VOICE TECHNIQUE - NOT FOR DUMMIES
The pillars of good voice technique are proper breath support, absence of antagonistic tension,
proper posture, and healthy vowel formation. Without the support of all four pillars, your vocal
house cannot stand. The remaining elements of your vocal house include proper onset (or “attack”),
appoggio, and singing the right repertory with the right style, with good diction and with artistic
WHAT IT MEANS: Many words have been written about this topic and there are many
controversies and contradictory opinions on the subject. These opinions range from the Italian
phrase “chi sa sospire, sa cantare” (“He/she who knows how to breathe, knows how to sing”), to
its somewhat cynical corollary “Some studios produce good singers, and others produce good
breathers.” There seem to be as many “philosophies” of breath support as there are voice
teachers. However, the act of breathing for singing is in fact relatively simple:
THE INTAKE: a low abdominal breath taken against a firm abdominal wall, with the resultant
opening of the lumbar region (lower back muscles) and floating ribs. Breath is not packed into
the torso, it is taken comfortably. Inhaling between the lips through a drinking straw while
pinching the nostrils shut, in a sipping fashion, encourages the breath to reside low in the body.
Yogic breathing is also an excellent practice for learning proper inhalation.
WHAT HAPPENS WITH THE BREATH WHILE I SING: Controversy mostly arises with the
various opinions about what to do with the breath once singing (phonation) begins. Some
teachers advocate pushing out of the lower abdominals while singing, some advocate more
aggressive techniques (pushing with the stomach against a piano, for instance), while some
teachers favor a gradual return of the abdominal wall to “home” or resting position. In my
experience, maintaining a firm abdominal wall while singing, with a slight outward movement of
that region, produces the best results. Taking a low breath, and “hissing” the sound out with the
tongue gently pressed against the ridge above and behind the upper teeth will allow the singer to
feel the proper reaction of the torso, especially the low abdomen, as the breath is “used up”.
The above is a somewhat simplistic overview of the subject of breath support. In my view, good
breath support is experiential: you know it when you feel it, subject to the guidelines given
above. The stream of vocalized sound feels dynamically connected to the low body in well-
supported singing. You become a pillar or column, and your singing arises spontaneously and
easily from within this column, and is easily projected outward
TENSION VERSUS TONICITY
It is important to distinguish between antagonistic (counter-productive) tension and healthy
tonicity. Counterproductive tension occurs most often in the tongue, jaw, muscles of the neck,
shoulders and sometimes manifests itself as a knotting of the muscle below the breast-bone (the
epigastrium). Tonicity, on the other hand, is a healthy, pliant and buoyant activity of the muscle
groups. There are two muscle groups for purposes of this discussion - (A) intrinsic – i.e., not
visible to us and subject only to indirect control, and (B) extrinsic – the muscles we can
consciously control. Complete absence of activity, or the notoriously-often-recommended
“relaxation” is impossible in singing. To prove this to yourself, say the word “feel”, prolonging
the vowel. You will note that the tongue must form a distinct shape. You must “do something”
to sing. Singing cannot arise from a completely passive apparatus. How often have you been
told (often in an authoritarian manner) to “Relax!” and how does your body respond, especially
if you are experiencing difficulty in singing?
Simply put, correct posture for singing is a line-up of the head over the shoulders over the pelvis
over the knees, with the weight balanced slightly forward on the feet. A commonly used analogy
is that of a string passing through the top of the skull, from which the entire body “hangs”. Of
course, this is in many ways theoretical – it is the ideal posture for singing while taking a lesson,
or while singing oratorio. It is often difficult or impossible if stage direction demands the varied
dramatic postures of lying down, crossing the stage while singing, making stage entrances and
exits while singing, or more extreme examples, such as singing looking over one’s shoulder,
singing while holding another singer in one’s arms, etc. The postures advocated by Alexander
Technique are very beneficial to the singer. A singer must always have an acute level of body
awareness. The teacher must be able to guide the singer in rooting out imbalances and tensions
in the body.
