by Adelaide de Beaumont (Lisa Theriot)
(Note: The techniques of vocal projection are best taught through in-person instruction; some of the material here will not make sense if you have not had the class.)
I’m a loudmouth. Always have been. In elementary school, my teacher decided to make a song recording as a treat (?) for a retiring teacher, so she filked (probably my first experience with that, too) the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” and had the class sing it into a little condenser mic machine at her desk. Take one, first playback, and it’s a Lisa solo with some buzzing in the background. Well, I was in front. Take two, with me standing behind everyone else. Lisa solo with buzzing. Take three, me sitting at my desk while the rest of the class stayed up front. Lisa and the Supremes. Take four with me standing at the back of the classroom finally sounded like a group, albeit a group with one really loud kid. Thank goodness I was born with decent pitch as well as loud pipes and a “dig me” attitude. If you weren’t, you won’t ever be able to drown me out without a course of serious vocal study, but you can get better. ANYBODY can get better. Like almost everything in life, it just takes practice, plus a little technique.
The hardest part about learning vocal projection is that you have to go back to go forward. There are a few basic things that you may be doing wrong, like standing and breathing, and you have to unlearn the bad stuff before you can implement the improvements.
Nothing will defeat your attempts to project (other than a sock in your mouth) faster than bad posture. You can’t even begin to breathe properly if your airways are compromised by the way you’re standing. My husband graduated from a military academy, and they have a phenomenon they refer to as “pulling chins”, or trying so hard to get their ears over their shoulders that they create several layers of “double chin”. That’s not the look you’re going for. Every muscle you are using to hold things in is taxing both your breath and your attention, and it’s unavailable to help you force air out in a controlled fashion. Forget everything you were ever told about chin up, chest out, shoulders back, stomach in, butt tucked under, feet shoulder-width apart and flat on the ground. First, just stand.
Are you comfortable? You should be. Stand flat-footed, on the balls of your feet, whatever makes you happy, as long as you are upright and balanced. If you have a bad back and you are only comfortable with one foot higher than the other, put one foot on a book or something, just get comfortably situated. Where are your arms? Loose at your sides is great, but hands folded demurely in front of you is fine too, provided you don’t feel tension in your shoulders or neck. (When I record, I like to put my hands on my sides because it helps remind me to keep my stomach muscles toned, but I’d look pretty goofy performing that way, so I save it for the studio.)
Hold your head up, but not obsessively so; I don’t care if you can balance a book on your head, I care that your airway is unobstructed. You should be looking at the horizon line. Don’t succumb to the temptation of lifting your chin when you are reaching for high notes; it actually accomplishes the opposite. Try singing a sustained note with your eyes on the horizon, then hold the note while you tip your chin up to look at the ceiling. When I do it, the pitch drops about a quarter of a step. On the other hand, a lowered chin will pinch off your air; sometimes it works to briefly stretch your chin skyward and let it relax. Or try this: put two pencils on the floor in front of your toes, one about 12 inches out and the other about 18-20 inches out. Now stand as you think you should and look down without moving your head. You should be able to see the further pencil; if you can see both, your chin is too low.
Eventually, when good projecting posture becomes natural to you, you will be able to maintain it even while holding a book, gesturing, or in some cases, even playing an instrument (sadly for me, I have yet to be able to keep good posture and play the guitar). Until then, perform a cappella (or have a friend accompany you), memorize your pieces, and keep the visual aids to a minimum.
Now that you’re standing properly, you can start breathing (and you thought you had been doing that all along!). Unless you are a swimmer or a distance runner, you’re probably taking in about one third less air with each breath than you might be, and more air equals more sound. Place your hands on either side of your ribcage, slightly towards your back. Now breathe. Most people feel their hands going slightly up, and slightly out, probably towards the front. Take another breath and try to force your hands straight out. Did you get more air that time?
