Good Tone Production for Singing
(Page 4 of 4)
In singing, blending may refer to two areas of study: blending the registers (eliminating “breaks” in the voice that tend to occur between registers) and blending chest and head resonances (to produce a “mixed” or blended tone that is characteristic of the middle register). I’ll attempt to address both concepts here.
To begin a discussion about blending (also known as “bridging”) the registers, it is important to define the term register. A vocal register in the human voice is a particular series of tones, produced in the same vibratory pattern of the vocal folds, and possessing the same quality. Registers originate in laryngeal function – the larynx, where the vocal folds are housed. They occur because the vocal folds produce several different vibratory patterns. Each of these vibratory patterns appears within a particular range of pitches and produces certain characteristic sounds or qualities. The term register can be somewhat confusing, as it encompasses several aspects of the human voice, and can be used to refer to any of the following: a particular part of the vocal range, (such as the upper, middle, or lower registers), a resonance area (such as chest voice or head voice), a phonatory process or a certain vocal timbre.
In order to move smoothly up or down in pitch between the chest, middle and head voice registers (or between any two adjacent registers), the registers must blend. If they don't, noticeable voice breaks, or register breaks, will occur. When a register break occurs, the tone of the voice will often suddenly become weak, thin and lacking in intensity and volume, and pitch changes will sound abrupt. Sometimes the voice will crack, or there may even be a momentary cessation of sound. These problem spots in a singer’s range are believed to be caused by mal-coordination of the laryngeal mechanism – or static laryngeal adjustment, in which the vocal folds fail to make necessary changes as the next set of pitches (or register) approaches. These changes to the folds and the laryngeal muscles need to happen gradually rather than suddenly, and need to be accompanied by an adjustment of breath energy.
When a singer is moving from one register to another, the goal is to have an evenness of tone so that there is no perceptible "break" or shifting between the registers. Ideally, the singer’s voice shouldn’t sound like an entirely different voice when a different register has been entered. Achieving smoothness and a consistency of tone throughout the scale demands a knowledgeable teacher who can instruct the student in how to effectively adjust the mechanism of registration. The good singer knows how to coordinate the registers in such a way that there is a smooth, imperceptible transition from one register to another.
To blend these registers, a singer needs to slightly close the two last notes of the lower register when ascending in pitch and slightly open them when descending in pitch. If too much power or volume is put into singing the highest notes of the lower register, it will become more difficult to develop the power, volume and warmth or fullness of tone in the lower notes in the next (higher) register. Essentially, singers must rein in their voices a little just before attempting to shift into the next register. If they don't have control, they will find a large difference in tone quality when they switch into their head voice, and this poorer quality usually sounds thin, weak, shaky and breathy.
Many vocal registration problems are really problems of resonance adjustment. The treatment of vowels has a strong effect on the transitions from register to register. (I delve more deeply into this issue in Part Two of this article entitled Singing with An 'Open Throat': Vocal Tract Shaping .) Vowel modification, in which the vowel is “narrowed” or “darkened” just prior to the point where the voice would naturally flip into the next register, is necessary, and is a part of the closing and opening processes that need to happen when ascending and descending in pitch, respectively. When transitioning up to the head voice register, if a “rounding” of the vowels does not happen, the singer will be pulling up too much weight (thicker vocal cord mass) into the higher register. It should be noted that the darkening of the vowels should only be done by increasing the acoustical space, not by pulling down the soft palate or the back of the tongue, as these latter techniques lead to inconsistency and diminish the upper overtones.
Achieving mastery of the head register involves opening the closed vowels and closing the open ones. For example, as the [i] is carried higher and higher, it needs to taper toward a short “i”, as in the word "it”, and then continue to change subtly as the scale ascends. Some instructors make use of vowel modification charts to help their students understand how each vowel should change within the head register. However, I find that most singers can make the correct modifications once they understand that the changes need to occur, and that they can’t maintain the same vowel sound in their head register as they do when singing at speech-level pitches. Letting go of their previous notions about how their voices should sound in head voice and hearing their instructor demonstrate the gradual modification process is usually enough to help them access head voice.
When a singer fails to modify the vowel, a register break is likely to occur, and clear, free tone in head voice becomes impossible. Whenever my students have difficulties transitioning into full head voice, it is most often a problem with failure to allow the vowel to modify. The students often attempt in vain to maintain the same distinctive vowel sound and feel in head register as they do in their speech-inflection range. The vowel then spreads and breathiness occurs, or the larynx begins to rise in an unhealthy manner and phonation becomes tight or squeezed in both sound and feel. Pitch inevitably begins to go flat, and the singer begins to feel tension at the laryngeal level. Allowing the vowel to “narrow” and the jaw to lower slightly usually produces an almost instant correction of the registration problem, as the laryngeal muscles and the vocal folds are allowed to make their natural adjustments.
One approach to helping singers access the head voice range when attempts at modifying the vowel are not successful is the use of healthy nasality, usually the [NG] sound. (The addition of some subtle nasality also works for the very bottom of a singer’s range when a vocal fry quality starts to enter the voice because it keeps the voice from slipping back into the throat and creating discomfort and strain. With the sound placed just slightly in the nose, a pleasant tone can be produced because it is less likely for the vowel to spread.) Once the singer can successfully and consistently bridge into the head register, the tone will even out and become balanced.
With my students, I emphasize the importance of anticipating these pivotal registration points so that they can begin making the necessary muscular, breath energy and vowel adjustments a couple notes before the voice would naturally shift into the next register. These registration activity points may differ slightly from singer to singer, depending on their ranges and voice types, and with different vowels for the same singers. Anticipating the register changes allows the necessary modifications to take place in advance of the break point, which in turn produces a blended or mixed voice that is, both functionally and tonally, a cross between the laryngeal mechanisms and tonal qualities of the two abutting registers. The end result of anticipating the register changes is seamless, healthy transitions between registers, created by an evenness of tone throughout the range. (It sometimes helps to think of the voice as one continuous or linear mechanism or tone rather than a series of separate registers that must be linked together.)
Accessing the head register poses particular problems for many untrained singers, and a great deal of those problems occur because of a failure to anticipate and allow adjustments to occur naturally and gradually. Head voice, (within the changed voice), occurs at a specific pitch within a scale as a result of the thickness and length of the vocal folds. Minor acoustical changes must be allowed to occur each half step within the head register to prevent the voice from sounding squeezed. Depending on the individual singer’s folds, it can be a different acoustical changing point. Also, this point of change may be located at a slightly different spot depending on the singer’s vocal fach or vocal type. For example, a tenor might need to switch into head voice by the C4 or B4, whereas a bass might need to make the switch around the A4. A soprano might make the change to head voice around the F#5, whereas an alto might make it around the E5.
Changing into head voice timbre a little earlier or lower in the scale, rather than waiting until the voice absolutely must switch, however, may free up the upper register, improving tone and ease of transition. I find that, even as a mezzo-soprano, I naturally start incorporating head voice timbre into my voice around the C#5 or D5 depending on the vowel and the day, even though my voice could probably hold onto the middle voice timbre and not need to modify the vowels for yet another couple steps. However, if I were to maintain the timbre of the lower register until my voice absolutely must switch, the transition to head voice would be abrupt and highly perceptible, and my voice would start to sound and feel a little pinched or squeezed. Beginning the transition into head voice early enough in the scale allows the singer to find freedom and release in the head register so that a perfect blending of the registers is created.
One of the most noticeable consequences of failing to glide smoothly upward into the next register is a flattening of pitch. When a student begins to sing flat on certain notes, it is a telltale sign that he or she has likely reached the end of a certain register and has not made the necessary adjustments to continue singing on pitch.
It is possible to extend the natural or chest voice upward by a few more notes past the first passaggio. (In a male singer, this extra range of the lower register would represent his zona di passaggio, and would end at his second passaggio. In a female singer, the chest voice would merely be carried up into the lower part of the middle register.) Doing so, however, invites registration problems, as well as the potential for strain or injury. The voice will inevitably “break” when it reaches the point where it can no longer sustain the same muscular control or vibratory pattern. Over-extension of the chest register is a very common occurrence with young, pre-adolescent female singers because of the over development of this range. Untrained males will often switch into falsetto tone, rather than full, legitimate head voice, because the decreased involvement of the vocal folds creates a release of the tension that has been mounting since the first passaggio was reached. It is always ideal to learn to blend the registers rather than push the vocal instrument in such an unhealthy, unnatural manner.
