Observations of A Voice Professor: Teaching Singers Who Play Woodwind and Brass Instruments
Dr. Susan Quigley-Duggan, Professor of Voice and Opera, Central Methodist University
As a vocal specialist in a small college I have often grappled with issues that arise with developing singers who study and play wind and brass instruments .Although the techniques of voice and wind instrumentshave many aspects of technique in common, there appear to be some areas of technique that one must keep a watchful eye on to direct the singing student away from some areas of tension that might or might not be required to play their instrument and may not necessarily enhance their vocal production.
Playing an instrument and singing do have much in common. Those techniques to developing good singing and instrumental playing are related to maintaining a balanced alignment while concentrating on deeperbreathing to expand the lungs to establish the tone. For singing the head is balanced on the spine, the shoulders are back and relaxed and the weight of the muscles of the upper body are supported by the spinal column, especially the lumbar spine. The tailbone is down and aligned with the spine and the hip joints and the flexible knees and feet are in alignment and physical balance established.
In breathing for singing, air is drawn in deeply and quietly to the lungs as diaphragm muscle descends. The singer must keep muscles of larynx and neck relaxed on inhalation or they will create tension in the tone.The singer feels a suspended expansion around the middle and with the appropriate firming action of the abdominal and rib muscles. The gradual ascent of the diaphragm is controlled by these muscles and thespinning air is moved steadily to the vocal folds to create a vibratory tone. In singing, the vocal cords vibrate the column of air to produce pitch and timbre. The instrument is in the human body. An auditory concept of pitch is a mental image and the vocal folds know instantly what position to assume to produce the pitch. This message is being sent there directly by the brain.
The playing of wind and brass instruments also require a similar deep lung expansion with the thoughtful association of proper alignment. Many instrumentalists also play seated and they are instructed to balance on the sit bones and breathe without raising shoulders. They also keep the spine aligned while playing and are instructed to keeping tension out of shoulders, throat and neck and allow air to expand around the middle. For example, when playing the tuba the head is even with the spine and the player leans slightly forward for high notes and slightly back for low notes.
The differences in technique between singing and playing are more often to do with the areas and positions of the mouth, lips, tongue and jaw and the overall embouchure of each instrument. Another area of difference is in the amount of muscular support and breath pressure used for singing and the relative flexibility or constriction of laryngeal muscles in pitch production. These areas have an influence on the freedom of tone required for singing. Singers produce pitch at the vocal folds and resonance chambers are felt primarily above at the mouth cavity, the nasal cavity and the laryngeal cavity. Any tension in the jaws, lips, neck or tongue or laryngeal area causes obstruction or constriction in the tone quality and interferes with a natural vibrato. The air for singing is lively and moves up steadily from the lungs and is drawn into vibration through the fast puffs of air moving rapidly through the glottis of the vocal folds to produce pitch. Below the airflow is coordinated with elastic firm support against the lungs creating pressure against the lungs and support around the ribs. The steadily supported air vibrates the vocal folds and is thoughtfully and continuously energized and directed to the maintain the lift of the soft palate while exploring the areas of resonance before exiting as vibratory sound through the mouth.
In brass playing the lips act as the vocal folds which vibrate the column of air to produce the sound. The instrument, of course, is a coiled piece of metal. In the case of a clarinet or saxophone the reed is the vibrator and the column of air produces the sound that vibrates through the pipe of the flute.
In playing a wind or brass instruments and singing, there is the need to create breath pressure and then manage the breath pressure. For a wind player that pressure is created inter abdominally. It is however not managed within the musician, but rather at the point of vibration, which is attached to the instrument or a mouthpiece. A reed can handle a lot of pressure generated by highly tightened abdominal muscles, but vocal folds cannot. In tuba playing there is more relaxation and the full amount of air in and full amount of air out is utilized with no back pressure.
When one sings, the focus and source of vibration is within your vocal folds. The vocal folds are two thin delicate muscle bands with moist jelly -like ligaments and membranes that are a little more than a half an inch in size. The vocal folds are not intended to handle the same amount of breath pressure that a reed or a brass instrument requires. Pushing up forced air from the abdominals more than is necessary to create a constant flow of air will likely cause harm in singing and hyper function in breath pressure to the vocal folds and result in excess weight in the tone and an unsteady vibrato.
