Singing starts with an inhale.
Most people know this action requires the diaphra gm but are not aware of its location or how it works. Place your hand over your belly button. This area is NOT your diaphragm; it is the abdominal wall. The dia phragm is a dome-shaped muscle which divides your torso, separating the lungs an d heart above (thoracic cavity) from the digestive organs below (abdominal cavit y). To locate, place your finger at the bottom of your sternum bone (breast plat e); the diaphragm crosses directly behind. Notice it is fairly high up inside th e rib cage. Now place your hands on your chest, fingers facing up, with the base of the palms on your nipples. This provides a good visual of the size of your l ungs. Made of thousands of tiny air sacks called alveoli, the lungs resemble den se sponges more than balloons. They do not draw in air themselves; they are enla rged as the diaphragm descends (inhale) and reduced as the diaphragm returns (ex hale). When you hear the term support in relation to singing, it means the diaphra gm is able to move up and down freely and make minute adjustments in air pressur e. It does not mean to push from the abdominal wall. The larynx is in the middle of the throat, sitting on top of the windpipe and is the vibrator of the instrument. Its inside diameter is about the size of a quar ter. There are two horizontal flaps within the larynx, called vocal folds, which can partially cover the windpipe and vibrate when air passes through. These fol ds are similar to eyelids in size and shape but are covered by mucus membranes a nd need to be kept lubricated. There is a network of muscles in and around the f olds which manipulate their tension for pitch change, thickness for volume and t heir position for a variety of tonal qualities. These muscles operate reflexivel y, like those of the eye, and work best when provided with an appropriate amount of air pressure. There is a short stretch of throat above the larynx called the pharynx. It is th e main resonator of the voice. Most of us imagine this area as having a large di ameter; yet we know better than to swallow a penny. The pharynx is lined with se nsitive muscles which narrow the internal space further in response to contracti ons of the abdominal wall. The pharynx connects to the mouth and nasal cavities, also important resonators. The muscles of the tongue and jaw are the strongest in the body, and both brace instinctively to provide extra rigidity to the throa t. All these closing actions greatly reduce the potential for overtones. Another reason not to over-drive your air pressure. Every instrument requires a specific touch and the voice is no exception. Visual izing how small the parts of your instrument really are will help balance muscle activity. What I have provided is a very basic overview. Do yourself a favor an d explore an anatomy book. The more you know about the functions of each part, t he easier it is to make any instrument sing. That s all for today. Class dismissed ." Whether you rap, sing, belt, scream, croon or perform spoken word, you will get more from your voice if you warm up first. Actually, there s no avoiding it. Those who feel it s unnecessary, or silly, are simply warming up as they sing rather th an before. There is a huge difference, however, when you gradually work the body up to performance level. Your pitch, range, power, expression, and most importa nt, your longevity will greatly improve. Any increase in any muscle activity raises the body s core temperature. Shocking t he body into action from a cold start triggers protective muscles to brace again st the prospect of injury. Neck, jaw and tongue muscles lock in place requiring a vocalist to exert extra air pressure to sing. The tension creates friction whi ch causes the vocal folds to over heat and swell. Translation: Punching out the first few songs of the set will make you blow out quicker and stay blown for mos t of the next day. Temporary vocal fatigue might not seem to be much of an issue when you re gigging once a week. But what happens when your music "hits"?
