Sound Advice #13 – Integrating the Speaking and Singing Voice – A Personal Journey
One of the games I like to play with children when I teach voice lessons for kids in San Francisco and Marin is “the speaking vs. singing” exercise. I ask the group, “What’s the difference between singing and speaking?” I get all sorts of answers but eventually we get to the two I’m looking for: pitch and rhythm. I explain that when we sing, we have a much wider range of pitches than when we speak. And, we sing to a beat and rhythm. Then the children and I have a conversation in song: They sing their name, their favorite foods, what they’re going to do that day, etc. The children love it because they goof around and sound like opera singers.
There are qualities about the singing voice that may seem obvious to adult singers: vowels are elongated to fit the rhythm; the chattier the diction, the more speech-like the vocal quality; extreme changes in pitch require changes in the vocal tract, tongue, jaw; and, expression is more energetic and amplified. But whatever your style of singing (pop vs. opera), your voice type (soprano vs. alto or tenor vs. bass), bringing the purity of the speaking voice into your singing or bringing your singing technique into your speaking voice is essential to a healthy sound. And, it can be challenging. It has been for me.
Many years ago, I was up for a lead in a musical and the director said something to the effect of “I really want to cast you but you sound like a librarian.” Now, no offense to librarians, but I believe she was intimating that I was reading lines with an affected “teacher” voice – using a wide range of pitches (think Saturday Night Live, “oh, noooo, Mr. Bill!) I quickly went to an actress friend who helped me modulate my voice for the callback and I got cast.
But I always knew there was a big gulf between my speaking and singing voices, which was magnified when I sang musical theater, a very speech-like style. As a classical singer, I am extremely comfortable in my upper register. The lower middle – from middle C to G – has been confusing, bumpy, and weak. Then I have a low chest voice that won’t quit!
This year for me has seen the integration of the speaking voice into the singing voice and the healing of that lower-middle register. Here is what I’ve learned.
- I must think “talk” when I’m singing, no matter the challenges of pitch. When I think “sing,” like a plane taking off, I leave the grounded-ness of my support. This has been key to strengthening that gnarly middle voice.
- I tend to speak lightly. This means I speak with a relaxed tongue and jaw but just enough support to phonate (bring the cords together) well. “Stage voice” requires much more support and when I speak with that kind of support in my everyday life, my voice becomes stronger and richer. It’s a psychological choice, dependent on mood, and how I feel physically, e.g. if I’m tired or lazy, I might not support as much. Whatever the case, I find supporting the speaking voice invaluable to my singing voice.
- My singing lessons teachers often would tell me not to stop the breath during a phrase. When the breath stops, the jaw, tongue, and larynx all want to get into the act and the voice gets “stuck” and heavy. I have always been very kinesthetically sensitive, quite attuned to how I “feel” the voice. Therefore, I would mentally start the singing phrase and then, rather than keep “singing” in my head, I’d get all interested in the physical “sensations.” I had to break that habit. Keeping the vocal “thought” keeps the breath moving and the cords nicely balanced. That is, after all, what we do when we talk!
- I must think “I’m talking” both at the onset of the singing phrase and when going into the higher range and dropping back down. The onset because I want to grab in the larynx and get stuck in a sort of belt and going up in pitch because I pull off the support.
- Some singers, such as musical theater artists, might naturally “talk” when singing. However, they may have different challenges, such as not being aware of jaw and root-of-tongue tension or being overly nasal. They also might have a limited range due to “registration” issues, which I like to define as too much or too little adduction of the vocal folds for each vowel and pitch. For instance, too much vocal cord adduction (chest voice) can weigh the voice down when moving into a higher register. Too little vocal fold adduction (head voice) can make the lower registers breathy and sound weak. Registration problems and tongue and jaw tensions can lead to vocal “breaks.” If a phrase isn’t going well, speaking it with support can help you find the right vocal fold closure and vocal weight.
- Finding the speaking purity at higher pitches becomes easier with practice but at first felt insurmountable. It seems like my tongue, jaw and larynx can never be too relaxed. And the jaw needs to give way to a relaxed tongue that is forward and out of the throat. My tongue, when shaping all the vowels, now feels like it’s rolling forward into the teeth. I’m opening my mouth much more than I was before.
- And, of course, making sure that your whole body is engaged in the act of speech and singing is vital. I like to say that a dynamic, lengthened spine is your best sound post.
So, these are a few things I’ve been exploring while integrating my singing and speaking voice. Since I am a soprano in my late ‘50s, I am looking at a rangy musical theater repertoire that takes me more into my chest voice. Happily, this work is paying off. As the lower-middle voice, often weak in sopranos, strengthens and I access the speaking quality, I’m finding that I can express myself more fully because I’m not thinking only vocal “technique” but much more about the expression and emotion. And my operatic voice is dramatically changing too.
If you are interested in this kind of therapeutic healing work for both your speaking and singing voice, come visit me in Marin, where I give voice lessons for kids and adults. Some singers’ speaking voices are vastly different from their singing voices. I don’t believe this needs to be the case. They both can be strong and healthy – and uniquely you.