How to Sing: The Big Picture

Recently, I had a student ask me for an overview of singing. So often in voice lessons, we work on a little tiny piece of the singing puzzle, and it’s hard to keep track of how it connects with the big picture. I’ve tried to put into words a succinct overview of how singing works, the major components involved, and how they connect together.

In physics/science, there’s the idea of a universal theory…one theory that explains the whole of the universe. It’s incredibly elusive. Relativity and quantum mechanics helped explain so much, but scientists have been working to reconcile/unify the two theories ever since. I’m sure you already know this.¬†An overview of singing is a lot like pursuing a universal theory. Even for me, my understanding of singing and the voice has continued to shift, deepen, and grow over the years. What follows isn’t the only theory of singing. It isn’t a complete theory of singing. And I will continue to change and adapt it as I learn more.
I think of singing as a four part system. The first part is the breathing. Breathing works as an ever flowing cycle of inhalation and exhalation. Stopping the cycle immediately introduces tension into the body, specifically into the throat and upper chest to hold air either in or out. So the goal is to keep it moving. We have the inhale half of the cycle. This is the point of relaxation and expansion throughout the body. Then, the exhale half of the cycle. This is where the abs tone to help isolate the diaphragm which drives the breath.
In more detail, both the inhale and exhale cycle have two main halves based on air pressure. When the lungs are empty, the pressure of the air outside the lungs is greater than on the inside. Just releasing tension in the body allows air to flow into the lungs without any effort since the air pressure wants to find equilibrium. From equilibrium, we can consciously expand the rib cage and lung cavity to draw additional air into the lungs. In the exhale, provided we’ve loaded up the lungs with air, the air pressure in the lungs starts out greater than the air pressure outside the lungs. So little effort is needed for the air to flow out, we just need to relax and let the ribs collapse. Once we’ve reached equilibrium, the muscles in the body begin to contract to drive out the air from the lungs.
As singers, we need to become masters of the breath. The inhalation process, the relaxation and drawing in air, often becomes accelerated, relaxation has to happen much faster than normal and the amount of air drawn in much greater. The exhale becomes slowed down into a slow, pressurized stream. Depending on how high or low the note is, it might require more or less pressure/air, but overall there is a need for a steady, constant, continuous flow of air. When done right, the sound should feel like it is lifted/pushed from deep in the torso rather than lifted out from the throat (particularly in the upper register).
The next major piece of singing is the vocal folds. The vocal folds provide the resistance to the flow of air by closing together in the throat, vibrating the air as it moves through. If the vocal folds do not move close enough together, the sound can be breathy. If they press together too hard, the sound can be strained and tense. There is a sweet spot where the resistance from the vocal folds couples with the pressure of the air working synergistically.
Sometimes, students have trouble differentiating between the muscles that work the vocal folds and various other muscles in the throat and neck. The throat and neck should stay relaxed, isolating the majority of the work to the vocal folds. Building an awareness of the different muscles, and the capacity for individuation so that only the desired muscles are working takes time. In addition, the vocal folds work off muscles, muscles that must be strengthened through use, practice, and time. Sometimes, there is work that can’t be accelerated and just takes time and practice.
Here is a video of a singer’s laryngoscopy which will give you a clear visual of how the vocal folds work during singing:
The last major piece is the resonator…all of the holes in the head, neck, and upper chest that increase the power of the vibration like the body of a hollow body guitar. So many things can have an effect on the resonance: The shape of the throat, mouth, the placement of the tongue. Tension in the neck, tension in the tongue, tension in the jaw. Even things like the lifting of the eyebrows…all of these can have an effect on the sound. This is the most difficult aspect to give an overview of. There are so many tiny muscles that can have an influence, and every student is different in their habits and patterns. The best I can say is that, for me, there is something I call the “zero space.”
The zero space is a way of being/singing where there is no expression. I place my body into the most relaxed position possible, seeking an effortless effort where my breathing is perfectly coupled with the vocal folds resistance. The resonators are shaped in a way to maximize sound and minimize tension creating the most relaxed sound possible. While there are a hundreds of moving parts…hundreds of muscles involved, it is a very distinct feeling. A very singular thing. At it’s core, singing is just one thing: that connection of breath to body. From that space, I can add expression, but the zero place is the starting point for me.
This brings me to the fourth part, expression. On of my guiding principles as a musician is that good technique is always in service to great expression. Sometimes, I want to add some tension, add vibrato or straighten the tone in my voice. Sometimes, I want my voice to crack a little…cry just a bit. The benefit of the zero space is that it creates a platform for me to thoughtfully add this type of expression. It also gives me a default to go back to when my technique is getting in the way of me expressing something the way I truly want to.
I also want to add that the breath is the key to our emotional systems. Every emotion has a pattern of breathing. When we are angry, the breath tends to be high in the chest with a deliberate rhythm. Anxiety is high, shallow, and rapid breathing. So emotionally sad and choked up, the breath becomes uneven and unsteady. When I plug that emotional system into my singing through the breath, I can take that zero space into places that reveal my own humanity, and consequently, the humanity of others. Its always a balance between breathing in an emotional state and breathing for singing, but it adds a truth to performance that perfect technique can never capture.

The House That Heaven Built

One of the things that I most appreciate about my training as a musician is the ability to truly listen. Recently, I posted a cover of George Ezra’s “Budapest,” and talked about being able to hear past a recording I’m not at all fond of to recognize a song that has real potential. This week, I finally recorded “The House that Heaven Built” by the Japandroids. This is a song I’ve loved since the first time I heard it. It has this amazing driving energy and sense of freedom to it. I knew it was a great song. The question for me was, “How great is it?”

There are some songs that are amazing, and near perfect the way they are. It’s so hard to do anything with them. John Lennon’s “Imagine” is one of those songs. I’ve heard countless covers, but rarely a good one that does anything new and different with the song. Then there are songs that are so great, they can be done successfully in a multitude of styles. I love Lake Street Dive’s slow, bluesy cover of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” Or the swing recording I did of Imagine Dragon’s “Radioactive.” I think “The House That Heaven Built” is one of those songs that is so well crafted that it can handle multiple stylings. Here’s my piano driven cover of it: