath over ten seconds and then releasing your air slowly for fifteen seconds. You can work yourself up to inhaling for fifteen seconds and releasing for twenty seconds. You can also lay on the floor with a light object over your stomach so that when you inhale deeply, you can see the object rise, therefore visualizing the expansion of your lower abdomen during your breath. However, when performing this exercise, make sure to engage the back muscles as well.
In addition to proper breathing, placement is essential to vocal technique. Placement of resonance means “focusing your sound into a specific area where you feel resonance sensations and deals with the bones and flesh between the neck and face that vibrate sympathetically and reflect resonance like a sounding board” (Shmidt 1). Placement is essential to singing technique. However, before we discuss where notes should be placed, we must understand the various locations of resonance. I emphasize at least five important areas of placement to all of beginning students: the jaw, throat, the soft palette, the mask or sinus cavities (below and above the eyes, and inside the nasal cavity), and the top of the head. You can somewhat “feel” these areas by using your finger to localize the jaw parallel with your ear and behind your ear, the cheek bones and bridge of the nose, the center of the forehead or the frontal area of the skull, or stretching the inside of the mouth. Given this, it is more efficient to visualize the anatomy of the face and where those pockets of sound must reside.
You can achieve this specificity by vigorously and tentatively engaging in technique exercises that are focused on one specific area of placement at a time and then switching between areas. For instance, chest or lower range singing is associated with throat or jaw singing. This area of placement can be the most dangerous for singers who tend to push or strain. However, tension can be avoided in this area by relaxing the neck muscles and dropping the jaw. The soft palette can either be the easiest or most challenging area of placement to understand and manipulate. It is important to understand where the soft palette begins. The best way to understand the soft palette is to replicate a yawn and feel the back of your mouth stretch. The fourth area of placement (the sinus cavities) are associated with the mask. A lot of musical theatre and pop repertoire is sung in this area. “Belting” is often performed in the mask if done in a healthy way – it can be a very useful area to become familiar with. The fifth location is the cranial cavity or top of the head. This is considered the head voice used at the top of the range. Mastering each area of placement should be everyone’s starting point. If you think about it, no song stays in one range so understanding each part of the voice is essential. Being able to effortlessly transition between them is the advanced goal.
One thing to remember is that placement and breathing may feel different to everyone. Each person visualizes and internalizes a concept differently. So saying one thing over and over again when your body is not adapting can be detrimental to technical development. Learning and understand these concepts from all angles is the most effective way to sing. Assess your own body first. Take your time and approach technique and warm ups several different ways.