The purpose of this blog post is to simply explain in a practical way what resonance is to the voice user and how it can be used to increase the ease and efficiency of singing and speaking.
Titze and Verdolini – Abbot refers to resonance as “reinforcements of natural oscillations” (Vocology The Science and Practice of Voice Habilitation 29).
In physics resonance is a phenomenon in which a vibrating system or external force drives another system to oscillate with greater amplitude at specific frequencies — Wikipedia
Resonance is vibrations that create tone through and within your mouth, throat, and nasal passages — Pamela Phillips, Singing for Dummies
In simplest terms, the voice is constructed of a power source (the lungs), a source (vocal folds also known as vocal cords) and a resonating tube(airways or vocal tract.) Furthermore, every voice vibrates and creates a pitch which is determined largely by the size of the vocal folds (please see blog post “But Size Does Matter.”) That resonating tube has certain characteristics, which influence the sound created; however, by understanding the ABCDs of resonance we can use the information to change to conform to social requirements, or to improve it to ensure greater efficiency, ease, and a reduction of work.
I picked ABCD to stand for a variety of concepts that are needed to understand what resonance really is and how we can change it. A stands for the throat and the mouth where the air flows in and out. B stands for how vibrations are made by the vocal folds and then are changed in the throat and mouth. C stands for the Combinations of vibrations that happen as we actively change the space in our mouth and throat. These combinations create the unique sounds that makes the speaker or singer identifiable. Finally, D stands for the Destination where we “feel” these vibrations.
Whenever a sound is created that pitch is known as the Fundamental Frequency. It is the lowest pitch in a pattern that can be measured as multiples of the original pitch in an idealized model. If I produce a pitch on a string that vibrates 100 times a second, that then influences the “air” molecules to vibrate 100 times a second. This then causes another pitch which vibrates at 200 times a second, and then another pitch which vibrates at 400 times a second. Theoretically this happens forever. These are called Harmonics. Your vocal folds play the part of this string. For example, if a baritone happens to produce a pitch of 100 vibrations per second there will then be harmonics that follow that pattern of 100, 200, 400. (This is a simplified pattern. For a more complete pattern of harmonics please see Tontechnick-Rechner.)
The vocal tract is composed of basically two airways: the throat and the mouth (yes the nose plays a role at times, but for simplification I am leaving out the nose.) This is where these harmonics are first sent. This is also where something really amazing happens. Each of these tubes have their own frequency. Just as a coke bottle or a crystal glass has a certain “ring”, each tube takes the original pitch as well as the harmonics and changes it. These are known arguably, as overtones. They are overtones and NOT harmonics because the tube that produces them changes the pitch so they may not be exact multiples of the original pitch. Our bass who produced a 100 vibrations a second (approximately a sharp G2 on a piano), has a harmonic of 200, but when that tone hits the throat there might be an overtone of 215 vibrations per second. The throat isn’t the only pipe there is that changes that pitch. The sound also comes out of the mouth (again, yes sometimes the nose a bit, but mostly the mouth). The mouth also has its own vibration so our imaginary bass with his vocal folds vibrating at 100, which produces a pitch, which then produces a series of harmonics, also has a “throat” overtone of 215 and a “mouth” overtone of maybe 436. Remember these numbers refer to Hertz or more correctly vibrations per second. The original pitch is always the lowest. The throat will be lower than the mouth, because generally it is longer and will have a lower “frequency.” This leads us to the C of the ABCDs of Resonance.
COMBINATIONS of VIBRATIONS
Now we get to the fun part. Dr. Seuss was right when he wrote “…there is no one who is more youer, than you!” While we all know what a human looks like and what a vocal tract should look like, each human has slight differences. For instance, the range of normal for the human pharynx is 12-14 centimeters (Granger). Add to that the magnificent variations in a mouth, which can be produced not only by the actual skeletal structure, but also, by size and placement of the teeth; the size and placement of the tongue, lips, and palate; and you have probably an infinitesimal number combinations in the structure of a human’s vocal tract. These structural variations produce our audio palette, if you will. Each pitch is colored by the unique pattern of resonance or vibrations that your particular combination of vocal fold, pharynx, and mouth (oral cavity) can produce; but wait there’s more!