Consider the schedule of Emerson Hart, singer for Tonic, when the band s song, "If You Could Only See," shot up the charts. Management kept the band on the road f or well over a year, working five nights a week with plenty of thirteen-dates-in -a-row stints. Often, Emerson s day began at 7:00 AM with an unplugged song for a morning-drive show. Then, it was off to various promotions and afternoon intervi ews, finishing with a 90 minute set at midnight. When Emerson called me, he was satisfied with his vocal abilities; but nervous about surviving his success. I d evised a warm-up plan to prepare him for the daily routine. What you sing to warm-up is not as important as how. I recommend the simplest so unds. Your attention should be on physical freedoms rather than quality of sound . Release your breath with several long, low volume hisses. Then, loosen your fa ce and neck while humming with a wandering, siren-like, motion. Don t allow your f ace to change to reach for pitches. Alternate the hums with an extended zzz soun d and gradually change this to an EE vowel and then an AH. Keep your melodies sw eeping. I don t recommend singing songs quietly because there are usually tensions programmed into them. As you loosen up, turn up your volume -- but not before. As you get louder, stay with an EE or AH. The point is to wait until the body gi ves you permission to increase the load. The length of a warm-up should be in re verse proportion to the need. Long gig -- short warm up, but if you re doing a sin gle song on The Letterman Show, you should warm up and then sing for an hour for that, trusted, middle-of-the-set feeling. The hardest part about warming up is making the time and finding a place. I used to be embarrassed to make the funny sounds required in front of others hanging in the back room -- if there was one. Now I choose the dirty looks over the frus tration of having a set end just as my voice is waking up. Be inventive; head ou t to the car or van in the warm months or, in winter, hang in the bathroom or st and in the middle of the crowd if there s a band before yours. No one will hear a thing -- I do it all the time. If you re running late, warm up while driving to th e gig or rehearsal. The best routine is to warm up slowly all day. Every chance you get, lightly vocalize on hums and zzz sounds. Just remember, for any style s inging, starting with a loose, flexible instrument will allow access to your ful l potential. Where you take your voice from there, is up to you. Winter and show biz don't mix. Biting winds and piles of snow keep potential au diences at home and make things difficult for load-ins. Then there s the additiona l burden of protecting your voice while everyone around is coughing and sneezing . As a singer, you can t afford to succumb to the average two colds a year. Even i f you re a trooper and refuse to cancel, your instrument will be compromised and s usceptible to harm. Not to panic, injury to the vocal folds is reversible, but t aking time off to recover will put the brakes on your band s momentum. Prevention is the answer. The good news is, for every cold-forming scenario, there is a cou nter measure. The bad news is, by the time the first symptoms show, it s too late. The germs which cause colds are always around. Constantly washing your hands and avoiding contact with others is not enough. The best defense is to keep your im mune system strong by eating right (fruits and vegies), hydrating (two liters of water per day), sleeping (around six hours), and exercising for better circulat ion. Staying warm is also an important factor. In frigid conditions, your body w orks hard to retain heat. Dressing in layers, with a hat, water-proof boots and a scarf allows your body to focus energy on fighting off incoming infections. Us e your brains. Wait until you stop sweating before going outside after rehearsal , and, leave a coat stage-side if a club requires a load-out directly after the set. The winter holidays are a notorious time for coming down with something. Heavier
foods and less physical activity increases the amount of toxins in our system. After a while, our bodies will clean house by producing mucus. So, find a way to stay physically active between Thanksgiving and Christmas -- and watch that thi rd piece of pie. However, an abrupt change in lifestyle can also bring on a sim ilar cleanse reaction. People who quit smoking cold-turkey or dramatically chang e their diet can expect cold-like symptoms to follow. I don t want to discourage a nyone from becoming healthier, merely suggesting a gradual change if you ve decide d to clean up as a New Year s resolution. Stress, of all the causes of illness, is number one. Juggling work or school wit h rehearsals and gigs, eating on the run with zero sleep, disrupts metabolism an d forces the body to run on adrenaline. Anxiety saps vitamins, dehydrates, and l eaves you vulnerable to whatever is around. That s why colds always arrive right a s your preparing for the big recording or showcase. Yes, you should be well rehe arsed, but there comes a point where the push becomes counter-productive. Rest, like hydration, is an inseparable component of vocal ability. It s important to re member that stress is 100 percent internal, and is always reduced by saying the word, "no." So, for your voice s sake, open up your schedule -- and chill. I know it s seems uncool to worry about health, but ask anyone who has toured for a length of time -- getting