Mind - Body Connection
By Jeannie Deva
What are your thoughts about singing? Do you think you have to reach up to sing high? Do you think you have to push or squeeze to sing loudly? Do you have any reservations about your voice or singing? The marvelous thing about your instrument (your voice) is that it is emotion and thought sensitive. This is why you can sound the emotions you're experiencing and convey them to your audience.
However, if you have any uncertainty about your singing this too will be conveyed through your voice. If you think that a pitch is high, for example, it may cause an mental anticipation and anxiety about "hitting it." This interrupts your concentration and harmonious interaction with your voice and may cause you to lose control. To feel uncertain or insecure about your voice is a debilitating state of mind. Any uncertainty or anticipation of negative results becomes the primary driving force. The results can be off pitch, poor tone, cracking notes, register break, an enforced falsetto and unwanted nasality, as well as physical damage such as hoarseness and nodes. (Nodes: callus-like bumps which typically form in pairs on either side of the rims of your vocal folds. Nodes can be the result of throat muscle tension during singing and/or speaking.)
The Myth of High and Low
It's interesting to note that the concept of "high" or "low" can only exist once you compare one sound to another. In truth, your vocal folds do not soar up into or over your head for a "high" pitch, nor do they drop down into your chest for a "low" one. Yet, many singers tend to reach up or down in the direction of the pitch as they sing. You may have sung this way without awareness, but perhaps it sounds familiar now that we're speaking of it.
How Your Body Reacts
So what does thinking the placement of the pitch high or low have to do with breathing and breath control? To think each sound in terms of its pitch position, up or down, makes your body "think" it has to send air to a location other than to your vocal folds (located just behind your Adam's apple, they lie horizontally in the front half of your throat). When singing, if you have the idea you need to push or "reach up" for higher pitches, your body will respond in undesirable ways. If you think "up" when singing high notes, your ribs and diaphragm will tend to push up an excessive air stream as if your vocal folds were in your mouth or above your head. This is not sensible but the concept of "up" translates to your muscles as "push harder to get there." It's as if, on a physical level, the idea of "up" gets confused with "further away." This excessive air stream causes vocal problems.
One adverse effect of excessive air is that the muscles of your vocal folds will tend to tighten in resistance. Sometimes this pressure is so great that it bends them upward or makes them vibrate a bit too fast. Anyone ever tell you you're singing off pitch? Perhaps this is the reason why! Another side effect of excessive air is that it pushes the vibrations into your head. This accentuates the treble and loses the bass and mid-range resonance in your voice. Ever wish you had more "bottom" or depth to your voice? Along with this idea of reaching the pitch, your throat muscles tighten and pull up or down in the direction in which you consider you have to go to get the sound. The back of your tongue will raise and stiffen, pulling up your larynx and creating a choking position as you reach upwards. Singing in this position strains your sound, adds effort to singing, and contributes to "register break."
If you push down for lower notes, your muscles will again mirror your thought, manipulating the position of your vocal tract. This keeps it from being in the position needed for you to easily sing in that area of your range.
Demonstration: Swallow and notice the feeling in the back of your throat. Place your fingers on your throat and swallow again. Notice how it feels, how the back of your tongue tightens and lifts, and the top of your larynx first moves up. This movement closes off the opening of your larynx, within which lie your vocal folds. Singing with this position requires greater effort and produces the feeling that some singers refer to (and you yourself may have experienced) as having to push up against a ceiling to get the pitch. By getting rid of any tendency to reach or push up or down for pitches and by letting your vocal tract (larynx, tongue, back wall of your throat, and soft palate) remain relaxed, you will make tremendous progress towards your vocal goals!
Singing Like You Speak
If you just consider each sound on its own, it is neither high nor low; it's just a tone. Thought of in this way, there are no high or low notes. There's just sound made by different small, natural and coordinated movements inside your body and determined by the varying speeds at which your vocal folds vibrate. To achieve a full sound throughout your range, your larynx must be allowed to float in its normal position in your throat, similar to that of speaking. When you speak, chances are you don't reach up or push down to make different pitches.
As well, you probably place more importance on communicating to someone while the pitches and colors of your voice spontaneously flow as an extension of your emotions and concepts. Try thinking of pitches as vowel sounds of different colors, rather than different heights to climb. It is beneficial to first speak the words of the song you are learning and to explore what it is like to just say each word. Then add the melody "color" to each word and practice singing like you speak - talking on pitch.