We can change our mouths (and our throats a bit), but mostly our mouths. We have lips which can make mouths bigger or longer, or wider. We have a tongue which we can move accordingly to decrease the space in our mouths or increase it. We can even raise and lift our soft palate to lengthen our pharynx and block off our nose. We do this all the time in order to produce vowels (consonants too but vowels are more important for resonance).
Now each time we produce a vowel we then create a different pattern in the overtones. Each vowel has at least three different perceivable resonations which we call formants. The first and lowest formant is produced by the pharynx, the second highest is produced by the mouth. The lower the number of the formant the bigger the space in the throat or mouth. The higher the number the less space is available. For instance, Wikipedia has a chart that says /i/ said as ee as in beet has a first formant of 240 Hertz and a second formant of 2400.
If you say /i/ you will notice your tongue is right behind your teeth. This placement keeps the tongue out of the throat (increasing the resonating area there and decreasing the space in the mouth.) The third formant, not always listed in charts, provides a hint as far as whether the vowel is rounded or unrounded. There are actually more formants per vowel (anywhere between four and six), however, your brain usually needs only the first two to determine what vowel is being produced.
So we have a combination of vibrations which determines what we sound like and what we say. How can we use this though? Overtones are produced because of how we are put together as a human being, and formants are produced because of how we make a vowel, why do singers, voice teachers, and others talk about changing the resonance so much?
This brings us to the D of resonance. Speakers and singers will often talk about how they “place” their resonance, or the feeling of vibration in their sound. This is very confusing, as the literature uses some of the same terms to describe register with a couple of extra terms. This includes chest resonance, head resonance, mouth Resonance, mask and face resonance, and nose resonance. So the question is “Can you change where you resonate?” The answer, as I understand it, is: Yes sort of….
What we haven’t discussed is that all of these resonance: overtones, harmonics, and formants can be made to be louder or softer, or more correctly amplified or dampened. This is one of the main ways we can affect resonance. How do we do this? We change the shape of our vocal tract of course. Vocalists might not even be aware they are changing the shape, but when asked to loosen up the tongue when singing, or to place your hand on your chest and feel a vibration there we are changing something in our mouths and throats.
Kathy Rundus in her vocal pedagological book Cantabile provides some simple exercises to experience the change of resonance in three dimensions just by shifting the vowels produced.
Try it yourself:
In summary, resonance is a term which can cause confusion when speaking about the voice. However, understanding the aspects of resonance by remembering the ABCDs of resonance, may help understand your voice, use your voice healthfully, and sometimes change the perception of it by others.
If you are interested in exploring how using resonance may help you when you use your voice as a singer, teacher, or other professional who needs a healthy, functional, and flexible voice; or if you need help in changing how your voice is perceived by others, contact me. Together we can come up with a plan to help you use your voice with congruity in your life.
In May of 2001 my family and some friends went to the Big Island for the first time. I think we stayed at Kilauea Military Camp right in the park. While Pele was evident in Volcanoes National Park by the steam vents, you couldn’t see lava. So we took a helicopter ride. From the safety of the air we saw the last three remaining houses of the Royal Gardens neighborhood-which had largely been destroyed in the lava flow of 1990. Other sights included a faint glimmer of lava in the Kilauea caldera and some lava trickling in the ocean.
That trickle had an accompanying white plume of steam. The pilot/guide assured us it was a toxic cloud of basically hydrochloric acid. As we circled around the plume, he added that it was so corrosive that even heavy duty equipment designed for brutal conditions had a very short life span if left in the area for even hours. This was our introduction into what has recently been called laze in the extensive media coverage.
My point in this story is that laze is by no means a “new” threat. Those of us who have traveled and hiked Kilauea have heard the warnings of avoiding areas where the lava pours into the ocean, before. Indeed, there have been deaths attributed to exposure to the steam. The difference now seems to be that the areas of Lower Puna and the Ka’u desert have been increasing in population in the past twenty years. According to non-confirmed reports 20,000 more residents have moved into the area within that time.
