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Improving singing technique
Sing Up is delighted to present you with Inside the voice, an authoritative handbook for the spoken and
singing voice. Produced for classroom teachers and other professional voice users, this accessible and
engaging resource tells you everything you need to know about how your voice works and how you can look
after it. It also gives information about children’s voices, alongside insights into warm-up theory and tips for
improving vocal technique. The content is rigorously backed up by evidence-based research and has been
vetted by an academic panel at the top of their fields.
Each of the six chapters are written as standalone documents, meaning you can pick the bits that are most
useful to you. If you want to get the most of what the resource has to offer though, we recommend you
read all six! There is also a handy glossary, where you can find definitions of the more technical terms used
elsewhere in the resource.
We hope you enjoy Inside the voice, and that it gives you and your pupils all you need to keep your
voices healthy.
1. Vocal health and awareness
2. How the voice works
3. Voice care in and out of the classroom
4. Voice development over the lifespan
5. Improving singing technique
6. Warm-up theory & practice
7. Glossary & further reading
The authors
Stuart Barr M.Phil, M.A.(Cantab), PGAdvDip(RCM), HonARAM, is a consultant singing coach and conductor
working with choirs, West End performers and pop artists at the highest level. He was President of the British
Voice Association 2009-2010, is a judge for BBC Choir of the Year, and regularly presents on the workings of
the voice at conferences.
Jenevora Williams PhD ARCM, is a singing teacher and voice researcher. She is singing consultant for the
National Youth Choir and has taught at the Royal College of Music, as well as in universities and at the major
UK cathedrals. In her busy private practice, she works with people ranging from professionals to students.
She was recently awarded a PhD for research on the vocal health and development of choristers, and the
Van Lawrence Prize for her contribution to the field of voice research.
Inside the voice team
Editor: Henry Bird
Resource team: Celi Barberia, Louise Cleverdon, Beth Millett
Advisory panel: Professor Graham Welch (Chair of Music Education, Institute of Education);
Dr Declan Costello (Consultant Ear Nose & Throat Surgeon, Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham and
55 Harley Street, London)
Design by: Frances Matthews; Illustrations by: Harry Venning
© 2011 Stuart Barr and Jenevora Williams
Inside the voice
Chapter 5: Improving singing
In this chapter:
You’ll get to understand the principles behind training singers, as well as learning some
simple exercises to improve your own vocal technique and that of your pupils. This
chapter is only intended as an introduction to some of the common strategies though –
for details of more comprehensive texts, see Glossary & further reading.
To get the most out of this chapter, first read Chapter 2.
What is singing technique?
Discover the principles behind training singers
Improving technique in the respiratory system
How having a good posture and using breathing techniques are both essential
to healthy singing
Improving technique in the larynx
Learn about different registers and onsets, as well as how to achieve a clear tone and
avoid constriction
Improving technique in the upper vocal tract
A look at how to make the voice resonant and reduce tension in the jaw and tongue
Idiomatic sound, from Mozart to
musical theatre and pop
Find out how making the sound appropriate for the music
is easy once you know the fundamentals of good voice production
What is Singing technique?
The aim of improving singing technique is to enable the performer to sing sustainably, whatever the
demands of the music. There are two main areas of focus:
zz Efficiency of voicing: getting the most sound out with minimal effort. In simple terms, learning singing
technique should make it easier to sing!
zz Developing isolation and fine control over muscles: when first learning a new skill, people often
work harder than they need to. Singing is no exception, and singers improve by learning only to use the
muscles that are needed, and relaxing the ones that aren’t.
According to anthropologists, singing is an extension of instinctive primal noises such as sighing, laughing,
crying or wailing. These are emotionally driven sounds, activated by the more primitive areas of the brain.
Learning singing technique adds control from the intellectual parts of the brain. However, the most effective
singing training combines the two types of brain activity, as the emotional connection is how the singer
engages with the listener.
As Chapter 2 demonstrates, it’s most helpful to divide the voice into three parts: power (the respiratory
system), source (the larynx) and the filter (the upper vocal tract). In the following pages, we look at how
improvements in vocal technique can focus on each of these areas.
Improving technique in the respiratory system
Posture and breathing
Posture and breathing are interlinked because the expiration muscles used in singing are also used in
posture. A good posture is one where minimum muscular effort is used to stand upright. This occurs when
your centre of gravity passes through the midline of your body. Looking at a person from the side, you should
be able to draw an imaginary straight line through the ear, shoulder, hip, knee and foot (see Diagram 1).
