If I had only a 10-second voice lesson with a student, I’d say this: your primary goal should be to maximize resonance as you sing. Most young or young-ish singers sing in such a way that they maximize volume.
If my goal is maximum resonance, it sets off a domino effect of “smart singer” habits. If my goal is to maximize volume, it sets off a domino effect of “bad singer” habits. Let’s break some down:
Breath: A singer trying to sing loud will blow too much air. The vocal folds will struggle to adduct, and either tension will ensue to keep them together, or breathiness will ensue if they fail to come together cleanly. Additionally, since the singer is spending so much air, they will struggle mightily to sing long phrases. In the effort to work on their “support,” they will likely create even more tension.
A singer trying to maximize resonance, on the other hand, will sing with a balanced airflow. They will sing with the minimum amount of air to create a maximally resonant sound. In other words, they will experience balance and efficiency—the watchwords of great singing. Also, since they’re spending less air, they will easily make phrases that might have seemed prohibitively long before.
Consonants: Many singers trying to be loud spend the lion’s share of their air launching consonants into the ether. But since their tone is not maximally resonant, the consonants fail to be expressive, even if they are audible. This of course also negatively impacts breath budgeting, and leads back to the aforementioned inability to sing longer phrases.
A singer trying to maximize resonance will sing with the minimum amount of consonants while still being understandable and expressive. This, after all, is what we do when we speak. And when we speak, we never give a second thought to breath budgeting—we do it subconsciously. For years, I’m sad to say, I sang with an imbalance of consonants. My singing, as a result, was fussy, precious, and lacked virtuosity. Once I turned my attention towards efficiency and resonance, the balance of voice and text came into better balance.
Vowels: Singers trying to sing loud will sing with big vowels. If space is good, then more space is better, right? Unfortunately not! And the notion of space is nuanced: the ideal vowel has space in the back of the mouth, but rounds/narrows in the front of the mouth. Very generically, the ideal vowel shape is like a funnel/traffic cone, but one we sing into, not out of. I keep a small traffic cone in my studio to show this: the back of the mouth is like the open base of the traffic cone, and the mouth is like the tapered end of the cone. [Incidentally, I see distended vowels constantly, especially on [a]. Even singers who have lovely, natural, minimalistic vowels tend to over-open [a]. By over-opening this vowel, it no longer “tunes” with the other vowels, and it causes jaw tension.]
A singer maximizing resonance will experiment to find vowels that are comfortable, not distended. They will reject the ancient (and dangerous) advice to “drop the jaw,” a phrase which has perhaps done more damage than any other in singing history! They will find their resonating space in the throat and in the lifted roof of the mouth, not in the front of the mouth where the all-important tapering should be happening. They will also sing with slightly rounded lips on all vowels—emphasis on slightly. Watch virtually any great singer and notice that all vowels, not only the “lip vowels,” are sung with slightly rounded lips that are aiding tremendously in the tuning of one vowel to the others. Here’s a favorite clip of mine to illustrate this important phenomenon (watch it on mute, and try to find a vowel that doesn't have rounded lips).
A crucial aspect of singing with resonant vowels is a proper understanding of vowel modification. For more on that important topic, see my earlier post.
Tension: The singer trying to maximize volume will be working very hard: pushing a ton of air, spitting consonants, and distending the jaw for huge vowels is hard work! As a result, they will have a cocktail of all or most of the following tensions: abdominal, jaw, neck, tongue, lips, shoulders… They will perceive that singing is difficult and muscular. And, sadly in my experience, singers with this pathology tend to think that the solution is more effort, not more efficiency. They’ve adopted the wrongheaded notion that “if air/space is good, then more air is better.”
The singer maximizing resonance has found, as a result of balanced airflow, minimalist consonants, and simple/clear/resonant vowels, that their best singing is relatively effortless. It is full of action, but devoid of effort/tension. They have mastered the ability to move a body part without tightening that body part.
I sang for several years at the beginning of my training in a way that maximized volume. It was subconscious, of course—our culture had indicated that good classical singing is loud, right? Well it is indeed loud, but it’s loud because it is so very resonant. A resonant voice will be loud. But a loud voice is not necessarily resonant… And voices are not heard over orchestras because they are loud, but because they are resonant. They have an acoustical advantage in a particular frequency range where the orchestra is weak—more on that in a later post. Suffice it to say: The best singing is healthy, efficient, balanced, and simple. 100% of pitches on 100% of vowels should resonate. When that happens, many other tangential facets of singing become effortless.