Singing and speaking use the same muscles, the same breath, but very differently. Singing well, by which I mean, singing with a solid tone that sounds sweetly effortless, requires that we teach our body new habits just for singing. I say just for singing because, for the most part, these are not behaviors that are welcome on the telephone, talking to the loan officer, having that heart-to-heart with your beloved. I notice that when I ask my students to try them out, they almost universally report, “that was weird.”
Singing better means embracing the weird.
We have been using our voices since birth. No one taught us how to utter that first cry, it just came out, and it probably meant, “I’m cold, scared, and hungry.” After a time we learned to coo and laugh. Then, mama, more, why? We learned to form words and to make ourselves understood. We copied the people around us and kept doing what worked, and stopped doing what didn’t. We figured it out, this talking thing. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re pretty good at it.
Perhaps it goes without saying that if we had needed to learn to scream, we all would have starved. This is part of the fundamental weirdness of studying singing. We don’t have active control over all of the muscles we’re trying to train.
We can control some of them, though, and that’s where the fun begins.
Broadly speaking, good singing happens when the jaw is relaxed and open, the tongue is relaxed and forward, the shoulders are relaxed and broad, the chest is lifted and wide, the breath is easy and low.
One place to start, to learn a new habit, is to place the tip of your tongue on your bottom teeth and say, “Twinkle, twinkle little star. How I wonder what you are!” You may sound to yourself like you’re now between the ages of three and five. As you do this, let your jaw relax, so that your mouth moves freely, sort of like a puppet, and elongate the vowels, as you would if you were singing. You might let your fingers rest gently on either side of your face, encouraging your cheeks to relax, too. It may feel like effort to let your mouth open this much, but with repetition, the jaw does learn to loosen and singing with a taller mouth gets easier.
Try saying something else. “Could we please refinance our mortgage with no points?” “Do you carry any Australian Pinot Noir?” “Do you think your brother’s family could host your mom’s birthday this year? I’m really tired of doing all the work myself.”
Do you hear what I mean about new habits just for singing? And, it is great fun to read the paper, recite nursery rhymes, carry on a conversation with a good-humored friend in exactly this way. You will crack yourself up, and over time, your speech will get clearer, as your tongue learns to move differently.
If you know the tune to “Twinkle, twinkle little star,” try singing it in this way. Tip of the tongue on the bottom teeth. Jaw relaxed and moving freely. Hands reminding your cheeks not to smile.
What’s that like? Tell me about it!