With minimum muscular effort going into standing up, the breathing and voicing muscles can operate freely.
Diagram 1: Examples of different types of posture
As well as the
faults in posture 2,
the head is jutting
forwards, putting
strain on the neck.
This puts the larynx
into tension.
The ear, shoulder, hip,
knee and foot are
all in alignment. The
back has a natural
S-shaped curve. This
takes minimal effort to
stand upright.
The back is overly
curved and the centre
of gravity is forward
over the toes.
Good control of the
abdominal muscles is
difficult in this position.
The back is
overly straight
and militaristic.
Good control of
the abdominal
muscles is difficult
in this position.
Common examples of bad posture that compromise good singing include:
zz pushing the head forwards
zz tipping the chin up, especially for high notes
zz standing with a collapsed chest and rounded shoulders
zz slouching to one side
zz standing with an overly tilted pelvis.
The spine has a natural curvature, which varies slightly from person to person. A good
starting point to standing properly is to think of the crown of your head being pulled up
by a piece of string. To make sure you’re not stiff, gently move your head and take a few
steps forward.
The lower back is a particular source of bad posture. If the pelvis is tilted forwards, the
curve of the lower back is exaggerated, hindering the natural action of the respiratory
muscles. This tilting of the pelvis sometimes happens if you ask someone to stand up
straight. If you spot an excessively curved back, ask the singer to think of tucking the
tail-bone under to restore the posture.
Lower abdominal breathing exercise
zz With your thumbs on your navel and your hands resting on your belly, start with a short, sharp ‘shhh’,
as if you were telling off a noisy child. Your belly will pull in instinctively as you exhale.
zz Repeat the exercise, but this time use a long hissing sound until you’ve used all the air up. You’ll feel
your belly moving in towards your back, as if you are trying to get into some trousers that are a size too
small. You can think of this as the slow ‘zipping up’ of the belly muscles.
zz When you have no more air left, release your belly muscles and feel them recoil outwards as the air
drops back into your lungs, as though the muscles have been quickly ‘unzipped’. This recoil in-breath is
the most important part. When you allow the belly muscles to relax as you breathe in, the diaphragm can
descend and you inhale efficiently.
If you keep your belly muscles tensed on the in-breath, however, you have to compensate by lifting the upper
ribcage to breathe (called ‘clavicular breathing’ – see Chapter 2 for more information). This is harder work
and can introduce tension into the system.
Once you’ve got used to the belly muscles being the primary movement for breathing, you can move onto
efficiency of voicing.
Breathing and good voicing exercise
Click the ‘play video’ button for a video demonstrating how to do this simple exercise:
zz Make hissing sounds in fun, rhythmic patterns. Use ‘sss’, ‘fff’ or ‘shhh’.
zz Repeat the rhythmic patterns with the voiced sounds ‘zzz’ and ‘vvv’. The key thing is to make sure that
the sounds are well voiced and not breathy: ‘zzz’ and ‘vvv’, not ‘shzshzshz’ or ‘fvfvfv’.
zz Check that the rhythmic impulse comes from the tummy (not from the chest or throat) by keeping your
hands flat on your tummy and feeling the impulse.
The coordination of the respiratory muscles is more important than their strength. Efficient voicing and
breathing is all about making this coordination easier. Inexperienced singers often raise the upper ribs and
shoulders in their attempt to take in a large amount of air. This gives the sensation of working hard, but
hinders good singing.
As well as feeling the gentle inward action of the belly when voicing, it’s useful to encourage singers to
feel the other exhalatory muscles at work. Ask the singers to push their thumbs into their waistband and
feel the muscles within bulk out as they make a ‘shhh’ sound. Follow this with the voiced ‘vvv’, ‘zzz’ and the
consonants ‘b’, ‘d’ and ‘g’. When these muscles are working efficiently, there’s less likely to be tension in the
upper body.
Improving technique in the larynx
To get the most out of training this section of the voice, it’s important to make sure the posture is good (see
‘Posture and breathing’ on p4). If the body is out of alignment, the larynx will have tension that hinders good
voicing. A common postural problem is the head jutting forwards. If the ears are in front of the shoulders,
the weight of the head puts the neck and larynx into tension. It’s also likely that the chest will have slumped,
causing tension there too.
