Vol. 13 No.1 VASTA Winter 99 p. 11
SPEAKING AND SINGING
by Joan Melton
Years of training as a singer took me through "good and "bad" techniques, including pushing out the abdomen while singing. Yes, I worked with a tight belt around my middle, clenched buttocks, pushed my larynx down, and tried virtually every other way of "freeing!" the voice-and I sang Webern and Schoenberg and Berg and Schumann and Mozatt, in spite of my training!
After 15 years of searching for a very physical way into teaching singing, I met Catherine Fitzmaurice and began to breathe, not in some weird way that kept me focused on technique, but in the way my body wanted and knew how to breathe. Then David Carey, at Central, taught me what was happening in the body, and Meribeth Bunch changed forever my perspective on teaching singing.
My students in musical theatre or opera begin each lesson exactly the way they'd begin a session in theatre voice-on the floor, if possible, integrating the body, voice and emotional life of the actor through physical "exercises." Specific vocalises follow, on the floor or sitting or moving about, for focusing and supporting the entire voice with ease and confidence. The approach often comes as welcome relief! Suddenly a lot of things make sense and bits and pieces of misinformation are discarded.
I teach breathing as a conscious deepening of the body's natural pattern of inhaling and exhaling. I cannot overemphasize the significance of starting from the physiological base. Critical for both singing and speaking is the student's understanding of the body's ability to breathe in without the necessity for gasping, or noisy inhalation. Also many singers have been trained to work fairly high in the abdominal area for "support." However, keeping the (inward) abdominal action as low as possible-and releasing the abs on the in breath-will actually free the torso and open up enormous possibilities for range, resonance, and emotional response. Students often discover "a voice under the voice" rather quickly, and extending the high range, speaking and singing, becomes easy and fun-with a few other principles, or common denominators, in place!
First principle: ribs swing out for inhalation and remain open and relaxed during exhalation. No squeezing in the upper chest or caving in the middle of the torso.
Second principle: throat is relaxed and open. By
"open," I mean a gently lifted soft palate and a tongue that falls front, tip resting at the lower gum ridge for all vowels and diphthongs. In addition, the action of the tongue must be isolated from that of the jaw, so the tongue does its own work, e.g., the difference between "ee" and "ah" is the position of the tongue, not the up and down movement of the jaw.
Third principle: think down as you go up! This is a familiar concept to many singers and it becomes a valuable habit over time. Students often lift the chin and thrust the head forward as they speak or sing higher pitches. The action not only calls attention to their struggle, but it gives them the opposite result from the one they want. Likewise, students may press the head and/or larynx down to sing lower pitches, which usually limits the low range and resonance instead of enhancing it. Indeed, we may be able to graph the melodic line of a song just by watching the head motions of the untrained or inexperienced singer.
Thinking down as you go up works both psychologically and physically. You will tend to be more comfortable, relaxed and confident thinking down than up for high notes, especially if your aural image is one of strength and fullness as you go up in pitch.
Physically, the larynx will tend to stay relatively low, thereby providing more space in the primary resonators, and if the abdominal action is strong-not tight, but strong-the "work" of singing and speaking will be transferred from the throat to the abs.
Fourth principle: it is important to find a clear sound throughout the range, that is, to focus the tone, so that it is not breathy, or so that the focus does not "fall back" and cause the voice to "disappear," especially in the middle to low range. There are many exercises to help with focus and clarity in both singing and speaking. I mix and match my own with Linklater, Lessac, and other work from both singing and theatre voice training.
Fifth principle: use the articulators efficiently, that is, use what is required to shape the sound and let go of extraneous tension and activity. It is not necessary to distort vowels and otherwise make strange faces in order to sing well. As we speak, so we sing. We may need a bit more room in the mouth occasionally, especially for high notes, but the words should come out as clearly as if they were spoken. Syllable stress should be the same as for speaking! Use operative words, breathe where it makes sense to breathe, where you'd breathe if you were speaking. Do the same actor work on a song that you'd do on a monologue. Do it as a spoken piece first; then learn the music.
Teaching a real integration of theatre voice and singing techniques requires extensive training in both. Yet much of what we do in one arena applies to the other. As we help students and clients understand the common ground, we may empower them to sing those sixteen bars with confidence and considerable skill!