The prime and the most coveted skill for any singer is, of course, musicality, and the foremost are the ability to pitch the notes and the intervals correctly, to sight-read, and to memorise tunes easily. Armed with those skills, you can confidently sing in almost any choir, save the very elite ones. But there is also the issue of voice quality, and improvements in that department can offer you (a) more joy, (b) entry into the elite choirs, and (c) even a soloist status if you so desire.
So, how can a (male) singer improve his voice quality? (I address the “male” because: (a) men face tougher challenges, (b) I do not have sufficient knowledge of female voices; however, much of what is outlined here applies to the ladies as well).
But first: You will not want to sing opera? Right! This means that you will not need to project in a large hall and over an orchestra. And you will not need the stratospherically high notes, the elite voice’s sustainment and singing stamina. That greatly simplifies the task of making improvements to your voice. Singing opera is a tour de force, a singing equivalent of running a marathon with climbing, sprinting and weightlifting on the way. This is true for all voices, but operatic tenors exhibit almost superhuman ability when singing Belcanto, Verdi, Verismo repertoire (e.g. Puccini) or Wagner.
For choral singing only (including being a choir soloist) you can afford not to master the following complex technical issues (but I list them nevertheless for information and insight):
Vowel modification, formant tuning and finding the singer’s formant.
Singing those very high notes (that would be a high C for an elite tenor or an A for a baritone). The manipulation and tilting of your throat cartilages, necessary for the extreme stretching of the vocal folds and reaching the highest notes, will be simplified (you will tilt one instead of three).
Singing with a low larynx. Virtually all schools of classical singing teach the singers to keep their larynxes low, even on high notes. That gives them larger resonators and more vocal volume. Lowering and keeping the larynx low is a skill in itself, but it also requires a specific breath support and elite breathing technique and posture. I will make a statement here that for a choral singer it is perfectly adequate NOT to lower the larynx, but rather keep it in a kind of neutral (speaking) position. By doing so, you will enjoy the comfort of singing with a lower lung pressure (again, to be fair, you will lose some of the timbre, depth, projection and volume of low larynx technique).
Throat widening. You will not need to stretch your pharynx (to create additional resonator space), but you will still need to keep the walls of your pharynx stable and well-toned (firm).
Tight closure of the vocal folds (which produces the high harmonics that in turn provides the material from which elite singers produce their fantastic resonance and “ring”). Controlling breath flow, higher lung pressure, and high degree of vocal folds’ closure simultaneously is a great skill.
You will seldom, if at all, need to sing more than a semitone above your second passaggio (which is at about F# for tenor and D# for baritone). Operatic tenors need to extend by 5-6 semitones above their passaggios. You will therefore avoid the intense training of passaggio-crossing, and your register equalisation will be simpler than for an operatic voice.
(If any of the above sounds a little too technical, please do ask me for more clarification.)
But as a choral singer you will still want to master:
Basic breathing technique and breath control.
The fact that you will not lower your larynx (as the elite singers do), will make things easier and enable you to sing with a relatively low lung pressure.
Breath support will still be needed, but not in its extreme form as for operatic singing. The breathing technique is simplified – you just need to make sure that you take the breath low in the lungs (i.e. not in the chest). It is less critical how you breath in, whether by sticking out your lower abdomen, or by a lateral expansion of the lower rib cage. (The elite tenors breath differently from the rest, expanding into the lower back, keeping the sternum high, and with the breath support/appoggio feeling higher up in the body).
Holding the breath before tone onset. This is done by continuing to keep the inhaling muscles engaged and the throat open, as if still inhaling. A deep breath places your larynx in the optimum singing position, slightly widens the throat, and opens the vocal folds wide.
Only wide-open vocal folds can then be brought together at the tone onset so that the whole mass of the folds vibrates. With a shallow breath, vocal folds remain close to each other on inhalation, and cannot be brought back together in the way you want them for singing. Elite singers can get away with a short breath intake, but they know how to assume the “noble position” even without taking a breath.
Note that the old school’s “yawning” breath intake is now universally taken to be detrimental to good singing technique.
Breath support (“appoggio”) for non-elite singing tends to be self-regulatory; once you aim for a certain, desired voice quality, your body will support it.