Here’s part two. Find the hollow below your sternum at the bottom of your ribcage, and rest your fingers there. Now breathe. Most people feel their fingers going in slightly or staying in about the same place. Take another breath, and this time try to push your fingers out. More air? It takes practice. If you have any connections in the health care industry, or any friends who are asthmatics, you might be able to get your hands on a little gadget called a peak flow meter, which measures how much air you can force out in one breath. Take a normal breath and blow into it, then take a breath like we worked out above. You should find you’re blowing about one third more air.
WARNING: Do not practice your breathing for long periods of time, or under the influence, and stop immediately if you start to feel woozy. It’s really easy to hyperventilate until you have good control, and passing out is no fun.
After you’ve been breathing properly for a while, you’ll notice that you are sore, because you’re using muscles that aren’t accustomed to use. When you need to project, either singing or speaking, it’s helpful to warm up your muscles AND your vocal chords, which are also made of muscle tissue (and other stuff– see the section below on “throat care”).
Body: You’re not running a marathon. The only muscles you really need to warm up other than your vocal chords are neck, shoulders, and abdominals. The first two are best done by making a few circles with your head, alternating clockwise and counter-clockwise, then again with your shoulders. The easiest (and one of the most effective) warm-up for the stomach is isometric. Stand (like we discussed) and tighten your abs; hold for a count of 10, then release. Do three or four “reps” (repetitions, for you non-workout types). Beats the heck out of sit-ups. Be sure your back is nice and loose, so you can stand comfortably. Take a few deep breaths and let them out; this warms up the breathing muscles and helps with the stage fright!
Voice: Anybody who has ever had a chorus class in school has done warm-up exercises: scales, cute little sequences with silly words (my personal favorites involve the words “bumblebee” and “Coca-Cola”). Vocal warm-ups can be whatever you want provided they do a couple of important things for you:
1. They aren’t too challenging, at least at first. Decide what octave is in the “meat” of your range; if that’s not middle C, DON’T start at middle C. Don’t attempt to move outside that octave until you feel like you have good flexibility within it. This can be running up and down all eight notes (drive people near you crazy by singing, “Do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do, do-ti-la-so-fa-mi-re-do!”), or just up and down the notes in the chord (referred to in music theory as 1-3-5-8, which for C would be C-E-G-C). Once that octave is comfortable, you can move up, either by half notes or whole notes, until you “stretch” all the way to the highest note you’ll need to hit. Be sure you use several different vowel sounds; the constrictions to hit a note while saying “ah” are very different from the ones to hit the same note while saying “ee”.
2. They cover the right ground. As I said above, you need to work up to your highest note, but don’t forget to work down to your lowest as well. Also, be aware of the kind of intervals in the piece you’re warming up for; if most of your intervals are whole and half steps, doing scales will be fine. If the piece has octave reaches or odd intervals, you need to make sure that you practice those, too. Be sure you’ve taken the difficulty of the piece into account when you do your warm-up. If it’s not particularly challenging, you can probably get by with singing a couple of pop songs along with the radio. If it’s opera, you’d better prepare. And throw the baby off the cliff. (I’ll explain in class.)
If you have the opportunity to warm-up in situ (i.e., where you will be performing), do it. If you warm up in a nice cozy room where you can hear yourself bouncing off the walls and then move into a large hall (high ceilings, acoustic tiles, lots of bodies, etc.) or outside on a windy day, you’ll wonder where your voice went. You may also panic a bit and strain your voice trying to compensate. On the other hand, if you warm up outdoors, then go into a cozy room to perform, you’re going to knock the audience off their chairs. Know how far your voice will need to carry.
Diction: There’s another important muscle we haven’t warmed yet– the tongue. Unless your material is lyrical drivel (hey, nonny, nonny), you might actually want your audience to be able to tell what you’re saying. Tongue twisters are actually really good for this, as is any favorite piece of Shakespeare. Also “Hamilton”. Just pick something with lots of consonants, and enunciate like your life depends on your being understood. And smile while you’re doing it; it gives the facial muscles an additional challenge. (It’s not usually necessary to warm-up your facial muscles unless you are doing a lot of emoting or acting.)
Pitch — It’s not just for singers
Everything that comes out of your mouth has a pitch, and if you’ve ever heard anyone belch a tune, you’ll know I mean everything. Singers have it easy; the pitch has been given to you. Unless you select a melody that is beyond your singing ability or wildly out of your range, your pitch is probably under good control. [And if it’s not, go back to the warm-up exercises; my husband and I have a motto that came from a commentator a few years back at the “Cardiff Singer of the World” competition (we were watching on the BBC, not entering): “At the end of the day, pitch is what it’s all about.”]
If you are heralding, or reciting, or storytelling, you still have pitch, and the pitch you select will control both how well you are understood and how long you can keep at it. Here is one place where you don’t need to unlearn; Nature has taught you what your natural speaking pitch is, and how to modify it. Try this: Say, “Long Live the King”. Now declaim it, like you would in court. You probably went WAY up in pitch (for me, the natural speaking is roughly G below middle C, and the declamation is E above middle C, raising it the better part of an octave). We naturally raise our pitch when we want to be heard, which is why the scream, what we give out with when we are most in need of attention, is the highest-pitched sound we can make. On the other hand, we can’t keep it up for long; anybody who has been to an exciting baseball game will tell you that they have no voice left by the 8th inning. Projecting is not screaming. Keep track of where your pitch comfortably should be; when it rises very much, it usually means that you are trying to compensate for a weakening voice by raising your pitch, and it is time to stop. Better yet, ask a friend to listen for you; you aren’t a good judge.
Throat Care — Would you leave your instrument out in the rain?
Bear with me while I get technical for a minute. The vocal chords are folds in the mucus membrane, covered by stratified squamous non-keratinized epithelium underlaid with a layer of fibroelastic connective tissue, with a core of skeletal muscle. Whew! What does that mean to you? It means that everything that can go wrong with skin, muscles, mucus linings, or cartilage can go wrong with your vocal chords. It’s a miracle we can grunt, let alone sing. Fortunately, like everything else in our bodies, vocal chords will stand up to a surprising amount of abuse with little ill effect, as long as you give them some basics.
Fluids — lots! You know the drill; we are mostly water. Since the first thing to go is the protective mucus lining, the single best thing you can do for your throat is to keep it wet. Water is best, but most fluids will do, as long as they are not too hot , not too cold, not too tart, not too sweet, not too bubbly (water sounding better?), etc. Acids will tighten your throat, and sugar and carbonation will loosen it (so lemonade makes you sharp and Coke, ironically, makes you flat AND makes you burp). NO dairy– it’s like teflon-coating your vocal chords; you’ll find you have seriously impaired control. If you just can’t drink any more, and it’s a really dry climate, consider a non-medicated lozenge like Riccola to keep the tissues moist. Avoid alcohol; number one, it sucks the water out of your tissues, and number two, long before it makes you stupid, it affects your fine muscular control. Personally, I can have one drink and still hit my notes; after that, I have to hope that my audience is at least as drunk as I am, or not too particular.
Food? Personally, I can’t stand to eat before I sing something challenging. The butterflies make me nauseous, and if I eat too much, when I go to tighten my abs, I can’t, because my dinner is where my support should be. If you want to eat, just use common sense; avoid cheese (dairy again), irritating over-spicy foods, and scratchy foods like nuts. I once heard an interview with Kiri Te Kanawa, and she said she NEVER eats cheese, nuts, crusty bread, snack foods, fried foods or spicy foods for fear of damaging her throat. I knew there was a reason I never wanted to sing opera.
STOP! Okay, if your best friend is getting married, and you have ONE song to do, grit your teeth and tough it out, but in general, if your voice isn’t at least 85%, skip it. Chloraseptic and the other “deadeners” on the market are evil. First, you can’t control what you can’t feel, so your pitch will probably be lousy anyway; second, and more important, if you can’t feel how much it hurts, you can do serious damage. Even if your voice is at 100%, if the ambient noise of the hall is so loud, or the acoustics so bad that you need to force your voice to carry, invite everyone who wants to hear you into a cozy corner, or just stop. If you’re heralding an enormous Crown Tourney, or singing at one of those bardic circles ’til dawn, take periodic stock– how does your throat feel? As I said above, sometimes it helps to appoint a watchdog to tell you when they think you’re sounding ragged. Above all, be firm when you decide it’s time to stop. It’s very gratifying when fans are clamoring for more, but you want to be singing for a long time to come; that won’t happen if you don’t learn your limits. Remember also that talking is often harder on your voice than singing, so when you rest your voice, REST it.
Smoking — Just don’t! Do you want to sing in ten years? Twenty? Listen to Frank Sinatra circa 1950 and then circa 1970. Or Joni Mitchell in 1969 and 1990. Age didn’t cause that change; cigarettes did. Health risks aside, which are your own business as long as you don’t smoke around me, I promise you that regular smoking will eventually make you sound like you shoved a rasp down your throat. Unless that’s the sound you’re going for, you’d better quit.
If you treat your throat well, it will give you years of faithful service, but let those muscles get flabby and it won’t matter how moist they are. Because using your voice is a physical discipline, even experienced performers who are out of practice can suck. They’ll be better without practice than a novice performer without practice, but they won’t be as good as they can be. So use it carefully, but above all, USE IT!
Presence in Performance
Stage presence can have a tremendous impact on how well you project. Your lungs are your lungs, but even the puniest instrument can benefit from a little pink smoke and magic. Think of a famous opera singer. Sing a couple of lines, and then do it again as Kiri Te Kanawa or Placido Domingo. Relieved of the worry about looking ridiculous (because you KNOW you look ridiculous), virtually everyone has better pitch, better tone, and better volume. It’s a combination of losing the self-consciousness and gaining a presence beyond your own– the presence of somebody who sings better than you do. If it helps to pretend to be someone else singing, I say, go for it.
Beyond the effects of channeling an opera singer, drama offers another way to stretch your sound. I mentioned before that I consider pitch pretty important, but I can overlook a lot if a performance has intensity. Meatloaf is one of my favorite performers; he isn’t anywhere near perfect in his pitch, but does he sell the product! If I believe that you believe in what you’re singing, you’ll have an easier time getting to me emotionally, and I’ll be a lot more focused on what you’re singing than on how perfectly you’re singing it.
Presenting oneself is a much different matter in the modern world than it was in pre-1600 performance. As I discuss certain aspects of presence and performance, I’ll be punctuating with some lines from John Dowland’s 1609 translation of the Micrologus of Andreas Ornithoparcus (1515, Germany), which are worth bearing in mind.
“When you desire to sing any thing, above all things marke the Tone and his Repercussion.”
“Let every Singer conforme his voyce to the words, that as much as he can he make the Concent sad when the words are sad; and merry, when they are merry.”
Is your piece happy? Sad? Stately? A piece that requires a formal or narrative style is likely to get the best natural projection out of you, along with comic pieces. For some reason, we tend to get light on happy songs and quiet on sad songs. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but keep it in mind if you need to be heard a fair distance away. And beware those repercussions; it drives me crazy when I see someone singing about death and woe with a smile on their face and a bright expression. In general, and especially when you’re singing something that isn’t English, help along your audience by trying to keep your tone appropriate to the material.
Your speed is mostly dictated by the piece you choose to perform, but you need to be aware of its impact on both your tone and your projection. We think of sad pieces as slow and vice versa, but even Requiem Masses are not meant to be as slow as people tend to sing things like “Three Ravens”. Are you running out of air by the end of the line? TOO SLOW. It takes practice, but you can be much more up tempo and still suitably mournful. For very fast pieces, you’ll have less time for breathing, let alone focusing on anything else. Fast pieces require a lot more practice so you know exactly where you have the chance to breath. You should also know the lyrics VERY well or have them available; if your singing gets ahead of your brain, you’ll go into panic mode and forget everything else except, “What’s the next line?” On the other hand, a fast piece automatically gives you a little extra intensity. Most concert-goers notice that performers tend to do songs live just a bit faster than the recorded versions; it’s an easy way to boost the energy level.
“Let him diligently marke the Scale, under which, the Song runneth, lest he make a Flat of a Sharpe or a Sharpe of a Flat.”
