The Instrument Inside

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How many times have you heard the term singer contrasted with musician? Not only jokes, but gig contracts and common jargon often refer to instrumentalists as musicians and to vocalists as — well, something else. In large part, this stems from the fact that you can't see the singer's instrument — you don't buy it at a store, lug it around in a road case, set it up on a stand, or strap it on.

For the user, the voice's mechanisms are completely internal and not necessarily under conscious control. The voice is also uniquely vulnerable to biology and emotions — after all, keyboards don't get the flu, and when a guitar player gets nervous, the strings themselves don't tighten up. So if you're used to gear made of metal, wood, cables, and keys, an instrument inside your body can seem completely foreign.

Whether you're mainly a vocalist or an instrumental musician who's been hired — or inspired — to sing, rest assured that your voice really isn't all that alien. In fact, you have used it all your life for everyday speech and emotional expression, probably without thinking twice. Using your voice to sing requires simply a bit more awareness and, of course, practice. And as with any instrument, taking care of your voice and using proper technique will help you achieve better results and avoid damage in the long run.

Performance Specs

The two vocal cords are not actually cords, but folds of muscle that can partly or fully close your windpipe — imagine a round tunnel with an inverted-V-shaped sliding door (see Fig. 1).

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FIG. 1: Normal vocal folds, seen from above. During inhalation, the folds are apart (left); during vibration, they barely touch (right). The circular area shown is actually about the size of a dime.

Courtesy Warren Line, M.D.

When the vocal folds are close enough together so that they just barely touch, a steady stream of breath sets them vibrating. The more forceful the breath, the louder the sound.

The vocal folds are located within a structure called the larynx, also known as the voice box or Adam's apple. Tiny support muscles change the length, thickness, and internal stiffness of the vocal folds, affecting sound pitch and quality. However, the singer can't consciously control most of these adjustments. This is why most voice teachers caution singers not to focus on the throat — you don't have much useful sensation of what's going on in there, and tensing up in order to get a certain effect just interferes with your unconscious coordination.

However, it is important to cultivate a more generalized inner awareness. This internal focus or mindfulness, similar to the subtler aspects of martial arts, is a prerequisite for all vocal development. It also protects your instrument by allowing you to notice signs of vocal strain sooner than you might otherwise.

Right now, as you're reading, notice your body's position. Where is your weight resting? Are you slumped or poised for action? Is the day generally going well, or are you just barely surviving a truckload of stress? Are you in love, bored, or mad as hell? All of these things affect how you breathe and the baseline tension in your vocal muscles, and your focus of attention gives you more control over your voice.

Better Breathing

Instead of concentrating on your throat, focus on your breathing. Strong, efficient, reliable singing requires well-developed breath support in a framework of good posture. Serious singers should engage in regular aerobic exercise, accompanied by yoga or other stretches for the back, neck, and shoulder areas. (For a basic daily routine, see “Vox: Singer's Tune-Up” in the April 1998 issue of Electronic Musician's Jam supplement.)

Normal breathing at rest involves approximately equal times for inhalation and exhalation. But talking and singing are asymmetrical: we pull air in quickly and let it out slowly. So practice taking in a fast breath while relaxing your belly and expanding your chest. Hold the breath for a few seconds, then release it gradually. An untrained, healthy young adult should be able to prolong the exhalation for about 14 seconds; work toward 30 seconds or more.

It's important to hold and control your breath with your diaphragm and other muscles in the area of your lower rib cage and waist rather than by tightly closing your throat. A teacher can be a big help in this regard, so ask around for a referral or check the National Association of Teachers of Singing Web site. (See “Onstage Hotlinks” for more references to Web resources.)

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Spectrum Analysis

Once you've developed your power supply, enhance your projection and tone quality by optimizing the resonance in your throat, mouth, and face. This means lengthening your neck, letting your jaw drop open, and mentally projecting the tone through the front of your face. This is another area where a private teacher can help. You'll know it's right when your upper teeth, nose, and eye sockets vibrate lightly and your whole mouth fills with sound. If you have a deep alto or bass voice, you may also feel some vibes in your throat and chest.

If your voice seems flat and dull or it doesn't carry well, practice single notes and simple scales or arpeggios on the syllables “nee-nay-nah” or “mee-may-mah.” If your voice is too nasal, vocalize on “low-low-low,” “ago-ago-ago,” or “gullee-gullee.” These techniques balance the resonance spectrum.

