Vocal resonance and placement

The vital thing needed for producing optimal vocal tone is correct resonance and placement. Without these the voice will never sound consistent or at it's best. Every time I sing I immediately "place" my voice in it's spot. This might sound nebulous, but it's all about sensations so it's hard to show or demonstrate. Imagery is the best way to help singers find their optimum placement and resonance, along with a fair amount of experimentation.

Physically my most resonant position is  behind the sinuses and above the hard palate. I like to think of two knitting needles driven into the middle of my skull. If one was located through the bridge of my nose, and the other through the temples, where they intersect  is about where my ideal placement resides. You can manipulate this placement of the voice easily, and that's why it's hard to get it right. Try pushing forward into the nose and you will feel a very frontal, thin placement. Try taking it back and you will experience a hollow, throaty sound that has almost no resonance. Move between the two until a blended sound is achieved. You want the hard, nasal resonance mixed with the hollow, spacey sound to achieve a fully rounded, resonant vocal tone. Eventually, with the help of your singing teacher who will give feedback as to when the sound is at it's best, you'll lock in your placement and it'll become a powerful muscle memory, and therefore easy to replicate at will.

Think of an apple. It has a core and a round body. Your voice should have the same.

Sarastro in the Magic Flute. Opera Queensland 1995.


Looking after your voice

When I started taking singing lessons I was playing guitar in a rock band. I remember all the fuss of looking after my fingers and my hands, trying to warm them up when it was cold, trying to stop them sweating in hot weather, avoiding doing things like gardening and handyman work, and so on. It occurred to me that a singer would be free of all that nonsense, and wouldn't that be a relief. No more lugging guitars, amps, pa, lighting and general heavy gear to gigs. I'd just have a briefcase with my score in it and off I'd go, free to do lots of manual things that I enjoyed without a care in the world. If I got stiff or cut fingers, too bad! They would heal up in due course.

What I didn't reckon on was the constant problem with colds, vocal fatigue, sore throats, draughts, air-conditioning, humidity, dryness - the list goes on. The more critical the singing job, the more I felt I had to wrap myself in cotton wool. No alcohol, no smoking (I didn't smoke anyway), eat the right foods, avoid dairy products, don't talk too much, get plenty of sleep, constantly monitor the state of my voice... I longed for the simplicity of just worrying about my hands. Too late though - the guitar playing door was by now firmly shut in my face and I was committed to being an opera singer.

The voice is such a small, delicate instrument and reflects your general well being in an instant. Many times I'd be singing away happily and confidently and suddenly it didn't want to work any more. Not such a problem in rehearsals, but horrible in performance. I'd have to shepherd my voice to the end of the show as best I could, which was highly anxiety provoking and stressful. Sometimes I'd have to transpose high notes down when the top of my voice failed, which was deeply embarrassing, but fortunately not fatal.

Managing your instrument becomes and obsession and can rule your life if you're not careful, so you have to accept that things go wrong and do your best to cope when they do. That's what a rock solid technique helps with. All those hours working on your voice and building stamina will usually get you through with nobody the wiser but the conductor and your. The conductor never misses anything. Apart from that you have to find out what triggers allergies, excess mucus, blocked sinuses, vocal dryness, unusual frequencies of coming down with colds and chest infections, and any other thing that stops your voice from doing your bidding.

Here are a few things that helped me:

  • Never take anything other than paracetamol for headache or pain if you have to perform that day. Things like Neurofen+, Sudafed and Panadeine dry you out and also force your muscles to relax, which generally affects the way your vocal chords phonate.
  • Avoid alcohol and cigarette smoke.
  • Drink plenty of water to stay properly hydrated.
  • Stay fit doing sports that are voice friendly, eg. bike riding, walking, golf, jogging. I found that if I went swimming in a public pool I would frequently end up with a cold.
  • Try not to talk too much, and don't shout at all.
  • The best lozenges that I found are Vocalzone. They helped me through many a scratchy performance, as did diluted apple juice.
  • Get proper sleep.
  • Don't sing too soon after a cold, it can make things worse if you get inflammation from singing on an already slightly inflamed throat.

Good luck, and remember, your voice is delicate, and if you abuse it you could very quickly and easily lose it.

Patience

Young singers, no matter how advanced their technique is, or how mature sounding their voice is, must learn to be patient. If you want a long, fruitful career that is. I started singing professionally when I was 21, but I didn't start singing opera until I was 26, and not full time until I was 29. It's true that the lower male voices take longer to develop and mature, so basses and baritones have to be even more patient than the higher voices. I have had students who are in their teens who are in a hurry to become professional singers with big, full voices. That pathway leads to misery and a short career in most cases. I can't remember the number of my young colleagues whose careers were severely truncated by taking on roles that were too big, too dramatic, too high, too low, or just too much.

Emma Mathews, The Tales of Hoffmann   

Emma Mathews, The Tales of Hoffmann

 

The problem is it takes years to develop a reliable, sound technique that will see you safely through thick and thin. It's all very well to have a natural talent and exploit that, but when something goes wrong and the wheels fall off, you don't have the experience or the technique to save yourself in a difficult situation. It only takes a tricky performance with a head cold to set you back months, and in some cases it can be the end of your voice and career due to damage sustained from that one performance.

Sadly for all those desperate to climb the ladder quickly, it's a big risk to do so too early. My belief is that a minimum of 5 years of technical study, regular practice, stamina building, becoming a better musician and an educated student of your area of interest is necessary. That includes language study and a lot of listening to the best in the world in your vocal type as well as other types. Learn what the standards are and try and figure out how some singers do what they do. At some stage you will be ready to work professionally, but don't be tempted with roles that are wrong for you. It's better to say no than do a bad job, which can damage a fledgling reputation before you even get started. Song recitals and concert repertoire are ideal for young singers. You learn a lot about performing under pressure, performing with an orchestra, and feeling very alone and naked when it's just you and a pianist. My advice is to leave the pressures and stress of the opera world until you are in your mid twenties at the earliest.

Be patient!