There are many physical aspects to singing and we will discuss each one briefly. As you read through the descriptions, it is important to remember that learning how to sing better is an ongoing process. You don’t do breathing exercises just once, you do them frequently. You want to always maintain good posture and to clearly pronounce your words.
There are two sides to breathing – inhaling and exhaling – and both play an important role in singing. Breathing is a natural biological function, but you can control how you breathe in order to develop your best singing voice.
Inhalation is when you draw in breath. You want to inhale using your diaphragm and not your chest. When you breathe from your chest, it means you are taking shallow breaths. You want to learn how to take deep breaths.
The diaphragm, as described earlier, is an important muscle that separates the abdomen and rib cage. But many beginning singers don’t realize the diaphragm muscle is also connected to other abdominal and back muscles.
To breathe deeply you need relaxed back muscles that don’t limit your diaphragm movements. To practice breathing deeply:
- Loosen the back and diaphragm muscles with stretching exercises
- Stand with good singing posture
- Lift your rib cage first
- Breathe deeply so that your diaphragm expands and contracts, and not your rib cage
- Take many deep breaths and practice while feeling for expansion in your diaphragm muscle, side and back muscles
For singing you must learn to take in air quickly without making a lot of noise. All of us have heard singers who breathe so loudly while singing that it’s impossible to enjoy the song. While practicing deep inhalation, you also want to practice doing it quietly.
Exhaling properly might be even more important than inhaling correctly. Sound doesn’t happen until air is forced out through the vocal folds. Once you have stretched your muscles and assumed a good posture, you will:
- Concentrate once again on the abdomen and back muscle area
- Inhale as just described
- Release the air slowly in a steady stream
- Feel for movement in your middle muscle groups instead of in your rib cage
Proper exhalation never involves sudden bursts of air being shoved out of the lungs. When you take singing lessons, you will learn a number of exercises that teach you how to expand your lung capacity, control your exhalation, and release air without making breathing noises.
As you move into more complex breathing exercises, one of the first ones you will do involves making a constant hissing sound while releasing air from the lungs at a steady rate. You can use this exercise to increase your diaphragm volume, and to learn how to control the tension in your voice, and the speed and volume of your singing.
You have learned that proper breathing involves your diaphragm and back muscles more than your rib cage. That may be a surprise to you if you’re a novice singer. Another component of breathing you may have noticed is posture.
Posture is critical to becoming a good singer. It has been mentioned several times already that singing involves the whole body, and not just vocal cords or breathing apparatus. Anytime you are singing you want proper alignment of the body. Notice you need to align the whole body and not just the spine. Good posture enables the diaphragm muscles to work properly and air to flow smoothly from the lungs, and then up and out of the mouth after passing through the vocal cords.
Proper posture requires alignment from your neck all the way down to your feet:
- Keep your neck straight so your ears are aligned over your shoulders. Don’t jut your head out
- Keep your shoulders back and down – and don’t lift them up
- Keep your spine straight and not curved
- Keep your chest lifted so that the diaphragm works properly
- Keep your hips slightly tucked so that the spine stays straight
- Keep your knees flexible and don’t lock them
- Keep your feet separated by shoulder width
Good posture will eventually come naturally if you practice it regularly. There are a number of exercises you can do to help you develop good posture. For example, you can tighten and release your midsection and buttocks while maintaining a straight spine. Chin tucks, knee bends and many other exercises will lead to muscle tone and promote good posture.
It is annoying to enjoy a singer’s voice yet be unable to understand the words, or to misinterpret the words. Sometimes it is due to the music overwhelming the singer’s voice. Often it is because the singer is not articulating the word vowels and consonants.
A…E…I…O…U! In a continuous flow of air you create vowel sounds. It is vowels that play the most important role in tone production. That is because it is the vowels that linger on to produce the longer sounds that separate normal speech from singing.
Vowels are pronounced by controlling the shape of your mouth and tongue, and the position of the soft palate at the back of your throat. The soft palate should be lifted in order to allow clear air flow into the resonators in the face. You don’t want to open your mouth too wide horizontally, and you want to keep the jaw relaxed.
These are exercises and techniques you will learn in detail when you take singing lessons. Vowel pronunciation is an interesting topic because there are actually 20 different sounds made using the 5 vowels. For example, think of the way you pronounce the words bat, bake and ball.
Your tongue and lips must be moved in order to pronounce vowels well too. For example, say the word “coot”. Did your tongue drop a bit and the lips round? Now say the word “cat” and you will notice your lips widen while the tongue moves in the mouth. Lessons will teach you to keep the horizontal width of your lips in a neutral position so you can keep the soft palate lowered for best air flow.
This may seem like a lot to learn, and that’s precisely why people take singing lessons. Learn to pronounce lyrical vowels the correct way and your singing will improve drastically.
A vowel requires continuous air flow but a consonant needs air flow to be interrupted for correct pronunciation. Though the lips, tongue and palate affect air flow and thus vowel sounds, they are called tone articulators when pronouncing consonants. To become a better singer you will need to learn to control the hard and soft palates, the shape of the lips, the placement of the tongue in the mouth and against the teeth, and the position of the lower jaw to produce crisp clear consonants. All of these physical components are called articulators.
Following are some of the things you will learn when taking singing lessons:
- How to pronounce words clearly while keeping them sounding natural by avoiding misplacement of consonant stress
- How to eliminate slurring
- Avoiding letter dropping
- Pronouncing difficult letter combinations like “th” in a way that does not interrupt tone and song flow
- Pronouncing notoriously difficult letters at the end of works like “m” and “r”
- Keeping words separated so that each one is distinct
Singing lessons will help you overcome common diction problems. For example, if you are a typical beginning singer you probably let your tongue block the throat while pronouncing the double “LL” leading to a garbled sound. This problem and many others can be corrected through practice.
If your body is tense then your ability to sing will be affected. For example, tight back muscles can hinder your diaphragm’s functioning. Tight vocal cords can negatively affect the tone of your singing or even make it impossible to sing smoothly.
During your singing lessons you will be taught to always warm up before singing. Warm ups include relaxing the body first through stretching and gentle exercises like yoga type plies to loosen the back and hip muscles.
After relaxing your body, the next step is to warm up your vocal cords. Good warm up exercises will serve three purposes:
1) Prepare the vocal cords for singing
2) Teach vocal methods that improve singing results
3) Provide warm ups you can use before actual performances
There are many ways to warm-up your vocal cords:
- Slowly inhale and exhale repeatedly
- Hum through the scale while keeping the throat relaxed
- Sing the alphabet without stopping to work on breath control
- Sing the notes of your comfortable scale range
- Practice singing a single word but at a range of pitches
- Putting your lips and mouth in a neutral position, and moving between tones from one end of sound to another, i.e. “ay” as in pray to “aw” as in brawl or “ee” to “ah”
- Sing patterns of notes as you progress through lessons
- Sing notes in ascending and descending patterns
- Add consonant exercises such as singing the vowel “o” but using your tongue only to form consonant letters
This list just gives you an idea of the types of vocal exercises you can do to warm up your vocal cords.