Anatomical Challenges for Classical Singers

Physical ease and a pleasing sound are not necessary for clear and effective spoken communication. Similarly, when using a microphone, singing can be minimally functional but artistically successful. The advent of amplified singing allowed for a much larger range of sounds that could be heard and appreciated by a large audience. Individuality similar to the range of sounds heard in speech became possible.

The points above are not usually true with unamplified classical singing. There needs to be a certain loudness and/or overtone structure to successfully convey the vocalization throughout a large space. Not all “classical” music is or was sung in a large space or for large numbers (hundreds) of people, but as opera rose as the pinnacle of singing composed music, the necessity to “fill a theater” grew. Expectations for a certain size and carrying quality came into being, which we now call “classical singing”. We know it when we hear it, because of certain characteristics such as acoustic audibility, certain resonance patterns, constant vibrato, and the steady stream of vowels called “legato”.

Some people are better built for powerful vocalism. They are naturally endowed with a vocal tract and/or vocal folds that gives them a head start. Others need to learn to make the shapes of classical singing. Provided you have a decent source of vibration at the folds, there is MUCH that can go wrong or right in the shape of the vocal tract. We techie types talk about all the little issues that kill the resonance, such as tongue tension, throat constriction, droopy soft palates, and bad vowels. All of these things can be boiled down to hampering the vocal tract – usually. However, it is possible to have a stiff tongue and a great resonance, if the overall shape of the tract is right for the sound. It is possible to have a free throat and tongue-root and still make throaty, muffled sounds, if your vocal tract shaping is bad. Resonance doesn’t care if your body is working hard or easily.

We have to play the hand we are dealt, so those of us who really want to build a voice from a lowly place need to look at both how to free the unnecessary tensions, and how to make the shapes of singing. Releasing interfering tensions is always good, but not always necessary for success. Let’s recognize that many star singers have tensions that don’t cause a bad sound. We who have to work at it, need to let go of worrying about the “naturals” who may have their own battles to fight, now or later. At any rate, we won’t ever be able to transplant their voices into our bodies.

But golly, it sure does feel nice and make me happier if I am both making nice sounds and feeling easier about it.

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