As I have mentioned here, I have a passionate connection to the martial arts. What I value about the martial arts, as well as yoga and the sports I played is that there was always a routine that everyone had to do every day. It is in the routine that we discover our strengths and correct imbalances. In fact, my personal vocal philosophy is based on this. I am convinced that a proven routine is the ultimate tool for continuous growth. I have watched my own voice gradually rebalance because of committing to a routine. I did not worry about the results, but my voice continues to get better. This is a basic warm-up routine, which when done daily builds awareness of the elements of balance. Beyond these exercises, there are others for strengthening and flexibility, as well as those geared to specific voice types. Those will be included in later posts. Furthermore, over time I will include video clips of the exercises. This is a very busy time and I have not been able to dedicate the time to record students or myself. I hope you find the exercises helpful.
1. Pendular breathing: Warming up the breathing mechanism
Natural breathing is cyclical. When watching a person sleep peacefully, it can be observed that there is an imperceptible amount of time between the release of air and the intake of air. As if a pendulum, the amount of time it takes to change direction from exhalation to inhalation to exhalation is minimal. The ability to accomplish this helps to achieve a flexible manner of breathing and indeed reflects inherent flexibility.
a. Exercise: Breathe out as if through a straw, observing the gradual release of air, the rise of the diaphragm, the contraction of the abdominal muscles, resulting in near complete contraction of the lungs until no more air can be squeezed out. Observe the gradual slow down at the end of the exhalation process and without holding the breath, smoothly reverse the process by wishing to breathe in (still as if through a straw): 1) the abdominals release, the diaphragm contract downward 3) the external inter-costal muscles expand the ribcage outward, all creating very spacious lungs that vacuum-like gradually fill up with a little resistance from the lips. The intake can take a long time, as the lungs continue to expand and more air can be packed in. Observe the last molecules of air come into the lungs as the inhalation process slows down. Without holding the breath, slowly reverse the process by wishing to blow air out: 1) resist the collapse of the ribcage by softly, flexibly maintaining the feeling of expansion achieved by the inhalation 2) observe the diaphragm (center of the torso) gradually rise and the belly follow it 3) observe the abs contracting, vertically, horizontally and obliquely (diagonally) until the lungs contract to a tiny center. 4) Observe the exhalation process slow down as the last molecules of air leave the lungs and smoothly (without holding the breath) reverse the process again .
2. Controlled exhalation: Preparing the breathig mechanism for phonation
a. Exhale and then inhale as above (exercise 1). When the body is filled with air, maintain the supple feeling of expansion and release an even, uninterrupted stream of air of [f], counting slowly with the fingers to 10. Continue releasing the remaining air quickly of [f] until the last molecules of air are released, and without holding the breath, smoothly breathe in as if through a straw (as above), and then repeat the exercise counting to 15, 20, 25, 30, etc…). Seek to increase the length of the release over time without losing the fluidity of uninterrupted release of air and without collapsing the ribcage. This builds strength and a dynamic relationship between the opposing muscles of inhalation and exhalation. The [f] (upper teeth and lower lip) form a resistance to the air stream in the way the glottis will in phonation. This resistance gives a feeling of pressure in the body, which we commonly call support.
b. Exhale until the lungs are empty. Breathe in as if through a straw for four counts. Then exhale on [f] for four counts and breathe in silently on [a] on the “and” of 4 (the last eight-note, semi-quaver), then exhale on [f] for three counts and breathe in silently on [a] on the “and” of 3, then exhale on [f] for two counts and breathe in silently on [a] on the “and” of two, then exhale on[f] for one count and breathe in silently on [a] on the last sixteenth note (demi semi-quaver) of the beat. Continue one beat of exhalation on [f] and a sixteenth note value of intake of silent [a]. This builds flexibility in the breathing mechanism as well as glottal passivity resulting in the ability to breathe quickly and fully when necessary. By breathing quickly on silent [a], the singer also learns to avoid involuntary glottal resistance (as when the glottis is too closed during inhalation and results in a noisy intake of air).
3. Phonation: Natural balance of Vocalis and CT by removing the medial component:
Gentle humming: By taken away the desire to make a perfectly “focused” tone, all pressure can be removed that might throw the voice off balance. Some singers have natural phonation balance and do not need this exercise. Most do have a muscular imbalance and need to relearn how the folds naturally come together before a certain sound is imposed that is against the nature of the instrument. THIS FIRST IS NOT A FINAL PRODUCT. This is merely an exercise to prevent singing with too much or too little vocalis activity.
a. Exercise: In the lower middle voice, take a quiet breath then hum a gentle [m] on a chosen note then go down on a five-note scale. Repeat progressively a half-step higher, as high as is comfortable. At no time in the exercise should tension be felt in the throat. The natural low position of the larynx must not be compromised. Too much medial pressure will result in increased sub-glottal pressure and a high larynx. For this particular exercise, better slightly breathy rather than pressed, although ideally the [m] should be clear and vibrant.
b. Exercise: Building breath support (pressure/flow) during phonation: In the lower middle voice, take a quiet breath then sing gently on [v] on a chosen note, then go down on a five note scale. The point of this exercise is to maintain muscular balance while increasing air pressure. The intensity of the sound at the lips ([f]) should be in balance relative to the glottal phonation (the voiced sound that turns the [f] into [v]). When balance is achieved, there is no tension in the throat. This exercise may also be done on [z] ([s] at the lips).
