The muscles of the body are funny creatures. Any trainer will tell you when you’re working out, that you must switch up your exercises often. The reason is because the body muscles quickly adapt to any change in their environment. To get the muscles to grow, a body builder has to keep changing the exercises. This will keep the muscles from adapting to routine and cause them to increase in size. The vocal muscles are the same. That is why I always have a collection of methods and analogies called the Bag O’ Tools. Each exercise is meant to trick both the vocal muscles AND the mind.
The Mind Is Not Your Friend
Years ago, when I worked as a singer aboard cruise ships, I attended several seminars given by two psychologists. In one of the seminars, the speakers made a profound statement. “The mind is not your friend.” That really resonated with me. Think about it! Your mind says “you’re not pretty,” “you’re too fat,” “you’re not good enough,” or “you will never succeed.” Rarely do your dreams and mind agree. Consequently, we either become a slave to the mind or we allow our own determination to carry us through.
It is the same with singing. My voice teacher once told me in university that singing is 15% technique and 85% mind. I completely agree. When I started to teach, I taught students not only how to train their muscles, but also how to dodge the landmines that the mind can lay along your journey to good singing. This is where the Bag O’ Tools comes in. You must have so many methods and tricks inside the bag that your body and mind never have the chance to slow you down.
Why Doesn’t My Voice Work?
One of the biggest frustrations I see with vocalists, both professional and beginner, is that the voice is never consistent. One day, the voice may respond to a certain exercise and the next day it is completely immune to improvement using that same exercise. That’s where the Bag O’ Tools comes in. You must have several exercises and movements available at all times so that you trick the voice into doing what you want it to do. I have at least 20 exercises or movements that I use to accomplish only one task. When one doesn’t work, I use another one. Both teachers and students need to have an arsenal of tricks to fool the mind and properly train the muscle.
Bag O’ Tools
Here are some of the many tricks I use for students:
The Magic “Uh” Vowel– “Uh” is one of those vowels that automatically opens the throat and lowers the larynx. When faced with a vowel that tends to raise the larynx, like an “Ee” or “Eh” vowel, I have students mix it with “Uh.” So if they sing the word “red” and the larynx rises, I have them mix in “uh” with the “eh” to form more of a “r+eh+uh+d” sound. This immediately drops the larynx. Finding the right formula is the key, though. If not mixed properly, your audience will hear “rud.”
The Big Red Balloon– The higher the note, the larynx tends to rise. To combat this, I tell students to pretend they have a big red balloon in the back of their throat, behind the tongue. This creates space. As the notes rise in pitch, I tell them to pretend they are pulling the balloon down into the throat. This lowers the larynx and keeps the swallow muscles from engaging. Although it sounds like analogies for children, I have even used this with people in their 50s and 60s. Works like a charm!
The Roman Handshake– There is so much more power in the “pull” than in the “push.” In this exercise, I tell students to grab my wrist as I grab their’s, like a Roman handshake. When they start towards a high note, I have them pull me towards them. Even some of my 11 year old girls have almost pulled me over. This tricks the mind from engaging the swallow muscles, keeps the throat open and keeps the larynx level.
Hooty Owl- One of the easiest ways to engage the head voice is too make sounds like an owl. This immediately activates the crico-thyroid muscles and creates a lighter, sympathetic resonance which is much easier to sing.
Sirens- Making a sound like a fire engine siren is a good way to not only engage the head voice, but to take it through your entire range and strengthen it .
A Rock in the Water- In one my earlier blog posts, I wrote about the vocal break. One of the greatest ways to strengthen the vocal break is to go around it. I use the imagery of a boat heading towards a rock. The boat doesn’t wait until it gets to the rock to turn, but rather prepares beforehand. It is the same with the vocal muscles when approaching the break.
Hummed Exercises– Any type of humming causes resonation in the sinus cavity behind the eyes and nose. This area is also called “The Mask.” Humming any vocal exercise will get you to feel the vibrations in the mask and help to place resonance in this area when singing with the mixed voice.
Nasty Sounds- I say the word “nasty” because even the word itself creates resonation in the mask. Many times I ask students to make the sounds of a duck or puppy pant to feel vibrations in the mask. When engaging this area becomes innate, the mixed voice can easily be strengthened. Pure Rock n’ Roll!
Not Just for Kids
Although these exercises may sound like lessons to help children, they work on everyone. The mind is a powerful thing and you must use the Bag O’ Tools to your advantage. I mentioned just some of the techniques I normally use but their are well over 100 tactics that can be used to trick the mind. Don’t get frustrated if your voice doesn’t respond to the same exercise every day. Try a new imagery or exercise and always have many to choose from.