Please note: The purpose of these articles is to provide an introduction to some of what can be learnt from vocal studies and is in no way intended as a replacement for learning from a good teacher.
If you learned to sing in classical choirs, you will probably have a clean, fairly flat voice which comes entirely through the mouth with as little nasality and throat as possible (classical singing teaches a ‘perfect’ voice that is safe, efficient and suited above all to accurately recreating the intentions of the composer as communicated through notation). If on the other hand you’ve done most of your singing in football crowds or pub karaoke, you will likely have a shoutier voice where technical perfection is less important than communicating the message in the words, or the personality of the singer. Both of these (as well as any other context you may have begun singing in) are useful and valid starting points for becoming a good singer.
The 20th century revolutionised concepts of what singers (and actors) do with their voices. As recorded music became the primary distribution method ahead of notated music it became more important than ever for singers to have voices that were distinctive and interesting. In musical theatre, singing actors came to focus on the text of the song and character they were portraying rather than purely on technical performance of the music, as their operatic forebears did. Blues, country and folk singers popularised realistic, gritty portayals of everyday people and stories everyone could relate to. Voices were gritty, earthy and expressive, even singing in tune was less important than communicating personality. Jazz singers brought in virtuosic (even though classical purists derided them as ‘crooners’) and improvisational elements inspired by the instrumental soloists they worked with. By the end of the century, popular culture had given rise to a diverse range of vocal styles, from radio friendly pop styles and soft ethereal harmonies all the way through to piledriving soul, rock and extreme voices. Some styles appeared that de-emphasised pitched notes from singing entirely, focusing instead on rhythm and diction (rap and hip hop) or sheer power and aggression (extreme metal styles, growling and screaming).
From The Diaphragm
Whatever style or voice you are aiming for, you are still using the same basic instrument; your lungs (supported by the diaphragm) push air over your vocal folds causing them to vibrate, while your lips, teeth, throat and nose affect the resonance of the resulting sound. If your basic technique isn’t there, you will not get the power or sound you are looking for, or even if you do you will not be able to sustain the effort without losing your voice (in extreme cases, permanently). If you are not familiar with the basics of deep breathing and vocalising, read my past article here. If you know this stuff but aren’t putting it into practice, go away and practice it. Right now, go on. I’ll wait.
If you’re scared about losing all the character from your voice as a result of learning to sing properly, don’t worry because I’m going to be telling you how to get all that character back again, but in a controlled way that you can take further than you thought you were capable of.
One perfectly safe way to add edge to the voice, and the first thing you should experiment with once you’ve got the hang of proper breathing and vocalising, is to use the nasal port, the muscle which directs air to either the mouth, the nose or a mixture of the two. Sound coming through the mouth will have a deep, lower resonance while that through the nose will bring out higher frequencies (nasal sounds). Mix the two and you can change your voice similar to turning the “tone” knob on a stereo system.
Try this (it’s a good idea to have a tissue to hand, because you may want to blow your nose):
First, with your mouth closed, hum a note. Obviously this is now coming out entirely through the nose because you’ve got your lips sealed, but to prove it, pinch your nose shut and the sound will stop. Now try continuing the note while you let your bottom jaw drop without changing the sound of your voice, then pinch your nose again. If you are doing it right, the sound will stop even though your mouth is open. The sound you are producing is your nasal voice directed entirely through the nose.
Now take a deep breath, open out your chest and sing a soft “oooooo”. Pinch your nose, trying to reach a point where doing so has no effect on the sound whatsoever, so you are channeling your voice entirely through the mouth. The sound should be full and soft, with few upper frequencies. Then try moving from one to the other, gradually lifting the sound up into your nose and back again (it may help to sing “ooooo” for the mouth changing to “eeeeeee” for a nasal sound), all the time pinching your nose to see where the air is actually going. With practice, you’ll be able to combine bright cutting nasal frequencies with deep mouth sounds to create a full, powerful voice that is yours entirely.
This is also a useful technique for closing the tonal gap between head voice and falsetto notes and can pay huge dividends in expanding your range.
Your lips, teeth. tongue and facial expression also have a big bearing on the sound you produce. When choir leaders demand a “big smile”, it’s not just for looks – that big smile also opens up the resonance to give a loud, bright sound. If you sing with narrow, close lips you will get the opposite – a muffled, muted sound (obviously, as you’re singing with your mouth almost shut). As with the nasal port, you can experiment with different mouth positions between these two extremes to see how they affect the sound.
In this connection, a common bad habit among pop and rock singers is to sing with their lips right up against the microphone grill – it may sound louder through the monitors, but not only do you risk overloading the microphone the lips have no space to vibrate and resonate, so the sound loses brightness and definition. Think of the worst wedding DJ you’ve ever heard demanding “cmonevryoneletsseeyouallldancing” over an overloaded microphone and you’ll know what to avoid. Seriously, you never want to sound like that guy.
As I said at the top of this article, beginning singing training is about getting all the effort away from the throat and into deep breathing muscles in order to increase power and efficiency. This initially results in a clean “choirboy” voice which can feel like a backwards step if you’re used to attacking power ballads at karaoke, but it is a necessary step to getting a strong and effective voice without relying on shallow breathing and shouting muscles, both of which tire quickly. Once you have the power coming from the right place, you can then look at bringing the neck and throat muscles back in in a controlled way to get the grit and character back.
What you are essentially doing here is distorting your voice – that is, you are deliberately over-pushing or damaging a ‘clean’ sound in order to make it sound warmer, harsher and brighter. That makes it even more important to have a strong, technically sound voice to work with, as distorting a weak sound will just make it even weaker.
I’ll go into a lot more detail on throat distortion later in this series when I discuss extreme vocal styles, but for now try this:
Start with a clean, comfortable note fairly high in your vocal range, but not so high you have to strain to get it. Sing the word “see” as a long sustained note, aiming to channel the sound entirely through your mouth (pinch your nose to find out where your nasal port is set). You should be feeling the resonance fairly high up in the back of your mouth with no tension anywhere else.
When you have a strong, clean sounding note, let that feeling at the back of your mouth slowly sink down into the top of your throat as if you are beginning to cry. This will begin to close up the false vocal folds slightly, breaking the clean sound of the voice, warming the edges and increasing upper frequencies. Push a little harder with your breathing to get a louder note and your voice will begin to break entirely, as if pushing through tears. Once you’ve got the hang of it, try singing the saddest song you can think of, bringing in that crying feeling to heighten the emotion.
If at any point during this exercise you become hoarse or find it painful, stop, have a drink and do something else while you rest your voice. As with any other physical conditioning, trying to do too much too quickly can risk permanent damage and injury.
Here’s a video of Graham Bonnet demonstrating this technique in action: