Mastering vocal technique involves accessing and training the individual parts of your anatomy that govern breathing, phonation, articulation and resonance, as well as coordinating them so that they respond collectively to your communicative and musical impulses. A big part of this involves uncovering areas of resistance and learning to resolve them rather than compensating for or overriding them with breath pressure.
Exposing and alleviating the resistance in your voice is the trickiest part of a voice teacher’s job. You want to produce a powerful sound, rich in vibrancy, resonance and flexibility, and you want to sing in tune. As a result, you are likely to reflexively compensate for any resistance that would result in a straight tone, poor tone quality, or inaccurate intonation. You do this not because you consciously want to hide it (to do so would be counterproductive, as you want your teacher to be aware of your problems so they can help you fix them), but because it’s so viscerally instinctive to do everything you can to ensure that you’re making a good sound.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad ways to make a good sound.
This is among the reasons why it is vital to expose and alleviate resistance in the voice. While you’re young, you may be able to get through a few arias or even an entire role without sensing any debilitating fatigue even if there is a significant amount of tension in your technique. However, as your voice matures it eventually becomes impossible to compensate for resistance and poor coordination.
The impact of laryngeal ossification on the singing voice remains to be studied in greater detail, but in my opinion the implications of physical maturation for vocal responsiveness, quality and agility are, on the whole, positive - provided your singing technique is free of resistance. Voice scientist Ingo Titze points out that “certain age-related deteriorations may actually be beneficial to the larynx as a sound-producing instrument… We might speculate that a partially ossified laryngeal framework can better support the tension of the vocal folds because bone tends to deform less than cartilage under the same stress. Comparing the vocal folds to vibrating strings, it seems important to maintain rigid endpoints for tissue fibers to vibrate in simple predictable modes.”
In layman’s terms: Until your late 20s or early 30s, your laryngeal cartilages are soft and pliant enough that you may be able to manipulate and push on them and still sound spectacular. As they ossify, they will begin to provide the stability you need for bigger, more dramatic repertoire, but they will also expose any flaws in your technique.
In colloquial terms: The timing for this really sucks. At the precise moment your graduate or young artist program launches you upon the professional operatic scene, technical issues may surface for which you are wholly unprepared.
I believe this is among the reasons we often see young, promising singers win major international competitions or make important debuts, only to vanish from the scene altogether or take an extended leave for vocal rest and retraining. Competition panels delight in discovering and rewarding young talent. Artist managers and opera companies like to see singers begin building career momentum as soon as their formal training is complete. But while people in the industry are generally aware that young voices must fully mature before undertaking bigger, more dramatic repertoire, they do not realize that youthful pliability can mask issues that could derail that momentum just when these singers hope to start handling heavier material.
I don’t say this to instill in you the paranoia that your voice will suddenly develop major technical issues without warning as your instrument matures, but rather to raise awareness of this phenomenon, provide strategies for developing a resistance-free technique that will carry you comfortably through these physical changes, and show you how to recognize the symptoms of a maturing voice that needs retraining.
Keep Tension Out of Your Technique
If you’re an undergraduate or graduate voice major, chances are you can produce a pretty good sound. It’s important to remember that a good sound is not synonymous with a tension-free sound.
While in school, you’re under tremendous pressure to produce a beautiful, powerful sound at all times in order to snag leading roles, sail through your juries, and impress your teachers and peers. It takes courage, perseverance, and the support of a sensible and skilled voice teacher to do the hard work of exposing areas of resistance in your technique and resolving them, especially if it promises to be a time-consuming process that could preempt a coveted performance opportunity. Here are some things you can troubleshoot to avoid building extra tension and effort into your technique.
A Bag-of-Tricks Technique
Vocal technical “tricks” designed for use only on particular pitches or vowels are compensations for underlying tensions. You need a consistent, comprehensive singing technique coordinated to respond to your creative ideas in real time, not one that requires you to monitor and manipulate your voice for the sake of consistent vibrancy, resonance and intonation. Be wary when someone recommends specific, mechanistic adjustments designed to keep your singing “free”, your pitches in tune or your vowels in alignment. Baring your incisors, lifting your cheeks, or looking down on high notes may indeed patch up inconsistencies in your vocal production, but they are all compensations for issues that need to be addressed at a more fundamental level.
Creating a Sensation
Healthy singing depends on your ability to be continuously present with the process of creating your sound rather than listening to and assessing it. Your sound is the product of your singing, and so are the sensations that attend it. It is unwise to rely on physical sensations to gauge how well you’re singing. Your body changes incrementally from moment to moment and day to day, so the information those sensations provide you, as well as their context, is in perpetual flux. These incremental changes are due not only to maturation but also in response to all your life experiences. You play a different instrument every day and must learn to interpret the signals it sends you afresh every day. Notice these sensations, but judge your singing in terms of how well you engage your intention to create it rather than the sensations and sounds that result from this engagement.
Tell-Tale Signs that You Need to Retrain
Suppose you’re in your late 20s or early 30s and have built career momentum. Your technique has been rock-solid for several years, but you suddenly experience some strange new difficulties even though you have continued to practice and prepare the same as always. You may attribute these problems to a rigorous performance schedule, adapting to a new environment, or lack of access to your usual support team, but they may be signs that your laryngeal cartilages have begun to harden and that you had better spend some time focusing on your technique. Here are several problems that may be attributable to vocal maturation.
The Shaking Jaw
Running Out of Steam
You can no longer make it all the way through long sustained phrases that used to be a breeze. The new hardness of your laryngeal cartilages now exacerbates the resistance that was lurking undetected in your technique all along, and singing now requires greater breath pressure to override it all. The breath that used to be available to sustain those long phrases is now being used to set a recalcitrant larynx in motion and you run out of breath sooner than you have come to expect.
Your highest or lowest notes become strident, muffled, or vanish altogether. In order to tune your vocal folds to a desired pitch, your laryngeal cartilages need to tilt into a position such that the vocal folds stretch or relax to the proper length without anything impinging on them, while you simultaneously access ideal resonance space. While they are still pliable, it may be possible to access the extremes of your range by elevating, depressing, or otherwise manipulating your laryngeal cartilages rather than allowing them to tilt freely. For example, in the absence of this mobility you may still be able to produce high notes by opening the jaw as wide as possible and spreading the lips sideways. When the voice matures, however, this approach will cause those pitches to become strained, strident or inaccessible.
The Dreaded Wobble
A resistance-free voice will respond easily when you release your breath, whereas a great deal of breath pressure may be required to get the whole mechanism moving when there is a great deal of tension. As a result, your vibrato reflects not the subtle pitch fluctuations in your vocal folds but the greater, slower pitch variations produced when your entire larynx alternately resists and succumbs to excessive breath pressure.
Problems like these can surface mid-career due to reasons other than a maturing larynx, but whatever their origin they are clear signs that you need to seek support for your technique.
A naturally beautiful voice coupled with passionate musicianship may gain you admission to top training programs and win you competitions, but technical skill is essential for sustaining a career. Be vigilant about banishing resistance from your technique while your voice is still young and supple, and be mindful of the issues that can surface as your voice matures.
If you are disciplined about attending to your technique, this process of maturation can yield greater laryngeal stability, confer upon you the stamina and power to take on longer and more dramatic roles and usher in the best years of your career.
Tension in your technique? Visit my Appointment Quest site to schedule an assessment and I'll help you get to work on resolving it.
This article first appeared in the June 2014 online issue of Classical Singer magazine.