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The Art of Body Singing

Q & A with Breck Alan

I write a column called Q&A with Breck Alan in every issue of Singer Magazine. Following are several Q&A's that can be found in that column. I'd love to hear your questions. Pick up Singer Magazine at your local bookseller.

Note: FAQs about voice lessons are listed on the Voice Lessons page.

Does Study Ruin Style?

Q: I have a lot of technical problems with my singing but I'm afraid to take voice lessons. I've always been told that singing lessons will ruin a singers personal style. Do you think it's possible to study voice without loosing your uniqueness?

Thank you,

Steven H.- Austin TX:

A: High Steve,

This is an age old question for all art forms. Does Study Ruin Style? The answer is it can, or least temporarily dress it up in the wrong clothing. The problem with the majority of vocal training is that it is taught through musical styles. Coached is actually a more accurate term. Most vocal trainers are coaches more than they are teachers. A handful of very vague singerisms are thrown at a student then on to singing the songs to use up the lesson time. Don't get me wrong, singing is of course the objective. But if a teacher hasn't taught you some tangible vocal technique and a vocabulary to communicate these things then you're wasting your time. When a vocal trainer doesn't have any real information to teach you they have no choice but to teach you imitation. And this imitation is often done through musical styles. Classical singers, theatre singers, blues singers, country singers etc. that aren't taught to distinguish techniques and vocal variations from the style they're learning have a hard time not sounding like that style no matter what music they sing. This is not always a bad thing. Many singers like other musicians have strong stylistic preferences. If a style is really in your heart then there is no shame in being heavily influenced by it. The same goes for your being influenced by your musical heroes. The key is to be unique within whatever form of music you are singing. In the vocal study world this is done by teaching singers several possibilities for any song they might be singing. This is a contrary notion to some styles. In classical singing and many theatre derivatives thereof, a great deal of what I call vocal discrimination is practiced. In other words, women are taught to sing like women and men like men, rather than a more neutral stance that a voice is a voice do with it what you will. Under the influence of this vocal discrimination you have women believing they can only sing in a soprano style of head voice in their upper range and men believing they can only sing in a full non-airy operatic tone. This is basically a product of many years of conditioning and not a physical necessity of the voice. Other than on a scale of higher and lower, men's and women's voices should be addressed the same. The same approach would apply to posture, resonance, vocal break, etc. Once a singer can work through several songs with a variety of vocal techniques, energy levels, and attitude changes, they begin to learn which of these colors they like best. With luck, they'll understand that all of these colors have their place and they will truly begin to make choices best for the song and best for the moment. In summary, if you find a good vocal mechanics teacher then you should be able to make a great deal of progress without destroying your personal style. In fact, you should greatly enhance that style and with luck turn into a multi-dimensional singer capable of many moods and expressions and an ability to bring to life whatever song on whatever stage you happen to be on.

 

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Increasing Volume in Voice

Q: I am a female with a deep voice. I personally think it sounds like a mans, but when I sing, people like it and say my voice is "soulful",
but barely audible. Its even low with a microphone. Do you have any tips to increase the volume and keeping the same "quality"?