sick on the road sucks. It is not inevitable that yo u will catch a cold every winter. Hold firm to a belief that you will not get sick. If it's too late for this season, then for next. Adopting healthy habit s now will pay off in spades in the future when you re in demand. There is no reme dy as effective as prevention. I m sure your mother already told you most of thes e things, but that was so you wouldn t miss school. I m telling you so you won t miss a gig. Big difference. Okay, now let s pretend that, despite your best efforts, you ve come down with a nas ty, aching, head clogging cold three days before an important gig. Is there anyt hing you can do besides crack open a bottle of Jack Daniel s? The answer is yes, b ut they aren t nearly as much fun. To minimize the effect a cold has on the voice you ve got to act quickly. Keep in mind that congestion, mucus, is what your body produces to flush out toxins. Over-the-counter medications (anti-histamines) dry up congestion but prohibit the necessary house cleaning. They also dry mucous m embranes, like your vocal folds, which will cause you to lose your voice. So, re ach for the decongestants as an absolute last resort. However, it is better to e xperiment with medications at rehearsals, rather then waiting until gig day. You should always know the effect something will have on your voice before you use it under the spotlights. If you have time, instead of squashing the symptoms, help speed up the cleanse. Flood yourself with water and real juices to thin the congestion, lubricate your folds and flush your body. The juice should be freshly squeezed in order to get the most benefit. The best types during a cold are Orange (vitamin C), Celery ( retains fluids), Cucumber & Cranberry (cleans acid deposits) and Carrot (vitamin A). If you re not into juices, take supplements. The water-based vitamins like C and B complex are the first to be depleted when you re fighting a cold. Unfortunat ely, a Mountain-Dew slushy has no vitamins, but does give a great brain freeze. An important benefit of hydrating is that it may keep a cold from reaching your lungs. Throat clearing and coughing, which normally accompanies a cold, is very irritating to the vocal folds. The delicate membranes in and around the larynx b ecome swollen and rigid, which is why your voice gets so deep and restricted. In haling steam will help loosen congestion in the lungs as well as soothe the voca l folds. Be careful when inhaling steam, you can burn your lips and nasal passag es. Gargling with warm salt water will also help draw phlegm away from your lary nx. (If the salt is collecting at the bottom of the glass, you ve put in too much. ) This is a good routine to get into daily, to clean and increase circulation of the mouth and throat. Teas, honey, or any other coating therapy may soothe soar
muscles but will not heal the vocal folds. To reduce the swelling and get singi ng again, you ve got to vocalize (warm up). Low volume, barely audible, humming is a great way to start. Let your larynx cho ose the pitches. It s better to stay with one single note (whichever is most comfo rtable) than to push or force the range. Allow plenty of time for your voice to loosen. Rushing the warm-up when you have a cold will greatly reduce the longevi ty of your voice and make conditions worse the next day. I once did a ten hour w arm-up for a forty minute set. Refer to the warm up routine in lesson three, but remember, it s not what you re singing to warm up, it s how. Sleep as much as you can during the days leading up to your performance, even if that means skipping rehearsals. But, on gig day, don t hibernate. Get up, take a long hot shower and do some light stretching and exercising to get your blood ci rculating. Mentally prepare for the long day ahead. Yes, it would be much easier to numb yourself with a bottle of Jack, but your condition the next morning wil l be twice as bad. The bottom line is, if you want a career as a performer, you re going to have to learn to sing with a cold. Might as well start now. Why do some singers cut through a mix loud and clear while others struggle to be heard? The difference is tone. Some people are born with an instrument which pr oduces a full spectrum of harmonics; the vocal version of a grand piano versus a n upright. These harmonics, or overtones, ring simultaneously in a series above the original note you re singing. It s not only the number of overtones present but the volume of each frequency which gives a voice power and projection. The size and shape of your internal cavities determines which overtones are amplified and which are snuffed. Unfortunately, singers are stuck with an instrument created by a genetic lottery. Technique, however, is also an important factor of tone. A great musician can make an inferior instrument sound good. So, for those not bl essed with a Steinway voice, adjusting the way you sing can greatly improve your tone. The characteristics of sound are so consistent we call them laws. There are many examples of these laws shaping our daily lives. For instance, low frequencies t ravel in long, slow waves which penetrate walls and piss off neighbors. High fre quencies are fast waves which excite the ear and are perceived as loud, instigat ing many fights between singers and guitarists. Low end requires lots of expensi ve power and large cabinets to amplify; high end needs very little. A smooth sur face will reflect sound, giving it more