Having a singing lesson is an exercise in imagination. In a gymnastics lesson, a tutor might say, “extend your arms, keep your back straight and bend your knees when you land!”. All very good advice and put over in an easy to understand way. As long as you know where your arms, back and knees are, and how to stretch, bend and extend them, you can carry out these instructions well.
The same is not true for singing. You wouldn’t get very far with a teacher who said, “Aduct your vocal folds and make them vibrate at 261.63Hz over a 131.87cm wavelength, tightening your soft palate, heightening your tongue at the rear of your mouth, widening your obicularis obis and then abduct your folds to their original position.”
However, a teacher who plays a “C” on a piano and says, “use a ‘witch’s voice’ to sing that with an “eeee” sound and then stop,” will get an instant action from the student who understands what the teacher is after.
I use a wide variety of often daft imagery to get students and singers to marshall their muscles and produce different sounds. For extreme nasality and voice projection, “The Wicked Witch” (image the Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West character laughing), and for low breathiness and palate-lifting, “Sloane Ranger” (OK, yaaaaaah!) is hard to beat. Cycling through vowel sounds and lifting the voice through the body (starting with ‘a’ in the belly and ending with ‘u’ shooting out of the top of the head), singing into “the mask”, supporting long notes with “bearing down for a poo” muscle tension rather than “go on, hit me in the stomach” muscle tension… the list goes on and on. I’ve used phrases like “nose lasers!” and use imaginary lemons and lions in every single warm up I do.
The trick to getting the most out of this is to disengage your “sensible” head. Let a bit of silliness and playfulness enter your singing – it will benefit you in so many ways. For one thing – imagining these scenarios and attempting to recreate the accompanying sounds really *does* help you to work on parts of your voice that are not consciously operable without serious training. And through that training you can learn how to work with your physiology much more seriously. Also, music is *always* better when the person performing it is enjoying the experience – be playful! Enjoy yourself!
NB: If you’d like an exercise to play around with, I recommend picking 4 characters (maybe an old man, a witch, a young child and someone from Scotland – to pick 4 at random, pick 4 that work for you!). Try to sing the same song – any song – in 4 different and distinct voices for each of the character. Record it on your phone or computer. Listen back. Which one sounded most in control? Did your voice feel strained during some characters? Why? How could you ease that strain? Really stop and think about the silly exercise, and how your voice felt and how that could inform your day to day singing…