Singing is such a complex process that we sometimes take for granted that it has so many moving parts – like anything our body does naturally, over time we forget the work that happens when our brain triggers these small intricate movements that end up creating something amazing – like producing sounds & words. One element of this process is producing sound & tone. Let’s break things down a tad. If you split the singing process into four broad categories, you would have:
Step 1: Powering the voice – the generator (i.e: lungs & supporting musculature) creates the steady stream of air that starts the sound production process. Check out my breath management post & free breath management video training series if you need tips.
Step 2 – Sound production – the larynx is where the sound is created by the vocal folds that are housed within this super complex structure made up of cartilage, ligaments, muscles, nerves & mucus membranes! Triggered by our brain, nerves in the larynx tell the vocal folds come together when we want to speak or sing (they are apart when we breathe), creating a resistance to the airflow, causing them to vibrate. This creates the fundamental tone. The different speeds the folds vibrate at create different frequencies usually dictated by the length of the folds – thinner/longer for high pitches & thicker/slacker for low pitches.
Step 3 – Resonance – the sound (air particles) can then move within our resonators, the larynx (throat), nasal cavity & oral cavity (mouth), where they can be filtered to enhance, amplify & colour the fundamental tone.
Step 4 – Words – the tongue, teeth, jaw, cheeks, lips & palates bring it all together to interrupt the airflow creating speech sounds.
With so much going on, you can understand why having a healthy infrastructure, free from tension to encourage a clear pathway is the best set up for making the sounds you want! That’s the starting point. First postural alignment, great breath management & then we can move on.
So, how then do you develop your tone?
Start by figuring out what kind of tone you have currently. Tone can be described in a few different ways – light, dark, warm, bright, clear, breathy & so on! Ideally you would aim for a balanced tone & then modify based on the effect that you are going for.
Think Adele for a second. Warm, dark & breathy could describe her tone & emotive style of delivery. She does however know how to brighten things by adding an edge to her voice especially when she’s belting out the high notes.
Listen to your voice & try to describe your tone. Is it light, dark, warm, bright, clear, breathy or something else that suits?
Then we wanna back pedal a second. Once you’ve paid some attention to the sound that is coming out, let’s focus on what you’re doing when initiating the tone. This is called the onset.
Listen again for breathiness (aspirate onset) or a popping sound (glottal onset). This is first sound that the air makes as it moves through the vocal folds initially. Here’s a great phrase to use courtesy of my Berklee training. Say “I ate an apple”. Try connecting the words smoothly & you will have what is know as a balanced onset. Then say “Hi Hate Han Happle” The ‘H’ in front of the words simulates the breathy or aspirate onset. Now say “Uh oh!” That popping sound you hear on both the “Uh” & the “Oh” is a glottal onset.
Breathiness or glottal onsets aren’t bad, they are a tool you can use, HOWEVER they can be overused & this can be detrimental to your voice or if they are a default setting that you’re not aware of or can’t be adapted to suit the delivery you are going for then the sound can be one dimensional.
Try aim for that smooth connected phrase for a more balanced onset & you’ll be sure to be utilising that breath more effectively so that you can start to colour your tone by ‘placing’ the sound. Now placement refers to ‘imagining’ the sound ‘living’ in a certain area like your nasal cavity.
A tip – the further forward the sound is ‘placed’, the brighter the tone & the further back, the darker or warmer the tone.
Have a play around speaking & singing the primary vowels. Sometimes referred to as Italian or smooth vowels (or Maori vowels if you’re in NZ!) are:
The vowels that are spoken/sung in a Forward position in the mouth are Ee, Ay. In the Mid position in the mouth Ah & the Back position in the mouth Oh, Oo.
If you have trouble with singing or shaping the vocals you can modifying them (another blog post that ties in with diction..) to help sing them more easily – this is best done when you have an actual song study to practice on.
So to recap, there are a couple ways to discover resonance & develop your tone. Aside from good vocal health, postural alignment, releasing tension & managing your breath…
FEEL – Aim to feel the vibrations on your teeth, nose, cheeks, lips & forehead for the forward placement (Bright) & in your pharynx (back of the mouth/throat) for a more backward (warm/dark) placement. Imaging smiling inside your mouth. This raises your soft palate & basically makes more space for the sound to resonate in (kinda like a church or cathedral that has high ceilings & open spaces – the sounds just bounces around happily!)
All these areas, even your chest (which is filled with your lungs so is known as sympathetic vibrator) will vibrate when you sing any pitch so it’s just a tool for helping you imagine or place the sound. This feeling should be comfortable & relaxed, with the supporting muscles free from tension or strain.
HEAR – When you listen to yourself, it’s best done using an external source like a video or audio recording as we hear ourselves ‘inside our heads’ differently than the sound that is ACTUALLY being made. Crazy I know! That’s why the objectivity of watching or listening back to a recording is awesome. Listen for a ringing or pinging quality to your voice on certain notes. The pitches of these notes may vary between singers as our internal structures make us all awesomely unique & is why we want to develop OUR signature sound using OUR instrument uniquely. A resonant voice is relaxed & allows amplification & power without strain. It is also in tune! So listen for these key elements!
A balanced tone is what we strive for as it gives us a strong starting point to convey the story & like Adele, perhaps brighten the tone when emphasising with a belted note or darken the tone to suggest a sadness, all in keeping with the lyrics of course!
So that’s a tonne of technical goodness to start thinking about & I’ll do a follow up post on resonance so you can learn how to access different tonal qualities of your voice with some easy triggers – it’s a game changer. Until then, let me know what your thoughts on your tone is & what you’d like to work on specifically so I can keep the info coming & as specific as you want it!
If you want more personalised help with developing your vocal tone, book in for a free introductory performance review with me & I’ll give you tips & feedback on your singing via video! You send me a clip of you singing & I’ll video a response for you & send it to you via private Dropbox of Vimeo link. It’s a cool process – check it out!