resonance and making us believe we have talent as we sing in the shower. A coarse surface, on the other hand, will absor b resonant tones, which is why blankets and carpets line the walls of our rehear sal spaces. These same laws apply inside the body. The space above the larynx, called the ph arynx, is a crucial component to a big vocal sound. In last month s lesson Anatomy 101, I explained that this cavity is lined with constrictor muscles which reduc e the diameter when stressed and expand the area when released. If the larynx is raised and the pharynx is tight, there will not be enough room to amplify rich, low overtones. Muscle walls within the throat also become coarse as they tense, and so the high, projecting, overtones are absorbed before they have a chance t o exit. Think of how a speaker and its cabinet work together. A speaker (the lar ynx) will sound papery thin if placed in a small enclosure (a tense throat) as o pposed to a large box (a relaxed throat). Then, think of the lifeless sound of a stereo in a heavily carpeted room versus the bouncing harmonics at a high schoo l dance. No matter what you were born with, a booming voice requires your throat duplicate the properties of a gymnasium with freshly polished floors. No question: more tone is better. Any engineer will tell you it s easy to subtract from a vocal sound but impossible to make it more than what you re producing. The
absence of overtones makes a voice bland and difficult to hear. Guitars, keyboa rds and cymbals all compete in the same harmonic range and block out the subtle tones of the voice. This is another frustrating law of sound. If two instruments are producing the same frequencies, the louder of the two will be all the ear r egisters. Guess who wins the volume war between guitar and voice? However, the w ider your harmonic spectrum, the better your chances of popping through any hole s, or notches, in the band s overall sound. I know it feels like a step in the wrong direction to relax when your voice soun ds thin. A more normal response would be to sing louder. Overdriving the larynx, though, usually triggers all the wrong behaviors in the throat. It s ironic that a desire for a bigger sound is what inspires the push, creating the very tension which robs the voice of precious overtones. A more productive solution is to ac hieve independence between the larynx and the rest of the body. While it s true al l laws are meant to be broken (or at least tested), understanding why your voice sounds the way it does gives you options. Since there is no plea bargaining wit h nature, if you want a bigger voice you ve got to obey the laws and relax. David Bowie has a fast one. Mary J. Blige has a slow, sultry, one. Maynard James Keenan doesn t have a trace of one. Singing with vibrato is a matter of taste. Ha ving a choice is a matter of control. For most singers, the subtle, rhythmical m ovement of vibrato feels more like fate. When you want vibrato, it hides on you; don t think about it, and it shimmers on the end of a note. Vibrato brings vitali ty to a voice. Sound without variation is boring. Compare a refrigerator to a fl y buzzing around. The steady hum of the compressor quickly becomes background no ise while the bug gets harder to ignore. With the exception of rappers and singe rs like Beck who don t sustain notes, those without vibrato tend to rely on overdr ive to create excitement. This often leads to blow outs. The more vocal colors a vailable on your pallet, like vibrato, breathy, nasal and gritty, the easier it will be to paint an interesting portrait of a song without killing yourself. The mechanics of vibrato are simple and reflexive, which is what makes it so elu sive. Picture the fret hand of a guitarist sustaining a note. The finger movemen t alters the length of the string creating a slight waver in pitch. Things are j ust a little more complex with the voice. Like a stringed instrument, the tensio n of the vocal folds is varied rhythmically, creating movement in pitch. Along w ith this tension change, though, is a variation in the thickness of the vocal fo ld. The combined movements of pitch, volume and tone are what set vibrato apart from tremolo (change in volume only) and wobble (change in pitch only). Tension squashes vibrato. Not just the obvious neck bulging stuff, but subtle ev eryday stiffness can neutralize it as well. Like the freedom required to wiggle your finger when sustaining a note on guitar, vocal vibrato requires muscle inde pendence. Backing off the air pressure is the first step to releasing your voice . Let the ability to produce vibrato be your guide. Lay down flat on your back a nd place your hand on your belly button. Breath so that your hand rises and fall s. Now sing a comfortable note and look for the presence of vibrato. If the pitc h is stiff notice what your abs are doing. Are they contracting to drive the not e? Check the behavior on various pitches. If you push too much from your stomach , the muscles surrounding the larynx will brace and vibrato will be lost. Reduce the volume and try again. The goal is to reduce the air pressure to the point w here flexibility is found. Don t be alarmed if this only happens at very low volum es. With practice, you ll be able to increase the volume without loading the neck with pressure. Strike the proper balance during a song and vibrato will blossom. That s why it tends to come in at the ends of notes; once we feel safely on pitch , we ease off the pressure a bit. Another check for vibrato-eating throat tension is to rotate your head in a smal l circle when singing. Pretend you are tracing the outline of a quarter with you r nose. Does the rotation stop when you begin to sing? Is it stiffer on high not es? Again, reduce the volume until you find the correct air pressure. Neck tensi