The term laze is not a new term. It seems to be in the volcanology literature as far back as 1912 when mentioned in a chemistry textbook by Edward Thorpe. Of course it is possible that the term existed before. The thing to know is laze is dangerous and exposure is potentially fatal. However, the good news is while laze is much more dangerous than its cousin vog; laze does not have nearly the persistence of vog. The Hawaii Volcano Observatory reported yesterday (May 20th, 2018) that it can be carried at most 15 miles. Like vog, it is impossible to get a consistent measure of its chemical and particulate make up due to the constantly changing nature of the lava. Below is an imperfect but simple way of distinguishing between vog and laze.
Lately Hawai’i just isn’t getting a break! We have experienced an unusually active rainy season throughout the islands and now, on the Big Island, there is a significant movement of magma which is threatening to open another rift(http://www.civilbeat.org/2018/05/underground-magma-on-the-move-as-quakes-rattle-volcano/). So I’d like to take a little time to discuss the dangers to the voice from these environmental hazards and what you might be able to handle these hazards.
Theoretically Honolulu, gets an average of 270 days of sunshine a year. (https://www.bestplaces.net/climate/city/hawaii/honolulu)However, we seem to have had an abundance of rain, not sunshine, of late. Waipa Kaua’i will likely have the dubious honor of the greatest amount of rain falling in a 24 hour period, ever in recorded history (https://weather.com/news/weather/news/2018-04-26-kauai-hawaii-new-us-rainfall-record). While the rest of the eight main islands did not suffer from quite that much rain, there were flash floods, leaving home owners with as much as three feet of water and mud inside. Some of these houses will likely be declared uninhabitable due to structural damage, but especially with the rainy days still continuing there is another danger—MOLD.
As a tropical island our ambient humidity is between 65-75%. Remember what average means, 50 out of 100 days the humidity will be lower than these numbers, and 50 days out of 100 the humidity will be higher. Mold surrounds us. This isn’t so much a problem when we are outside but the Centers for Disease Control do recognize that “Exposure to mold or dampness may also lead to development of asthma in some individuals.” Which ones you ask? Just like being allergic to poison ivy, nobody really knows, if or when, a non-allergic person will start reacting to it; but we do know that there are high rates of sensitivity to mold. The best cure for sensitivity to mold, is the prevention of exposure.( https://www.cdc.gov/mold/faqs.htm)The preceding link to the CDC has some ideas of prevention and abatement. Interestingly this appears to be for all mold. In the past 15-20 years there has been controversy regarding a link between “black mold,” also known as Stachybotrys chatarum and pulmonary hemorrhage(bleeding in the lungs). However, follow up studies have failed to cporroborate this link. According to the CDC while many molds “can produce toxins…the molds themselves are not toxic, or poisonous.” Regardless, exposure should be limited especially indoors. According to the Mayo clinic (https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mold-allergy/symptoms-causes/syc-20351519)symptoms of mold exposure include: sneezing, runny nose, cough and postnasal drip, itchy eyes, nose and throat, watery eyes, and dry and scaly skin. If you believe you have been exposed to mold please follow up with a healthcare worker especially if you are experiencing symptoms. If you are attempting to remove mold from a water damaged areas, check with CDC and OSHA for guidelines for protective equipment.(https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/molds/control.html)
Lava is in the news again as our Islands’ current active creator, and destroyer, known as Kilauea Volcano, has been moving a significant amount of magma around. Now magma is molten rock that lives underground. When it breaks surface it is then known as lava. This is a situation that is magnificent and such a temptation to view close up. However, your voice doesn’t want you to. I have previously posted about the dangers of vog, which is a mixture of poisonous gases and particulates(tiny particles) that can cause problems for everyone by irritating the nose and and throat. Vog is created by the exposure of magma to the surface so any increase of lava can mean an increase of vog. While vog can cause problems, especially to those with compromised immune systems or those with a history of allergies, enough vog and lava can create problems for anyone. While the volcanos of Hawai’i are relatively friendly to humans, there have been times of significant explosions which can hurl tiny particles throughout the air. No one is immune to the burning and irritation of a particle of freshly catapulted basaltic glass, known as Pele’s hair, or other debris which might be ejected. Again prevention is key here.
