If You Want a Better Voice . . . Build a Better Instrument
Imagine walking into your first guitar lesson and the teacher hands you a piece of wood and some strings. He shows you a picture of a guitar and says, “Before we can begin, you’ll need to make yourself one of these.” Anxiety would surely follow. What if you made a lousy guitar? Obviously, that would have a negative effect on your ability to play. Unless you were already a skilled woodworker, your hopes of becoming the next guitar hero would be dashed. This scenario is not so far fetched when you think about the voice. Before you can learn to sing, you have to build an instrument.
All instruments have the same components. There must be something that makes a sound, called a vibrator, and an area around the vibrator which colors the sound, known as the resonator. The size, shape and texture of these components are what determine the characteristics of an instrument. There are universal properties governing sound, so consistent we call them laws, which every instrument-builder strives to embrace. Singers should have the same agenda. It’s actually very simple; you’ll sound better if you obey the laws of sound.
The strings on a guitar, the reed on a saxophone and the head on a drum are all examples of vibrators. Your vocal folds are the vibrators of the voice. They are thin membranes, right in the middle of your throat, which extend over the top of your windpipe. The best way to understand how the vocal folds work is to inflate a balloon and then stretch the neck to create a tiny slit at the opening. As air escapes, a high-pitched sound is produced. You can’t see it with the naked eye, but the walls inside the opening of the balloon are moving very rapidly.
The speed of a vibration is called the frequency. Vary the tension as you stretch the neck of the balloon, and you’ll change the frequency. We refer to different frequencies as pitches or notes. Notice how a small difference in tension produces a big change in pitch. Since the opening of a nine inch balloon is the same size as an adult’s vocal folds, the tiny movement required to change pitch is the same. Remember this the next time you’re beating yourself up to reach a high note.
A vibrator alone is worthless without a resonator, which is why bands and orchestras don’t include balloon players. Resonators give instruments their tone. You don’t have to be a scientist to imagine a piano, guitar, drum or horn stuffed with towels. A resonator adds color by providing an empty air space around the vibrator. It’s that simple, and what’s true for an acoustic instrument is true for the voice. Cavities, like the windpipe, throat, mouth and nose, are all potential resonators. The bigger the space surrounding the vibrator, the richer the tone will be. That’s why good stereos have big speaker cabinets and why grand pianos are at least six feet long. The more space you create inside you the bigger your voice will sound.
The relationship between vibrator and resonator is also crucial. The less contact the two have the better. Guitar strings are suspended across the instrument, only touching at two very small points. The harp inside a piano floats on rubber bushings so it never touches the wood. There is a strip of cork which separates the mouth piece of a saxophone from the brass of the horn. Your larynx, too, should float inside your throat. Independence is what allows freedom of the vocal vibrator, increasing range, pitch accuracy and consistent tone (so your voice sounds big from top to bottom). The problem is that people have emotions which trigger muscles to shut down the resonators — guitars, pianos and saxophones do not. Here’s where training pays off.
We are creatures of habit. Culture, family, emotions and personality shape our behaviors until they become second nature. If singing is a part of your surroundings when you are young, chances are you will sing well. If not, your habits are most likely the problem. At first they seem necessary, but tendencies like tensing the jaw, tongue and throat, over-compensating air pressure or squeezing the eyes all compromise your instrument. Pitch change, for instance, should not show up anywhere on your face, neck, jaw or tongue. Your throat should remain relaxed, just as the wood on a guitar doesn’t care what note is being played. I’m not suggesting that releasing negative behaviors is easy, just necessary. If you’re willing to work, though, you can develop into an instrument that’s easy to play. Hey, if a balloon can change pitch without effort, so can you.
So, what does all this science have to do with entertaining an audience? It’s simple. Musicians trust their instruments, most singers don’t. Any doubts you may have about your voice will show up in your singing. It’s too easy to become preoccupied on stage with the mechanics of pitch, breathing and projection; yet all an audience wants to hear is a song. Trusting the instrument allows a singer to be present, to dig into the emotion of the lyrics. Just as every musician knows that a great instrument will allow them to soar, every singer should work toward becoming one. Be patient. It takes time to get that instrument of your dreams.