on is not a requirement of singing loud or high. We often see singers so locked up in the neck that they literally have to shake their heads or jaws in order to create vibrato. In the same way, a guitar player who needs to shake the guitar to move a note must be applying a death grip on that fretboard. There s nothing wr ong with using force to make a strong statement. Too often, though, the statemen t it makes is that we are overcompensating to mask weakness. Be brave and do the dirty work in private. Use vibrato as your guide and discover the power within. Sooner or later you ll have to go in there, and sooner or later you ll have to come out. For some, the studio is a haven for creation. The controlled environment provide s a cocoon for exploring a song. People who love to record, though, are usually reluctant to release their creations into the hostile acoustics of the real worl d. Instead, their songs remain a work-in-progress as they claim a quest for perf ection. This is not the greatest way to move a career forward. For the rest of u s, the studio is a vacuum. Not only does it suck the cash from our wallets, it d rains our music of its energy. It s frustrating when that beer-soaked, sweaty stag e vibe you ve become known for never makes it on tape. Obviously, we can t hold the studio responsible (although many do); a studio is just a room full of equipment . The problem lies within. As soon as the red light comes on we try too hard or become self-conscious. Overcoming this anxiety, can be as simple as adjusting yo ur prospective going in. Singing on stage is different than singing in a studio, just like acting on Broa dway is not the same as acting in a movie. However, singers have to work in both forums while actors normally focus on one. Treating the studio like a live gig is a typical error in approach. No one cares if a vocal was recorded in one pass , yet lots of singers feel embarrassed when they require multiple takes. What ma tters is the end result. Like a movie, the singing you hear on CD s is really a qu ilt of the best phrases seamlessly sewn together. It s not cheating; it takes stam ina and a mental focus to maintain vocal continuity for several hours. In other words, chops. This doesn t have to result in a sterile recording. Even after many rehearsals, actors often screw up their lines when shooting a film. Sometimes th e mistakes work better than the original idea. It takes a good director to know when to wrap a scene. When recording, a producer plays the role of movie director. It s his or her job t o organize the project before approaching the studio and then to inspire better performances once recording begins. Unfortunately, many bands choose to save mon ey by producing themselves and wind up paying in the end by wasting time on a de mo which falls short of their potential. There is a physical connection when you perform and it s hard to separate the effort from the outcome. A producer provide s an invaluable overview. Incidentally, it s a dependence on the physical side of performing which tends to make people say that your band "sounds" better live. D uring a gig, your fans witness your effort and that plays heavily in their exper ience of a song. Recording, though, is like playing a concert for the blind. Wit hout the visual aspect, your music may not have as much impact as you think. It usually takes an outside observer to suggest some changes. If you can t afford a p roducer, spread your recording session out over many weeks. Let some time pass b y before listening to rough mixes in order to gain a fresh perspective on what y ou ve done. Recording also requires an adjustment in the way you rehearse. It s amazing how ma ny people enter the studio over-anxious and under prepared. There s no excuse for a band to engage in momentum killing arguments over a song they ve been playing fo r a year. Get it right before the clock starts ticking. Rehearse the recording p rocess, not just the song. Use a four track cassette deck and run through the st eps just as you will in the studio. Everyone should know what everyone else is p
laying. To relieve "red light fever," get into the habit of recording rehearsals . Experience will show that the best performances come once everyone forgets tha t tape is rolling -- a simple but important point to remember, every time you ap proach the studio. Power lunch. Power walk. Power nap. Hey, as long as we re making ourselves feel po werful by renaming natural activities, allow me to introduce my superturbo, pate nt-pending breathing technique for singers. To be honest, there's nothing new ab out power breathing. Every baby on the planet has the technique down. Power brea thing is what allows infants to scream for hours on end. Obviously, newborns don t have a lot of muscle strength. So where does all that energy come from? They in stinctively harness two universal properties: air pressure and recoil. The air around us is pressurized and self-stabilizing. When the pressure decreas es anywhere, surrounding air will move in to fill the void. This is the motor wh ich drives the weather, and why the weatherman is always talking about areas of high and low pressure. On a smaller scale, when you open a new jar of pickles, y ou ll hear a suction sound as the seal is broken. Pickles are vacuum packed, which means the air pressure inside the jar is much lower than outside. Unscrew the l id and air is drawn in. The same thing happens when we inhale. When your lungs a re expanded, the air pressure inside drops. Outside air then rushes in to equali ze the imbalance. What s important to remember is that air doesn t make your lungs e xpand -- muscles do. The diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle which sits directly under your lungs. When it descends, the area inside your lungs increases. There are also muscles betwe en your ribs, which spread the cage, and muscles in the neck and shoulders, whic h can lift your chest. Any of these muscles can enlarge your lung space to creat e an inhale. Of all these options, the diaphragm is best positioned. We are ofte n too tight in the stomach area, though, and don t give it room to drop. Infants a re not tight down there and take full advantage of the diaphragm s ability to pull in air. Notice how their belly s swell like little Buddhas just before letting go of a wail. It s a simple principal: the more air you take in, the more pressure y ou ll have to cry. Once expanded, your lungs are like two balloons. The air pressure inside an infl ated balloon is greater than outside the balloon. Everybody knows that the press ure will come out -- with force -- by simply releasing the balloon, but we fail to apply this universal law to singing. At the beginning of each phrase, we use abdominal muscles to drive the air out of our lungs. Not only is this as unneces sary as squeezing a balloon to empty it, but it causes all kinds of trouble. Sin ging requires a specific amount of pressure; too much force triggers your throat to hold back air like fingers clamping down on the neck of a balloon. Control i s lost. The other under-appreciated source of power, recoil, also relies on the diaphrag m. Most people incorrectly associate the words "breathe support" with push. They tap their tummy and say, "Sing from here. Right?" Well, that s half right. To bet ter understand how the whole thing ties together, let s get creative with anatomy. It s been said that the body is a temple but I think it more resembles a tenement . Imagine your body as a building that has one studio apartment on each level. L et s call the first floor the "legs" of your structure. The second floor represent s your abdominal cavity and the third level is the thoracic cavity (if you want to get fancy, you can call your head the penthouse). It doesn t take very long whe n you live in a building like this to appreciate that one person s floor is anothe r person s ceiling. This rule is the same in your body. The diaphragm is both the floor to the lungs (thoracic cavity) and the ceiling to the abdomen. Move this d ivider up and down, and it enlarges one cavity while compressing the other. When your diaphragm descends, it pushes on everything inside your abdominal cavi
ty. Since this "room" is jam packed with furnishings like a stomach, liver and i ntestines, everything gets shoved towards the walls. This is why your tummy stic ks out when you inhale correctly. It s not filling with air down there, it s just a response to the ceiling coming down. Compressing your abdominal cavity doesn t tak e much effort, as long as its walls are relaxed. Sucking in your tummy when you inhale locks everything in place, so the diaphragm can t come down. The result is a shallow breath that doesn t pack much punch. We learn from infants crying that c reating a big inhale is important. Even more important, though, is not pushing o nce you re fully loaded. You ve already worked for the energy; all you have to do is release. The automatic reaction to compression is recoil. If you push down on a spring an d then quickly release it will jump back to its original form. The more force yo u use to compress, the more force you get back on recoil. Push down on the sprin g again but this time slowly raise your hand. The spring returns at the hand s spe ed. This is a controlled release. Notice that, to control the motion, your hand only needs to push downward; there s no need to pull up on a spring. The same is t rue for your diaphragm. Once the abdominal cavity is compressed, it wants to spr ing back. As if it was holding back the recoil of a spring, your diaphragm shoul d continue to apply and downward pressure to regulate the air pressure passing t hrough your larynx. In other words, it "supports " your voice by making sure tha t the vocal folds aren t overwhelmed. Combine the spring-back action of your abdominal cavity with the momentum of hig h pressure from fully inflated lungs and you ll have vocal power to spare. Notice that both of these power sources are passive, the work was done during the inhal e. If you need more thrust, your abs are always there to add. I know it feels as if you need to push with your abs in order to make your voice powerful. Just re member that this desire is a reaction to half-inflated lungs. Stretching your bo dy will help; start your warm-up routine with some reaches and side-stretches. R eserve abdominal push as a last resort, not a first line of strength. It takes a while to re-train the body to release the abs on every inhale, but the pay-off will be a voice that s truly bouncing off the walls -- just like when you were a b aby.