All models (or maps) are wrong
The statistician George Box once said that “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” There is more than one way to talking about singing, and how the voice works. Some models are definitely confusing or misleading, or stray wildly from what we know scientifically about the physiology of the body, or the field of acoustics – such models are never useful. However, one model that my students have found useful is my ‘3 + 1’ Map of singing. This article needs to be read alongside the ‘3+1’ Map of Singing – Pt 2 (interactive model).
The ‘3’ bit refers to what I would broadly call the ‘physical’ aspect of voice.
1. The BREATHING MANAGEMENT SYSTEM (the ‘energy supply’)
To create vocal sound, we need an energy supply, something that will both help start the sound, and keep it going. This is the breathing system. We use the same parts of our body for breathing-for-singing as we do for breathing-for-everyday. However, as singers, we have to learn to use this breathing apparatus in a special way. This is to establish the particular air flow and air pressures required to make notes, sustain long notes and phrases, manoeuvre over a wide pitch range, vary volume, and manage a whole variety of singing tasks.
The breathing system uses much more than just the lungs, and we need to understand the importance of how we:
- stand well (including what we do with our feet, knees and muscles around the pelvis)
- use our abdominal muscles
- consciously manage our ribs and shoulders
- de-tense neck, tongue and jaw on inhalation
- avoid ‘holding’ the air in our throat (ie avoid pressing the vocal folds together)
- don’t take in breaths that are too big
- release a slow, steady, small stream of air
- keep everything natural and flowing while at the same time using this advanced approach to breathing
2. The VIBRATING source (the ‘note in the throat’)
As well as having an energy supply (the breath), we also need a vibrating source, something that will start a sound signal, the basic ‘noise’. The vibrating source for a singer is the vocal folds (a more accurate term than the often used phrase, ‘vocal cords’). They are located inside the larynx (the ‘voice box’) in the throat / neck; the bulge at the front of the throat shows where the larynx is inside. When these vocal folds vibrate (set in motion by the breath management system), they make a vocal sound, or a note – what I sometimes call the ‘note in the throat’ (sometimes called a ‘tone’). Depending on the how fast we make the vocal folds vibrate, the sound will be higher or lower in pitch. Creating the sound with the vocal folds is called phonating or phonation.
The vocal folds work best when:
- we align our spine and neck well
- we have good control of our breathing management system
- we release tension in the neck, jaw, tongue, and lips (gently rounding these)
- we avoid glottal stops (complete closure of the folds just before making the sound)
3. The RESONATING SYSTEM (the ‘sound filters’)
The interaction between the singer’s breathing management system and the vocal folds creates the basic ‘note in the throat’. But the timbre (‘colour’ or tonal quality) of the note – and its beauty and much of its carrying power – depends primarily on the resonating system.
By far the most significant parts of our resonating system are:
- the voice box (larynx) itself
- the pharynx (the area directly above the larynx, at the back of the mouth)
- the mouth (oral cavity)
Despite what some misinformed teachers say, chest resonance is not audible to the singer or the listener (though vibrations in the chest can be felt by the singer). And ‘nasal resonance’ applies to only the three nasal sounds of ‘n’, ‘m’ and ‘ng’, and some French nasal sounds. Apart from these specific ‘language’ sounds, nasal sounds are almost universally regarded by listeners as unattractive in sustained singing, so we should avoid them. ‘Sinus resonance’ is a vibration in the face (or ‘mask’) that the singer can feel (and maybe hear slightly because of bone conduction through to the inner ear) – but audience members would not be able to hear it.
We can create an infinite variety of vocal ‘colours’ and timbres – including words – with the resonating system of the mouth, which can be endlessly reshaped inside; I prefer to call this the resonating (rather than resonance) system, precisely because resonating is an activity, we are constantly moving parts around to reshape the cavities in which the sound moves. Once the sound waves leave the vocal folds they are filtered and modified by movement of the lips, jaw, tongue, soft palate and even the ‘back walls’ of the mouth.
The resonating system works best when
- we align our spine and neck well
- we create an excellent sound signal from the vocal folds
- our jaw is ‘released’ and free, but doing small and subtle movements only
- our tongue is loose and mobile
- our soft palate is well raised (except for nasal consonants)
- our lips are soft, loose and gently rounded
The ‘3 + 1’ Map again
The ‘3 + 1’ Map has three physical components, the Breathing Management System, Vibrating Source, and the Resonating System. Now we are going to look at what drives and coordinates those three components, the ‘+ 1’ feature.
‘+ 1’. INNER LIFE – THINKING & FEELING
Thoughts and feelings determine how our voice sounds. We know from the sound of a person’s voice whether they are happy, sad, anxious, angry, puzzled, and so on. And as communicators and artists we depend on the fact that our ideas and emotions will influence the sound of our voice. And then our voice will, we hope, influence the minds and hearts of our listeners. As vocal technicians and performers, singers must master the ‘Inner Game’, the mind-body connection: imagination, emotion, intention, how we relate to ourselves and listeners, developing presence, handling distractions and nerves. Technical know-how is not enough; full vocal functionality requires emotional openness and a relaxed maturity. Later on, we will look more closely at the mind-muscle connection in singing.
How we think and feel affects not only the muscles involved in singing and what we express through singing. Our mindset also affects how we learn, and can make or break learning
Using the ‘3 + 1’ Map
In vocal training, anything we do must relate to one of these four elements. It is tempting to ask, ‘… but what about high notes, vibrato, belting, singing with a microphone, voice strain, interpretation, confidence in performance?’ and so on. But that would be trying to run before we can walk. A simple map like this can help ground the work, and re-focus us towards a more systematic approach to developing reliable technique. We have to be prepared to work on each of these four elements if we are to make any real progress in our vocal development.
The ‘3 +1’ Map consists of:
- The Breathing Management System
- Vibrating Source
- The Resonating System
- The Inner Life – Thinking and Feeling
(This essay comes from my article ‘“I know where I’m going”, but does my student? Using cognitive maps in singing lessons’, first published in ‘Singing’ – the Journal of The Association of Teachers of Singing (UK), Issue 63, Autumn 2012, pp.10-12)