Thank you,

Kristen - Winter Springs, Fl. -

A: Hi there Kristen,

There are a few principles to increasing the volume and projecting quality of your voice. 1) Focus on the ingredients of your tonal color. It is common for singers who sing in their lower range to have a chesty sound quality. This is probably part of the soulful man-like quality you are referring to in your voice. What this means is that most of your resonance is coming from your body. What you need to do is teach yourself to add some more head resonance to this tone. Think of resonance in your body like tone controls. The chest is the bass and the head (particularly nasal) resonance is the treble. Bass is a non-directional sound. This is why your tone is not projecting well. Treble is a directional tone and will carry your voice out, to, and past your audience. This is difficult to describe without demonstration, but what you're listening for is a buzzy, edgy sounding resonance. This comes from deep in the nasal cavities high in your head. When you're good at accessing this resonance you can add it to your overall tone and not sound nasally. I often teach this on an "I" vowel. "I" is a diphthong. That means it's two vowel sounds in succession to produce a vowel. Be pure in your vowels. Sustain the "e" part of the vowel and adjust your placement gently and gradually until you can hear more and more of the "buzz" sound. This will take some practice so be patient. Work on isolating this nasal resonance before you try to add it to your chest resonance. Once you have a good handle on it start shifting back and forth between the nasal and the chest resonance. Once you are good at that, go for the gold and blend these tones together. I call that "Tone Marriage" and it's a beautiful thing. This way you still get the deep rich tone that is obviously working for you, and you get to add the cherry on top (nasal/head resonance) that will carry your voice to the back of the room. Yeah baby!!! 2) Now listen to hear if there is a breathy quality to your tone. Even though a breathy tone may appear to have a smooth even quality it seriously cuts down on your volume and projection. Practice singing without hearing the breathe on the tone. You need to work carefully on this and make sure not to push or strain. This takes practice so start out easy and light. As you get better producing this non-airy tone you will hear the size of your voice grow as if by magic. Practice this first from your speaking voice in your lower middle range. I find it useful to count to five or ten several times over. Each time see if you can gently hear less and less air on the tone. To help project your voice, speak as though you are speaking to someone across the room. When this is comfortable move the pitch by a half step and do it again. Do this a lot until you can comfortably produce this tone from your speaking voice in your entire range. Once this is comfortable go back to your lower middle range and start doing this with sustained tones. When you can sustain a non-airy tone and hear the above mentioned tonal characteristics you will really be getting somewhere. Be patient and work hard at it, but never strain. Stand up straight and naturally open and allow the support system (breathe control) to support this tone without force. No Pushing!! The voice does not work through force but through coordination. 3) Articulation is the icing on the cake for projection. I believe in a very natural personal form of projection. Add your real way of speaking, thinking and above all feeling into your articulation. Be pure in your vowels but do not over pronounce or mouth them. Keep your mouth relaxed but fly off the consonants and live on the vowels. Pulse off of key words for emphasis to express your singing in a way that is personal to you. Want to be heard, then others will hear you. These principles will help your singing come to life without losing the unique quality that you already possess. Have fun.

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Imitation

Q: Hi Breck,

I'm a fairly advanced singer and am comfortable with my voice, but unfortunately I sound just like my favorite singer...I won't say who. How do I fix that?

Signed,
The Imitator
Boston MA

A: Dear Imitator,

As it is for any musician on any instrument, to grow you need to understand the beauty of new techniques and ideas. But critical to that is applying these techniques with emotional content. If you're singing with muscle memory singing based on how you've taught yourself to imitate another singer, then it will be hard to convey your own emotions and your own style. I like to teach singers techniques that allow them to see a lot of possibilities. For example is a tone airy? Which types of resonance are you hearing on the tone? Are they buzzy or dull or throaty etc.? I like for singers to pick a few tool songs (anything you like) and sing those songs in as many ways as possible. Sing them in different parts of your range (different keys), sing them quietly like you're singing to a baby, then sing them as though you need to reach the back of the concert hall. Only do the loud stuff if you are advanced enough to do it properly and are well warmed up. Once you have learned that you can sing any song in many different ways and have really taught yourself to execute the techniques necessary to do so, then it is very important that you remember the next key thing, "Singing is Acting." Here you must learn to connect your techniques to your emotions. I teach this through something I call "Tone by Attitude." Get a bunch of cue cards and write several different emotions on them: happy, sad, mad, confused, tired, anxious, etc. Then take some songs and start randomly flashing these cards at yourself. Not too quickly, 2 or 3 per song is fine and start interpreting the song with the emotion in front of you. Don't worry if it's not right for the song — we're practicing. There's no wrong answer. However you choose to interpret an emotion is fine as long as it's honest. Some would interpret angry with very loud singing, some would interpret it with quiet seething tones. That's the beauty of it. As you begin to really put a personal touch into your singing then you will no longer sound like another singer, you will sound like you! And that's cool.
Have fun,
Breck Alan

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Singing for Singing's Sake

 

Q: Steve R (Uk)-I am not a performer but I am a musician. I like the idea of knowing 'how' to sing but don't desire at all to make a point of entertaining people with my voice. Weird one, I know, but considering the above, I have worried about how to approach vocal training. The thought of a room with a number of people each doing their part as a group makes me feel uncomfortable. I just want to know how to entertain myself while in the shower and record my voice for compositional purposes in my project studio. Is there any hope for me?

A:Yes Steve,

Breck- There is indeed much hope for you and others like you. Everyone has a right to sing, if for no other reason than the sheer fun of it. Your mission to get comfortable and expressive with your voice is much the same whether you will be using it in performance or alone. The idea is to see the voice as an instrument and make it function as such. This is not a cold thing. It is a practical thing that allows you to connect to emotion in your singing as you would hopefully do with any other instrument. The problem if the voice is not at least somewhat developed is that no matter how inspired you might be, it is impossible for the voice to follow your emotional content. That's frustrating in both the singing and the listening stages, because struggling in singing does not sound good and it's no fun to do. Your level of development, however, is completely unique to you. You can have fun singing at almost any level. The important thing first is to be comfortable and safe. Start out easy and get your voice loose, then add the mojo. Or rather let the mojo in, as it's already there. One of the first things I teach a singer is something called "Speaking the Melody." The first bridge from speaking to singing is in sustaining notes. Once your comfortable speaking some melodies from your lower middle range, begin sustaining the vowels of those melodies and you will be traversing into the singing world. To start adding tonal variety generally requires at least some rudimentary studies in vocal technique. That's where you'll learn the basics of vocal mechanics, i.e. breath control, resonance work, articulation, interpretation etc. These are good roads to travel if you're interested in turning up the energy level and kicking out some sound. But to just add some interest to your lighter comfortable singing, things like inflection, attitude and charm come more from just naturally expressing these feelings as you would in speaking. If you're truly just trying to get your songs down on a recording so that another singer can take over, then you don't have to worry very hard about it. Basically, try to be in tune and just get the melody and phrasing the way you'd like it. If however this whole writing and recording thing is strictly for your personal enjoyment then that answer is also simple. Get it to where you like it. If you don't think it's good enough then you need to work on it until you like it. And regardless of whether you perform to other beings or not, a good vocal take is still a performance. To improve your vocals for any reason requires some wood shedding (practice) just as it does with any other instrument. Ultimately, your level of vocal skills should revolve around one question; Are you achieving the desired results, your desired results. Good luck and have fun.

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Pulsing/Pant breathing Technique

Q: I have been taking some lessons through a system that involves the pulsing/pant breathing technique. We create a lot of volume by pushing from the diaphragm in both head and chest voice. I'm told that this is supposed to free the voice and develop strength of the vocal cords. Seems a little scary. What are your thoughts on this method?

Thank you,
Tracy
Washington DC

A: Dear Tracy,

You have asked a very good and important question for the world of voice training. Your instincts to be nervous about this method are right on. I do not like the pulsing/pant breathing technique. I feel that it is a very lop-sided approach to vocal training. First, the vocal cords are not muscles, despite the well-worn myth that the voice is just a muscle that gets stronger simply by using it. The vocal cords are in fact unique multi-layered bands of ligaments with a thin muscular center. Their job is to produce the initial pitch and tone of voice and then allow resonance from the body to magnify and color those tones. Second, the diaphragm is not the only component of the support system (breath control). Breathing in singing is affected by muscles from about three to four inches below your navel all the way up to the magical diaphragm. Teaching diaphragm strength for its own sake creates pushy, forceful singing. The support system (breath control) needs to be coordinated in connection to whatever type of singing you wish to sing, i.e. loud, soft, airy, full voice, etc. Therefore the initial subject should not be "strengthening the voice" but rather "coordinating the voice." When this comes together, adding energy for a bigger voice will actually turn into something that sounds good, has a lot of tone variety and is healthy. Start by working on a nice tall open posture. Then work on gently singing in your lower-middle range right out of your speaking voice. Sing some melodies you know in that comfortable part of your range. If part of the melody goes a bit high, it's OK (for now) to let it release into your little, falsetto, head voice (or whatever you happen to call it). In "The Art of Body Singing" I refer to this tone as the "Mouth Horn" because it is very important to distinguish it from the resonance in our body. The point here is to get comfortable first. Then we can add the size,volume , power, etc. later. The only way to do this effectively is to take a tour of all the pieces that make up the instrument called voice and to begin to coordinate them together. I cover this in a step-by-step procedure in my vocal instruction books "The Art of Body Singing Volumes 1-4."

Good luck and have fun singing,
Breck Alan

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Unhappy with Sound of Voice

Q: Dear Mr. Alan,

I don't like the sound of my voice but I really want to sing. What can I do about that?
Jim Attwood
New York NY

A: Hi Jim,

You can do a lot about that. The key is to learn to find tone variety in your voice. Once you can do that you will have many choices of colors and can begin finding many things in your voice that you like the sound of. You need to spend some time working on resonance. Resonance is the sympathetic vibrations that occur in your body to the initial vibrations begun in your throat by your vocal cords. I break resonance down into three chambers:

  1. The Chest (Bass)
  2. The Mouth Horn (midrange)
  3. The Nasal Horn (treble).

It is important that a singer can really work these resonance chambers individually so that they can then begin to blend them together to produce the kind of tones that match the emotional content and the overall esthetic they are trying to deliver. Record yourself singing and listen back. Make some adjustments, record yourself and listen again. Repeat procedure several thousand times.

Keep on looking, your voice is in there.

Breck Alan

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Vibrato

Q: Is the vibrato learned through the technique using slow to faster pulsing a "real" vibrato," or is it contrived? Could using this technique do harm? Is there a better way to develop the vibrato and is it true that other ways take a very long time?

