Hyper-function vs relaxation

I often talk about the importance of ‘balance’ in the voice. What I generally mean by this is that the various parameters/variables of the voice are present in appropriate measure, both relative to themselves, to each other, and for a particular voice.

Balance: The Goldilocks Zone

We don’t want too much contraction, nor too little; not too much stretch, nor too little; not too much air-pressure, nor too little. The same goes for air-flow, vocal tract shape/posture, etc. We don’t need worry too much about the complete list of all parameters, I want to focus on just the balance aspect today.

When I start working with people the balance is typically off. Sometimes it’s majorly out from where it should be, but as their body responds to the prescribed exercises, their condition will adjust more towards a state of balance. For some, their body and mind is very accommodating to the work we do and adjustment to that state of balance is relatively quick. For others, their body and mind can be less accommodating and the progress can be slower, at least at first.

Nevertheless, for every persevering singer there comes a stage when balance starts to appear. This means they notice they can move from bottom to top and back down again with relative ease, no real impediments to doing so, etc.

What happens next?

We need to build dynamic range. This is not just for expression and artistry, but to build strength into that co-ordination we’ve spent time establishing. If establishing balance is like getting the form right to deadlift/squat BEFORE we lift the heavy weight, this stage is where we actually start to lift the weight. This will then reveal chinks in the armour and will require further refinement.

Stop forcing it!

Here is where the nuance and (perhaps) the counter-intuitiveness of good vocal technique comes into play. For everyone, we want to increase contraction and stretch to enable greater dynamic range to their singing (i.e. louder AND softer, more tender AND more aggressive – we want all these options on tap).

We also want to increase resonance, where volume and harmonic richness fills in someone’s vocal tone, and this does not come from just hitting things harder and harder.
But by focusing primarily on the muscular activation/muscular domain, we can easily miss this. This whole analogy often causes people then think they need to treat voice building like weight-lifting. Gotta keep pushing, gotta keep hitting it harder, eventually it will get easier… right?

Well, whilst those statements in the right context are not strictly untrue, this purely muscular view of things misses the key point of relaxation despite muscular engagement, i.e. seeking efficiency, and NOT forcing your voice.

Put efficiency first, and less energy in results in more power out

We can never build resonance without first building dynamic range, but once we have some dynamic range, we’ve got to spend time developing the resonance that this gives us initial access to.

This involves not constantly pursuing higher and higher notes for the sake of pushing out just one note higher than the last, or hammering our notes harder and harder, but it involves refining the co-ordination at each note and at each dynamic. We don’t want hypo-functioning of our instrument, or hyper-functioning of our instrument – we want balance, and from there, efficiency and relaxation.

It is efficiency of co-ordination, and getting deeper and deeper into the above co-ordination which leads to greater relaxation, whilst still maintaining ONLY the necessary muscular engagement. That exact nuance takes time to establish, to not overdo it or underdo it.

The more relaxed we can become (whilst still engaging what needs to be engaged), the greater the resonance we experience, and the louder and more vibrant our tone becomes, for less and less effort.

Don’t misunderstand me…

Singing is a high intensity endeavour, but it’s important to never force your voice to put things out, instead it has to flow. If you’re constantly pushing, constantly forcing, at best you are robbing yourself of the real quality and sound of your voice as well as generating unnecessary fatigue in your voice, and at worst you are skirting the risk of vocal blow-outs.

My point is, we are not trying to seek hyper-function of the muscles. It’s not about hitting it harder, or even trying to hit it at all: the more efficient your technique becomes, the more relaxation you will experience whilst maintaining proper form and co-ordination. In turn, the greater the resonance and release of your sound.

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