Avoiding constriction in the larynx
This is a very common area of tension and can be heard as harshness in the sound. At its extreme, it sounds
like someone lifting a heavy object whilst speaking or singing. It’s caused by a narrowing of the airway by
the false vocal folds (the strong closing muscle immediately above the true vocal folds). This interferes with
the true vocal fold vibration, resulting in harshness and potentially causing abrasion. Using constriction for
extended periods may result in serious voice problems, such as nodules (see ‘Voice disorders’ in Chapter 3
for more information).
The good news is that when you laugh, you tend to stretch open the false vocal folds. Click the ‘play
video’ button above for a video demonstration of the following exercises, where silent laughter is used to
open the false vocal folds and silent in-breaths are used to make sure the larynx is deconstricted:
zz Silent laughter: imagine laughing so hard that you almost can’t breathe. Then expel as much air as
you can whilst laughing silently (without voicing or huskiness). Hold the laughing sensation for a few
seconds after you’ve got rid of all the air, then release and take in a silent breath. Repeat this exercise
with silent giggling.
zz Take a silent breath in: take a breath that’s as silent as possible. Noisy inhalation (like a breathed-in
whisper) happens when we constrict the false vocal folds, so we need to relax the same vocal folds in
order to breath in silently. Try holding your hands over your ears as your breath in, which helps you hear
any internal noises.
The next step with both of these exercises is to sing whilst keeping the sensations of silent laughter or silent
inhalation going. Sing soft and gentle slides and scales on a ‘zzz’ or ‘vvv’. As you do so, try to relax the head
and neck, and recall the sensation of silent laughter. Having the sense of internal smiling (within the throat,
not the face) can also work.
Ideally, the singer should be able to slide through their entire vocal range on a quiet hum, clearly (no
breathiness or cracking) and smoothly (no lumpy bits or bits missed out). This will demonstrate balanced,
efficient and healthy sound production in the larynx.
Tone onset exercises
How a sound starts (its onset) greatly affects its quality. Onset is controlled entirely by the vocal folds and can
be done in four ways (click the ‘play video’ button for a video demonstrating each one):
zz Aspirate onset: this onset happens when the air starts to flow before the vocal folds start making
sound. It’s often used deliberately when the first word of a phrase starts with ‘h’, but using it for other
sounds tends towards a breathy quality for the rest of the phrase.
zz Glottal onset: this is heard as an audible click at the start of the note and is caused by the vocal folds
being held tightly together before expiration starts. Saying ‘uh-oh’ gives two glottal onsets. It is used for
strong emphasis of any word that starts with a vowel, although overuse gives a harsh quality.
zz Simultaneous onset: this is in the middle between the glottal and aspirate onsets, and is caused by
the vocal folds coming together at the same time as the air starts to flow. It results in a very gentle start to
the note.
zz Creak onset: this sounds like a creaky door at the start of the note and tends to be either a bad habit
or a special effect.
In broad terms, classical singing requires simultaneous onsets, with the occasional glottal on a vowel for
extreme emphasis. Singing in musical theatre tends to use glottal onsets for many sounds where a more
strident tone is required. Singing in pop music tends to use more aspirate and creaky onsets.
Practising the first three onsets quietly and gently will help to gain control over breathiness:
zz Sing ‘hee-hee-hee’ to get an aspirate onset.
zz Sing ‘uh-oh!’ (thinking of impending danger) to get two glottal onsets. Try this on other vowels too.
zz Sing ‘ee’ as if you were starting with a silent ‘h’. This simultaneous onset will be clean, not breathy
and not clicked.
Practise singing phrases starting in these three ways and compare the difference.
Clear tone exercises
Breathiness is caused by air escaping because the vocal folds don’t meet fully. It can be used for effect to
sound intimate or vulnerable, but the sound cannot be projected. Breathiness can be reduced by working
with a very gentle glottal onset, by reducing the airflow, or by enhancing resonance (see ‘Improving
technique in the upper vocal tract’ on p8). Some children will find this hard to address, especially girls during
puberty. It is, however, possible to attain a clear tone by training specific muscle groups:
zz Use a ‘creaky door’ sound and slide down to the very lowest pitches and then beyond, in a quiet, loose
and easy way. If you can slow the creak down to individual pops, it is a sign of a balanced larynx and
healthy vocal folds. Using creak as a tool to remove breathiness is great, but make sure you don’t start
using it in your everyday voice!
zz Use a very gentle glottal onset with three short open vowels to the tune of Three blind mice. Once this
can be done clearly and easily, phrase the three notes together with a glottal onset only on the first one.