At the end of the day… If you mostly sing a capella, you don’t have an instrumental crutch keeping you on pitch. You should determine through practice what your optimal key is, and carry a pitch pipe (please don’t use your cell phone!), recorder, whistle, etc. to help you start out in the right place. It’s terrifying when you start too high and realize as you are nearing that high note that you aren’t going to make it.
Instruments are a mixed blessing. They help you stay on pitch. They give you something to do with your hands. They give you something to hide behind. On the other hand, they compromise your breathing, and often, your connection with the audience. You can do what I did, which is marry another musician and get THEM to play while YOU sing; otherwise, you’ll have to decide which is more important to you. Incidentally, the same can be said of songbooks, though with practice you can learn to incorporate holding your music into your comfortable breathing stance. Just consider having a small folder that holds a few sheets, rather than trying to heft that 4-inch binder from Office Max you carry around everywhere.
“Above all things keep the equality of measure.”
Again, usually dictated by the piece, but if you are tragically lacking in rhythm and want to perform a piece where the beat is critical, ask another musician to accompany you. Otherwise, your audience may try to help, and they may also be tragically lacking in rhythm. Besides, having a band is super cool and makes you look important.
“Let a singer take heed, lest he begin too loud, braying like an Ass, or when he hath begun with an uneven height, disgrace the song.”
Huh? Weren’t we here trying to be as loud as possible? If you’ve worked on your projection and you think you’ve gotten all you’re going to get out of a puny instrument, consider going the other way. A 40-watt bulb looks like a laser if it’s shining through a pinhole. If you can be dramatic and pitch-perfect at a low volume, why be mediocre and reach the cheap seats? A smaller performance might get you more bang for your buck. Besides, even if you can blow out eardrums, your overall performance will be more interesting if you rein it in from time to time. The audience doesn’t want to leave your show feeling like they’ve been shouted at for an extended period. And within a single song? Dynamic changes (piano, forte, etc.) marked in music date to around 1597 in Italy¹. Before that time, it was extremely rare for a singer to change their volume, speed, or intensity within a given piece. Most of us who write music specifically for the SCA do it (shame on us), but it’s not how a period singer sang. Your volume was matched to the mood or tone of the piece, and it didn’t change until the next song. Those of us who can belt find it hard to resist, but we should try. We should also avoid vibrato; the first mention is again in Italy², where the author says “Il tremolo nella musica non è necessario” (‘Tremolo in music is not necessary’) but then goes on about how cool it is. If you want to warble, you want a very late-period Italian persona.
“The uncomely gaping of the mouth, and ungracefull motion of the body, is a sign of a mad singer.”
You can often tell whether a piece of artwork is Renaissance or Baroque by looking at the angels. If the angels look like they are chatting, it’s Renaissance; if their mouths look like Os, it’s Baroque. The first opera dates to 1597³ in Italy (are you surprised?); before that time, it simply wasn’t necessary for individual singers to be loud enough to defeat an orchestra or fill a large space by themselves. Extreme and/or highly theatrical styles (as noted above) are generally post-period. Prior to 1600, singing treatises recommended that you open your mouth no wider than when you spoke, and if you did otherwise, it was considered bad manners, just like chewing with your mouth open.
Movement is another sore subject. Some people are good at this. Some look incredibly goofy. There’s a reason Pavarotti used to clutch a handkerchief in concert; bereft of a role, he had no idea what to do with his hands, and he was smart enough to know it. If you are acting a role, or telling a story, have at it, but if you are simply singing a song, consider standing as quietly as possible. If you are one of those people who can’t talk while sitting on your hands, you’ve had years of drama or dance and you are comfortable moving, go for it. But be aware that it was frowned on in period, and audiences frequently find it distracting. I have seen some truly terrific vocal performances ruined because the accompanying gesture was so (unintentionally) comical.
“The changing of Vowels is a sign of an unlearned singer.”
