FROM THE ARCHIVES:
Helpful Hints for Singers
By Jan Simons
Originally published in the Spring 2001 Edition of The Amateur Musician.
Before beginning this subject, I would like to point out that it is impossible to teach singing through articles or even books; a live teacher is needed, or we would all be out of work by now!
Since singing is 90 percent physical, one’s physical well-being is of the utmost importance. By the way, anything I will say in this article is of the utmost importance, so you can always add that after each statement. Good body alignment will not only improve your singing, but also your way of life, so proper alignment should become part of everyday existence, not just when singing. With good body alignment your vocal instrument is bound to work better and you might even find that your range has increased by this change alone. Since it is much easier to sing standing up, if you are in a choir, persuade your conductor to have you stand for at least part of a rehearsal.
What might you do to improve your alignment?
Begin with allowing the ground to absorb the weight of your body. This might sound a bit strange but it will help you to relax your ankles and toes and allow your knees to unlock. Lower abdominal muscles should be firm since they give great support to your spine. Be careful not to use your hips as support for you rib cage. There should be as much space as possible between your hips and your lower ribs. That space is commonly known as the waistline. One other thing to guard against is raising and opening your ribcage with your breath. By creating space between your hips and lower ribs, your ribcage will be in an open position, allowing for a more efficient inhalation, without interference from your ribs. Try to concentrate on exhaling rather than on inhaling. It helps to think of breathing in as a result of having sung a phrase, rather than breathing in in order to sing the next phrase. As you exhale, the lower ribs become very active and flexible in an “in” and “up” motion. It is important that your body alignment never change; that way you can inhale quickly and efficiently.
Focal points: When speaking of focal points, one must be aware of the fact that they are mental images and the voice should not be pushed into them. There is a tendency to over use the “mask” focal point and pushing the voice there. The mask is only one of six focal points one can use in freeing the voice. The mask is most useful in going into chest voice (low range) smoothly from head voice (high range) in order to avoid a large break between chest and head voice. There is a general tendency to vocalize from low to high notes, which forces the chest voice up as high as possible rather than bringing the head voice down. I therefore stress working the voice from the top down, bringing the head voice down as far as possible. Needless to say, it varies in different voices, but as a general rule, I would work that way, stressing “renewal” coming down and thinking higher on each successive note, ending up with a feeling that the lowest note feels higher than the top note. You might also remember that intervals are always smaller coming down than going up, especially the semitones. The focal point that is the most neglected and that I consider a vital one, is under the super-sternal notch. This focal point is of the utmost importance since it anchors the larynx down, especially in the middle of the range or in what is known as “la voix mixte”. This focal point helps to keep the voice in the body and therefore allows the high notes greater freedom and space. In order to use this focal point efficiently, the mouth must generally be in a north-south position and not spread east-west. Students find it a help to actually think that the air is coming out of the super-sternal notch, and this focal point also allows for greater flexibility.
Another neglected focal point is at the nape of the neck: for high and forte phrases, which gives a feeling of space and helps to release neck tension, present in so many of us. The mental release there, and renewing that release, gives the singer a great sense of freedom. I also feel that throughout the range, this is the focal point for the “ee” vowel such as in “sleep”, rather than spreading or modifying this vowel. It is really the liaison between the head and chest voice registers and thus helps blend them.
It is always dangerous to give exercises in writing, without illustrating them, since they can very easily be misunderstood. I therefore suggest you attend one of our Music Centres this summer and find out that you have a much better singing instrument than you thought. I feel very strongly that we all have good voices and that we can all learn to sing well with the material we have. It is often a lack of self-confidence that stops us from singing well. I have heard many times: “I can’t sing, I have no voice”. With this attitude, atrophy sets in and the muscles needed for singing are abandoned and therefore lost. So many CAMMACers who have taken voice training classes, “discovered” their voices, and this has greatly enriched their quality of life. There is nothing that is more therapeutic than singing, because one uses the entire self. So start singing, no matter how bad you think your voice is, or what age you might be, since: “nothing is lost until it has been abandoned”.
Jan Simons was a passionate and renowned singer, a beloved teacher and a pillar of CAMMAC… an extraordinary figure, by all accounts. You can find out more about Jan, and read many stories of CAMMAC in the 2006 commemorative edition of The Amateur Musician, published in his honour.