Judy Rodman - All Things Vocal Blog: February 2014

Training & insights for stage and studio singers, speakers, vocal coaches and producers from professional vocal coach and author of "Power, Path & Performance" vocal training method.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Vocal Tone: How To Change It


This will be the first in a two-part series
 This is the second of a two part series

This will be the first in a two-part series
This will be the first in a two-part series
As promised, this is my second blog post on 'Vocal Tone'. It's one thing
to know how you want your voice to sound... but another to actually create that sound! Today we'll talk about how to paint different tone colors, change the overtones and harmonics of your speaking and singing voice to most authentically communicate your messages - or sound like a singer you want to match.

It takes...

  • Mental intention: You know what tone you need and fully commit to sounding it.
  • Vocal technique: Your automatic nervous system knows how to direct the many parts of your body/instrument to create the sound you intend. 

It starts with the vocal cords...

  • The vocal cords (aka "vocal folds") create the onset of vocal sound when air blows through the edges of these folds and sets up the initial sound vibrations. How those folds stretch/relax, thicken/thin not only determines vocal pitch but also can affect vocal tone color. 

Vocal cord conditions that affect tone:

  • Age/size - If you are a child, your vocal cords are smaller, with a resulting higher, thinner,  lighter sound. This is one reason most serious classical training is best done when the singer approaches 30. If you are an elderly adult, your vocal folds can become less elastic but also denser and more sonorous, according to how you've used them your whole life and how healthy you are in general. [Just in case you need a faith lift, check out this performance by 90 year old Mark Reizen 
  • Strength and coordination - weak vocal cords/folds haven't had enough correct vocal exercise/singing to create good vocal fold closure (adduction), flexibility and stamina. and will sound weak or if overblown, sound strained and tight. Strong cords can bear more breath support/control and create more brilliance, ping and richly resonant tone.
  • Irritation or damage - in this condition the folds are not as elastic, the edges of the cords are not smooth and again, vocal cord vibration and adduction is compromised, limiting vocal tone possibilities (chronic breathiness is a red flag which should be investigated by an ENT doctor specializing in voice).
  • Condition of the mucosa layer of the vocal cords. If this layer is too thick or too thin or is even slightly dehydrated, the movement of the 'mucosal wave' will be limited, and tone will be rougher.

The buzz from vocal fold vibration is not going to be very colorful. It's the path that buzz takes traveling on through the resonators that creates the final vocal tones you produce.  

Vocal resonators that affect tone:
  • The Larynx (cartilage)
  • The Pharynx (throat channel from just below larynx through back of mouth and nose)
  • The Trachea and Bronchial tubes
  • The Mouth (bony and soft tissues, palates, teeth)
  • The Nose (it's bigger than you think)
  • The Head (bones of skull)
  • The Face (especially bones of the mask - forehead, cheekbones, faceplate)

Factors that determine how your vocal resonators are accessed and vibrated include:

  • Soft palate 
    • Lift it and you create an open, bell-like sound.
    • Flatten it and you sound thin, edgy, nasal.
  • Larynx
    • Over-lift it and you will sound thin & tight, anxious, brittle, uncontrolled.
    • Over-lower it and sound hooty & dark.
    • Float it, allow it to lift and lower slightly and tilt in your neck, and it will give you unimpeded access to rich resonance, open sound and a full tone color palate that is unstrained. 
  • Jaw 
    • Lower it a bit and you can get a boomy, covered sound. Lower it uncomfortably and you'll also lower larynx and tend to flatten soft palate. You'll have a dark, throaty, foghorn type of sound. 
    • Freeze it and you will also freeze your soft palate, resulting in the clenched jaw, back of your mouth tight, colorless, muffled or angry tone.
    • Let it float flexibly in a slight chewing circle and you release your soft palate and larynx, allowing colorful, playful, open and easily variable tone - anything from smokey and sultry to cooly mellow, classically sonorous, or pop crisp and bright. 
  • Tongue
    • Use the back of it to articulate and your tone will be strangled and tight. This usually accompanies a frozen jaw and raised larynx with those resulting tones.
    • Use the front of it to articulate and you release the tension in the base of the tongue... with resulting vocal tone that is very lively, open and bell-bright. It goes right along with the floating jaw and actively lifting soft palate.
  • Neck and shoulder muscles
    • If you tighten these, you will encourage the tight, limited tone colors that comes from tight jaw, larynx, soft palate configurations and uncontrolled or shallow breath. This is great if you need to sound scared, tense, angry or in pain.
  • Eyes, eye pads and eyebrows
    • Freeze these in guarded or thought mode and you will find a numb, monotone and/or more nasal sound (because your nose won't be as open).
    • Activate these appropriately to an unguarded message, and you will find a larger tone palate becomes available for your voice - to which frozen eyes have no access. Frown, open eyes wide, open in slits, squint (see below), close lids but open orbs, lift one brow, smile openly or discretely, etc... you'll create different tones!
  • Cheekbones
    • Tighten at the upper corners of your cheekbones (squint) and you'll sound tight and thin. This is due to the concurrent tight soft palate, jaw and nasal pharynx
    • Purpose to lift and sound your voice from there and you'll naturally activate some areas (including your eyes) that can give you a very rich, resonant, masky sound. Add a scrunch to your nose and you will have a bratty, bright sound.
  • Throat
    • Allow your pharynx to tighten and you'll get a tight, painful or tired sound. Open it and you can create an open, bright, rich, easily variable sound.
  • Ribcage
    • Power your voice from where the diaphragm sits (the lower ribcage) and you'll push your voice into a yelled, tight, risky, frightened or angry sound.
    • Open your lower ribcage wide instead and your controlled breath will easily let you choose a richer or more varied resonation path to send your voice through. 
Try some of these things, maybe combine some things in a creative way and leave us a comment here... what did you discover about your ability to affect your vocal tone?  

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Vocal Tone: What It Is, Why We Change It

 This will be the first in a two-part series 

What is vocal tone?

It is the quality and characteristics of the sound you create with your voice.

What does vocal tone do?

It communicates messagesThe vocal tone you use can radically change the meaning (message) of the words coming out of your mouth!

Take for instance, speaking the phrase:

"Don't do that again"

  • with a low pitch, hushed, dark-vowel tone of voice the message will be menacing... "absolutely do not do that again or there will be seriously bad consequences for you!"
  • with a tight, high-pitched, edgy tone the message will be fearful... "please, I beg you, please don't do that again!"
  • with a lilting, open resonance accompanied by pitch changes the tone will be playful... "go ahead, do it again and I'll tickle you!"
  • with vowels formed tightly in back of the mouth and the word 'that' going up in pitch, the message will be self-sarcastic... "duh, that was a dumb choice I will never repeat!"
"I have something to tell you"
  • with a numb, monotone, colorless tone the message will be... "you're not going to like what I'm about to say."
  • with a loud, pushed, tight jaw yelled sound the message will be... "stop ignoring me and listen to what I'm about to say right now!"
  • with open vowels, playful lilting tone, 'tell' going up in pitch the message will be... "you are in for a good surprise and I can't wait for you to know!"
  • with a whispered, insistent tight tone the message will be... "this secret is going to shock you."
Vocal tone can communicate (anger, direction, gratitude, friendliness, questioning, warning, etc) even when the words are in a foreign language. So it's important to know what tone to use. We learn habitual vocal tone choices from our parents, family, peers and culture.

There are reasons to purposefully change our natural, habitual vocal tone. Here are a few:

  1. The tone we use strains or fatigues our overused speaking or singing voices.
  2. We want a tone of voice that commands more authentic attention to the message, and gets a stronger emotional response.
  3. We don't like the tone we hear in our recorded voice. 
  4. We need to blend with others in a group.
  5. We need to match a particular lead voice to which we are singing background or harmony vocals.
  6. We want to transform our singing and/or speaking voice into a particular character for acting in plays, musicals or TV/movie scenes, for voice-over roles, for reading book passages out loud, for speaking to specific kinds of groups.
  7. We want to sing a cover song and sound just like the original, such as Karaoke singing or simply experimenting with different vocal styles.

Next post on Vocal Tone: How To Change It


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