How to sing – 2. How the voice works

A useful model for understanding how the singing voice works: a combination of physical mechanics (or ‘machinery’), and the mental-emotional process (‘inner game’) that drives it. Alexander Massey of is an international singer and singing teacher, based in Oxford, UK.

38 thoughts on “How to sing – 2. How the voice works”

  1. Le Chanteur Moderne

    Absolutely first class information. Such a pleasure to view in among all the misinformation being posted. Huge thumbs up from a colleague in France!

  2. Alexander Massey

    @chanteurmoderne Thanks for this. Unfortunately, freedom of speech also means licence for people to post misleading and even harmful teaching ideas on the web, all born of ignorance, and lack of careful research or accountability. (Sigh)

  3. Le Chanteur Moderne

    @voicewisdom Isn’t that the truth. One of my favorites to date was a very extravagant teacher explaining to a student that he had two, possibly three diaphragms… wow. There’s a new facebook page called VOCTEC where coaches of all kinds and backgrounds get together to exchange information – if you have a facebook, come along and join in the discussions!

  4. Fletcher Williams

    It’s really so much nicer learning from someone who can articulate…namely a Brit, haha. Though we Americans do try to make up for our pitiful vocabularies with um, like, style? Know what I mean?

  5. A great presentation. Telling it, very clearly, how it is. Oh, and I love your lengthy statements on your website. I couldn’t have put any of that better myself.

  6. Alexander Massey

    I watch the videos of some YouTube presenters on voice, and after a 15 minute presentation, they still haven’t managed to say anything of substance, or that accords with basic anatomy, function or acoustics!

    1. Alexander Massey

      There’s no one exercise for that. To find the the full natural core of the voice, whether singing or speaking comes from commitment to acquiring a body of knowledge, and a range of techniques and sensory learning. No quick fixes!

  7. Hey, Alexander, I can hold a note without no strain for 16 seconds. Would you say this is good, or bad? Or should you be able to hold a note longer? I know Bill Withers did 18 seconds on Lovely Day.

  8. This must be my day! I just managed to top Bill Wither’s 18 seconds. I must have good breath support, either that, or I’m just lucky. I don’t feel any strain at all on my larynx, which is pretty good too.

    1. Length of note is not that relevant. The question is whether it was achieved healthily, and made a sound that expresses authentically what the words and music require.

    2. I hope it was produced healthily. I didn’t use any strain whatsoever. I didn’t realise I’m actually a tenor, and not a high baritone, as I originally thought I was. I guess I wasn’t using correct vocal technique before, and now that I am, it has brought out my natural voice out that bit more.

    1. Alexander Massey

      The number of hours that a person can sing in a day depends on the quality of their technique. The better their technique, the longer they can sing without tiring.

    2. I thought as much. I read on a website that it’s not advisable to sing more than 2 hours a day. My posture has improved a lot over the last couple of months. I tend to sing a lot better now I’ve corrected my posture.

    1. There are many people on YouTube claiming to be able to teach singing well who, sadly, seem to know very little about anatomy and acoustics, or how to express ideas in a way that people can actually learn from them. When I find a piece of teaching that I think is helpful, I let people know about it.

  9. How can you tell if a person is a tenor or a baritone? I thought it was to do with their speaking voice. High speaking voice = tenor and soprano and lower voice = Baritone and Mezzo-soprano and really low = Bass and Contralto. But, I’m probably wrong. Also, do you sing using the smile technique?

    1. The size of the vocal folds may not vary at all between a tenor and baritone, and they may be able to sing in the same pitch range. But one would expect the baritone to have a ‘darker’ sound, i.e. generally a lower second formant in most vowel sounds, because of having a larger pharyngeal resonating space. There could be a similar distinction between mezzo-sopranos and sopranos, though, of course, one can have very high tenors or sopranos who can pitch higher than baritones or mezzos. Yes, a bass would be a lower pitch range, because of larger folds. A true female alto / contralto is rare. Most are really mezzos who can sing low. A true contralto would be someone who could not access the highest pitches of a mezzo.

    1. Alexander Massey

      1. Breathing system 2. Vibrating source (vocal folds & laryngeal setup) 3. Resonating system. And you should add a fourth element: the brain. This is part of our physical self, and it runs the other 3 systems.

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