As we sing, a predictable musical process is taking place. Just like any other instrument, our voices create music by utilizing three basic parts: an initiator, a vibrator, and a resonator. One thing that makes the voice a unique instrument is a fourth part, the articulators. The information I'm sharing today I initially learned from my voice teachers and from a book entitled, The Diagnosis and Correction of Vocal Faults, by James McKinney. I would highly recommend this book for additional information on the topic of vocal usage and voice teaching.
Every instrument makes sound using three basic parts. The initiator creates the initial energy required to start the movement of the vibrator which disturbs the air molecules around it, creating sound waves that are amplified and shaped by the resonator. I will give illustrations as I go along to demonstrate how various instruments have these parts, and specifically, how this relates to the voice and singing.
The initiator, also referred to by McKinney as the actuator, is the energy that starts the sound. It is created by something for every instrument. For a piano, it is the finger of the pianist transferring energy through the key/hammer mechanism that provides this energy. For the violin, it is the hand of the violinist through the extension of the bow. For the voice, as with the brass and woodwind instruments, the energy is provided by the breath.
Practically applied, the more smooth and even the flow of breath is for the singer, the more smooth and even the vocal sound will be, ultimately. Just as an over-exertion or under-exertion of force causes a harsh or thin sound from a violin, so the force that the breath is allowed to apply to the vocal folds will change the vocal sound also. This why voice teachers should take time to work on breath exercises with their students, and students and performers should take time in practice to exercise their breath properly.
The vibrator of an instrument, as previously mentioned, disturbs the air surrounding it much like throwing a pebble into still water disturbs the surface of the water. The pebble creates ripples, and the vibrator of the instrument creates sound waves. Continuing the instrument illustrations from the last section, the piano vibrator is the strings, the violin also vibrates through the strings, and the brass and woodwinds vibrate through various combinations of the lips against themselves or against reeds. The voice creates vibrations within the body by the passage of air between the vocalis muscles, also known as the vocal folds or vocal cords. When singing or speaking these two little muscles draw together much like the lips of a trumpet player draw together to create a buzzing sound. This creation of sound through the vocal folds is known as phonation.
A few problems that can take place in the vibrator mechanism of the voice include tension in the breathing and articulating musculature (which affects the tension of the vocal muscles), excess breath pressure pushing against the vocal folds, and not allowing the vocal folds to close completely (resulting in a breathy sound). Proper approach to phonation is vital for singers, and voice teachers should understand the process well in order to identify problem areas for their students.
The resonator takes the simple vibration and shapes it into a richer musical tone. The piano resonates from the soundboard and cabinet, the violin resonates through the sound holes and the body of the instrument, the brass and woodwind instruments resonate through their tubular shape and out through the bell or another sound hole (like the flute mouthpiece -- for an interesting intro to flute acoustics see this article by Mark Shepard). The vocal resonators basically consist of the cavities from the larynx through the mouth, and to some degree the nasal cavity.
Since the richness of the vocal tone is affected directly by the resonators (larynx, pharynx, oral cavity, nasal cavity) the position and shape of these areas is important for singers. Having an "open throat" is key to good singing, and can be achieved mostly by avoiding tension in the jaw, tongue, throat, and abdominal muscles and by proper "placement" of the vowels sounds.
The piano, violin, and wind instruments don't have articulators like the voice does, at least not to the same extent. The ability to articulate enables the singer to combine music (pitches on extended open vowels) with words by inserting consonants and blends between the notes. There is a beautiful design to the instrument that God made, that can't be completely replicated by any other instrument.
Through the practice of proper coordination of the various parts of the vocal instrument, a singer can develop his voice into a highly versatile instrument. More ideas on practical vocal technique will follow in later articles.
What are your thoughts or questions about the process of singing?
Rick McDonnell is a vocalist, voice teacher, and the head blogger at Harmony Passion. Rick enjoys family, acapella harmony, church events, good coffee, Angry Birds, running, and studying the Bible. Rick and his wife Bethany teach music students in their home studio and in music studios in nearby Thomasville, GA.
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