In this article we’ll dive in to how to care for and improve one of the most incredible instruments we have available to us, the human voice. I spoke with vocal instructor Michael Kiley about the basics of understanding our singing voice.
It is so easy to take our bodies for granted. Singing is a complex interaction between our vocal chords, our brains or ears and our lungs. As with any intricate instrument, the voice has many aspects and some specific steps that can help warm it up and keep it operating at peak performance. In order to keep your voice in shape, there are a few fundamentals that need to be focused on.
Basic Elements of the Voice
A singer typically has two ranges, called their “head voice” and their “full voice.” Your head voice is sometimes called your falsetto voice, and typically has a thinner, lighter tone. Your “full voice” is your normal singing voice, and tends to have a fuller more resonant tone. The point at which your voice changes from “full” to “head” voice is called your “break.” It is important to keep both of these ranges in shape, and Michael recommends a mixing exercise that ascends and descends through your break, so that you can learn to navigate it and move smoothly between the two ranges. This helps develop one large register with a consistent tone and quality.
The Next main area to focus on is your rhythm, which involves exercising your diaphragm and breathing technique. Michael calls this a flexibility exercise and it usually is a drill comprised of staccato rhythms that cause the diaphragm to pulse and therefore draw a lot of blood to the muscle. Michael adds, “Basically, any staccato phrase over the interval of a fifth, sung in the middle of your full voice range will do. The “Oh Oh Oh” hook from Beyoncé's Single Ladies is something I use with kids cause they know it and it's fun.”
When I ask Michael about some specifics for singing with great pitch, things get a little more complicated. We’ve probably all heard that pitch comes from oscillations in our vocal chords. However, when it comes to how we get our bodies to make those vocal chords vibrate at the correct rate, Michael concedes it is a bit of a mystery. “[It’s] something we have very little, if any, control over,” says Michael, “Your brain is the thing that moves the muscles in your larynx to get your vocal folds to the right length and thickness to duplicate the pitch that you hear, and how this is done is an actual mystery. It's like asking where your soul lives. In short, we have no control over the pitches we make. We only have control over how those pitches are articulated, and that all comes from your breath and practice.“
A Simple Vocal Warm-Up
Michael has a typical warm up routine that he tries to do at least forty five minutes to an hour before a performance. The routine starts with, “A head voice exercise over an interval of a fifth, a head voice exercise over the interval of an octave, a full voice exercise over the interval of a fifth, a full voice exercise over the interval of an octave, a flexibility exercise, and finally a mixing exercise.” Beyond this basic warm up he also recommends getting your face, mouth and tongue moving to get your articulators awakened. When it comes to preparation for specific songs for a recording sessions or concert, Michael recommends singing the songs every day for a month leading up to the session or concert. “Think of it like training for a marathon.” he says.
Diet, Lifestyle and the Voice
In addition to exercising our voices, there are some lifestyle choices that can have a direct impact on how we sound. For example, dairy causes mucus build up, and acidic food and drink strip our vocal folds of their lubrication. Alcohol and caffeine also are important to be aware of as they both dry out our vocal chords. Michael acknowledges that each individual needs to be aware of his or her own body when it comes to how these items effect our singing saying, “there is no blueprint. Just find what works for you and makes you feel relaxed, because the mental aspect of singing is the most important.”
Rest and energy levels are also aspects of our lives that can effect our voices. “Rest is very important. You need to be physically and emotionally ready if you want to be a singer that turns heads,” says Michael. He also warns that it is incredibly important to pay close attention to you voice if you are feeling sick. “If you have an infection in your respiratory system, you should avoid singing at all costs, “ he says, “the best way to judge if you are too sick to sing is if you can access your head voice. If your head voice can oscillate, you are good to go. But if nothing comes out, you should shut it down and try again the next day. If you do sing in this condition, this is when you are at risk for developing polyps or cysts, which can lead to surgery. And surgery can sideline you for 6 months to a year.”
Another often overlooked aspect of our bodies that Michael says is extremely important for singing is our alignment and posture . “Your instrument is housed by your body, and that instrument has a shape in which it functions most properly. Think about taking any other instrument and bending it. It won't function well, if at all. But because our bodies are amazing, we can sing while folded in half if we have to, but the sound and production will change.” In this case, there is an element of sonic taste that is applied. With regard to the best postures to create certain sounds Michael says, “it depends on what you are going for, and how well you can control your voice in a certain position. Are you getting the sound you are after? If so, more power to you. But if you feel like your voice is lacking something, alignment can be the key to solving that. Proper alignment is the key to allowing your voice to resonate, which is how we amplify our voices and give them timbre and color.” So in this case follow your ears, but keep in mind that if you have poor posture, “ you are robbing your voice of resonance, and therefore overtones and the beautiful complexity of the acoustic wave forms we can create when we sing."
Using Your Voice in the Studio or on a Stage
With our warm ups behind us, I asked Michael for some tips we can use once we are in the studio or at a concert. It is kind of odd that in both situations, where a singer is expected to be a brilliant performer, most of the time they are hearing themselves in slightly unnatural settings: through headphones or stage monitors. I was curious if there were any vocal exercises or techniques that can help a singer perform at their peek, even in the case of a less than ideal monitoring environment. Due to the close relationship between the ear, the brain and our vocal chords, Michael says developing a kind of muscle memory to the key to having a consistent voice across a wide variety of singing situations. He explains, “This is a reason why I teach learning to access your voice through sensation rather than relying on listening. Know how your pitches, your melodies, feel in your body, and learn that muscle memory, so you have something tangible that you can recreate in the studio or at a show regardless of how good your monitors are.”
When we’re recording or singing live, the first thing we tend to think about is pitch, but Michael suggests that we also pay close attention to our breath and phrasing. “Knowing where you are going to breath will allow you to articulate your phrase, which is the primary thing an audience is listening to. Typically, you want one breath per melodic and/or lyrical idea or phrase. Don't breath in the middle of an idea, or it will break up the phrase, and the audience won't perceive the shape of the phrase as you wrote it.” Think of one of the most impactful lines of your favorite song, and then think about the differences in emotion and feel that can occur if the phrasing or breaths were altered just a little bit. It can really change the impact of a lyric and melody. Michael continues, “Your melody is your theme right? So if you breathe in the middle of your theme, when you vary it, or repeat it, it will have less impact on the ear. Being decisive and rehearsed on your breaths is hands down the most important part of performing.”
One final consideration for the stage and studio is how you articulate sibilance. Sibilance is those sometimes-harsh sounds of the “S”, “F” and other consonants. Michael recommends articulating these sounds quickly and softly if possible, unless you are going for a specific effect. He adds that vowel sounds are always more interesting to listen too.
Make Some Noise with your Voice
The human voice can be one of the most emotional and expressive instruments musicians have access too. Keep Michael’s basic tips in mind to help maintain your voice and keep it healthy. However, remember that there is more to a truly unique voice than any standard best practices for singing. Michael sums it up perfectly, “Some teachers think there is a right way and a wrong way to sing, but I think each singer is unique. Lots of amazing singers do things that are technically "wrong," but the singers I love the most are the one's who manipulate their voices in all kinds of ways. When you are singing your own material, and not trying to fit inside of a genre, it's all fair game. “
About Michael Kiley
Michael Kiley is a composer, sound designer, performer and educator working in dance, theatre and public installation. Over the last 15 years, he has been developing a voice practice entitled Personal Resonance, which approaches the human voice not as an instrument to achieve preconceived ideas of how you should sound, but to experience what it is to be an individual. Learn more on Michael's website.