You can make a beautiful sound without any appoggio at all (actually by applying only the “throat appoggio”), but in that case you will find it hard to to sustain the notes, and therefore will be unable to sing musical phrases well.
Therefore, you will want some support, as it would enable you to sing sostenuto, and phrase beautifully.
Those abdominal muscles that provide support will need to be trained for the job.
Essential: You will need to develop (or improve) your singing voice by starting from your speaking voice. That is expected to reduce potential tensions when singing, and lead to an easily produced and beautiful voice. You need to get rid of the tensions in the jaw, throat, and tongue. Beautiful voice is buried under all sorts of tensions.
Singing should feel easy and without strain, even when singing the high notes.
You will need to master a “balanced” tone onset (and stay away from the “glottal” attack at the start of your singing tone).
Keep a relatively firm pharynx (throat) wall. With perhaps some small throat widening (above and below the larynx), that you obtain from deep inhalation. Certain neck muscles are used to stabilise the larynx.
Essential: Head voice - in much of your vocal range you will want to sing by using the head voice.
Head voice is produced by relaxing the mass of the vocal fold muscle (muscle vocalis), and stretching the folds by tilting the thyroid cartilage (Adam’s apple) for pitching.
The opposite to this is the chest voice, similar to the speaking voice, used in the lower register. The pitch adjustment is produced by tightening or loosening the fold’s muscle vocalis. You can do this up to a point (the first passaggio, laying between A and F above the middle C for tenors, depending on the vowel sung; for baritones about a minor third lower), above which you must give up that mechanism, and gradually switch to the head voice.
Up to your second passaggio you can mix the chest and the head voices, with the head voice becoming predominant as you go higher. However, your highest notes must be produced using the head voice with no extension of the chest voice upward of the second passaggio (otherwise singing becomes yelling, or at best belting, which untrained males instinctively try to do even as soon as they reach their first passaggio). But then, going lower in the pitch, below your first passaggio, you may, and will in fact want to extend your head voice down, well into the chest register. (These last few points are awkward to describe and should be demonstrated in vivo).
Many novice male singers never experienced the head voice, so they have to learn it (for many females it is the natural way of speaking; sopranos may have the opposite problem - finding their chest voices).
Essential: Finding voice resonance. This is done by “forward placement” of the sound (easily done when starting vocal training from the speaking voice), adding some nasality to the tone, raising the soft palate, and introducing the vocal “twang” (a ring in the voice produced by squeezing the epiglottis sphincter, not as difficult as it sounds).
As a side observation and for information, the elite singers go a few steps further:
They match the harmonics of the sung note with the natural resonances of their vocal tracts (“formants”).
They modify the vowels to improve that match (almost at every note). They reshape the vocal tract to change the formant frequencies and “track” the harmonics of the note that they sing, mainly by changing mouth shape/opening and the position of the lips.
Opening the mouth is soprano’s key strategy for producing full resonant sound in the high register. Men open the mouth on high notes to provide more space for keeping the larynx low, and to make the larynx tilting easier.
They further squeeze the epiglottis (space above the larynx) to find the singer’s formant, which gives them the brilliance and power (something like adding a “treble” speaker to your hi-fi).
Learn to sustain the notes, without ever letting down the breath energy (the sound remains “energized” throughout). Intuitively, that does not seem hard to do, but is very unnatural compared to our “normal” way of speaking and singing, so it must be learned and practiced.
Conclusion Almost all singers have the high notes and the resonant voices in their throats. All necessary ingredients are there in their anatomies, but it takes a lot of (non-intuitive) manipulation of the various parts of the vocal tract to produce low and high notes, and a beautiful, resonant and steady voice. How long should your practice session last? I would say 15-30 minutes daily, 5-6 times per week. However high your ambition may be, singing for more than 60 minutes per day would probably be counterproductive. In the next several posts I will suggest some exercises that can create your 30-min daily regimen that will help in developing your voice. These exercises will aim at following:
Strengthening of the breathing muscles, enabling effective breath support
Production of balanced tone onset
Laryngeal tilt (enabling the head voice)
Moving from speaking voice to singing voice
Resonance, nasality and soft palate, twang
Introduction to passaggios and negotiating the lower passaggio (switching from chest to head voices).
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