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Vocal Infection

Voice Training

Article from One Two Testing, November 1985

voice improvement and tips from the experts

Singing is like writing and sex — we all think we have the talent just because we have the 'tools'. This is not so. Owning a fork does not make you a gardener, anymore than possession of a scalpel qualifies me as a surgeon. Having a voice does not mean you can sing. But it does mean you can learn.

Learning does not have to involve the long and usually costly process of visiting vocal teachers (though that is still the best method). The foundations of a strong singing style are simple and easyish to learn. Putting them into practice may be another matter, but there are ways of trying to improve your singing. Jon Lewin has run the gauntlet of all the written and recorded tutors he could find, not to mention actually talking to people who have vocal cords, and now feels capable of presenting, for your edification, HOW TO DO SINGING... in one complete lesson.


As anyone with half a lung will tell you, controlled breathing is The Key. Not only does it keep your body and brain usefully supplied with oxygen, but it also enables you to sing correctly, pitch accurately, and stay up late at night (well, you yawn less).

You breathe as you sing: from the diaphragm. The diaphragm — actually a muscle around and beneath the lungs — is a term commonly used for the area of your body just below the ribcage. Without taking any extra breaths, breathe out slowly, trying to squeeze all the air from your lungs. It's the diaphragm that contracts to force the air out.

The principle object of breath control is to deliver an even flow of air from the lungs to the vocal cords. An even flow will enable you to pitch accurately. Now sing and hold a note, gradually lessening the amount of air you are exhaling. Not only does the note get quieter, it gets flatter. Irregular breathing messes up your ability to hold notes.

The first thing you must discover when learning to breathe correctly, is where the diaphragm is. Stand up. Select a heavyish object — a large weighty academic tome, or even a typewriter of the portable kind — and holding it in both hands, lift it above your head. Breathe in and out, deeply. You will find that part of your stomach area distends. Unless you are having a hernia, this will be your diaphragm expanding. Put the object down and breathe deeply again. Avoid lifting your shoulders or puffing your chest out as you breathe in — let the diaphragm do the work.

Sit down. Put your hands on your waist, but upside down (with thumbs foreward, and fingers hooked round your back). Breathe in and out deeply. Makes you dizzy, doesn't it? But you should be able to feel the diaphragm expanding and contracting all around your torso.

Now you know where it is, you must practice breathing out evenly. One convenient exercise reported in Graham Hewitt's extremely helpful 'How To Sing' (Elm Tree/EMI) can be performed while walking. When perambulating from place to place, breathe evenly in through the nose for as many paces as it takes comfortably to fill your lungs. Hold the breath for the same number of paces, then exhale gradually, and at a constant rate, for double the number of paces. As you practise this, you will find that your lung capacity increases. Watch out for traffic.

Always remember that it's your diaphragm that should be doing the work. Stand up straight and hold your chest up by all means (it gives the lungs extra space to expand in) but keep the shoulders down. And keep practising, until it becomes natural.


Let's face it, breathing is boring. Beefheart didn't break a $1200 microphone breathing at it (last chorus, "Electricity", 'Safe As Milk'). You want to sing, don't you??

Start a note, singing very quietly; hold the note while gradually increasing your volume until it is loud, then before you run out of breath, decrease the volume. Funny how the note wobbles, isn't it? Now do this Italian 'mezza di voce' (thank you, Graham Hewitt) exercise again, this time thinking about your breath control. Better?

Think about your vocal cords, those tiny flaps of skin snoozing down there in your larynx. Don't shout at them, for you might maim them. Seriously. When you start a note, don't attack it, slide into it. The infamous Tona de Brett's vocal exercises on cassette start you singing with the sound 'vee', as this gives your voice a chance to get you used to breathing into a note. Beginning a note in full voice can damage your vocal cords over a period of time, so only ever build up to full volume.

Put your first finger across the front of your mouth. Close your teeth (not too hard) and lips on it. Now try making the following vowel sounds without moving lips or jaw: ah (as in part), a (cat), eh (deaf), er (fur), i (fees), or (floor), u (tool). If you breathe correctly, you'll find your vocal cords quite capable of making these noises on their own. Treat them kindly.

While you were doing that, you should have been aware of a large piece of flesh in your mouth. Unless you've not eaten your lunch properly, this will be your tongue — useful in conversation, but often an obstruction in singing. Since we sing through the mouth (it's called humming when the noise comes out of your nose), and the sound comes out of the diaphragm and the vocal cords, it seems logical to keep the channel between these and the open air as free as possible. Keep your throat open, and your tongue out of the way.

Working on this means relaxing the jaw and throat muscles. As Luisa Tetrazzini says in the excellent 'Caruso & Tetrazzini On The Art Of Singing', "You should have the jaw of an imbecile when emitting a tone." Even though this was written in 1905, it is still wholly true. Let your jaw flop open (try not to drool). Wiggle it from side to side, and you should feel your throat opening.

To get the feel of the muscle in your tongue, grasp the end of it with a clean cotton handkerchief (Kleenex go soggy) and pull it gently a little way out of your mouth. Knowing how the tongue feels when it is clear of the throat is the first step in controlling it.


In the same way that a guitar is more than a set of strings stretched over a pickup, the voice is more than a pair of lungs and vocal cords. As the guitar uses the resonant properties of the woods from which it is constructed to give it tone, so your voice uses head, mouth, throat, nose, and chest to resonate in. So, though you may not have as attractive a body as a '57 Les Paul, you function in roughly the same way. Or should.

