Singing 101: Placing The Voice Properly

In this next installment of my Singing 101 series, we're going to discuss Vocal Placement.

Vocal Placement is one of those concepts in singing that seems to be a bit obtuse and vague - nebulous, subtle, confusing, and therefore, maddening. Fun, I know! But, as you will discover on your singing journey, there is much to singing that can feel like a slippery fish you're trying to grab a hold of....unsuccessfully....for weeks, or even months, until one day you grasp it, and everything clicks. With that being said, let's begin. Shall we?

The Muffled Box Idea: Why Placement? 

Here's another fun fact about the voice, and singing: you don't hear your voice the same way other people do. I don't mean that figuratively - I mean that literally. Think about it: have you ever heard a voicemail of yourself speaking, and wondered who it was, only to discover it was YOUR voice? You were probably taken by surprise by the sound of your voice. There's a reason for that. It's called Acoustic Perception. When you speak, you are literally hearing your voice in a muffled box - your skull. Therefore, what you are hearing is not quite accurate. I know. I'll give you a minute to process that one.

...And, we're back! R.I.P. to what you thought your voice sounded like! SO. Since we can't rely on our own ears to determine what sounds good or not while we're singing, what CAN we rely on?! Is there nothing to make this damn singing thing easier? There is. That's why we use placement, more accurately described as feeling the resonance of our voices and the accompanying sympathetic vibrations in our bodies and faces, to determine how to properly sing. 

If you think about it, your voice is an acoustic instrument and works much like an acoustic guitar. Your vocal cords (or strings) have a certain tension (or frequency) to pull to, to create a pitch. The sound then swirls around and resonates in your body (or the body of a hollow-body, or acoustic, guitar) - i.e. your throat, mouth, chest, nasal cavities, and skull. The sound then travels out of your mouth (like the hole in an acoustic guitar). The bones and flesh of your face and neck and body create a space against and within which your voice resonates. 

Vocal Placement refers to working with this vocal resonance - literally, focusing your sound into a specific area where you feel or "sense" the resonant sensations and vibrations. How you do this is largely through visualizations - visualizing your voice as less in your throat (which will lead you to trying to physically push your voice out more and more - not what we want), and more up in your face (at mouth level, in the face, or skull) and outside of your body, is a good place to start. Since singing is essentially playing with pitch frequency and resonance - and you have nothing, in essence, that is exactly "tangible" - your mental visualizations will send cues to your body to either physically tense (tensing your instrument), or relax (freeing up your instrument so it can work on its own). Think again about a guitar - when you get a new guitar, it was designed, crafted, built, and set-up properly as an instrument. The voice is really the only instrument we need to sort of "set up" on our own before we can fully play it. So think of placement as learning to "play" your instrument the same as you would learn to play the guitar - feeling out where to place your fingers and how much to press, etc. Pretty trippy - I know.

Mental vs. Physical Effort

Before we go any further, I also want you to let this idea sink in: that singing should be more of mental effort than a physical one. I know it doesn't seem that way. We've all gotten it so ingrained into our brains that singing is hard. We try and try and maybe haven't had luck in producing sounds or tones the way we'd like to. So, what do we do? What we do in most areas of our life: TRY HARDER. WORK HARDER. PUSH OURSELVES. PUSH OUR BODIES. SQUEEZE. DO, DO, DO. In fact, all this heavy-handedness, strain, and tension is the antithesis of good singing, and truly is (I promise you) only getting in the way. Instead, we need to learn to work WITH our voices, and, as scary as it is, allow them to be free, traveling outside of our bodies and thus our "control", allowing the voice to make its natural register shifts, allowing them to be lighter in order to build the proper kind of strength (from the muscles controlling the vocal cords). Think of this like proper weight-lifting technique. You can tense and strain a bunch of muscles and joints and cause strain and injury; or you can learn to lift weights properly to target the actual muscle groups you're trying to strengthen in the first place. This may require you to limit your range of motion, or be more mindful about your form - the same is absolutely true for your vocal cords, and your singing. 

I'm certainly not going to sit here and tell you that singing is, in fact, easy (it's not, and requires the same sort of dedication as any other instrument); nor am I going to tell you that by doing THIS ONE THING that it will all magically click into place. Any instructor who sells you snake-oil cures should not be listened to. But. Singing is NOT about exerting physical effort to push the voice out. I promise you this. While, yes, it is physical - I am absolutely of the belief that it shouldn't be a taxing effort. This will only continue to stress the voice and cause it to continue to elude you. 