Then try starting other phrases with a solitary glottal onset, whilst trying to retain a clear sound. Finally, try
keeping the clear sound but without the glottal onset.
Pitch range
The pitch range of a singer is mostly defined by the length of their vocal folds and by the flexibility of their
larynx. The lowest notes generally cannot be changed, while the upper range can be extended with the
exercises in this chapter. For further details on what happens to pitch ranges during puberty, see Chapter 4.
Register breaks
One goal of singing training is to iron out gaps between registers. Registers are often referred to as
‘chest’ and ‘head’ voices, terminology which reveals the historic (but inaccurate) idea of different places of
resonance for different registers. Research has revealed that the registers are actually created by differing
vocal fold vibration patterns rather than places of resonance. One drawback of using ‘chest’ and ‘head’
voice as terminology is that it can reinforce the idea that the qualities are mutually exclusive. This goes
against the aim of blurring the distinction between registers. However, as they are in common usage we
will use them below.
Singers who have not yet learned to blend registers experience a noticeable change from the thicker,
‘chest’ voice to the thinner, ‘head’ voice. Audible change is less noticeable in children and men due to
anatomical differences. The ‘head’ voice is often the weaker register, but can be improved with work on
resonance, breathiness and through general familiarity.
Blurring the distinction between registers can be achieved by sliding up and down to ‘ng’ (as in ‘sing’).
This helps the singer work out their mechanism for getting from one register to the other. Once this has
been mastered, use open vowel sounds. Then try using scales that cross the register breaks, keeping
the same smoothness of sound found on the slide. As it can be easier to blur the distinction between the
registers on a descending exercise than an ascending one, try to find the ‘head’ voice and then slide down
into the ‘chest’ voice.
Improving technique in the upper vocal tract
The upper vocal tract is like a squeezable tube, with the singer able to alter both length and the width at
various points. These changes affect the timbre of the sound, including all vowel changes. The length of the
vocal tract is altered by the height of the larynx. As we saw in Chapter 4, the larynx sits higher in children,
and the vocal tract is less flexible as a result.
Tone production is a subjective and stylistically specific matter. There are, however, some issues of
vocal tract tension that are not recommended for healthy singing in any style. These are all related to, and
dependent on, balanced posture (see ‘Posture and breathing’ on p4).
Jaw tension
Tension in the jaw can be observed as either stiffness or the jaw jutting forward. Movement of the jaw
forward (for example, as will occur when the jaw is fully opened) can be felt by placing the fingertips on the
jaw hinge just in front of the ears. When the jaw opens as wide as possible, the jaw hinge pulls out and
forward; when the jaw just drops in a relaxed and loose way (like an opening trap door), the hinge stays
together. When the jaw juts forward, it pulls on the back of the throat and limits tongue mobility.
Choral conductors often ask their singers to open their mouths wide, possibly because they like to see
their singers being involved. Unfortunately this is often misinterpreted and jaw tension is the result! The jaw
should only open the amount that gravity lets it and no further.
Releasing tongue tension
This can be felt by placing the thumb under the chin, behind the jaw bone. Any consistent downward
pressure on the thumb indicates tongue tension, which will be pressing directly onto the top of the larynx.
Again, choral conductors may ask their singers to sing with a yawning sensation to darken the sound.
Although this may help as a pre-singing stretch, if used during singing it is most likely to cause unhelpful
amounts of tongue root tension. Click the ‘play video’ button above for a video demonstrating the
following exercises:
zz Jaw and tongue root exercise 1: use a descending scale to ‘yaya’ with a finger between your teeth.
This will keep your jaw still and make your tongue work harder. Next, place your other thumb under your
chin, feeling the soft part just behind the jaw bone, and sing the scale again. Feel your tongue moving but
not pressing down. Keep your jaw loose and don’t allow it to move forward.
zz Jaw and tongue root exercise 2: sing a descending scale (or other familiar exercise) with your tongue
stuck out of your mouth as far as it will go (which will look and sound really silly!). Next, at the start of
each note (and with your tongue sticking right out), lightly bite onto your tongue to make a ‘th’ onset. As
you release the teeth/tongue for the vowel, allow your tongue to spring back to a place just behind your
lower teeth. Do this for each note; it’s not easy but it will really get your tongue root stretched and loose.