Tours have been shut down, and local people have been urged to leave the area or stay indoors with 14 days’ worth of supplies. Do not attempt to enter any zone that has been classified as off limits, remember, lava can reach temperatures of 2,120 degrees Fahrenheit. Even “cooled” lava is around 700-800 degrees. If you are smelling a scent of rotting eggs, you are inhaling some of the poisonous gases that are emitted by the volcano and lava. Unfortunately, not all the gases have an obvious scent to humans. Asphyxiation is the most common cause of death in a volcanic event. Few if any respirators or masks are designed to withstand temperatures and many of the gases that are present in an eruption. If you or a family member has a breathing problem, run the air conditioner. Please take this seriously. If you have been exposed or near the area and are feeling ill seek the help of a medical professional.
How does all this information pertain to the voice you ask. Well there are the upper respiratory symptoms which often negatively impact the ability to produce a voice clear of a “gurgle.” There is also the fact that your body is your instrument, any injury to the body has either a direct or indirect effect on the voice.
Be safe, enjoy Pele’s show from the comfort of your home. Try this web cam from US Geological Service.
I have spent the majority of my professional music career in church music. When I began as a young teenager, I found that I had a hard time singing above certain pitches. My teenage self regarded these “certain pitches” as my “normal” voice. Everything above that area was deemed different and separate. I could also phonate below my “normal voice”, but that was quite low and only used to be funny or to imitate my father. Thus I stumbled into the marvelous and confusing world of registers. Now many people have written at length, on what is and is not a register. I do not wish to participate in the larger scientific and pedagogic discussion overall on defining registers. This blog is merely to reassure the beginning singer and speaker of what may be happening to their voice, or maybe to inform the non-novice of perhaps a better and clearer way to speak of a real physiological process.
However, I still have to propose what I believe is the correct definition of a register. A register is a group of tones that a speaker and/or singer produces which share the following: similar sound qualities, as well as similar methods of producing the tones. An example is if I asked you to pretend you were the character of “Lurch” in the Addams Family. You would produce tones that might be classified by some as Vocal Fry by the sound. At the same time, if we were to see your vocal folds, as well as measure the air coming through them as you produced the sound, we would see them behaving in a manner that is fairly relaxed, but with a lowered quantity of air (Johns Hopkins). This method of phonating (vocalizing) has been likened to perhaps strumming a very loose guitar string. (Brainstuff).
,, What my teenage self imagined as my “normal voice” was the pattern which is often described as “modal voice”. This is nicely visualized in this graphic from Wikipedia. It is the type of phonation where the muscles of the vocal fold vibrate while opening and closing. It is a cycle which begins in the lower portion of the fold and then followed by the upper portion. It is the default speaking mode of most people and thus regarded by many as the “normal voice.”
Now remember there have to be two components to speaking of register—the tone as well, as the method of the voice production. If you are just speaking of a tone…and not a change in the movement pattern of the vocal folds, I suggest you use the term resonance. We will get to resonance another time.
When I began voice lessons, I thought I had a flawed voice because, it suddenly got “strange” to this Ann Wilson, Robert Plant, wanna-bee. With guidance I learned fairly quickly to start working out those areas and quickly discovered my upper range, which was comprised of a falsetto register (or a head register) and eventually a whistle register. Unbeknownst to me I was training my muscles to make smooth adjustments while transitioning between my modal range and the falsetto range. Just like two dancers, two pairs of muscles had to balance each other out as the pitch went up or down.
Shifting registers is a motor learning process, not that much different from learning how to dance, to play the piano, to skip, or, to eat using chopsticks. The more often I worked on shifting my registers, the more comfortable I became with those transitions, until, well until it was like walking. So to the novice singer who is frightened or uncomfortable with those transitions, I say, “fear not.” Remember you didn’t learn how to read instantaneously, or eat neatly without practicing everyday. Working your registers correctly will need the same practice! Don't be afraid to ask for help from an instructor when you need it!