Instead, you need to start to get comfortable with the idea of allowing your voice to sing itself - not by strong-arming or pushing it, but by working with its natural shifts, transitions, and resonance. 

You need to get comfortable with the idea of visualizing your voice in order to sing with it.

You need to get comfortable with the idea of it being a mental effort, not a physical one.

Again, think of your throat, mouth, chest, face, and head as a sounding board that the sound is bouncing off of. Since you don't have anything tangible to work with as a vocalist (strings to touch/fret on a guitar, or keys to play with your fingers on a piano), we work with our resonance in this sensing-vibrations/focusing the sound type of way. Of course, most people think of their voices as being in their throats, since that is where the vocal cords are housed. This is where the visualization piece comes in - we're essentially trying to focus and direct our sound to have an easier time feeling, and thus singing, our voices. Since our voices reside within our body, mental images (visualizations) can help us to subconsciously, and then physically, relax certain parts of the singing mechanism in order to produce a more balanced and pleasant tone. 

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Correct Placement

Since Placement is essentially a sensation, you might feel the vibrations or sensations of singing a bit differently than someone else. That's fine. I want you to get endlessly curious about, and comfortable in, YOUR voice. Really think about what you're sensing, where you're sensing it, what images or associations come up for you when you're singing. Where do you FEEL it? I know this sounds cheesy, but bear with me here. I literally mean to intuit where you are feeling the vibrations - not just spouting off some flowery bullshit (though I have that in spades, for those of you who are down to get philosophical!). 

As a good starting point, most singers (myself included) find that placing their voice in the mask is the easiest way to feel the voice, and to free it up. What is the Mask? The Mask is the area in the face around your eyes and nose - like where you'd wear a Mardi Gras mask. You can try to feel the vibrations of singing here by relaxing the throat, neck, jaw, and tongue whilst singing. Another simple way I try to get my students to feel vibrations up here is by having them hum - trying to think of feeling the vibrations on the roof of the mouth or higher. 

Another common sensation, or visualization, is the sense that the voice is even higher, above the head, and outside the body. Some singers find that high notes are easier to get out if they "send the notes" out the top of their heads. On the other hand: other singers find that this only causes them to tense and "reach up" for the notes. These students, I instruct to think of singing DOWN to their high notes (I know, I know - again, take a moment to wrap your head around that) - a visualization of singing DOWN causes them to physically relax (i.e. not tensing, reaching UP) - which allows them to get the notes out much, much easier. Another tactic is to visualize that your voice is just traveling out on a horizontal plane in front of you - that all the notes you encounter, whether high, or low, are just right straight in front of you, rather than envisioning them UP high, or DOWN low, where you'll be tempted to (and possibly in the habit of) physically either reaching up to push the notes out, or scooping/dipping down to get the low notes).

For me, the moral of the story is this: Do not think of your voice as being in - and only in - your throat. The best, most proper, and free placement usually comes from envisioning the voice "from the neck up."

Some Troubleshooting:

What Kind of Placement Am I Using, and What Can I Do About It?

First off, this is where I will say that a vocal coach can come in quite handy. As we covered previously, it can be really hard to hear your own vocal quirks and habits yourself. A well-versed and knowledgeable vocal coach is trained to listen for, and suss out, these exact things, and to give you specific and honest (though loving) feedback about what she or he is hearing in terms of Placement. Getting a trusted vocal coach, who can help you to understand when you are singing your best, and help you to discern when that is and why, is an invaluable investment for your singing and voice. Even one session is enough to get some answers, and a diagnosis. 

Barring that, I'd recommend recording yourself (though this is not meant to be used to judge oneself, y'hear?!) and listening back as a more accurate way to assess what you hear. Often, students don't/can't hear what I am referring to when I talk about certain tone qualities; it is only when they record themselves and listen back that they can hear a nasal tone, a trapped-sounding tone, a strained-tone, a shoutey-tone, breathy-tone, etc. 

Let's use a couple examples of different types of Placement that are quite common, and some visualizations I commonly use to help my students with these. 

Throaty / Shouting Quality

The most common placement issue I hear from most singers is this one. The sound is trapped down and back in the throat (think Kermit The Frog for an exaggerated example of this tone quality), causing the singer to feel the need to squeeze and push the voice to get it out. Relaxing the neck and throat in order to sing is a tricky one. I think this one depends on the individual, but a couple tricks I use are: thinking the voice higher, in the mask. Thinking of the voice more forward in face, or out in front of the body/face, or up at mouth level. Imagining the back of the throat open and sending the sound OUT (not open and choking the sound/vowel back). When ascending, thinking of singing on a horizontal line, so as to combat tightening the throat and reaching up to get to high notes. Practicing singing by allowing voice to go, to travel freely out of the body, relaxing the neck, throat, jaw, and tongue so you can feel the vibrations in the face more. Relaxing your tongue forward, against the gumline of your bottom two front teeth.

