Steve Ericson’s Tips for Singing (Part I)

Steve Ericson’s tips for singing: formerly at Choirsinger.com

Republished with permission

One of the best Basses I've ever had the privilege to sing with and a good friend.

One of the best Basses I’ve ever had the privilege to sing with and a good friend.

How to Sing – Posture and Breathing

The pages on this site are about producing a good vocal tone. They are intended to help the community choir member whose formal education may not have included advanced voice training.

1. Posture

There is a good reason to start with posture. It is the foundation on which all other techniques stand.

You have heard of “good” posture, but what does that mean to a singer? Certainly it is not the ram-rod straight posture one associates with a military inspection. Nor is it any stiff and formal pose. Good posture for a singer is instead:

Spine straight and centered for balance but not stiff.

Ribs raised as if at the peak of a normal breath.

Shoulders squared but relaxed (not rounded).

Head up as though looking in the distance. Note: the chin should be at a normal angle to the neck, neither stretched up nor tucked down, to allow the vocal chords maximum flexibility.

Feet slightly apart.

Knees slightly bent.

2. Breathing

Once your posture is correct you can learn to breathe properly. “What,” I can hear some of you say, “is he talking about? Breathing is a natural thing.I know how to breathe.”

Let me explain: if you have ever observed a baby asleep, you may have noticed that the stomach goes in and out while the infant is breathing. Think about this for a moment. Take a deep breath. Did your shoulders rise? Your chest expand? If they did then you have a lot to un-learn in order to give your voice a properly supporting air column.

Go back to the baby again. Now, assume good posture as discussed above – spine straight, ribs slightly lifted, shoulders squared but relaxed – and then expand only your stomach. Did that feel a bit awkward? Try to do it without moving your shoulders or ribs. You’ll find a natural limit to the expansion you can get before things start to move. That is all the breath you need to sing.

Now the next part is easy -maybe. Breathe out. Keep your ribs and shoulders in position (but not tight) and push in until there is no air left. Again moving only your abdomen breathe in. Push it all out again. If you can learn to do this repeatedly with little or no movement in the shoulders you are well begun. All good choral singing begins with these two steps.

On the next page we will begin to discuss tone production. What makes a good singing tone? This page will discuss this issue, as well as taking a look at some techniques for reducing the risk of injury.

More about Breathing

Today we will investigate a few of the things we can do to enhance the breathing techniques we need to practice as singers. We all understand the concept of breathing from the diaphragm to draw the breath into the lower part of the lungs, but there is more to good breathing technique than just getting the air.

One of the more useful analogies I have heard is to consider breath support like inflating a tire (some of us who carry a ‘spare tire’ know where we’ll be inflating it). Before the onset of sound the tire should be inflated to a comfortable pressure. Be sure not to over-inflate; your abdominal muscles don’t have as much control if they are over extended.

Once the tire is inflated, you should always try to keep it between 80 and 95 percent full. This allows you to catch quick breaths as you sing without the need to ‘suck wind’ after a long passage. Collapsing the lungs too far also creates a poorly supported tone, something to be avoided at all costs.

Now that we understand how much air to put in the lungs, let’s look at how we use that air.

It doesn’t take that much more air to sing loud than it does to sing soft. Singing very softly actually requires more control over the air, as the support for a good tone must be balanced with the reduced volume. For that reason, singers should have strong abdominal muscles. However, they should not work the abs to the point where they are no longer flexible enough to accommodate proper breathing.

The dynamic range of the sustained tone will vary from singer to singer, but there should be a noticeable difference in the volume. If you are singing solos in a piece accompanied by a large orchestra you will need to learn how to project your sound, but not necessarily to sing louder – but I’ll save that discussion for another time. The important thing is to use that top 10-15 percent of your lung capacity to support the tone at whatever volume you are singing, and to breathe when you need to in order to keep the tire inflated. Timing your breathing with the phrasing of the music is, of course, ideal, but in long passages you may need to take a breath somewhere in the middle. Plan where you’re going to breathe in those instances, and avoid breathing at the same time as your neighbor (also known as staggered breathing).

Sustaining the tone is important, but how do you start and stop it? The answer, of course, is by breathing.