A singer who plays a brass instrument or a wind must be made aware and be careful not to overuse the laryngeal muscles to produce pitch. Extremes of pitch on some wind and brass instruments has been proven to be regulated by the glottis the space between the vocal folds and intensive playing in higher ranges can put strain on the laryngeal muscles that house the vocal folds. The singer should understand that the amount of breath pressure utilized for singing is much less and become informed. that constricting muscles in the neck, tongue and larynx in vocal production is constricting the supple action of the vocal folds and interferes with creating a freely produced tone. This in many ways bears true for instrumental playing as well because extreme tension in muscles creates a tense tone.
One must remember using support does not mean to use the strength one has in the upper body to over -tighten muscles to support nor does too much pressure and muscular effort produce freedom in singing. It's all about balancing the required level of breath support and breath energy for the voice throughout the range and the volume and resonance needed to project.
In instrumental playing embouchure is the use of the lips, facial muscles, cheeks, jaw, tongue, and teeth in playing a
. This includes shaping the lips to the
. Proper embouchure allows instrumentalists to play their instrument at its full range with a full, clear tone and without strain or damage to their muscles. The entire face for wind and brass instruments is important to their embouchure. For example, in clarinet playing the chin must be firm and flat. The corners of the mouth are firm and point in, the lips are firm, the muscles around the mouth are firm. Embouchures is held very firmly for clarinet players and can cause fatigue in the "smile" muscles.
For trumpet and French horn, the instruments are held into a specific lip and mouth position and the muscles of the jaw, lips and mouth must be held firmly. In the mouth piece for a tuba the aperture is so wide that there is little pressure at the mouthpiece and the tuba is played with no resistance. The tongue remains relaxed and flat. The tongue is raised in the clarinet in an “ee” shape in the mouth when playingand helps focus the tone. In playing the clarinet the tongue "releases" the air the same way the bow does for a violinist. A useful way of thinking of the tongue is to think of closing off the end of a water hose that is turned on all the way, before releasing the water. In singing, the lips and tongue are formed as loosely and flexible as possible gently arching the tip of the tongue or quickly raising the back for consonants for diction as well as a gentle lip rounding for vowels and consonants with the desire to produce freedom in the tone. The jaw is not held firmly in singing but must relax down and back to allow the larynx and vocal folds to respond flexibly in coordination with the breath energy as it moves throughout the range.
It is advised that a student learn singing and instrumental technique in such a way that they are separate and clear as to the differences in pitch production, breath pressure, embouchure, and in the use of the muscles for phonation and support. Learning a wind or brass instrument may not specifically help you support your breath flow more efficiently and it may encourage to force too much air through your vocal folds. It is best to learn proper breath support from a voice teacher who is clearly aware of the differences and can teach the proper control of the muscles as well as identify the different usage of certain musculature and breath pressure requirements required for different instruments.
Instrumentalists, however who do study singing as a secondary instrument can receive benefits from studying singing that contribute to their instrumental playing. Much of the benefit comes from using the breath from the lungs as if singing to shape a phrase, or to create and contour or a smooth vocal legatowhile imagining there is text and emotion to deliver within an instrumental phrase like creating theinstrumental sound as an extension of singing. Singers are also encouraged and trained to use the body to support each note that is sung and to maintain balanced alignment while supporting. This technique is valid for those who play wind and brass instruments because then the tones are supported from a large foundation, namely the diaphragm and its associated parts,
There is much to observe as students straddle the technical aspects of playing and singing and the voice teacher should learn as much as one can about the different technical demands made by wind and brass instruments to better guide the singer to awareness and vocal freedom.
However instrumental majors who study singing as a secondary instrument also receive benefits from studying singing that contribute to their instrumental playing. Much of the benefit comes from using the breath from the lungs for singing to shape a phrase, to create and contour a vocal legato imagining there is text and emotion to deliver within an instrumental phrase.
Special thanks to Erica and Angelo Manzo and Dori Waggoner for their input
on instrumental techniques.