When I started this blog, it was to share information with you: the voice user, whether you are a singer, actor, comedian, teacher, lawyer, or doctor. I also intend to address those who were trained in the use of the voice, but who may not have had background in vocal pedagogy. Of course I am also addressing the vocal pedagogist, who may not have had a background in vocal science, or who may have had it at one time, but hasn’t kept up with the latest work of the past thirty years. Maybe you are a Speech Language Pathologist who doesn’t usually work with voice and is looking for a simpler explanation of things before jumping off into more technical explanations. If any of these categories apply to you, this blog is for you.
I will usually give you evidence based information not speculations. It is not intended to diagnose or provide treatment, or training. I will let you know if there is information available on a particular subject or usage that occurs to me. At times I will actually post what is my opinion. This will hopefully be an opinion based on some evidence, but that is mostly based on my experience as a teacher and voice therapist. This experience may be different from the average teacher of singing or vocologist for several reasons.
1) We all have some bias. Yes indeed! Here is a simple test to measure whether a scientist, reporter, or average Joe has a bias—check to see if they have a pulse. If the pulse is there ,so is a bias. Hopefully it will be recognized by that individual stating the information, unfortunately it isn’t always.
2) Most vocalists of any stripe, be they a singer, an actor, a teacher, an orator, or a customer service representative, is most familiar with their own experience. This will color how data is translated to that person. Sometimes it makes total sense to that person, for example: Mount Everest is not the tallest mountain in the world—Mauna Kea is. When you measure it from the base of the mountain Mauna Kea is over 32,000 fee. Mount Everest starts pretty high up already, so measuring from the base, it is somewhere between 11,980 and 15,260 feet. This makes sense to me. I have known friends and relatives claim that this is “cheating.”
Sometimes data do not jibe with our experience. For example, sugar has been disproved to activate ADHD in children, however, that never stopped me from believing that I get “hyper” after a large dosage of sugar. Of course I argue, I am not a child. I do recognize this is an unfounded claim.
Sometimes our experience does belie an overall trend, simply because despite DNA that is 99.9 percent identical from human to human, there is a wide range of a “typical” human being. So sometimes there are outliers to trends. A personal example is that my feet are significantly smaller than would be expected of a woman my height. If I had taken my own experience of shoe size versus height as the rule, most of the folks around me have strangely large feet. The truth is, I don’t fit into the rule of feet size and height, and I have strangely small feet. My studies have helped to detach myself from using my own experience as the rule. However, since I have a pulse, I do not claim to be perfect.
3) Where one practices your profession can color your perception of reality. I have had the good fortune to live and work on three “continents” if you count Oceania (the large collection of islands scattered throughout the Pacific.) Each place has provided distinct populations with different demands. It is easy to get caught up within that population and assume that what happens in that area, is what happens everywhere. Here in Hawaii, the influence of Hawaiian Pidgin can make many speakers use a falling intonation in questions. Standard American English questions use a rising intonation. I have actually witnessed traveling speech language pathologists try to “fix” this problem in a child under their care, since within the SLP’s experience, it is a problem.
So, I hope this explains the purpose of this blog as well as the expectations you should have on this blog. I encourage questions and would love to know where your interest lies. There is no question too silly, or too obvious to ask. I will let you know if I know, or where you might turn to get the answer, or whether anyone has an answer. Comments are also encouraged. Since it is my blog, I hold the right to moderate and insist that comments be respectful to all peoples, including humans. I sign off with these words: keep hydrated through the heat, breathe deep, and remember to vocalize easily and with a vibration in your head!
,This is HAWAII Voice and Speech Studio so, here is information that might help the voice user get through the rough summer days when Kona winds blow.
On January 3rd, 1983 history was made when a vent, stemming from Hawaii’s second youngest volcano, (Kilauea) began erupting. It has continued erupting more or less ever since, sometimes dramatically, sometimes without nary a visible trace but for steam vents. It is to date, the longest volcanic eruption in written history. Thus began Hawai’i's modern experience with vog. Vog, like smog, is a made up word. Smoke + fog became the word smog and volcano + smog became the word vog. According to Wikipedia “vog is a form of air pollution that results when sulfur dioxide, other gasses, and particles, emitted by an erupting volcano, react with oxygen and moisture in the presence of sunlight”. Smog on the other hand is formed when combustion of some kind (the burning of a substance) “…interacts with nitrogen oxide and ozone. Smog can be derived from coal emissions, vehicular emissions, industrial emissions, forest and agricultural fires…”(Wikipedia.org).
