August, 2007

Welcome to the first monthly installment of my exciting new addition to my website: Voice Tips on Vocal Technique! The tips will also encompass a number of related aspects of singing/performing, as I deem them interesting and helpful, when stimulated by the daily needs and questions of my students. Since I had meant to introduce this first issue, on my birthday, August 15, subsequent topics will be on the 15th of the month.

The topic for this first “tip” is the most important of all, for the singer. I start with the personal declaration that, virtually all singers who make it in the business … are natural singers. Inherent in that statement is a concrete fact that all natural singers have a pretty good visceral feeling of how to breathe, for the voice and how to keep the voice moving along, i.e. “support” it. (I will deal with support, specifically, in next month’s installment.)

Most singers have had music or musicians or singers in their home … and everyone just did what everyone else did. I have no remembrance of a time when I wasn’t a good singer. My greatest advantage was that I had an older sister, Helen, who played the piano and sang very well, as did my mother and father, to a lesser extent.

For me, how one breathes for the voice, is the most important first step in the teaching of good singing. It is simply a given that many more singers breath backward than those who breathe correctly. Some of the greatest singers made whole careers doing so, because they were otherwise so talented and efficient with their breath … breathing backwards wasn’t that much of a hindrance. Beverly Sills, my glorious partner in many operas, over nineteen years, both at the Met, the N Y City Opera and elsewhere, was a perfect example. She was just terribly efficient. (You can tell backward breathing, in a singer if, upon inhalation, the chest goes up … meaning the belly button went in … instead of out!

Singers, in the main, do not believe they have taken a breath unless they hear it and feel it. There is a dramatically easier way to get the air you need. The breath is to the voice what gasoline is to the engine, what air is to the harmonica and what compressed air is to the pipe-organ organ. The voice is such a wind instrument, as well. You need flexible breath-pressure flowing on demand, between the chords, which approximate, to produce a given tone on a given pitch. It is in the way I get my air, where my technique departs from the main mania.

Last year, I attended a “Master Class,” where four of the first five singers … were breathing backwards … and the “Master” had no idea. That was the first thing he should have addressed. And what I have seen in some voice studios is frightening to behold. (What I saw over my year teaching at USC was a case in point.) Singers are taught to pull air in, through tight throats, tight mouths, to fill the cavities all the way to the back, stretching to pull in every last bit of air…the action of that, of course, loading the body and throat with parasitic tension ... which you will feel going for that HIGH NOTE on page four of the song. (In case you’ve missed it, that’s a lot of tension … just before you are going to sing!

Here’s how you get air just before you sing. Print this out and paste it on the mirror before which you sing. It ain’t rocket science … but it is science, nevertheless. Aristotle observed in the fourth century BC that, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” As a consequence of some 300,000 feet of atmosphere above us, having weight and mass, the “air” is attracted by gravity and manifests itself, at sea level, as approximately 14.7 pounds per square inch of pressure … on everything. You can’t feel it, because you have always had it … but it is there.

As you lie in bed tonight, watching Jay Leno between your feet, bare your belly button and observe nature at work; as your belly button goes out, your lungs fill (top off) with air (oxygen). Conversely, as your belly button goes in, the air goes out taking the CO2 with it.

Soooo …are you ready for this … you don’t have to pull air in … it comes in all by itself—if you let it come in. Soooo … taking this thought a bit further, if you quickly push your belly out (pop it out) and let it go the tension … your lungs are filled to capacity (you don’t need any more than that) and you have purged your body of accumulated tension, garnered while singing a tough phrase or three! 

When you pop your belly out, your diaphragm instantaneously lowers … and ALLOWS the air to fill the lungs to the bottom, that space created by the lowering of the diaphragm. The only work you did was to “pop” the belly button out—on a horizontal plane—and let the air “top off” your lungs. (Remember, you are not “filling your lungs … they already have air in them, else they would collapse!) Now, all you have to do is give a little “kick in” with your belly-belly button … and you have started the impulse air that starts the sound … and you keep feeding the voice as needed, with flexible breath-pressure (flexible belly button) on demand. There is more to it, but you will understand how most of it works, by standing in front of you full-length mirror, after you have practiced in bed. (Bed first—mirror second!) When you pop the BB out, with your mouth and throat open you’ve done three things: you’ve stopped the tone, the lungs are full and the tension is momentarily out of your six pack … and you are ready to do it all again … all night long … as I have done through a thousand or more performances.

Come on in … and I will show you how powerful a full your voice can be … in most cases, with far less work than you are using now.

It’s what I do!