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5 TIPS FOR SINGING
1.Assess and Manage Tension
One of the most important, and often overlooked, tips for singing is assessing and managing tension. Singing should never involve tension, but vocal tension can be the result of more than just bad technique. Every day stress can wreak havoc on a vocal session and often times the singer may not even be aware of it. It is therefore a good habit to get into taking a moment to self assess before singing. Here's how...
Go to a quiet place, free of distractions if you can. Take a few deep breaths, and focus your mind on your body. Imagine what the ideal relaxed body would feel like and compare and contrast that with what you're actually feeling. This is the time to be hyper-sensitive and really allow your unconscious mind to point out areas of tension. Really listen to what your body tells you.
Do you have a headache? Is your neck sore? Are you shoulders tense? Is your back bothering you? Are your feet hurting from standing all day? Become aware of everything. This will naturally tell you where you may be carrying extra tension that may have otherwise gone undetected.
This doesn't have to be a long process – a minute or two is fine, but take as much time as you need. Once you have finished and have identified any tension, perform whatever relaxation rituals you prefer to ease and release tight, or painful areas.
Here are a few useful techniques you can try:
- Roll your head. (Drop your head forward and roll it to the left, then back to center and to the right and back. Repeat several times).
- Shrug your shoulders and do shoulder circles.
- Pull your shoulder blades together and hold for 10 seconds. Repeat 3 times.
- Take a few slow deep breaths and hold it for several seconds. Release the breath slowly. Repeat.
- Massage tight areas or roll over them with a tennis ball or a foam roller
- Take a brisk walk.
If you notice you're particularly tight, maybe a warm bath or 20-30 minute nap would be a welcomed relief and allow your body to naturally relax.
Most people aren't aware how much tension they acquire daily. While it may not be in the throat, rest assured, stress anywhere in the body will find its way to the vocal cords sooner or later. If you've never taken the time to self assess or de-stress before, you may be surprised how much of an improvement such simple little techniques can produce.
2. Master Diaphragmatic Breathing
Two of the most confusing concepts for singers involve breathing. Any aspiring singer will have heard “breathe from the diaphragm” or “give it more support.” To confuse matters even more, students are reminded to “stay relaxed,” while at the same time being told to “push your belly out as you breathe in” and “push down as you sing higher” or my personal favorite “it should feel like you're going to the bathroom if you're doing it correctly.”
With such seemingly contradictory messages, it's no wonder singers are confused! The result? More tension! Fortunately, there are a few tips for singing from the diaphragm and with support that can make these concepts easier to understand. Let's start with breathing from the diaphragm...
Try this exercise to experience what diaphragmatic breathing should feel like. Find a wooden chair or one with a fairly hard bottom. Sit in the chair with good posture, (back straight and feet on the floor). Now, slowly take a deep breath in, and as you do, imagine that, instead of inhaling through your nose or mouth, you are sucking the air from under the chair through the bottom of the seat and “up” into your body. Stay relaxed, just breathe in normally.
You should notice as you inhale that your belly starts to protrude as you bring in the air. If you just allow this to happen naturally, without forcing anything, your shoulders should stay down. That's diaphragmatic breathing! The idea is that you take air deep into your lungs, and fill them from the bottom up. This sensation is sometimes described as breathing “below the ribs.”
Need another example? Sit in a chair and lean forward on your elbows while resting your elbows on your thighs. This position makes it harder to breathe from your chest, so you should notice your waistline expanding as you inhale. It should feel as though the air is going deeper than usual, straight to the abdomen. From this position the expansion of the abdomen, just above the waist, should be very noticeable.
If you've never experienced this before, it will likely feel strange. You may get a little light headed at first, or feel as though you've taken in too much air. This is because diaphragmatic breathing is a much more efficient way of breathing and as a result you get more more breath for less work, so to speak.
Another aspect of breathing that many singers struggle with is breath support.
3. Breath Support
The importance of breath support is to provide just enough breath to produce a solid, strong tone, but not release so much air that the tone collapses, gets weak or takes on a 'breathy' quality. That doesn't really explain how the process is achieved however. How, exactly does one 'support' breath?
Here's a visual that should help make this idea more concrete. Take a breath, like in the chair example, and hold it. Now imagine that there is a belt secured in place around your belly. While you're holding your breath and your abdomen is expanded the belt is tight. As you breathe out, imagine that you have to keep the belt tightly secured and not let it get loose enough to fall to your hips. To do this you would naturally have to keep your abdomen expanded.
To “feel” this sensation, place your hands on your waist, between your belt line and the bottom of your rib cage, and take a deep breath. You should feel your waist expand into your hands while your fingers and thumbs separate slightly with the expansion.
Imagine blowing up a balloon into your hands, and the way your hands expand as the balloon gets bigger. Now let the air out quickly like a frustrated sigh, and feel your hands and lower abdomen go back to normal. Notice how quickly you ran out of air? That's the WRONG way to breathe for singing.
Now, with your hands still on your hips, take a breath and, as quietly as you can, release the air on a hiss, like the sound a snake makes, or air leaking from a tire ('sssssssss'). Really try to make the sound as silent as possible. As you do this, concentrate on keeping your abdomen expanded into your hands. Keep the belly and lower rib cage expanded as long as possible.
This will create a holding back feeling, almost like your inhaling and exhaling at the same time. Some have described this as “drinking the voice.” Notice how long you can sustain the hiss by doing this? This is what will allow you to have enough breath to “support” your singing and prevent you from running out of breath too early or producing a rush of airflow that results in a 'breathy' quality.
Now keep in mind, these are examples to show you the sensation of where the work is being done. When your singing you shouldn't really 'feel' the process working. That usually means your creating tension. Be aware of the process, but don't force it. However, before any singing at all takes place, there's one more important step to take care of.
4. Warm Up
Beginning singers especially, used to singing in the shower or while driving tend to overlook or underestimate the importance of a proper warm up. Without a warm up your voice may break down quickly and not last very long. Part of the neglect is possibly due to the confusion of what a warm up should consist of.
The truth is, a warm up is nothing more than vocalizing. Not singing. The idea is to loosen up the voice and the musculature associated with singing. Don't worry about what your voice sounds like, just get it cooperating. Never force it, allow it to happen naturally. A good place to start is simple humming.
Just work through your range, without straining. Make sure everything feels comfortable and easy. Allow your voice to find itself. Some days may take a bit longer than others, but that's OK. Don't force anything. Don't try to go to the outer edges of your range. Once it’s warmed up and you've eased into a practice, then you can begin to go farther.
One of the best warm up exercises are lip trills or lip bubbles. It sounds sort of like a motor boat, but with less force. If you're not familiar with how to do them, place a few fingers on each side of your mouth, right about where dimples would be. It may be helpful to lift up slightly to pull up the excess skin and allow the lips to “bubble” easier. Make sure your tongue is resting on the bottom of your teeth, and sing a scale allowing your lips to flap against one another making a sort of motor boat sound. The key is to make sure the lips are loose and relaxed and that you're not forcing air through. This requires very little air to do properly.
5. Cool Down
The last of the the tips for singers we're going to look at is the cool down. Like the warm up, the cool down is extremely important for vocal health. After you've finished singing, (especially if y you’ve been singing for a prolonged period of time or in a very loud environment), your vocal folds will be swollen and irritated. The cool down eases your voice out of singing mode, and relaxes it and readies it for speaking again.
A cool down should be the opposite of a warm up. Whereas with a warm up you started lightly and worked up to more volume and power, a cool down should get softer and lighter. Focus less on scales and more on easy, smooth vocalizations. Some light, airy sirens or “Woo woo woo” sounds work really well. Work down from the head voice, keeping everything light. Be sure there is absolutely no tension in anything that you do at this point.
To make sure you're staying tension-free, and to help ease the voice, it's best to work from high to low, as the object is to work into speaking voice. Letting the siren fall into vocal fry (that rattling sound you have in the morning, or the Bill Clinton voice) is also very effective.
Finally, you may want to end humming. Don't worry about scales at this point, just pick random notes, (in the middle of your natural speaking range) and hum. Imagine you've just tasted the best food of your life, and say “Mmmm.”
If possible rest your voice with complete silence AFTER you've taken it through a cool down. If you've never taken the time to do a cool down routine, you may likely find that your voice will respond quicker and more cooperatively the next time you sing or practice.
While it takes practice and dedication to become good at anything, singing should be fun and easy, not confusing and scary. You now have some valuable tips for singing with less tension, and with support from the diaphragm that you can implement immediately in your next practice session. Warm up, give them a try, cool down after, and feel the difference.