Vog is similar to smog, in that it is formed when an emitted chemical reacts with another substance to create an aerosol (or a mixture of fine solid particles or liquid droplets in air, like hairspray). The aerosol then makes the pollution visible. However, smog and vog are not the same. The chemicals produced are usually different. Vog contains hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen chloride, and hydrogen fluoride. The emphasis is on the hydrogen since it must bond with moisture (water) in the air. (https://hilo.hawaii.edu/~nat_haz/vog/). Ash might also be present, particularly in areas closer to the source (Hilo, Volcano Village, Ke’eau etc.) Since 1997 the output of sulfur dioxide has been measured, and at times as much as 2500 metrtic tonnes are produced in a single day. Luckily for most of the population of the Hawaiian Islands, the trade winds, which blow from the North-Northeast, push most of this pollution out to sea where it dissipates. However, there are the days when the Kona winds (warm tropical winds blowing from the south towards the northeast) transport the pollution as far as O’ahu where 900,000 people live.
Vog can be a problem for many. While it is difficult to study the long term effects, due to the highly dangerous nature of some of the substances, there are easily identified short term effects. These are particularly evident in those with breathing difficulties such as asthma or other reactive airway diseases. Here is a list of symptoms and practical ways to mitigate these symptoms:
What can you do about vog particularly as a vocalist?
If you are experiencing some of these symptoms, consider the following steps to mitigate vocal and other problems:
Summer is always a great time in Hawai’i, and in reality, we do enjoy some of the cleanest air in the United States. With care, one can usually navigate vog and enjoy singing and speaking in any of your activities with few problems. Just remember, head to the emergency room if you become short of breath or you feel pain or pressure in your chest, especially if you have not been diagnosed and evaluated for these symptoms in the past.
But size does matter.
Yes, in matters of pitch and tone the size of the vocal folds and the vocal tract do indeed matter. This is possibly the greatest factor in determining the vocal range, timbre, tessitura (area of greatest comfort) and possibly the location of transition points. But why does this happen?
Perhaps the easiest way of describing the whys and hows is to look at the mechanics of musical instruments: particularly stringed instruments. If one were to compare the lowest string of a double bass which is pitched at standard concert pitch E1 to the top string of a violin which is pitched at E5, visually one sees a difference in length and thickness of the string, with the bass string being more than 3 times longer than a violin’s string.
When plucked, or other wise played, the bass string vibrates at approximately 41 times per second, which then creates the sound of an E1 to our ears(and brain). In contrast, the smaller thinner violin string vibrates at 659 per second and creates the tone of an E5 with in our brain. Other easy comparisons within the musical instrument world is comparing the size of the soprano instruments such as a trumpet to its bass counterpart such as a tuba.
Similarly, the size of a person can determine the size of their vocal folds, and therefore their voice characteristics. Just as people have arms and legs which are longer or shorter than other humans, the size of the vocal folds (also known as vocal cords) varies. A person who is approximately 5 feet tall will generally speaking have a small set of vocal folds than a person who is 6 feet tall. Smaller vocal folds generally vibrate at a faster rate than larger vocal folds.
Here is where humans get interesting. Unlike a musical instrument, humans have more variations than just size. Males have disproportionately larger vocal folds and laryngeal cartilages than females. This difference is a whopping 60% of “effective vocal fold length” (http://www.ncvs.org/ncvs/tutorials/voiceprod/tutorial/influence.html). This means that if we take a human female of five feet tall and a human male of the exact same height, and assume a vocal fold length of 1 centimeter for the female, we can expect the male to have a vocal fold length of 1.6 centimeters. A rather significant difference. In terms of speaking we can expect a female to have an average* range of 180-224 hertz or vibrations per second with a speaking range of 145-275 hertz. Looking on a piano this means the average speaking pitch for females is somewhere between F3(F below middle C) to A3, with excursions from as low as D3 to as high as C4# (C# just above middle C). The corresponding averages for males are as follows: an average speaking pitch of 107 -132 vibrations per second, which roughly translates to A2 to C3, with excursions in conversations ranging from as low as 80(E2) to 165 (E3). (www.shelaghdavies.com)
Size of your vocal folds do matter in what pitch will be produced by the person. This difference can be seen and heard not only by noticing that larger people do tend to have lower pitched voices than smaller people, but also in the significant difference in the size of one's vocal folds depending on sex.