HEALTHY VOWEL FORMATION
Let me first address my readers who are American. Americans are in many ways at a
disadvantage when it comes to sung vowels in the non-English-language, classical genre.
American English does not possess the various “mixtures” of vowels common in, for instance,
French and German. American English is exceedingly “lazy” when it comes to vowel formation
and when it comes to articulation. Therefore, the formation of vowels may at the start of a beginner's study
That said, certain basic principles of vowel formation apply across the board. Vowel shape for
purposes of singing is an interaction of tongue shape and the shape of the vocal tract (the “pipe”
formed above the larynx, and including the pharynx and to some degree the soft palate and to an
even lesser degree the nasopharynx) must be made first by properly hearing the vowel as
demonstrated by the teacher, and second by awareness that the vowel is formed by the tongue
and “pipe” and mouth shape (embouchure) working in harmony. Certain teaching tools apply:
one helpful tool is to imagine that the vowel is being formed below the larynx. This is of course
an impossibility, but the thought often encourages the correct vowel form without excessive
tongue tension or spreading the mouth. An extremely helpful image is that of an inverted
megaphone. The mouthpiece of the megaphone is the mouth or “embouchure”. The bell or open
end of the megaphone at the back of the throat (the pharynx – simplistically put, the between the
tonsils in the back of the throat, or the “yawn” space). Again, the correct formation of vowels
is experiential, it cannot be taught from a book or through use of the International Phonetic
Alphabet. Only an experienced teacher, thoroughly trained both as a teacher and a singer, and
hopefully multilingual to some degree, can impart the “how” of correct vowel formation.
OTHER POINTS OF TECHNIQUE
One often controversial concept of voice study is “registration”. Much confusion has arisen with
this concept, especially as opinion on the subject ranges from “there are no registers”, to “there
are five registers” to the extreme “every note is its own register.” In my experience, with proper
tension release and proper breathing, registration largely takes care of itself. At certain points on
the scale, a modification of vowel shape needs to occur. But it is wrong, in my belief, and was
harmful to me in my initial study of voice, to make a religion out of vowel modification.
Registration is described scientifically as “a range of tones in the human voice produced by a
particular vibratory pattern of the vocal folds. These registers include modal voice, vocal fry,
falsetto, and whistle register. Registers originate in laryngeal function.”
It is little wonder that controversy and confusion abound when it comes to the application of this
concept to the real world of singing. Most of us are not scientists. Some students want to know
every detail of what singing entails, some just want to sing! A good teacher knows how to
accommodate many types of singer-personalities.
At one time I was firmly of the belief that there were two registers: head voice and chest voice.
A colleague of mine at Bayreuth was equally firmly of the opinion that there are three vocal
registers. It became a running joke with us such that on stage in, for instance, Parsifal, I would
hiss: “Zwei Register!” and my colleague would hiss back “Drei Register!” I have largely
dropped undue emphasis on the concept of registers from my teaching, but am prepared to
discuss it with a student or colleague who wants to know about it. I am equally prepared to help
sort out registration issues with a student who is experiencing vocal problems.
Another important concept is “appoggio” from the Italian “to lean”. In one school of pedagogy,
it is somewhat simplistically defined as a sensation of leaning on a point on the breast-bone
(sternum) while singing. In the German “school”, appoggio is related to the concept of the
“Stauprinzip, which can be translated as the principle of “damming up” the breath low in the
body which theoretically creates the dynamic “push/pull” of the breath apparatus and the vocal
aperture (in this case the glottis). To my mind, the concept of appoggio is best taught in conjunction with the concept of breath support as described above.
There are numerous aspects to good voice technique, from good support, to healthy onset, and
my aim is not to be exhaustive here. Please see my Recommended Reading link for literature
that deals with this subject more comprehensively.