10 lesser-known facts about singing
1. You don’t need to spread your lips on “ee”
This is a very common issue with new singers, since the typical image of the "ee" vowel in English is to spread the lips horizontally into a sort of smile. Hence, saying "cheese" for pictures. However, the lips play no significant role in actually producing that sound. Try it, round your lips into an "O" but front your tongue like you normally would for an "ee". It will still sound like an "ee". Now relax your lips and say "ee" again. No problem, right? The vowel can be made exclusively with your tongue. Spreading your lips into a smile creates all sorts of tension in your face and down your neck and is not necessary to create any vowels, so it should be avoided as a general rule.
2. You cannot "open" your throat. You can only relax the constrictor muscles.
Many teachers like to talk about singing with an "open throat". While the sentiment is valid - your throat should feel relaxed and "open" - the problem is, there are no muscles that actually open the throat. Despite what the perception might be, your feeling of opening the throat is just the throat constrictor muscles and tongue muscles. Your throat can close with these constrictor muscles as is used for swallowing, but it opens by means of passive relaxation. The reason I am being pedantic about this point is because a student might take the open throat advice too far and create excess tension in the attempt to force open the throat. What should be stressed is that the throat can only be opened as much as it feels relaxed, in fact there may not be much of a sensation at all.
3. Vocal folds, not vocal cords/chords
If you are talking to someone who knows nothing about singing, sure, the colloquially used term is "vocal cords", but for purposes of singing, the anatomically correct term is "vocal folds". Your larynx (voice box) is a cartilaginous structure at the top of your trachea (windpipe). Your "Adam's apple" is a protrusion of the thyroid cartilage, the largest piece of the larynx. Inside the larynx there are two thin muscles covered with a membrane that is constantly bathed in mucous. The muscles can stretch and loosen to control pitch, and the mucosal layer can slide independently over the muscles. Together they make up the vocal folds, which are like a valve that closes to block the airway. They literally are folds, not cords or strings. They come together in a V shape which can be opened and closed. The opening between your vocal folds is called the glottis.
4. Drinking water will not “moisturize” your vocal folds right away
The vocal folds are housed in the larynx, which can be closed off by another flap of cartilage, the epiglottis, which descends and covers the opening and vocal folds while swallowing occurs. Your vocal folds are in a different tube than your esophagus, therefore no food or drink you ingest will ever come in contact with your vocal folds, unless you are choking or drowning. The take-away here is that you cannot hydrate your vocal folds directly by drinking water. It takes time for the body to absorb water. More on hydration in the next blog post.
5. A bright, resonant tone will use less air than a breathy tone
Your vocal folds will produce a different quality of sound depending on the onset when you start vocalizing. There are three different kinds of vocal onset: the first is a breathy onset, where the glottis is open and the air starts moving before the vocal folds begin oscillating. This will cause oscillation where the vocal folds barely touch on each vibration and a lot of air escapes through the middle. The opposite end of the spectrum is a glottal onset, where the glottis is closed tightly beforehand and air pressure builds up behind the glottis before it is explosively released. This results in an abrupt grunt as the voice begins and a forced, strident tone, which can cause vocal injury over time. The breathy tone can also cause injury over time, as the extra air moving over the vocal folds can dry out the mucosal layer as well as using up your air supply faster. For best results, we should aim for an onset somewhere in the middle: the breath and vocalization should begin gently, at the same instant with a lightly closed glottis. This will create a bright tone which will be more efficient with your air supply.
6. Air does not fill your lungs like a balloon
Entering air does not cause your lungs to inflate. Instead, the diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle that sits at the bottom of your ribcage, expands the lungs first, and that causes air to rush in, not the other way around. When you inhale, the diaphragm contracts and flattens out, pulling down and creating more space in your ribcage. The intercostal muscles between your ribs also separate the ribs slightly to expand the ribcage. Since there is now extra room in your ribcage and therefore your lungs, a partial vacuum is created, and air will rush in from the outside to fill the space.
7. You cannot "sing with the diaphragm"
You do inhale using the diaphragm, but for singing, i.e. exhaling, your diaphragm is passive, relaxing back upward into its dome shape. What is pushing the diaphragm, and thus your lungs, upward are your lower abdominals. The diaphragm and the abdominals have a push/pull relationship, one engages while the other relaxes, and vice versa. During inhalation the diaphragm engages and the abdominals relax; during exhalation the diaphragm relaxes and the abdominals engage.
8. There is not only one correct way to sing
Even though I personally advocate a classical-style approach to beginner vocal development - I believe it sets up new singers with good habits for breath support, phonation, and resonance - the fact still remains that there is no one "right" way to sing. While there are certainly wrong ways of singing, namely ones that would cause injury, I think many classical singers could learn a thing or two from successful singers in other genres. For example, there are metal and screamo vocalists who go out on stage and scream their lungs out night after night. Somehow, they still manage to keep their voice in shape. I don't know much about "extreme" vocals, but I would imagine they have some kind of technique figured out by now, otherwise they wouldn't still be performing. We will see how they are doing by the end of their careers. Similarly, many pop vocalists display impressive power and range, while not exactly following the classical singing "rulebook".
9. You aren't born with it
So often I hear about how good singers are amazingly "talented" and they must have some sort of God-given ability to sing well. Sure, maybe they were born with a strong voice, but the physical coordination and the stamina and the musicianship all still need to be trained. Natural born "talent" is such a minor factor compared to the amount of discipline it takes to develop a complex physical skill like singing. Just how no athlete is born with the ability to run a 4-minute mile, no singer is born with the ability to sing the Queen of the Night's aria, nor should any inexperienced singer attempt it. These sorts of skills take a long time to develop. If you’re not a great singer but are taking voice lessons, you are already far ahead of the "talented" ones who think they deserve instant success.
10. You can't directly feel your vocal folds
You do have some sense of your vocal folds moving around: try saying "uh oh" over and over. You should feel a light "pop" in the back of your throat. That is your glottis opening and closing. It is also what closes off when you hold your breath. These sensations are coming from the muscles all around your throat, but not your vocal folds. The muscles are innervated (have nerves) but your vocal folds themselves do not have any sort of tactile sensation. If that were the case, the soprano singing the aforementioned Queen of the Night's aria would feel her vocal folds hitting each other nearly 1,400 times per second on the high note. Ow.