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THE HUMAN VOICE

The Voice

Of the innumerable instruments developed by man, very few can match the most natural instrument – the voice. Carnatic music gives pride of place to Vocal music. This is because vocal music has the added dimension of lyrics, which is one of the basic components of Carnatic music. A vocalist can project the lyrics and the theme of the music the best. Even the melody instruments try to approximate to vocal standards. Hence, a student interested in instrumental music career generally learns vocal first and then repeats the music on the instrument.

A Lady Playing the Tanpura, ca. 1735.jpg

Read about Voice Culture in this series

Read about Voice Parameters in this series
Voice mechanisms

Singing can be defined as the musical expression of feeling through the medium of vocal organs and the organs of speech. The technique of voice production for singing is more complex than it is for speech, as this requires the control of three sets of muscles – inspiration and expiration (respiratory muscles), phonation (intra and extra-laryngeal muscles) and those of articulation (muscles of tongue, jaw, lips and soft palate).

Figure 2.3 Structures involved in respiration 

Figure 2.4: Structures of articulatory and phonatory systems

Vocal techniques

A Carnatic vocalist is expected to possess a voice that is rich in tone and volume, has depth and is capable of sustaining different notes for long periods without any wobble.  He/she must also possess a range of at least two and a half octaves and execute with clarity and verve, phrases of different tempo. The various embellishments or ornamentations (gamakas) and tonal shades should be aptly produced for rendering different types of musical compositions and other creative aspects of Carnatic music. The technical exercises and compositions of Carnatic music are designed to impart all the above. Of course, the student must have the right attitude, technical guidance and perseverance!

Singing when done with proper vocal technique is an integrated and coordinated act that effectively coordinates the physical processes of singing. There are four physical processes involved in producing vocal sound: respirationphonationresonation, and articulation. These processes occur in the following sequence:

  1. Breath is taken
  2. Sound is initiated in the larynx
  3. The vocal resonators receive the sound and influence it
  4. The articulators shape the sound into recognizable units

Although these four processes are often considered separately when studied, in actual practice they merge into one coordinated function. With an effective singer or speaker, one should rarely be reminded of the process involved as their mind and body are so coordinated that one only perceives the resulting unified function. Many vocal problems result from a lack of coordination within this process. 

Since singing is a coordinated act, it is difficult to discuss any of the individual technical areas and processes without relating them to the others. For example, phonation only comes into perspective when it is connected with respiration; the articulators affect resonance; the resonators affect the vocal folds; the vocal folds affect breath control; and so forth. However, some areas of the art of singing are so much the result of coordinated functions that it is hard to discuss them under a traditional heading like phonation, resonation, articulation, or respiration.

Once the voice student has become aware of the physical processes that make up the act of singing and of how those processes function, the student begins the task of trying to coordinate them. Inevitably, students and teachers will become more concerned with one area of the technique than another. The various processes may progress at different rates, with a resulting imbalance or lack of coordination. The areas of vocal technique which seem to depend most strongly on the student’s ability to coordinate various functions are: 

  1. Extending the vocal range to its maximum potential
  2. Developing consistent vocal production with a consistent tone quality
  3. Developing flexibility and agility
  4. Achieving a balanced vibrato
Developing the singing voice

Singing is a skill that requires highly developed muscle reflexes. Singing does not require much muscle strength but it does require a high degree of muscle coordination. Individuals can develop their voices further through the careful and systematic practice of both songs and vocal exercises. Vocal pedagogists instruct their students to exercise their voices in an intelligent manner. Singers should be thinking constantly about the kind of sound they are making and the kind of sensations they are feeling while they are singing. Vocal exercises have several purposes, including warming up the voice; extending the vocal range; “lining up” the voice horizontally and vertically; and acquiring vocal techniques such as legato, staccato, control of dynamics, rapid figurations, learning to sing wide intervals comfortably, singing trills, singing melismas and correcting vocal faults.

Extending vocal range

An important goal of vocal development is to learn to sing to the natural limits [20] of one’s vocal range without any obvious or distracting changes of quality or technique. Vocal pedagogists teach that a singer can only achieve this goal when all of the physical processes involved in singing (such as laryngeal action, breath support, resonance adjustment, and articulatory movement) are effectively working together. Most vocal pedagogists believe in coordinating these processes by (1) establishing good vocal habits in the most comfortable tessitura of the voice, and then (2) slowly expanding the range. 

