It’s More than Resonance and Breath Support

It is my fondest wish that all people who teach singing really understand how profound the human voice is. Part of that would be understanding how every single muscle, every single movement of the vocal system matters. The sound isn’t just the vocal folds and the vocal tract with some air passing through it. The sound is the person. “Per” (by) “Sona” (sound). Your sound is as unique as your fingerprint. Your voice is you.

All voices function the same way. So voice is a perfect example of how we are all the same and all unique simultaneously.

It is imperative to understand that voices are NOT limited, but that they have limits. This means that any voice is capable of making any sound, but not all sounds are equally at home in any given human being’s throat, and some sounds are happier in some throats than others. People who are trained to make only classical sounds are sentenced to make those sounds and no other sounds, until and unless they refuse to accept that prison. It is a choice to stay there.

A young person capable of making a pop sound comfortably sets up the vocal muscles (separately from the breathing muscles) in a particular “default”. They likely have no idea what that is or means, as they “just sing”, but making the correct acoustic behavior requires an appropriate and corresponding adjustment in the throat (done through the “ear” or mind). If the young person is then sent to a classical teacher who just puts the classical training on top of this default, because they don’t know there is one, because they don’t think it matters, or because they can’t hear it anyway, the classical training will NOT WORK. The student will not be able to produce correct resonances and will not be able to find the shapes in the vowels that are necessary to generate a viable classical end product. Of course, the student can force the voice to make a pseudo classical sound, through manipulation. That is what most young singers in the above scenario do (not necessarily deliberately). This is why some people think that vocal effort is necessary and correct — they have never experienced truly free vocal sound and don’t know what it is or how it behaves (poor souls!). Add generations of repetition and you understand how vocal training could have gotten to the mostly bizaare place where it has been for the last 50 years. (Make the tone vibrate in your eyebrows. Place the note in your cheekbones, etc.)

Since the classical training sits on top of another vocal adjustment and cannot produce results, the student must be dumb, stupid, stuck, unmusical, untalented, “listening to himself”. etc. But if that were true, no one would ever be able to learn to make more than one kind of sound authentically. Clearly some people do learn, so something else is at work.

When I was young I could “just belt”. I taught myself. It wasn’t hard and I didn’t lose my voice. I could still sing other sounds, so I did. The problem was that the classical sound never got completely to where it was supposed to go. I was told that singing other than classical music would “ruin” my voice, but I did not know what that meant. Was it that it would ruin my ability to sing up high? How high? How high was high enough? Would it ruin my ability to generate those resonances in my foreheard, cheeks, eyebrows, back of my skull, etc.? If so, how? Why? How much resonance was too little? Was resonance the same as volume? How loud did I have to be? What kind of “ruin” were they talking about?

If only all of this confusion were gone! Just this summer I worked in a master class with a 17-year-old high school senior who said she had been “studying voice for two years” but that her teacher didn’t know anything but classical vocal training and she had taught herself to belt. She sang well enough, actually, but in a song that was not a good choice for her. For learning all of it — the music, the performance and the sound, she had done a decent job, although she had many of the typical habits that eventually develop into problems if they are not corrected early. I was looking at myself 40 years ago and it broke my heart. No forward progress in four decades!

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