c. Exercise building further breath support (pressure/flow) during phonation (gentle m followed by Lip trills). Repeat exercise a ([m]), adding on lip trill and then going down a five note scale. This induces greater flow/pressure and prepares the mechanism for louder singing without undue tension in the throat.
d. Exercise: Variation of exercise a. In the lower middle voice, take a quiet breath then hum a gentle [m] on a chosen note, make it gradually more intense (focus). At this point vibrancy is felt in the area of the mask (this is a result of desiring to intensify the sound, not a putting the sound into the mask). When the vibrancy has been felt, take the newly intensified [m] down on a five-note scale. There should be no tension at the throat level.
Repeat the exercise progressively one half-step higher. This exercise should induce more complete glottal closure via increased activity of the inter-arytenoids (as opposed to the thickening of the folds by increasing vocalis activity).
e. Exercise: variation of exercise d: Intense [m] followed by lip trills. This is the same as exercise d with a lip trill added before going down the five-note scale.
4. Resonance Exercises:
The vocal tract is the voice’s resonator and must be fully erect (open) from glottis to soft palate in order for the best benefits of resonance to be achievable. For this to occur, the jaw must be released to the common [a] position. This is normally the open position where the jaw would naturally stop. Those who have TMJ (temple-mandibular jaw) or a history of wearing braces often do not achieve a naturally released [a] position. In the case of those who have worn braces, it usually feels like a bit of work to open to what was once natural. It feels too much at first. Those with TMJ experience a stopping point before the natural opening of the jaw and may build techniques based on a smaller jaw opening, often using other muscles (often the tongue) to complete the natural position of the larynx that with a closed jaw remains high. When the jaw is released adequately and flow-phonation has been achieved (through the exercises above), the larynx and soft palate assume respectively adequate depth and height. The concept of vowels that are natural to the individual throat is crucial to the final vocal product. These vowels must be achieved with the jaw released to its ideal position. The [i] vowel in particular causes problems because it is easier to produce it with a closed jaw. The correct production of the [i] with a released jaw requires greater activity from the tongue. It must rise higher and more forward. This at first feels very unnatural for some singers. Accomplishing it is crucial to consistent resonance. There is also a tendency to create the [u] vowel and mixed vowels with a closed jaw when all that is needed is rounded lips. A collapsed vocal tract reduces the number of overtones that are propagated through the vocal tract. The resultant sound is comparatively thinner, less complex (i.e. less interesting).
a. Exercise: tongue vowels. Take a quiet deep breath and sing a chosen note in the lower middle voice on intense [m] as in exercise 3d, then open to [a, e, i]. Maintain the jaw position of [a]. Only the tongue should move for [e] and [i]. Repeat exercise, this time with five note scale up and down on [a-a-e-e-i-i-e-e-a]. Repeat exercise at different pitch levels as needed. Minor vowel modifications happen depending on pitch.
b. Exercise: lip vowels. Take a quiet deep breath and sing a chosen note in the lower middle voice on intense [m] as in exercise 3d, then open to [a, o, u]. Maintain the jaw position of [a]. Only the lips should round for [o] and [u] (with minor adjustments in the tongue, which happens automatically). Repeat exercise, this time with five note scale up and down on [a-a-o-o-u-u-o-o-a]. Repeat exercise at different pitch levels as needed. Minor vowel modifications happen depending on pitch.
c. Exercise: mixed vowels. Take a quiet deep breath and sing a chosen note in the lower middle voice on intense [m] as in exercise 3d, then open to [a, oe, y]. Maintain the jaw position of [a]. Only the lips should round and the blade of the tongue should move up and forward for [oe] and [y]. Repeat exercise, this time with five note scale up and down on [a-a-oe-oe-y-y-oe-oe-a]. Repeat exercise at different pitch levels as needed. Minor vowel modifications happen depending on pitch.
d. Consonants: The release of the jaw is crucial in order to achieve the natural low laryngeal position and the stretched position of the soft palate. Consonants cause two principal problems. They give additional resistance to the airstream and some of them require closure of the jaw. Well-articulated consonants induce strong flow through the articulators and actually help in phonation because they require strong trans-glottal flow to achieve the supra-glottal pressure necessary for flow across the articulators (lips tongue, hard palate, or teeth or a combination thereof). As for the closure of the jaw, those consonants that require closure must be followed by a release of the jaw back to the [a] position.
Exercise: Articulation of consonants. On a chosen pitch in the lower middle voice, articulate the following sequences: [a ba], [a ka], [a da], [a fa], [a ga], [a ha], [a dƷa], [a la], [a ma], [a na], [a pa], [a kwa], [a ra], [a sa], [a ta], [a va], [a xa], [a za].
Repeat exercise with the following sequences: [a ba a bi], [a ka a ki], etc…
Note: For every sequence, the jaw should either remain open when the consonant does not require closure, or reopened immediately in cases where the jaw must be closed (e.g. fricatives like [f] and [v]). A consistent, flexible jaw position helps in accomplishing consistency in the quality of the resonance.