There are three factors that significantly affect the ability to sing higher or lower:

  1. The energy factor – “energy” has several connotations. It refers to the total response of the body to the making of sound; to a dynamic relationship between the breathing-in muscles and the breathing-out muscles known as the breath support mechanism; to the amount of breath pressure delivered to the vocal folds and their resistance to that pressure; and to the dynamic level of the sound.
  2. The space factor – “space” refers to the size of the inside of the mouth and the position of the palate and larynx. Generally speaking, a singer’s mouth should be opened wider the higher he or she sings. The internal space or position of the soft palate and larynx can be widened by relaxing the throat. Vocal pedagogists describe this as feeling like the “beginning of a yawn”.
  3. The depth factor – “depth” has two connotations. It refers to the actual physical sensations of depth in the body and vocal mechanism, and to mental concepts of depth that are related to tone quality.

McKinney states that the above mentioned factors can be expressed in three basic rules: (1) As one sings higher, he/ she must use more energy; as one sings lower, he/she must use less. (2) As one sings higher, he/she must use more space; as one sing lower, he/she must use less.   (3) As one sings higher, he/she must use more depth; as one sings lower, he/she must use less.

The Posture

The singing process functions best when certain physical conditions of the body are put in place. The ability to move air in and out of the body freely and to obtain the needed quantity of air can be seriously affected by the posture of the various parts of the breathing mechanism. A sunken chest position will limit the capacity of the lungs, and a tense abdominal wall will inhibit the downward travel of the diaphragm. Good posture allows the breathing mechanism to fulfill its basic function efficiently without any undue expenditure of energy. Good posture also makes it easier to initiate phonation and to tune the resonators as proper alignment prevents unnecessary tension in the body. Vocal pedagogists have also noted that when singers assume good posture it often provides them with a greater sense of self-assurance and poise while performing. Audiences also tend to respond better to singers with good posture. Habitual good posture also ultimately improves the overall health of the body by enabling better blood circulation and preventing fatigue and stress on the body. 

There are eight components of the ideal singing posture:

  1. Feet slightly apart
  2. Legs straight but knees slightly bent
  3. Hips facing straight forward
  4. Spine aligned
  5. Abdomen flat
  6. Chest comfortably forward
  7. Shoulders down and back
  8. Head facing straight forward
Breathing and breath support

Natural breathing has three stages: a breathing-in period, a breathing out period, and a resting or recovery period; these stages are not usually consciously controlled. Within singing there are four stages of breathing: a breathing-in period (inhalation); a setting up controls period (suspension); a controlled exhalation period (phonation); and a recovery period.

These stages must be under conscious control by the singer until they become conditioned reflexes. Many singers abandon conscious controls before their reflexes are fully conditioned which ultimately leads to chronic vocal problems. 

Figure 2.5 (a) Inhalation in abdominal breathing shows outward movement of the abdomen as air is filled in the lungs; (b) Exhalation in abdominal breathing shows inward movement of the abdomen as air is expelled from the lungs.

Breathing patterns have been basically classified into categories, as in, Clavicular/ high breathing, wherein maximum amount of effort is required to obtain a minimum amount of benefit; Intercostals / Mid breathing, where mainly the middle parts of lungs are filled with air, and the lung capacity is not utilized fully, and; Diaphragmatic or low breathing, wherein more air is taken while inhaling, due to greater movement of lungs. Diaphragmatic breathing, also referred to as abdominal breathing, utilizes maximum capacity of the lungs, and thus is most suitable for activities such as singing and other physical activities as running.

Vibrato

Vibrato is used by singers in which a sustained note wavers very quickly and consistently between a higher and a lower pitch, giving the note a slight quaver. Vibrato is the pulse or wave in a sustained tone. Vibrato occurs naturally, and is the result of proper breath support and a relaxed vocal apparatus. Some singers use vibrato as a means of expression. Many successful artists have built a career on deep, rich vibrato.


REFERENCES


Aronson, A. E., & Bless, D. (2009). Clinical Voice Disorders (4th ed.). New York: Thieme Medical.
Boominathan, P., Rajendran, A., Nagarajan, R., Jayashree, S., & Muthukumaran, G. (2008). Vocal abuse and vocal hygiene practices among different level professional voice users in India- A survey. Asia Pacific Journal of Speech Language and Hearing, 11, 1, 47-53.
Chapman, J. L. (2006). Singing and teaching singing: A holistic approach to classical voice. San Diego, Calif: Plural Publishing.
Deutsch, D. (2013). The Psychology of Music (3rd ed.). San Diego: Elsevier. 
Davies, G. & Jahn, A. F. (1998). Care of the professional voice. Boston: Oxford.
Ravikumar, A., Boominathan, P., & Mahalingam, S. (2010). Clinical voice analysis of Carnatic singers. Proceedings of the 4rth World Voice Congress, Seoul, Korea, pp. 173.
Sataloff, R. T. (1997). Professional Voice: The science and art of clinical care (2nd ed.). San Diego: Singular Publishing.
Zemlin, W. R. (2010). Speech and Hearing Science: Anatomy and physiology (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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Dr. Rajalakshmi Krishna
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