*As always, studies focus on averages - averages mean that 50% of subjects are below the average and 50% are above the average. So yes, there are many people I have met who speak above or below these averages. Anecdotal evidence will often demonstrate both sides of the scientifically determined average numbers.
How can I learn how to breathe from the diaphragm? Don’t singers breathe from their stomachs?
Whoopi Goldberg pushed that nun’s belly and made her sing louder. How do I do that?
These are some of the questions I’ve heard while working with voices. They all focus in on the confusion of what the diaphragm is and why we care about it while we sing or speak. Really the question should be, how do I use my ability to control the speed of my breathing to improve my singing or speaking?
What is “breathing from the diaphragm, what does it do?”
Diaphragmatic breathing can be defined in one word—BREATHING. The diaphragm, in technical terms, is the largest muscle involved in breathing. All mammals have a diaphragm. Indeed, if you did not have one you would most likely not survive, as evidenced by the high mortality rate of those born with no diaphragm or a highly deformed diaphragm. While all mammals have a diaphragm, the human diaphragm is the only one that can remain parallel to the floor even while moving, as noted by Kitaoka and Chihara in a 2009 article in the journal Advance in Experimental Medicine and Biology. They argue that this allows us to have greater control in the velocity of our breathing.
This greater control allows humans to change their breathing patterns to suit what they are doing. Indeed, we shift our breathing partially because of the brain’s role in body regulation (e.g. while running) but also by volition (e.g. trying to time our breathing while in a swimming race). We do this with the help of the diaphragm and more than thirty other support muscles.
How can we use it to sing or speak better?
Of course, when we begin to sing or speak in a prolonged manner, we need to shift that pattern again. We still use our diaphragm, but now we need to slow down the rate of inhalation and exhalation, which allows us to gather more air, which in turn provides the energy for our vocal folds to vibrate for a sustained period of time.
Do I need to push my belly to use the diaphragm?
In a word, no. Here is where the Whoopi Goldberg example becomes relevant. The point of using our ability to control the velocity of our inhalation and exhalation is to ensure there is enough energy for an entire phrase. In the movie “Sister Act,” after the young nun inhales by contracting her diaphragm and other support muscles, the character played by Whoopi Goldberg pushes the young nun’s abdomen inwards and pushes all her air out. It works for one note... what about the rest?
Rather than pushing air out, a singer or speaker needs to control the speed of exhalation by controlling the natural relaxation of the muscles. The vocalist is then perfectly situated to contract the muscles to take in another breath. This allows a continuous flow of air for an extended length of time.
There are a few ways to become mindful of this controlled relaxation and to use it. One way is monitoring how your torso is moving, by gently placing your hands on the lower ribs (those not connected to the sternum). In this way you can feel as the ribs expand (or don’t expand). Melanie Tapson, a fellow vocologist, talks about this expansion as being three dimensional - you should feel the ribs expand forwards, backwards, and sideways.
As all breathing is breathing from the diaphragm, it is important to be mindful of it as you are singing. The good news? It’s easy! You were designed to control the diaphragm. Doing so will allow you to energize your voice.
Thanks to those of you who have contacted me about my blogs. One of the concerns that some of you have had in reading this blog is that there is not enough basic information to understand what I'm talking about. So how do I impart basic knowledge of the voice, as well as, healthy and effective use of it without boring folks who are not self described "voice geeks"? I think I shall do a top ten list of cool things about the voice!
