Volitional movement is a hot topic for me.
If teachers of singing really understood what can and cannot be felt, moved and adjusted, life for students of singing would certainly be easier. If they used language accurately, that would also help.
If I said, “Please beat your heart faster” you would look at me blankly. But I can certainly ask you to run up and down several flights of stairs and your heart rate would rise. If I ask you to “float the tone on the airstream so it spins” you would also look at me blankly, but if I said, “take it easy here, sing softer and let your tongue relax and your jaw flop open” you might actually be able to do that. If I said to you “all the vowels are made in the back of your throat so hold your jaw down, keep your larynx low and make each sound in the same deep place” you could attempt some of that, but it could end up feeling awful, sounding worse and making you hate singing. If I said, “take a breath in through your mouth as if you were going to yawn, but don’t go too far into that position, and then allow the sound to come out on a gentle sigh in that same shape and see how it feels and sounds”, you might actually get a warm, full throated sound that was “deep” and “stabile” but that felt good and sounded the same because it was freely produced.
While the sound-making process is hidden from view and we take for granted all of our lives that when we need to speak out loud a sound emerges, we do not much think about how that happens until and unless we speak professionally or sing (or both). At that time, paying attention to the sound for its own sake forces us to dissect it for its various ingredients and examine how we can change, adjust and create the kinds of sounds we ideally are seeking. This is where the process begins to work or break down.
If you do not know what is “good”, or why (and many students have no clue), and if you do not know what healthy vocalism is or sounds like, or what professional caliber singers are expected to do in the various professional CCM styles, or if you pay no attention to any of this because you think you are smarter than everyone else and therefore you have made up your own criteria, you are going to be in trouble or cause it if you attempt to teach.
Sometimes I have the pleasant experience of seeing someone in the studio who has been thoroughly and properly trained elsewhere and is seeking to change, expand or improve their vocal technique for professional reasons. Unfortunately, I have also heard all manner of nonsense in my studio over the years from people who are coming to me from another teacher. People have said things like, “My teacher told me to add more cord to my sound.” “I like to squeeze my throat and tighten my jaw on high notes.” “I don’t vocalize the way I sing in performance because once you go onstage you have to forget about technique anyway.” “I don’t sing enough from my diaphragm.” “I know you are supposed to tighten your throat when you go up high but I get tired because I can’t tighten the right way.” [You think I’m kidding. No.] “I hold my larynx up too high.” “I think I have forgotten how to sing on pitch because I sing flat a lot but I don’t hear it until I hear myself on a recording.” [I could go on but you get the point.]
Teachers must understand that attempting to volitionally move anything in the throat itself, including the larynx, is as fruitless as trying to move the psoas muscle if you are not a dancer or gymnast. Sooner or later the throat will respond, but it will do so in response to another stimulus (like running up the stairs to increase the rate of the heart). The cost of doing anything deliberately with muscles that were meant to respond indirectly is high. Beauty of tone, freedom of movement and emotional spontaneity go out the window when the throat locks into place (even if the place is a good one).
You can learn to move the ribcage on purpose but it takes time and keeping it lifted and expanded, but still, while moving only the abdominal muscles can take quite a while to master. You can learn to keep your body aligned but that’s not the same as keeping it rigid. You can learn to make a consistently stabile strong sound that is also capable of changing easily in multiple ways. You can learn to go higher and lower, louder and softer in a variety of tonal textures but without changing the vowel sound unless you want to.
You CANNOT learn to sing “on top of the note” but you can learn to tune the vowel to the pitch and the volume accurately. You cannot learn to “spin the tone so it floats through the top of the head” but you can learn to sing delicately and sweetly in an undistorted vowel that isn’t loud. You cannot learn to release your jaw while holding your mouth wide open and pushing your tongue down so your larynx remains low but you can learn to gradually lengthen the muscles in the jaw and cheeks (inside and outside) through stretching so that the jaw falls further down loosely on its own, and you can learn to remain in a relaxed warm tone with the jaw in this loose position. These things take time to accomplish well even if you understand what they are when they are done correctly at the outset. Doing them correctly over a very long time produces results that nothing, absolutely nothing, done in the present moment can do.
If your intention is to learn everything there is to know about how we make and shape vocal sound, do not spend all of your life in a classical vocal studio. Go learn jazz. Go learn rock. Learn Broadway, learn country. Learn Shakespeare. Learn Keats and Shelley. Take your voice on a diverse journey through vocal sound in all of its parameters. You will discover that the boundaries of what is deliberate and what is not can greatly expand but that the responses are always those that were meant to be volitional in the first place. Those responses become smaller, larger, faster, slower, more subtle and more obvious, but what was indirect remains indirect.
There’s more to talk about on this subject, but that’s enough for now.