In my studio, I have noticed that singers of different voice types and vocal weights experience difficulties with negotiating different register transition points. Typically, a heavier or more dramatic voice with a lower-lying tessitura has more difficulty smoothening out the transition between the natural (chest) and the middle registers (in females) or the natural and head registers (in males) because there is often a mismatch between the fullness or heaviness of the lower range and the lightness of the higher range, and because they have a tendency to want to carry the lower mechanism of the voice (the “natural” quality of the voice that they are most comfortable singing with) up as high as it can go until it ultimately cracks and shifts into another vibratory pattern (register). Lighter, lyric voices and voices with higher-lying tessituras tend to glide through both the lower passaggio (registration change point) and the upper passaggio into head voice with greater ease because the tone in the lower range doesn’t differ substantially from the fullness of the middle and higher registers. Lower-voiced men tend to have more difficulty moving smoothly into head voice than do women in general, although altos seem to frequently struggle with the register changes between their natural (chest) voice and middle register. Throaty or hollow sounding voices tend to have a great deal of difficulty smoothening out the registers.
Of course, all of the above challenges are remedied, though not often easily or quickly, with vocal study that focuses on the adjustment of breath control and vowel modification, (referred to as aggiustamento in the international or Italian school), that will retrain the singer to navigate register shifts correctly.
Proper execution of register shifts – ones that are smooth and comfortable - requires the simultaneity of correct muscular balance of the voice, efficient phonation, appropriate laryngeal depth and balanced tuning of the vocal tract (formant tracking). Many techniques are used to blend the registers. These techniques must address coordination of the muscles of the larynx to prevent voice breaks, and maintenance of the acoustic pressures in the airways to avoid undesirable quality changes.
One exercise that I find to be helpful with my students who are struggling with register breaks in the lower passaggio is a series of five-note chromatic scales beginning a few notes below the register break point, then moving up to a few notes above it. I have the students sing these scales in both ascending and descending patterns because the adjustments that need to be made in terms of breath energy and vowel modification are different when going up and when going down in pitch. Often, the students and I will slow down the exercise and insert a glide between notes so that they can feel the subtle adjustments being made at the level of the larynx with every note change. This exercise helps to retrain the muscles of the larynx over time.
While it may be appropriate at times during a lesson to isolate the different registers during certain exercises (e.g., to shorten the exercise so that others can also be fit into the lesson time or to work on a specific range of pitches or register that may be giving the singer some problems, etc.), it is preferable and wise to also include exercises that encourage the successful blending of registers, in which singers move from one register to the next, both ascending and descending in pitch. Smoothness of registration can be obtained in no other way than by practicing the skill.
Repairing a register break requires time and patience. Some students find it to be the most challenging and frustrating aspect of vocal technique study. Once it is repaired, though, the singer can refine it further and practice to maintain a seamless voice throughout his or her entire range.
For blending the registers and allowing the laryngeal muscles to learn to gradually make the necessary changes, slides or portamentos through the passaggios are sometimes helpful, as are five-note chromatic or diatonic scales that begin a couple notes below the passaggio and end a couple notes on the other side of it.
For further discussion on vocal registration and register breaks, read Understanding Vocal Range, Vocal Registers and Voice Type – A Glossary of Vocal Terms. For some practical tips and exercises for encouraging a more unified (blended) vocal scale, read Blending the Registers in Tips For Practicing Singing: A Practical Guide To Vocal Development.
Blending chest voice and head voice qualities and colours is a major source of confusion and frustration for many aspiring singers. It may take years to master. However, once they understand how the voice works, blending becomes easier and nearly automatic, and the singer is able to sing with more emotion and passion.
Although chiaroscuro timbre – characterized by a balance between the light (clear) and dark aspects of the voice’s spectrum - is important throughout the voice’s entire compass (range), it seems to become particularly important in the middle register where the voices mix. Some singers respond to a mathematical “formula” for blending, in which the voice’s tone is imagined to be comprised of fifty percent head resonance and fifty percent chest resonance – the actual proportions change with the pitch being sung, so that more head resonance and less chest resonance will be present as pitch ascends, and more chest resonance and less head resonance would be present in the balance on lower pitches. Other students respond to visualizations that involve the tone creating a smooth line in the front of the face or accepting the notion of a “grey” area in which the voice is neither entirely head (white) nor entirely chest (black). Some students appreciate the concept of equalizing the voice between the lower and upper passaggios (the middle register in women and the zona di passaggio in men) so that there is a balance of “bass” and “treble”. Still others find it most successful and relaxing to simply focus on making the voice sound beautiful and free on every note rather than focusing too much attention on the complicated physical mechanism involved in blending.