Nasal Tone Quality

The classic example that comes to mind when we think of someone with a nasal tone quality is Bob Dylan (though, for the record, I love Bob Dylan - and clearly this never, ya know, hindered the man's career). The voice sounds trapped inside the nose, giving it an overly-bright, almost tinny quality. One visualization I use for those with a nasal tone quality, is to get them to think of raising the roof of their mouths. Really imagine that the roof of the mouth is lifting and creating this big, cavernous (caveness? okay, sorry....) space, like a big, vaulted ceiling on an old church. This gets them to physically (though unconsciously to them) raise their soft palate - a collapsed, or too-low soft palate, is usually the culprit behind a nasal tone. Another visualization I might use is to get these people to think of singing in a more open, rounded way, like an opera singer might. Getting them to pull the sound a little bit back usually helps to soften the harshness of a nasal tone, and balances the tone. Another (sort of out-there) visualization I use is to get the student to imagine something that smells delicious (Thanksgiving dinner, anyone?), and to imagine they are smelling that smell. Inhale, as if you are really smelling that thing. This is what it feels like to have the nasal cavity open, an important part of resonating. Then, imagine that you are talking closely to someone who has bad breath. You know when you mouth-breathe, to avoid tipping the other person off to their faux pas? This feeling is what it feels like to have the nasal cavity closed off. When you're singing, try to imagine it's perpetually Thanksgiving dinner. As with anything having to do with the voice, pick one that seems to work for you, and produce the most pleasant sound and comfortable, easy way of producing the sound. 

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Placement & Muscle Memory

One of the coolest things about the voice is that it LIVES INSIDE OF YOU. It resides in your body. That's pretty damn awesome. It's why the voice is so expressive, personal, and dynamic. It is literally an extension of everything going on inside of you: your thoughts, feelings, body, all of it. The not-so-cool part of that is that your instrument LIVES INSIDE OF YOU. So all your thoughts, feelings, how your body's feeling, how stressed or tired you are, if you ate something that causes phlegm buildup on your vocal cords - basically freakin' everything! see, fun! - can have an impact (positive AND negative) on how your voice works, and how you learn to work with it. That being said, one of the biggest challenges to the voice is anxiety: personal anxieties, insecurity about our voices, or ourselves, pain, hurt, the vulnerability of letting our voices out; the list can go on. When we are tense about something, we physically tense. Even little muscles we didn't know were there can be tensing up without us even knowing it. This makes a huge difference in our voices, because the instrument is made up of so many little pieces in our bodies, all working together, and all living in our body. If we're feeling tense - and what can be more loaded than opening up our mouths and singing for another person, sometimes?! - then all those little pieces (which are the nuts and bolts of your instrument) are going to tense up. The result of this is that it literally changes the physical instrument. Think about it: if a guitar player or piano player is tense, or nervous, maybe their hands shake, causing them to have a harder time playing cleanly. But the instrument itself did not change because THEY were nervous, or tense, or didn't learn to fret the chords in the most successful way. The piano or guitar are exactly the same regardless of whether the player is tense or not. So. As a singer, add to the equation the fact that you are (likely) changing the physical makeup (albeit even slightly) when you are mentally and physically tensing, and you can see why certain notes or spots in our voices might continue to elude us. It's akin to changing the string tension on a guitar mid-song. After years and years of getting our voices out this way, most of us have ingrained this muscle memory for singing that is basically second-nature - and mosst likely is keeping us in a feedback loop of an improperly placed voice. 

The aim of proper placement is to see where we are tensing, how we are tensing, and replacing those bad habits with better habits that are more conducive to better singing. 

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Registers & Placement

In my next Singing 101 post, I'm going to outline how to properly place your voice in your different registers. The voice is typically divided up into 3 different registers: Chest Voice, Head Voice, and Mixed Voice (if you need a primer on this, you're in luck - refer to my Range & Registers post here). For our purposes here, we're going to start with just Chest Voice and Head Voice - these are the first two registers you'll want to develop and strengthen, which will in turn start to strengthen and fill in your Mixed Voice, or the Bridge of your voice. 

So stay tuned for that one and, as always...Happy Sangin'. <3