Vocal Energy vs. Vocal Tension

As both a professional singer and a teacher of singers, I have experienced voice lessons in a great variety of settings worldwide, and it has been my observation that one regularly hears the same concepts and ideas addressed and discussed in many ways. These concepts include breathing technique (diaphragmatic vs. abdominal), position of the soft palate (high and lifted vs. vowel dependent), body posture, relaxation, etc.

And, thus, we come to the focus of this article: the concept of “relaxation” in singing as well as the instruction to simply “relax.” A seemingly positive concept that is used with great frequency in vocal pedagogy, but (which my experiences and observations reveal) does not always result in the desired outcome.

I have seen students who—when repeatedly instructed to relax—became so focused on relaxing that the resultant sound became weak as they lost control of their technique all the while struggling to remain relaxed. Consequently, though the teacher repeatedly instructs them to relax, they are anything but relaxed. This, in turn, usually promotes a great sense of frustration with their vocal technique that is now producing a sound that has no freedom, resonance, projection, or focus because of the tension created from their attempts to relax. And, sadly, this is usually the typical result.

Rather than using the word “relax” to try to achieve the desired vocal sound, I have often asked why the word “energy” and/or the concept of “energizing” the vocal tone is neglected or often absent in some voice teachers’ vocabularies. The most common answer I am given is that it can “cause the singer to become very tense”—and, while I truly can understand this response, one must find a way of using the right amount of energy while singing.

The eminent vocal pedagogue and author Richard Miller addresses this issue in his book Training Tenor Voices: “The yawn-sigh technique is still found among some teachers who believe singing should always feel relaxed. Such doctrine is ruinous for tenors. Muscle tonus is essential in all singing.” Miller refers more specifically that “one of the most detrimental approaches to breath coordination is based upon false assumptions about relaxation during singing, but muscle tonus is vital to all energized physical action.”

Energy in singing is equal to energy of air spinning through the vocal resonators and an overly relaxed singer can easily misunderstand this very important aspect of vocal technique. Spin of air is achieved through muscle tonus, aka energy, and the use of the diaphragm that then results in an open throat and free sound that is both brilliant and focused.

Many years ago, when participating in the summer vocal academy at the International Vocal Arts Institute in Montreal, an internationally recognized and acclaimed voice teacher demonstrated the difference between energy and tension by showing how the arms are used to lift a large bag full of groceries. If the arms are too loose and relaxed, it will be next to impossible to lift the bag. Likewise, if the arms are too tense it will take a tremendous physical effort to lift the bag. But with energized and focused muscular momentum, lifting the heavy grocery bag is accomplished easily and with minimal effort.

The same thing can occur in vocal technique. Following inhalation and with the onset of sound, the singer must feel and be energized throughout their body with air spinning in the vocal resonators while singing. It’s a question of balance and the right amount of energy.

 

Here are some tips to assist you in achieving and maintaining an energized sound:

Before singing the first note of your vocal exercise, create the sensation of the air arriving first in your resonators and preceding the onset of the vocal sound.

Energetically articulate the consonants, especially those at the beginning of words.

While producing sound, feel air flowing on your soft palate.

While sustaining a note, create the sensation of singing the same vowel many times.

 

This is a vocal technique that I employ in my own singing and teach regularly to voice students with outstanding audible results as the sound becomes more even, with easy projection and a natural brilliancy. It is as critically important for singers to avoid tension in their bodies as it is to avoid an overly relaxed body—one which is devoid of the energy necessary to produce a sound that is rich with harmonics and capable of projecting in ensembles or over an orchestra in a large hall.

Marcos Santos

Tenor Marcos Santos has an international career in the U.S., Europe, and Asia where he has performed as a soloist in recitals, concerts, and operas singing main roles in La traviata, Rigoletto, Manon, and Goyescas. He has taught voice in Savannah, Georgia; Boston; and New York City; as well as at the University of Évora (Portugal). Santos holds a BM from Mannes School of Music in New York City and both an MM and DMA in musicology from the University of Évora. Contact him at Marcos.tenor@gmail.com.