Regardless of the imagery that singers adopts to make blending the different voice qualities make more sense to them, the goal should always be to achieve balanced tone with every note sung in the range.
When singers refer to chest resonance, they are actually talking about vocal tone that is characterized by darker vowel qualities or mellowness, sometimes accompanied by a distinct sensation of vibration in the chest, especially in the sternum and breastbone area. This register mode occurs in the lower to middle range of speaking pitch. The term itself, however, is a misnomer since an effective resonating chamber is a hollow place surrounded by hard surfaces, (such as bone), and the chest is too full of organs to be suitable for amplifying the singing tone. Since resonance occurs where there is plenty of empty space for amplification of the lower vibrations created by the vocal folds, what singers may associate with chest resonance is actually sympathetic vibration; that is, vibrations being conducted through the bones of the chest cavity. Not all singers experience sympathetic vibrations in the chest when singing in this register. Some only feel it when their hands are placed on their chests.
I prefer to use the term natural voice when referring to this register in the singing voice because it denotes the natural disposition or mode of the vocal folds. Within speech level pitch range, the singing voice should sound almost identical to the speaking voice, and so using this term seems to be a better description of the type of “natural” voice production that is desirable within this range. It removes from the description of the vocal register all subjectivity or mislabeling.
Head resonance, when properly supported, has a brilliant ringing tone quality as compared to the chest resonance singing tone. This bright voice tone is developed in the bones and cavities above, behind and around the nose that is often called the “mask”, or “masque”.
Since the head voice is seldom used during everyday speech – in women, the head register begins on the notes at the top of the staff - the muscles and the tone tend to be underdeveloped. Most classical technique instructors tend to spend more time developing the tone, intensity and volume of this high register because it needs more work than the chest (natural) and medium voices do, as they are more commonly used in speech and in contemporary styles of singing.
When singing in head voice, a singer must maintain a forward "placement" so that the vibratory sensations - the resonance of the voice - can be felt in the bones of the face. If the tone is allowed to slip back into the throat or spread, it will be impossible to produce a good tone with effective resonance and volume. In this register, the jaw must also relax and slightly lower to create more space and to promote equilibrium among the overtones, which will reduce shrillness in these high pitches. (I explain more about why this is the case in Formant Tuning In the Female High Range in my article on vocal tract shaping and in the section on vowel modification in Vowels, Vowel Formants and Vowel Modification.)
If head resonance is not supported, the singer usually produces a false falsetto tone because the singer must switch into a “choir boy” tone in order to sing the high pitches.
Head voice occurs as a result of the laryngeal tilt (or cricothyroid adjustment, in which the larynx rocks forward and elevates slightly as pitch rises). Without this laryngeal adjustment, the singer will find singing in the higher register extremely difficult.
The term falsetto designates a timbre in the male upper range that is imitative of the female timbre. Science shows that women are capable of producing a falsetto voice. However, this phonation mode or tone quality is not typically recognized in the singing world because an incomplete vocal fold closure in females merely produces a breathy tone that sounds very different than the falsetto tone that males produce. It will not sound as though the woman has switched to another register.
Many singers incorrectly think that falsetto and head voice are two names for the same technique. This, however, is not the case. Although head voice and falsetto may be produced at the same pitches in male voices – those pitches that lie above his primo passaggio - and may be described as “running parallel” to each other in range, the techniques and resulting sounds between the two voice productions are different. In other words, falsetto is recognized in historic voice pedagogy as being distinct from full head voice. Unlike the sound of head voice, which is richer in overtones and has the potential to produce a substantial Singer’s Formant – that is, it has a strong “ring” - falsetto voice is weak in overtones, has a more “flute-like” quality, and therefore produces no Singer's Formant.
The main differences between the sounds of falsetto and head voice production lie in the amount of laryngeal involvement. Falsetto is a voice production in which the vocalis muscles (the thryroarytenoids) are inactive and lengthened by the action of the cricothyroid muscles, which are nearly fully contracted. The sound of falsetto is produced by the air blowing over the very thin edges of the thyroarytenoids, which are easily blown open or apart by the breath because the thin, lengthened edges of the vocal folds display little tension in opposition to the stretching action of the thyroarytenoids, and little resistance to breath flow. The pitch is controlled mostly by a regulation of the breath flow.