Projected resonance
This is the enhancment of certain harmonics in the sound to create a superboosted ringing quality, which
makes the voice carry. This resonance is called ‘singers’ formant’, also known as ‘ring’, ‘twang’, ‘ping’,
‘squillo’ and ‘blade’.
zz Resonance exercise: sing any tune, using nasal sounds (such as a duck’s quack or a witch-like ‘nya’)
on each note. Make sure that you are not constricting the larynx as you do so (remember the silent giggle
sensation – see ‘Avoiding constriction in the larynx’ on p6). You may feel vibrations in the front of your face
or the roof of your mouth. Then repeat this on a ‘na’ sound; the aim is to keep the same resonance you
created when singing the nasal sounds.
The soft palate
The soft palate can be raised or lowered during singing. A lowered soft palate results in a nasal sound as
exhaled air exits partly through the nose. It is important to distinguish between this nasal sound and the
sensation of resonance across the bridge of the nose (found in the ‘Projected resonance’ exercise on p8). In
general, a nasal tone is undesirable in singing, whereas one full of resonance is desirable (see Chapter 2 for
further details).
zz Soft palate awareness: whilst singing an open vowel, hold your nose and then let go again. Does
the sound quality alter? If so, some of the sound was going into your nose and your open vowel was
nasal. Monitor the result on different notes and vowels. When your nose is pinched, there should be no
difference in the sound.
zz Soft palate exercise 1: sing a melody using the two-syllable ‘ung-ee’ on each note. As you do so, feel
the back of the mouth spring upwards away from the tongue. Now try this to ‘ga-gee’ and ‘ka-kee’ and
feel the same lift at the back.
zz Soft palate exercise 2: make a lightly exploding ‘b’ with the cheeks puffing out. This forces the soft
palate to raise, as otherwise the air pressure necessary to explode can’t be built up in the mouth. Now
extend the vowel after the ‘b’ into ‘baa’, with lightly puffing cheeks for each ‘b’ onset. Try this on various
pitches, maintaining the sensation and resonant quality of the raised palate.
Idiomatic sound, from Mozart to musical
theatre and pop
After establishing good vocal function, you can focus
on making the sound idiomatically correct for the style
of music you are singing. Although most elements of
voice production are the same for any vocal style, subtle
differences of onset, quality of sound and phrasing make
big differences to the listener.
Children in particular imitate other singers very
effectively. As a teacher, it is useful to listen to the
recording your pupils have been listening to in order to
hear what they are trying to copy. Once you know what
they are aiming for, you can make suggestions based on
what you know that children’s voices can and can’t do,
compared to adult ones. Here are some starting points:
zz Onset: see the ‘Tone onset exercises’ on p6.
zz Quality of sound:
• Classical sound production is done with proportionately more tilt of the upper cartilage of the
larynx, giving the sound more warmth and smoothness (think of a cry or a sob in the sound). Its
darkness is achieved through a slight lowering of the larynx, and vibrato in adolescent and adult
voices is also encouraged.
• Musical theatre tends towards a speech-like quality of sound, achieved through a more neutral
larynx position.
• Pop requires less emphasis on voice production because it’s nearly always amplified. With less
effort going into creating loud sounds, more breathiness can be used. Deliberate use of contrast
between registers is sometimes a feature.
zz Phrasing: best thought of as each musical phrase having a dynamic contour. However, styles vary; for
example, the language-heavy diction required in musical theatre sounds out of place in pop and classical
zz Vowel placement: this is a big identifier of different singing styles. Classical vowels are much closer
together in terms of tongue placement (particularly in the upper register), while vowels are more akin to
speech in pop music. Perhaps the biggest difference is in the ‘oo’ vowel. In pop this can be a very light
sound made by a high tongue. In musical theatre, it’s a more neutral, speech-like sound. In classical, the
tongue is lower, producing a darker sound.
As long as you stick to the basics of posture, breathing, efficient voicing, avoiding tension and singing in the
right pitch range for your voice, you can sing in any style you want!
zz Improving singing technique is about:
• improving efficiency of voicing
• developing isolation and fine control over muscles.
zz Good posture is critical for good singing.
zz As long as these fundamental points are adhered to, it is possible to sing healthily in any style.