All Things Vocal Blog & Podcast by Judy Rodman: August 2016

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. Download All Things Vocal podcast on your fav app!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Why You Should NOT Sing From Your Diaphragm

This is the last place you want to sing from!!
NOTE: The audio player should appear below, if not, please click on the title of this post and go online to hear.  
Available also on iTunes, Google Play and Android podcast apps
You hear this phrase a lot in vocal lesson circles... "Sing from your diaphragm." The two big problems with this mistaken directive are:
  • You can’t! You can’t consciously make the diaphragm do anything… it is operated by the automatic nervous system, not the conscious mind!
  • ... and you shouldn’t! It's downright dangerous! Yes, the diaphragm it is the major organ of breathing.  But if you try to power or 'support' your voice from the diaphragm, you’ll end up sabotaging its operation, and say goodbye to your breath control!

So what & where is the diaphragm?

The diaphragm is a very large, thin, dome-shaped sheet of muscle that you can imagine as a mushroom cap. It is located between your chest and your abdomen, separating them. It has connections to places in the upper and lower spine, as well as the clavicle. But the most important thing you need to know about your diaphragm that its edges are connected to the bottom of your ribcage. That’s where you can make conscious choices that affect the diaphragm, as we’ll talk about in a moment.

Here's a great video by of the diaphragm at work:

What happens when you try to sing from it?

OK, let me explain with some imagery. Let’s imagine you have this horse you want to ride. You somehow communicate to the horse something you've heard ... that it should run from its hamstrings. So the ever obedient horse starts to think about and focus effort on its hamstrings instead of just letting them work, as they naturally will if the horse just stretches itself out to run. What's likely to happen in this situation is that the horse will over-concentrate on its hamstrings, over-tensing them. The horse will become uncoordinated and use much more effort to accomplish much less... oh, and in its frustration it will have totally lost sight of where it’s supposed to be going and why it's running in the first place!

Like trying to run a horse from its hamstrings, powering your voice from your diaphragm is going to cause problems. The tensed ribcage will drop a bit, which leaves your diaphragm with too much slack. You sabotage both the quality of your inhale and control of your exhale! The more you try to work your voice from your diaphragm, the less coordinated your breath and the worse your vocal issues become. Your jaw and tongue, neck and shoulders will probably tighten - at least to some degree - against excessive air pressure. With all that stuff going on, there's no way you can focus on the message... the what and why you're using your voice to make sound!

So why has this counterproductive suggestion become so universal? Well, as happens in politics and sloppy science, if you say or hear something enough times, it can become accepted as unquestioned fact. Very few people even know what the phrase means. Even many pro music folks don't know what or where the diaphragm is! Most of the time, when someone uses the phrase "Sing from your diaphragm" they mean you shouldn't breathe by raising and lowering your shoulders. They usually mean sing from the middle of your stomach. But powering from the diaphragm causes a squeezing there, which drops the ribcage, allowing the slackened diaphragm to rise too far and deliver too much uncontrolled breath to the poor vocal cords.

4 things to do instead:

1. Widen your ribcage with tall posture.

    Your ribcage hinges on your upper spine. By standing or sitting flexibly taller, with your head level and balanced over your tailbone, you will open the bottom of your ribcage, and therefore stretch your diaphragm wide, instantly increasing your breath control.

      2. Support from your pelvic floor.

        Tense your saddle area for power, much like riding a horse downhill. Your legs and feet can also be used as part of this equation; for instance, press your heels into the stage floor and it’s the same as using your saddle. With this low power center, you literally power your ribcage and throat open!

        3. Don't push... Pull instead!

        Instead of pushing for power, PULL your voice from a spot above and behind your head. This will encourage your top vertebrae to move back slightly, which again straightens the upper spine and opens both the ribcage and the throat. Try consciously backing off your volume to learn this sensation.

        4. Articulate richly

        The most powerful vocal performance comes from clear articulation and rich resonance, not the excessive breath pressure shoved up from an uncontrolled diaphragm!
        These things will allow your diaphragm all the space it needs to relax and contract, its dome moving up and down in the chest for inhaling and exhaling. But like a well-stretched trampoline, the taut diaphragm will also be able to control its movements, only allowing as much breath pressure up as your automatic nervous system dictates to give your vocal cords what they need. In effect, you support your voice from tension you apply at the saddle, control your voice by keeping your diaphragm widely stretched, pull the heart in like a magnet and deliver a clear message. That, my friend, is true vocal power.
          Centered in the pelvic floor, this breath support/control balance will unlock all kinds of vocal freedom, improving control, precision, range and tone. You will immediately feel a decrease in vocal fatigue, tension and strain. When you habitually come from this low power source, you can sing or speak as long as you need to, and never get vocally tired!

          Bust the myth!

          Many vocal coaches, voice scientists and docs I respect are now trying to correct this mistaken belief about where we should sing from. No. Don't sing from your diaphragm. Don't support from your diaphragm. It can be downright dangerous for your voice! Instead, sing from your pelvic floor. Or to put it another way, sing your butt off so you don't sing your throat out! Your diaphragm can then operate automatically, and your horse (er... your voice, which won't get hoarse) will be so happy!