In order to create head voice, increasing tension of the thyroarytenoids creates a tauter, more substantial edge to the vocal fold, which in turn creates more resistance to the flow of breath, and building subglottic pressure – pressure below the closed vocal folds – can be felt. Increasing the activity of the thyroarytenoids in resistance to the stretching action of the cricothyroids will increase the subglottic pressure and change from the tone quality of falsetto to the ringing sound of the head voice. (The male singer can easily sense this difference in breath pressure between falsetto and his true head voice.)
The falsetto voice is produced by the vibration of the extreme membranous or ligamentous edges of the vocal cords either in whole or in part, while the main body of the fold is more or less relaxed. In other words, edges appear to be the only parts vibrating, while the mass corresponding to the innermost part of the thyro-aryntenoid muscle remains still and motionless. However, in more skilled singers, the mucous membrane of the vocal folds contact with each other completely during each vibration cycle. The arytenoid cartilages are held in firm apposition – they are touching - in this voice register. (This tends to produce a sound that mimics a clear female voice rather than a breathy falsetto-type tone.) Also the length or size of the oval orifice or separation between the folds can vary, but it is known to get bigger in size as the pressure of air pushed out is increased.
In others, often seen in more trained singers, the full length of the glottis opens and closes in each cycle. In still others, a phenomenon known as damping appears, with the amount of glottal opening becoming less and less as the pitch rises, until only a tiny slit appears on the highest pitches. To some extent, damping is natural and healthy. However, it can quickly deteriorate to “pressed phonation”.
For more details on falsetto tone production, refer to the falsetto section in Understanding Vocal Range, Vocal Registers and Voice Type.
Singing teachers don’t often refer to the vocal fry register because it is not regularly produced by singers – it is not easily accessible to them – and because it is not considered a legitimate performance mode of phonation.
The vocal fry register (also known as pulse register, laryngealisation, pulse phonation, creak, glottal fry, glottal rattle, glottal scrape or strohbass), is the lowest vocal register. It is produced through a loose glottal closure that permits air to bubble through slowly with a popping, rattling or crackling or “static” sound of a very low frequency. The voice sounds as though it is “frying”.
During the vocal fry mode of phonation, the arytenoid cartilages in the larynx come together in such a fashion that the vocal folds compress tightly and become relatively compact and slack. This process forms a large and irregularly vibrating mass within the vocal folds that produces the characteristic low popping or rattling sound when air passes through the glottal closure.
The vocal fry register is chiefly used in singing to help a singer reach low pitches that would not be available to the singer if he or she were singing in the modal (chest or natural) register. The physiological production of vocal fry can be potentially damaging to the vocal folds if used frequently, particulary if it is brought up into the chest register. It may also cause singers to lose some of the upper notes in the chest register. However, in some cases, the use of vocal fry may help students learn to produce lower notes if they have previously been unable to due to excessive tension of the laryngeal muscles and of the support mechanism that leads to too much breath pressure in this range of pitches.
I find that most of my female students tend to resort to a vocal fry production as they descend below F#3 or F3 in pitch (the F# or F below middle C). It is possible to teach students to produce a clearer tone that more closely matches that of the chest voice in this range of pitches by simply focusing the tone better through envisioning a narrowing of the tone and preventing the placement from slipping back into the throat. This action frees the voice of excess laryngeal slackness and enables the students to sing lower notes more comfortably and to sound a little more pleasant. The lower range is often extended by several notes when the tone becomes clearer.
Many aspiring singers are tempted to brush over breathing technique and to forego breathing exercises or “homework” because breathing seems far too basic and tedious a skill to fit with their lofty aspirations. They want to jump right into the more challenging and fun aspects of vocal study, even before they have laid a solid foundation, and this is a detrimental temptation to fall into.
What all students of voice must come to understand and appreciate is the important role that breathing plays in tone production. Good management or regulation of airflow will encourage a clear, pure, free, natural, seemingly effortless tone. With good breath control, a singer can give volume, stability, strength and quality to a note, change imperceptibly from one register to another or increase or diminish the power of a tone within the same register, or alter the voice’s volume in order to introduce softer effects. Perfect control of the voice can safely and easily produce volume without degradation of tone (e.g., a shrieking or shouting sound), and allow the kind of purity and freedom that are essential to good singing.
Singing requires more lung pressure than speaking does. The entire duration of a sung note or phrase must be “supported” or secured by a gentle, uninterrupted stream of breath behind it. A singer should be able to take a full breath easily, quickly and silently, and then regulate the rate or pace at which that air is expired (appoggio) during phonation. A steady, controlled stream of air enables a singer to produce a steady, controlled tone. The equal and continuous pressure of the air against the vibrating vocal folds produces equal vibrations, and maintains equality of sound throughout its entire duration. The quality of tone should ride on a minimal yet healthy breath stream. This small stream of breath must travel at an even rate.
