How do you know what kind of vocal boundaries you should have? In fact, what are functional boundaries and what, exactly, is functional training anyway? Isn’t all vocal training functionally based?

Hot and heavy questions and few would dare to respond to them with answers, but that, of course, won’t stop me. (OK, stop laughing).

A boundary has to do with how the voice responds to exercise. It should respond within certain parameters. What parameters, you ask?

The vibrato should remain normal (if one is there and is desired), not slow and wide or fast and small. The breathing should not be physically draining to do. The neck muscles should remain relaxed, not involved. The mouth opening should be moderate except for very high, low, or very loud pitches when it can be more open and exaggerated. The vowels should be UNDISTORTED, that is, recognizable. Vowel modification on high notes should not make the vowels muddled or skewed, just pleasant and comfortable both to do and to hear. Consonants should be easy to manage, again with the exception of very high pitches where they may be less distinct, particularly for sopranos. The jaw should never shake and the tongue should be quiet as well. Comfortable volume changes over 3/4 of your range should not be impossible to do. The tone should be clear, neither nasal or breathy, unless those things are desired as stylistic gestures as they are in certain styles.

If your voice has these things as responses to any exercise, you are still within functional boundaries that are working for your voice. If any of them go away for any length of time, you need to ask why. They might be temporarily absent in the short term as you learn something new, but they should never disappear entirely. If they do, you have gone past a functional boundary and you need to understand that and know why.

And, of course, if the sound is unpleasant and you don’t want it to be, you need to understand that the exercises should be helping you get it to sound pleasing, not causing it to be unpleasant.

Anytime functional boundaries are passed without awareness or explanation, the voice will let you know. If you don’t pay attention to it, as can happen when you are young, you can miss things and you can be pushed into making sound that, down the road, your throat will pay dearly to continue. Your singing teacher should know what the appropriate boundaries are but many do not, so you could be on your own to find the range of responses your voice can tolerate while you are being trained. That’s not easy to manage without help.

Functional training is supposed to take your voice past its own natural predilections into new territory. In fact, if it does not, you are not learning anything. You are simply singing with more control and awareness of what your throat would do anyway, all by itself. That’s not giving you abilities you wouldn’t have anyway. Functional training teaches deliberate development of the various responses all human voices can have, particularly those that are not typical in any given voice, and makes those responses eventually become second nature. Without boundaries, any time your voice fails to respond in an expected manner, you will assume that something is wrong with it, or with you, and misinterpret those problems as something that has to do with “flaws” in your voice instead of functional issues that were either not properly addressed or even caused by your training.

If your singing training is goal oriented, that is, if it is focused on getting the sound out in a certain way as a goal, you can miss what’s happening in the process of making sound and not notice or dismiss the experience of being a vocal sound maker in a moment-to-moment manner. If you are busy trying to produce a certain kind of “resonance” by using “better breath support” you can misconstrue what happens while you are singing assigning the wrong cause to a vocal response. That makes it harder to correct problems. Training which is aimed at music, without much regard to how the sound is being made in the throat and body, is not functional, (although it could be very musical). Training which is based upon finding various “resonance strategies” in the throat is not functional, although some people might think that it is. It is still a way of trying to manipulate a result, not a cause. Training which emphasizes a specific use of the breath, is not functional if it is not also connected to the knowledge that the vocal folds control the airflow, and not the other way around. It also has to be connected to specific and personalized information about how you use the ribs, the abdominal muscles and the rest of the body while breathing as you make sound, including how you inhale before you make sound.

Training which says you can only sing well if you learn classical repertoire first as a “good grounding” is misplaced. Learning classical repertoire is good if you want to sing classical repertoire. It is useless if you want to sing something else, UNLESS, “classical” is a substitute word for functional in which case   the training would work for the voice and body regardless of what repertoire you would sing because the functional exercises would be aimed at the needs of the repertoire as if they mattered.

Finally, functional training allows the voice to be both strong and free, variable and reliable, sturdy and adjustable, consistent and spontaneous. It is not a compromise between two things, it is a combination of two things, physical coordination done in a deliberate manner, and artistic freedom of choice, used in response to various kinds of music. It may or may not have to do with “resonance” but it always has to do with personal satisfaction and ownership.

This is a lot to think about. I hope you will.

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