Terry Coleman
Boulder, Colorado

A: Once long ago as a youngster I was in Berlin pre-unification. Like all tourists I had one thing on my mind — the Berlin Wall. I asked a local person how I could find it and she grumbled, "don't look for the wall. It will find you." Years later I asked a great voice teacher Peter Elvins how to get vibrato. He said something reminiscent of the crotchety Berliner, "don't worry about your vibrato. It will come when it's ready." It took me awhile to understand what he meant but it did eventually become clear. When you focus on good tone production, vibrato becomes a natural element that falls into place. The vibrato I teach to singers is something I call "Open Body Vibrato." This true vibrato is a natural balance of breath and resonance. It is possible only when a singer is capable of an open, unforced and sustained tone. When you sing a well placed, non airy sustained tone practice patience first. Listen to this tone and begin to make adjustments. This is best done when a singer has a good understanding of how resonance and placement work. The first place to focus on placement is at the post nasal position inside your mouth. This is right where your uvula hangs down. This is what I call the "Anchor" in singing and is basically the sound board of the voice. This is the beginning of resonance for the voice after the initial pitch and tone created by the vocal cords. All other resonance from the nasal passage, the mouth and the chest is attached to that initial placement. If you are well-Anchored and your support system (breath control) is even and not pushy, you will begin to hear the vibrato happening naturally. Because this true "Open Body Vibrato" is a type of echoing effect of the resonance in your body it is adjustable by making slight changes in resonance. If you direct your resonance upwards towards your nasal passage, it will become faster because that is the smallest resonance chamber. Conversely, if you direct your resonance more into your body (chest) it will slow down because that is the largest resonance chamber. Does this kind of vibrato take more time and patience then the type you described in your question? Yes it does. But it's worth it because it's real and when a singer finds it through this kind of process there are so many other things that come to them along the way.
The technique you described is indeed capable of causing harm if you are creating too much pressure on your vocal cords and larynx. And yes, this type of vibrato sounds very contrived and phony. Singing is largely about conveying emotion, and as in any type of communication honest emotion is desirable. That said I always maintain that anything a singer tries as long as it doesn't hurt him/her is fair game. A huge part of learning and continuing to enjoy any instrument is in experimentation and discovery. So if you are careful with it, you might find some interesting embellishments that you enjoy.

Have patience, the slow way is the fast way.

Breck Alan

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Bruised Larynx!!!!

Q: My toddler accidentally head-butted me in the throat and now I can't even talk without discomfort, much less sing. Very disconcerting! I have a performance scheduled in a month. Do you know if it should be better by then?

Linda Morrell
Anchorage, Alaska

A: You should probably be fine in a few days. If it's still within the first 24 hours I would ice it like any other trauma with swelling. Crushed ice would work best. The larynx is like a little box of cartilage woven together by muscle tissue. Unless you really damaged the structure of this you should be fine when then swelling goes down and the bruising subsides. I would go to a health food store or natural pharmacy and get some Arnica. It's magical for bruised and damaged tissue. If you fear you might have damaged the structure of your larynx, then you do need to see a doctor!!! I understand how scary that is for a singer. I won't allow anyone to even touch my throat.
The answer to when you can sing again depends a lot upon how good your singing habits are. If you're not a singer with great finesse then I would probably wait for about a week. If you have great control, then you'll know when.

I wish you the very best,

Breck Alan

A week later Linda e-mailed back:

My voice is doing great. Thank you so much for the wonderful advice!

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Mumbling

Q: I sing in a rock band and really enjoy it. I've had several people tell me that they can't understand what I'm singing. My girlfriend says I sound like I'm mumbling? What can I do about that.

Stan Bloodworthy
Detroit, Michigan

A: You need to think a bit about articulation. Articulation is best achieved by the ear. This simply means "want to be heard and want to be understood." Often singers mumble because they're not confident in some part of their presentation. Maybe it's their lyrics, maybe it's their tone, maybe it's their stage presence. If you want to be understood then be clear in what you're saying/singing. So much of that is achieved by listening to yourself. Something you'll hear me say a lot is "the first part of voice is the ear."

That said, the first thing is to understand about articulation is the concept "Living on the Vowel and Skipping off the Consonant." We sustain vowels and connect them with consonants. Really learning how to think of singing as "phrases" and not just notes and words smoothes a singer out and makes their singing more liquid. I also like to purify a singer's vowels early on by teaching them about diphthongs. Diphthongs are two vowel sounds glued together to produce a vowel. For example: "I" = ahh eee and "A" = ehhh eee. You can only sing one of these sounds at a time and be clear.

These are a few of the main things. We'll talk more about this and related subjects soon.

Have fun seeking clarity,

Breck Alan

Breck Alan

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