Without good breath control, on the other hand, a singer’s tone will be shaky and thin, and possibly breathy, even before it escapes from the mouth. Sudden changes in sub-glottic breath pressure will not only distort tonal quality and lessen the singer's ability to sustain longer musical phrases (due to the loss of excess air from the breathiness of tone), but they may also cause problems with pitch.
Please take some time to read over my article Correct Breathing For Singing. In it, you will find information about the breathing mechanism and an explanation of why diaphragmatic breathing is the body’s correct and natural way, as well as some basic exercises to start you on your way toward correcting and strengthening your breathing. With breathing technique mastered, you can then turn your attention toward achieving better clarity, smoothness and pleasantness in your tone.
Once good breath support is examined, it needs to be applied to singing. Breath should seem to turn into tone, without any perceptible or noticeable effort behind it.
As with the exercises that I’ve included in my article on breathing, these tone development exercises are very basic, and are not intended to replace the expert guidance of a vocal instructor in a “live” lesson situation who can give you direct feedback on your vocal tone and guide you to improvement. (Remember that you don’t hear your voice inside your head as others hear it, and you may initially need someone to help you recognize when you are producing desirable tone.) A good teacher will check your breathing technique, helping you turn breath into tone, as well as how you adjust your vocal tract – your vocal posture - in order to help you achieve a balanced tone.
It is important to become aware of your tone and “placement”. We have several resonators in our bodies, including our facial cavities such as the nose and mouth. (Read my article on the Anatomy of the Voice to get more detail.) The smaller, thinner bones and the more narrow cavity of the nose are meant to support the sympathetic vibrations of higher pitches, whereas the larger, more open spaces of the mouth and throat respond to the resonance of lower pitches. To experience this vocal phenomenon, try tapping with your finger on your chin and listen to the echo of the sound inside your head. Now try tapping on the spot between your nose and upper lip, just above your upper teeth. You should notice a rise in pitch from the first spot to the second. If you tap on the bony bridge of your nose, you will notice that the sound is higher yet in pitch. Finally, tap on your forehead.
Second, the higher the pitch that you are singing, the higher up on your body you will likely feel the sensations associated with resonance. (Again, these sensations are really the result of sympathetic vibration. The way in which we describe or label our registers - e.g., “chest voice”, “head voice”, etc. - generally indicates the location in which we feel the most resonance, rather than the location at which it is actually produced; that is, the larynx.) If you were to practice humming a musical scale, and if you were to hum correctly (i.e., with appropriate volume and focused tone, you should be able to feel the sympathetic vibrations from your voice move higher as the notes get higher and, conversely, lower as the notes get lower. (If you do not feel your face vibrating, you are likely not humming correctly and may need to make some adjustments.) These vibratory sensations should be felt especially in the bony structures of the head, even at lower pitches. This area is often referred to as “the mask”. You will probably feel your teeth vibrating, which may tickle your lips, at times. (Even though all singers have different physiological experiences while singing, there should be some sensation somewhere in the head while you are singing.)
Try humming a single note that is comfortably within the middle of your range. When you feel a strong vibration in your face, open your mouth. The vibration should still be there, and in the same place. Try using all five pure Italian vowels ([e], [i], [a], [o], [u]) when you open your mouth. (Don’t exaggerate how you form the vowels with your mouth, such as opening up more widely than you would in ordinary speech, because that will create distorted vowels and an imbalanced, unpleasant tone, as well as excess tension in the jaw, tongue and neck.) You may find that some vowels, such as open vowels, are easier to sing than others, such as closed or lateral vowels. Avoid the tendency to add a diphthong to the [e] vowel (e.g., singing “ay”, with the “y” pronounced at the end). Instead, maintain the fist, more open part of the vowel.
Now try humming a few notes at a time, then scales, and pay close attention to where you can feel the resonance of your voice. When you are actually singing these scales and notes, this is where your voice should also be resonating. It shouldn't become closed off in your nose so that your tone is nasally nor drop back into your throat. Think of keeping the sound “forward”. Also, it shouldn't sound breathy or airy. (You may recall that breathiness, or unfocused tone, is caused by incomplete vocal fold closure during phonation - sound production - and a lack of breath energy or good support.) If it does, or if the tone is shaky or weak, go back to practicing your breathing exercises and then apply better breath management skills to the more basic humming exercises, one note at a time, opening up to a single vowel. If the tone is still not clear after you have mastered breath support, work on improving the onset of your tone.