So at the very beginning...what actually creates the Sound Source of your voice are two rather peculiar muscles. These are called the vocal folds or vocal cords...The following images are from actual imaging procedures known as video laryngostroboscopy and are from the this website.
The left picture are the vocal folds in the closed position, the right picture is in a position which is neither fully open nor closed. In a way, when we use our voice our vocal folds are not fully closed nor fully open. Those two positions are saved for other biological functions. Which brings us to THE FIRST COOL THING ABOUT THE VOICE....
The actual primary biological purpose of the voice is....not to produce voice....but to protect our airways. The vocal folds close in order to keep food from going into the trachea...otherwise known as the windpipe! The vocal folds open in order to allow air to descend into the trachea and eventually into the lungs. We cough in response to debris being caught in between the two vocal folds (known as penetration). When it actually goes beyond the vocal folds (possibly causing blocking of air flowing into the lungs), we experience aspiration. If the debris is large enough it will completely block airflow and result in choking.
So we've addressed in the first part of this series the generalities of maintaining the health of your voice when sick, but what do you do if your voice is not quite what it usually is...and you are performing today?
The first thing to do is to ascertain if you should vocalize! Warning sings that you should not include pain. Yes, I know it seems obvious, but many of us put the show, or class, or project first, instead of our bodies. The second item is to ascertain whether the tissues of your vocal folds are swollen. A quick at home test to do this: if there is no pain, is to lightly vocalize in your high range (speaking or singing) and note how many disruptions there are. Does the pitch of your voice vary? Is there a crackling sound? What about delays in the onset of voice? Count these disruptions. Robert W. Bastian of the Bastian Voice Institute suggests doing this test everyday in order to be able to find a "baseline" of what normal is (1).
While, an absolutely wonderful strategy to monitor vocal health, Dr. Titze of the National Center of Voice Studies suggests it might be a good way to test whether your tissues of your vocal folds are swollen in general (2). Essentially, swollen tissues are a good indicator of the need to not vocalize and a trip to the doctor.
Let's say you have done the test and you feel confident that the cold and or other disturbance is workable. Then you need to remember three things to do--keep it wet, forward, and loose!
Wet means try keeping hydrated. This can mean increasing non drying liquids (sorry alcohol dries) intake, using a Neti pot, or using steam to thin the mucus. Maybe use all of these techniques.
Forward means using your favorite exercises which encourage a feeling of ease and forward vibration. In a later blog entry I will cover some of these, but some of my favorites include humming (open or closed mouth), lip trills, and of course straw phonation.
Loose refers to ensuring that all the muscles involved in support roles do not experience an imbalance of tension as a result of the difficulty. This may be as a result of overcompensating when beginning to have a vocal problem, or overcompensation in another system(e.g. broncho-spasms from an asthma attack may result in other muscles tensing). Some areas to be aware of include neck and shoulder muscles and the tongue. Remember the body tends to communicate tension in one part of the body to another. Of course resting when sick is the ultimate in "hanging loose". If you are sick, or tired, or injured, your body needs rest to muster the energy into making repairs.
Of course your behavior might need to change for the time that your voice is strained. Some of these changes include not speaking with a whisper unless it is a "voiceless whisper". Likewise you shouldn't shout to be heard. If you cannot project easily and you are able, walk to where your voice needs to be heard. Clearing your throat is also not constructive. The reason is simply that you are slamming your vocal folds together in order to clear them. Ironically the body's reaction to an injury in this area is to produce--mucus--thus beginning a never ending cycle. Try instead taking a large sip of water and swallowing hard. Another technique is to produce an "h" sound in the back of your throat (it'll sound like a cat bringing up a hairball). While less socially acceptable than "clearing your throat", it might be more productive in the end.
A very important "cure for the vocal disruption" may be to completely warm-up using appropriate warm-up exercises. These include non straining vocalization that go to the lows and highs of your range but not to the edges. Even when we're young it is important to build the habit of warming up before we attempt a "vocal performance" of any kind.
(1) The Swelling Test Bastian Voice Institute http://m4kkh33o91u4eghiq4fdgig9.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/New-swelling-tests.pdf
(2) NCVS lecture July 31, 2016.