It's also important to sing within a range of pitch and loudness that truly fits your instrument. Rather than straining to make your voice sound like a favorite star's or to meet an arbitrary goal, strive to stay internally mindful and develop your own sound to its fullest. (For more on this, see “Performing Musician: At Home in Your Range” in the February 1999 issue of Electronic Musician.)

Training Manual

Almost as much mystique has evolved around voice training as around singing itself. In addition, vocal styles are now extremely diverse, and most performers have a personal goal or target sound in mind and don't wish a teacher's preferences to shape their voices. However, just as instrumentalists do, you can acquire a solid, fundamental technique from an experienced teacher, then adapt the result for your own purposes.

Better yet, choose a mentor who teaches a style close to yours. For example, rock and R&B vocals are rooted in gospel, so a dynamic church-choir director may be an ideal teacher for these styles. On the other hand, singer-songwriters may benefit more from classes that target actors, because these support effective storytelling. Ask around, network, and take sample lessons from different folks. Another alternative is a voice-training program on audiotape or videotape; you'll find many examples at various music stores and on Web sites.

Maintenance Contract

Even if you take some lessons, practice what you've learned, and develop a sound that fits your individual instrument and goals, your voice remains vulnerable to damage from overuse, health problems that affect your throat or breathing, and the environment in which you live and sing. Sure, a rough, gravelly sound can add “character” to your performance, but even if it sounds cool now, you're putting your long-term career in jeopardy. Here are some general guidelines for keeping your voice at its best.

In addition to regular exercise, get adequate nutrition and sleep. Many of the voice clients who come to me with problems are simply run down, not even aware of how exhausted they are and what effect this has on their breath support and singing stamina.

Avoid vocal fatigue by pacing yourself, talking less on days when you have to sing and setting aside occasional days for complete vocal rest — no singing or talking. Minimize talking during set breaks, and try not to talk or sing over noise. For instance, after a show, chat with friends and fans in a quiet room instead of at the bar, and then shut up, pack up, and go home.

There's a lot of folklore about what singers should eat and drink, but what you breathe is more directly relevant. A humid environment is best, so take long showers and soothe your voice with steam when it feels stressed. Avoid dusty and smoky hangouts when possible, and don't take a day job where you're exposed to chemical fumes. And in case this needs repeating — don't smoke!

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FIG. 2: Two examples of vocal nodules, which are caused by overuse or misuse of the voice.

Courtesy Warren Line, M.D.

Speed Bumps

The most common health problem for vocalists is the development of vocal nodules or nodes, small calluses that form on the edge of one or both vocal folds in response to forceful overuse of the voice (see Fig. 2). Correct diagnosis requires an exam by a laryngologist (ear, nose, and throat doctor), but typical vocal symptoms include a rough, breathy, or grainy sound while talking as well as while singing and a loss of your range's high end.

If nodules are caught early, treatment is usually successful, and with proper retraining of the voice, they need not recur. At the early stage, treatment usually involves vocal rest, careful commitment to the health guidelines discussed earlier, and adjustments in vocal technique, usually prescribed by a licensed speech pathologist.

The longer nodules are ignored, the larger they become, invading and scarring more of the vocal folds. At this stage they may require surgery, and the voice may still be permanently damaged. So if your sound is deteriorating, get it checked out right away.

You should definitely seek medical help for any loss of voice, loss of range, throat pain, or sensations of dryness or fatigue that last two weeks or more. Don't ignore chronic respiratory allergies and heartburn or acid reflux, both of which can inflame the vocal folds. Getting access to good health care is a problem for many musicians, but taking care of your instrument is important. Laryngologists who see a lot of singers are usually sensitive to financial woes. Low-cost public clinics are another option.

Taking Flight

Every singer dreams of the moment when at last a big, pure, passionate sound soars effortlessly out of the throat, captivating the audience as no other instrument can. As with most other musical magic, the key ingredients are often mundane measures such as technique, training, and practice time. For vocalists, staying healthy, self-aware, and self-protective are additional components of success. Follow these guidelines and you'll be as true an artist as any otasp>musician.

Onstage Hotlinks
“A Singer's Notes: Preventing Vocal Nodules,” Wake Forest Center for Voice Disorders.
National Association of Teachers of Singing.
“Maintaining a Healthy Voice,” Eastern Virginia Medical School.
Joanna Cazden's site for voice information.

Joanna Cazden is a speech pathologist and voice coach in Burbank, California. Her Vocal Health booklet and archives of her previous articles in Electronic Musician are available at