Sometimes it helps to place an “m” or an “n” before the vowels, at least initially, because these naturally resonant consonants can help to “ground” the tone, allowing you to feel more resonance or “buzz” and keeping the vowel from spreading. Many of the exercises that I have my students sing during lessons, particularly in the lower parts of their range, include “m’s” and “n’s” at the beginning of the vocal phrase (or series of notes) with the rest of the phrase being sung strictly on the vowel. When a student has mastered placement and consistently produces a clearer, more efficient tone, these consonants are usually removed from the exercises.
Some Bel Canto (meaning “beautiful singing” in Italian, and referring to an Italian mode of singing or a classical singing technique developed in seventeenth century Italy) instructors believe that it makes little sense to train a singer on a consonant because Bel Canto singing is characterized by the ability to sustain a line from vowel to vowel without allowing consonants to get in the way of vowel production - in other words, it is the vowels that are sustained during singing, not the consonants, which serve the purpose only of forming different words - and because the resonance that is felt in these positions is nasal and false. However, I have seen success with my newer students who have never really felt the “buzz” in their singing voices before. Although these nasal vowels may create a false sense of resonance because it is felt so strongly in the nasal cavity, tone tends to balance itself out once the velopharyngeal port is closed to produce the vowel, and the student is able to produce more clarity of tone due to better vocal fold approximation.
I would also argue that, since “m’s” and “n’s” are consonants that are indeed present in all vocal literature (songs), it is both safe and practical to include them in technique training, so long as they are not used to the exclusion of other consonants. If a student of voice never has an opportunity to use consonants during vocal training exercises, he or she may struggle to keep them from posing obstructions to good vowel tone when they are added later in his or her performance repertoire. In my studio, I find that some students allow back-formed consonants like “g” to move the placement of the vowel back, and forward consonants like “d” or fricatives - consonants that are formed by impeding the flow of air somewhere in the vocal apparatus so that a friction-sound is produced - are often sung too harshly. (Fricatives may be either voiced, as in the case of “v” and “z”, in which the vocal folds vibrate during the articulation of the fricative, or voiceless, as in the case of “h” and “f”, in which the vocal folds do not vibrate during the articulation of the fricative.) It is always a more balanced approach to vocal training to include all consonants in exercises at some point because they can easily affect the quality of the resonance produced, which will be noticeable on the following vowel. Bel Canto, after all, means “beautiful singing”, and a singer’s voice can’t be beautiful if any element is missing from his or her training.
Finally, experiment with focusing your vocal tone in various parts of the resonating chamber that consists of your throat, oral cavity and nasal cavity. Begin by directing the tone out through your nose and sinuses - intentionally producing a nasally tone - to see what that feels and sounds like. (This sound is usually accompanied by a bunched up tongue.) Next, try creating a “throaty” sound, and take note of how this sounds and feels. Then, try centering the sound in the large, more forward resonating space and note the way that this sounds and feels. You'll find that the former methods create a tone that does little to complement your natural voice, while the latter creates a richer, fuller, more compelling sound. I sometimes have my new students sustain a single note on an “ah” while they experiment with their tone placement - while they learn to tune their formants and achieve balance in their resonance. When they hear that fully resonant “ring” inside their heads, they take note of it, and I usually give them the proverbial “thumbs up” as an external listener when their tone sounds balanced or centered. This exercise can be very effective, as most students with relatively good breath support and vocal fold closure can hear and feel when their tone seems to be “perfect” because it rings so strongly inside their heads.
Practice singing in the more centered tone mentioned in the previous step, being certain to keep the throat open and note the resonance that indicates correct use of all the resonating spaces together. Before trying for a more individualized tone, you need to master keeping your tone consistently centered.
Initially do not strive for a “beautiful”, rich or even “big” voice. Don’t attempt to make your voice into anything that it isn’t naturally because you are under the impression that this is how singing should be approached and how it should sound. Rather, let your aim be simply to achieve complete freedom of the vocal mechanism, which will result in healthy, balanced resonance. In time, with good technique applied to singing, timbre will improve in all areas of the range (vocal compass), and your own personal style can be added.