Learning to use the resonant spaces of your body can be an exciting, almost epiphanic experience. You read about these peculiar buzzing sensations in your head, exercise away for hours getting nothing more than a dry throat, then suddenly, it's there — a tangible feeling, unmistakably what you were seeking. But how did you get it?

The voice has (unless you are J. Somerville) three parts to its range, the high, middle, and low registers. Not only are they named after the frequencies they generate, but also the part of the body in which they resonate.

Time to hum: think to yourself while humming in the relevant register: 'low comes from the chest, and resonates there, and in the throat: middle comes from the chest, and resonates mainly in the throat and mouth; high comes from the chest, and resonates mainly in the head.' Direct your voice to these areas by imagining that you are singing out through them. You will find that your voice does what you tell it. It's all mental, really — think it, and so it shall be.

The first part of your body to succumb will be the nose: you'll feel a brightness, a vibration in your head which will seem to be located just behind the nose (the brightness and the head). There's a hole in there which you are making work for you. But that mildly exhilarating buzzing sensation is only the start...

It's necessary to translate this resonance to all parts of your vocal range. This requires practice and concentration. Once you have located a resonant frequency that works, try singing through the vowels listed earlier, making an effort to extend the brightness in your voice to cover all the sounds. (Graham Hewitt in 'How To Sing' recommends tapping your nose while you hum as a means of stimulating nasal resonance before you sing.)

Remember to keep in mind at all times what you are trying to do; concentrating on concentrating can have the added advantage of actually relaxing the all important throat muscles.

The lower registers are very satisfying to work on, as your voice assumes a cutting edge, greater push than it will have had before. You'll sense a buzzing in your chest when you get it right. Exciting, isn't it?

You have to work at this business. Because your head is a different shape from anyone else's, the holes in it are unique. The more you use these holes to amplify your voice, the more you will sound like yourself. Try and sing like your hero/heroine if you wish, but you are unlikely to be able to change the range of your voice more than two or three tones at either end. It might improve your mimicry, maybe even afford you employment singing cover versions for Top Of The Pops LPs, but it won't make you sound original. Concentrate on the quality of your singing, and the natural tone of your voice will look after itself. That's why you look like that.

But there is one area of your singing that listening to favourite singers can help in.


Listen to your favourite song. As long as it's not an instrumental. Listen to the vocal performance, and pick out what the singer is saying. Seems to make sense, doesn't it? A good singer can make anything sound reasonable and intelligible — the chorus o! "Relax", "awopbopaloobop alopbamboom", most of Marc Bolan's words, all are largely meaningless when taken out of context, but put them back into the mouth of the singer, and the light goes on.

Good singing is about juggling with meaning, tone, breathing, and pitch. Tone and breathing we have discussed. Pitch is a combination of these and practice. (Record yourself on cassette to hear faults you can't perceive at the time.) Meaning comes out of your head, and is expressed by the way you phrase the song.

There arc certain obvious points to bear in mind: don't break lines for a breath in mid-sentence, unless it punctuates a phrase. Hanging onto notes is all very impressive, but if said note is one syllable isolated from a word, it can sound very weird, and you can distort (adversely) the sense of the line.

Listen to your favourite song again. Listen to the rhythm of the words in relation to the backing. Notice how it's almost always the vowel sounds that you hear sung on the beat. With the honourable exception of L, M, N, R, V, W, and Z, consonant sounds cannot be sung. Try P. If you attempt to pitch it, it comes out as 'Per', which incorporates a vowel sound: consonants are noises made by the mouth or throat that act as signposts, guiding the flow of the sung sounds, turning them into words.

Enough of this disintegrating language business. Now you've worked out where your vowels go relative to the beat, listen to some blues or soul records, and work out how the singers anticipate, or drag behind the backing. The former pushes the song on, has the effect of making it more positive feeling; the latter naturally sounds melancholy. Otis Redding used to stretch out two or three slow notes in a line, then slam home the last word right on beat. Techniques like this give your already fast improving voice new flexibility in this battle of the wits.


Best book award goes to Graham Hewitt for 'How to Sing'. Like its title, this is a straightforward, no messing account of its subject. It requires only the most basic knowledge of the musical stave possible (suits me), and even allows you to plot a course of exercises over a period of weeks. It's simply and enthusiastically written — a useful, useable manual. £3.95 I believe. Recommended, and highly.

If the idea of prolonged exercises seems too strenuous, try the Dover publication 'Caruso & Tetrazzini On The Art Of Singing'. This slim volume has recently been reprinted in its original 1909 edition, and makes a pleasant afternoon's browse through the basics of a good singing style. You also learn how Caruso used to take exercise by going for the "occasional automobile ride". Useful stuff, at £2.50.

Those wishing to take their vocal cords more seriously might consider investing in Frederick Husler and Yvonne Rodd-Marling's hardback, wittily entitled "Singing". £11.95 for a detailed analysis of your larynx, and lots of Italian words.

And that's it, unless you fancy 'The Science of Vocal Pedagogy', by D. Ralph Appleman, which was so complicated I couldn't even work out how to pronounce it, let alone sing it. The 'Teach Yourself...' series used to produce a volume for singers, though that now seems to be out of print (try your local library — there's definitely a copy in Cambridge).

Tona de Brett's 'sing like a megastar for a piffling fiver' cassette, as advertised in the back pages of Melody Maker, is a selection of scales and exercises. Helpful if you already know the basics, but of limited use to complete beginners. But then, you've read this article, so you're not a complete beginner...

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Roland Electronic Kit

Publisher: One Two Testing - IPC Magazines Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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One Two Testing - Nov 1985

One Two Training

Feature by Jon Lewin

Previous article in this issue:

> String Attention

Next article in this issue:

> Roland Electronic Kit

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