The Singer’s Body – Part 1
by Stephen Edwards
In the middle of a recent choral rehearsal for an upcoming concert, I looked up from my music to cue an emotional and heart-felt crescendo in the midst of an especially warm and tender moment of the piece. When I gazed across the chorus, the depth of emotion in my heart was immediately extinguished by the facial expressions of the singers before me! A mixture of anger, worry, surprise, and constipation was portrayed on wrinkled up foreheads, bulging eyes, stiff locked jaws jutting forward, crinkled noses, rigid necks, and furrowed eye brows. Forgetting the crescendo, I threw my bewildered hands up in the air and exclaimed, “What is wrong with your face?!?”
As you may have guessed, the choral sound matched the stony gargoyle faces displayed before me in a total absence of freedom and ease. Are you aware of what you look like when you sing? It’s time to wake up, strip down and get real with what holds you back from your full potential. After having two vocal chord surgeries and having to completely relearn to speak and sing, my passion has become vocal pedagogy. Sadly, I have discovered that many of my former voice teachers actually hindered the freedom of my real voice by teaching me this or that “proper” technique. They certainly meant well, but their vocal teachings sent me to surgery—twice.
The magic happened when I found a voice teacher that made me get naked, totally exposed, and raw (only emotionally and vocally, of course). We began to look at the body and how it naturally functions. I became obsessed, researching not just my voice, but my body, too. After recuperating from my vocal chord surgery, I was invited to sing a solo with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I could never have done so without learning the things I am going to be sharing with you in this series.
So what is wrong with your face?
Any tension held in the body will create a tension in your voice. In this series of blogs, we are going to address how to use your body as your instrument. When you free your body, you will free your voice.
Your greatest teacher in the quest for vocal freedom is going to be a mirror. I know you are shocked that there is another use for a mirror other than getting your latest selfie at the gym! When you practice, get in front of the mirror and look at yourself as you sing. Really watch yourself. Look into your eyes. Watch your jaw, nose, mouth, and forehead. (We will look at the neck and shoulders in the next article).
Forehead. It should easy and free. Many people when they sing lift their eyebrows and create a crinkled up and wrinkled forehead. I sing enough that I do not want to accentuate the wrinkles that are already there. Many of you rehearse for three hours…three hours of accentuating and increasing your wrinkles. I don’ t think L’Oreal has a “Singer’s Forehead Cream” to reduce that just yet. You can assist yourself by keeping your forehead easy when you sing.
Cheeks. I had teacher that would tell me to raise my cheeks. How do you raise your cheeks? The desired result would have been achieved had they asked me to imagine smelling fresh-baked cookies. A “lift” happens, but not a “tension”. Have you ever been pleasantly surprised when someone walks into the room that you weren’t expecting to see? Do you get excited when you see fireworks? That is the “lift” we are looking for…too dramatic, and you will wrinkle up that forehead and create a tension. Tension is the anti-singer.
Jaw. Stop and literally take a moment with your two index fingers and touch the two points where the jaw naturally opens. Where did you put your fingers? What I learned about the jaw is one of the life changers that helped free my voice. The jaw joint is connected immediately in front of your ears.
Notice in the diagram where the joint is located and that the jaw is on a hinge joint. It should open kind of like a cabinet door–on a hinge, except your jaw swings down and back. Put your fingers where the jaw really connects now. And say “yah yah yah,” allowing the jaw to follow the natural motion of the hinge joint. Sing a few descending five-note scales allowing the jaw freedom in its opening. Many singers jut their jaw forward or open their jaws more like wrench and less like pliers. (I think that was the butchest analogy I have ever used.) Notice the difference between letting it swing naturally and jutting it forward or dropping it down. I have seen far too many locked, held, and jutted jaws in my teaching and conducting. The jaw opens on a hinge!!! Any other way of opening the mouth creates tension. And what does tension do? It traps your true and free singing voice and could create damage to your beautiful vocal cords. As you work with your jaw, make sure your tongue is easy with the tip of your tongue resting freely behind your bottom teeth. We will address tongue tension in the future!
Today we discussed your face. Open your awareness to what is really going on with it. Get a mirror and get naked (honest) in front of it. Expose the truth of your singing face to yourself. Don’t be the person in the choir that looks scared or constipated while you sing. And one more thing—are you the over-actor in the chorus that does way too much? Calm. It. Down. An over-acting, tense forehead and stiff jaw are worse (and the choir secretly hates you). Free your face; free your voice!
I give most credit to Connie Haas. She introduced me to Barbara Connable (body mapping and posture) and to W. Stephen Smith who wrote “The Naked Voice”. If you have other questions, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.