Many choir directors who have an instrumental background use terms like attack and cut off to indicate the onset and release of sound. Unfortunately those terms also carry mental pictures of violence to the voice. When you begin singing it should be with the breath. I don’t mean put a ‘H’ before each entrance, but rather make sure your vocal cords are not clenched. In the same way, you should never ‘cut off’ the vocal sound by slamming shut the vocal cords. Instead, you should end each passage by inhaling. This not only helps preserve the vocal cords, but it prepares you for your next entrance that much more quickly.

I realize these concepts are difficult to convey without a demonstration, so I will once again recommend that you work with a vocal teacher or coach to master the techniques. No matter what your age or experience level, there is always something new to learn, and working with a good teacher can help us catch and correct any bad habits we may develop.

How to Sing – Tone Production

These pages are about producing a good vocal tone. They are intended to help the community choir member whose formal education may not have included advanced voice training.

What makes a good tone?

Generally, in Western culture a good vocal tone is considered to be one which is full, clear, and audible.

A good vocal tone should not be strident, shrill, scratchy, or breathy. It should also not sound “forced” or “strained,” but instead should sound as if it flows effortlessly from the singer.

Within that definition is still a great deal of room for individual vocal timbre (pronounced TAM-bur), or characteristic sound, and for stylistic interpretation as called for by the music being performed. A singer trained to the Opera would use a different quality of voice than a member of a vocal Jazz group, yet both must produce a “good” tone or face the unemployment line. What is considered appropriate for early music in the style of Palestrina would be entirely inappropriate for a major work with a symphony orchestra, such as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

How, then, is a singer to produce a good tone appropriate to the variety of musical styles typically encountered in a community choir? It all begins with the basics.

3. Producing the Tone: Placement

Beginning with good posture and breath support, the singer must also relax the jaw, so the air passage is not restricted in any way. The tongue should be relaxed and behind the lower teeth, and the throat slightly open – as though on the verge of a yawn. Be careful not to force the tongue down or exaggerate the yawning sensation, as these produce tension on the larynx and can make the voice sound “swallowed” and artificial.

Take a comfortable breath – not too large, but sufficient to support a sustained pitch. With the jaw relaxed and the throat open begin to sing with an “ahh” sound. Experiment with this sound, opening the throat more, then less, while singing at a comfortable volume. Notice the difference in your sound when you force the throat to open too far. Also hear how pinched it becomes if you don’t open it far enough. Find the range of positions that are most comfortable for your throat. That is what you want to feel when you are singing.

4. Putting It All Together:

Now you can put all these elements together: posture, breathing, and placement. You are ready to begin singing. You now have the foundation of good tone, so it is time to practice what you have learned. Try putting these elements together with some simple songs, ones which are familiar to you so you don’t have to concentrate on the words or notes, but can instead think about maintaining this comfortable feeling as you sing. Try singing them first in the middle of your vocal range. Then move up a few keys into a higher part of the voice. If it is too high, don’t push. Instead, concentrate on your breath support, and you will find yourself able to sing higher with less strain.

One word of caution here: Learn to recognize when your voice is becoming fatigued. Much damage is done to the vocal chords of amateur singers when they are tired, as they often try to compensate for the fatigue by resorting to poor vocal technique. Always go back to the basics of posture, breathing, and placement. This will do much to reduce the risk of vocal injury, allowing for years of singing enjoyment.

5. Odds and Ends

Some miscellaneous tips for the amateur singer:

Listen carefully at all times.

Learn to hear the other parts as you sing, and work on tuning with them.

Listen to the vowel sounds. Try to match the vowel sounds of the rest of the choir. When everyone is singing exactly the same vowel the perceived volume of the choir will be amplified, as the sound will be in better focus.

Take a foreign language. Concentrate on the sounds of the language. Your singing will be improved by your broader knowledge.

Listen to other choirs. If you are fortunate enough to live in an area with several choirs, be sure to attend some concerts. Listen for what works and what doesn’t. If you don’t have access to other local choirs, look for a variety of choral music recordings at your local record store. If they don’t have a good selection of classical music then join one of the record clubs and build your library.

Try something new. Even if you don’t like it, you will have learned something.

Enjoy yourself. Relax and have fun. Remember, you sing because you like to sing. Sometimes the stress of rehearsing and performing can tend to make you forget that. Get back the enjoyment.

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