          If you need help with powering your singing or speaking voice in the healthiest and most effective way, try Power, Path and Performance training. You can take lessons with me in person (office, Skype or phone) or study a PPP course. Some students do both. PPP training teaches you to power your voice free of tension, but full of impact.

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          Thursday, August 4, 2016

          How To Conquer Adolescent Male Vocal Strain

          Nope... It doesn't have to feel OR sound like this!
          NOTE: The audio player should appear below, if not, please click on the title of this post and go online to hear.  
          Available also on iTunes, Google Play and Android podcast apps

          If you are a teenage boy, you've undoubtedly felt and/or heard the change in your voice. You probably have had your voice crack or otherwise feel uncontrolled. You may find it impossible to sing as high as you easily used to. I hope you are keeping a sense of humor through this, knowing it has happened to your male friends, but you may also experience embarrassment and worry. I hope this post helps you take this era in stride. I especially want you to know that you can come through it without straining your voice!

          First, be careful what you read on the internet. Here are some tips I found on the web that, from my experience working with teen boys as a vocal coach, may not help you much:
          • Understand why you're experiencing vocal problems.
          OK, it's all well and good to know you're going through a very normal process for your age, that your changing hormones are causing your larynx to grow so fast it's destabilizing for the operation of your voice. But like understanding that your body is aching because you have the flu, or that you're scared of spiders because you have a arachnophobia - understanding that you're going through the voice change stops short of telling you what to do about it.
          • Breathe from your belly.
          Actually, this admonition is better than saying 'breathe from your diaphragm' but it still doesn't help you power your voice in a way that won't strain it.
          • Speak in your normal voice.
          If you normally speak with a tight throat channel, then speaking normally is the last thing you want to do.
          • Relax.
          Hmm. Right. But your voice needs to be powered from somewhere, so you need to know what parts to relax and what parts to tense. 
          • Warm up your voice.
          If you don't know how to do vocal exercises, you can just tighten your voice up even further by doing them. Argh.

          So what should you do?

          I have helped many teenage boys successfully through the voice change era. I've discovered what can help you sing through this frustrating period safely without straining your voice. Here is what my students have done that worked:

          • Change your songs and keys

          Yes, understand that this is a normal challenge for teen boys, and give yourself permission NOT to sing as high as you used to for a while. Learn easier, less rangy songs and sing them in lower keys. Don't worry... you're growing into a vocal range that includes low notes you've never sung before and your high notes should come back beautifully if you avoid straining your voice through this period.

          • Know how to power your voice

          If you tense your pelvic floor to power your voice, you can relax at your throat and upper chest. Your posture should be tall and flexible, which requires strength in your spine to hold the bottom of your ribcage flexibly wide. 

          • Pull, don't push, your voice.

          Now more than ever your changing voice needs you to back off your breath pressure and learn to 'pull' instead of 'push' for controlled, confident compression power, again centered from the pelvic floor. You can think of it as what boxers call 'pulling punches', controlling their power. Here are three vocal exercises to help you sense what I'm talking about.
          1. Sing with a pad of paper right in front of your face. If that pad of paper was a glass window pane, sing as if you don't want to leave a breath mark on it. That should focus your breath into more of a laser beam than a flashlight beam, which will vibrate your vocal cords without making them feel 'blown'. And your resulting tone should become richer instead of thin and pushy or breathy.
          2. Blow on a candle about 5 inches from your face; make the flame dance but don't blow it out. See how long you can blow. 
          3. This is the best one, but you may have to swallow your pride: Get a bottle of kid's bubbles and try to blow the biggest bubble you can, instead of a lot of little ones. You'll notice that you have to 'pull the blow'. That's the sensation you need to control your air pressure to your voice. 

          • Articulate clearly

          When you're worried, stressed or not feeling confident, you tend to form words at the back of your jaw and mouth. This tightens your throat, and leads to vocal strain. Instead, try loosening your face, jaw, tongue and activate your eyes. Communicate your message like your talking to the deaf. And speaking of talking...

          • Watch abusing your speaking voice!

          Speak like you sing... with your new singing techniques! Open your mouth, ribcage and eyes. Sense your speaking voice being powered from the lower part of your body, not the upper.

          • Don't stop singing! 

          I don't recommend that you stop singing, except for temporary voice rest for swollen, diseased (laryngitis) or damaged vocal cords. Just like for any muscular effort, 'use it or lose it' is true of the voice. But as is also true for any muscle, the vocal apparatus must be operated wisely and with correct form. The best practice is to keep singing through the voice change, carefully, consistently and with good technique, never challenging the voice in a way that causes it to strain. Wait for it. Your full, adult voice will come!

          A Word of Caution: 

          It can be very hard for a singer to let go of counterproductive effort in the voice. Very much a catch-22, when you have trouble reaching notes and controlling your voice, the natural instinct is to try harder. This reinforces the things that make it even harder for your voice to work such as pushing, tightening and straining the voice. For help with these techniques, consider a Power, Path and Performance vocal training course. Or contact me for private lessons, in my office, over Skype or by phone.

          What about you - have you had some experience with adolescent voice change? I'd love to hear from you in the comments!

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