Small Changes can make Big Differences

Weekly Teaching Tip – July 31, 2017
by Piotr Markowski

I found this sentence a couple of years ago in Dean Kaelin’s book: “Teaching Good Singing”. It has been true to me ever since. I often find myself explaining to my students just how much of my teaching is spent on correcting their bad habits. More often than not, their biggest problem is the inability to “let it go”. Letting it go concerns many aspects of singing. Pressure, vowels, breath, forcing resonance into various body parts (rather than letting it appear naturally), those are the things the singers tinker with the most. They tell themselves that in order to sing higher or louder they need to “push themselves” more. Naturally, they have the best intentions. Such is human nature – we think bigger tasks require more dedication and focus, thus we increase our efforts. With singing, however, the opposite tends to be true. To make progress, you need to “let it go”. And that turns out to be the hardest task of all. Consequently, many processes involved in singing require very small changes, especially with trickier parts. This does sound rather abstract, in particular to the younger students.

For me, the art of small changes concerns many fields. In this article, I am going to focus on one of them, encompassing elements such as breath, pressure and flow of air.

Breath is the energy produced by the lungs, composed of both airflow and pressure. Sadly, these two elements tend not to work well together. The common misconception, established over the years, tells us to increase the pressure and ignore the airflow, going as far as completely cutting it off. Meanwhile proper breath management requires both the proper pressure and the proper airflow. As we know, singing pressure is created during the closing stage of the vocal cord vibration cycle. Therefore, blocking the airflow results in overly increasing the pressure, which has negative effects on most of the vocal techniques. Pressure and airflow need to remain in balance and work together. Dr Nóe frequently reminds us that a good singer increases the flow along with the pressure, sliding onto the high notes rather than hitting them. Meanwhile, a poorly trained singer goes up increasing only the pressure, disturbing the flow, since the teacher claims higher sounds need more support, more foundation, more connection. This results in overexertion and high notes being yelled out rather than sung. Also, the functioning of lateral cricoarytenoid (LCA) muscles is impaired. To keep a constant and proper airflow, we must also remember not to let go too abruptly when going down. Otherwise our body will program itself to put more effort into higher notes and less into lower notes. These two elements – pressure and airflow – need to remain in harmony and yield sounds that are well balanced in pitch, dynamic and sonority. Singers who have mastered this skill confirm that they perform better when they refrain from unnecessary complications. This is what the art of small changes means to me, in terms of pressure-airflow relations.

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