As far as Andreas was concerned, he was particularly worried about people mispronouncing their Latin. But most treatises agree that pronouncing words as correctly as possible was the ideal. This should seem like a no-brainer, because your listener can only understand via the words. This bit of common sense went out the window in the Baroque era when the demands of range and ornamentation made enunciation almost impossible. For most pre-1600 music, the melody should never require you to change a vowel sound to “i” (as in big) or “ee” to get to the top note. On the other hand, the sounds of vowels in English were still in flux in the late 16th century, and a strict period pronunciation will not sound like modern English. In that case, the changing of vowels is a sign of a VERY learned singer, but if you do it, do it as a result of study, not a lack of range.
If you have never experienced stage fright, you should probably stop performing, and I mean that. I don’t know anybody I respect as a performer who doesn’t get butterflies, because if you are so convinced that you are all that and a bag of chips that you don’t care what the audience thinks of you, you are in the wrong business. Your job is to entertain, to bring that song, that story, that information TO SOMEONE. And you should want to impress that someone, or at least not disappoint that someone. Nearly every “top ten” list of fears includes public speaking/performing, fear of failure, and fear of rejection, so congratulations, would-be performer, you have won the Fear Trifecta! Unless you are a sociopath, you’re going to experience unease. The trick is not trying to eliminate it, but to manage it, because fear helps us NOT SUCK. There are some things to keep in mind to help manage those butterflies:
PRACTICE. You know that dream where it’s the final and you haven’t been to class all semester? That’s unpreparedness, and it’s totally avoidable. If you are still working through a piece, you will understandably be more nervous about it than a piece you have down cold. And remember that memory shifts; the piece you had cold last year has been sent to long-term storage and you may not have access without a refresher.
FAKE IT. You may know that you’re not quite “on” tonight, but chances are good your audience doesn’t. They almost certainly think you are better than YOU think you are. Let them believe. Don’t disclaim ahead or apologize after a less-than-perfect performance. All it does is lessen your audience’s joy. “I made you this present, I’m sorry that the paint dried funny and it looks crooked.” No.
LAUGH. There will be those times. Just laugh. Laugh through your determination that it won’t happen very often, because laughing is not a replacement for practice and skill, but if you’re getting over a cold, or the Queen asked for a song you haven’t sung in twenty years, it may not be great. Only you can decide where to come down on the “if I’m going to suck, I shouldn’t do it at all” argument. Pennsic comes once a year. If the audience would rather hear a flawed performance than none at all, just go with it and try to keep a sense of humor.
BE GRATEFUL. It is a privilege to perform for people. They are giving up their time to listen to you. Sure, this is pressure, but it’s also a gift. Say thank you, and mean it. Focus on them, and your butterflies will flap a lot more softly.
The Last Word, I promise!
As I’ve already said many times, the voice is like any other instrument. The more you practice with it, the better you’ll be. Sure, some people are born with better voices than others, but everybody can get better. As with any muscular skill, nothing will help you improve faster than PRACTICE. Sing (or recite) whenever you get the chance: in your car while stuck in traffic, while vacuuming the house, whatever. I’m always singing at the top of my lungs when I’m in my car, and yes, other drivers sometimes look. But they smile. Despite themselves, they’re impressed with someone who isn’t afraid to look a little goofy, especially when they’re so obviously enjoying themselves. And after honing your instrument, nothing will help your projection more than learning to be a little less self-conscious while performing, which again, only comes by DOING!
1 Giovanni Gabrieli’s Sacrae symphoniae, published in Venice in 1597.
2 Ludovico Zacconi’s Prattica di Musica, published in Venice in 1596.
3 Jacopo Peri’s “Dafne”, produced in Florence in 1597.
For further study, see McGee, Timothy J., The Sound of Medieval Song: Ornamentation and Vocal Style According to the Treatises, Oxford University Press, 1998.
The full 1609 Dowland translation of Andreas Ornithoparcus’ Micrologus is here:
Widespread use of vibrato dates to the 20th century; you can read a very funny complaint by a voice teacher in 1913 about the amount of vibrato her students were using here: https://www.standingstones.com/alverson.html
Mistress Adelaide de Beaumont mka Lisa Theriot