The Yin and Yang of Singing

The Yin and Yang of Singing

Releasing while engaging

Letting go while connecting

Optimal singing involves many complex adjustments and conditions. Like many skill sets, singing, when fully functional, feels effortless and extremely enjoyable. Getting into that “zone” of vocal freedom can be a lifetime quest for those who are not naturally coordinated for singing.

The muscles involved in using our singing voices are not visible. The muscles for the hands when playing the piano are. This makes the singing process even more challenging. The voice muscles respond only indirectly from the proper stimuli. We don’t hear ourselves in quite the same way as do others, and we use our instruments, our voices, for constant communication in our daily lives. Our personalities, experiences, psychological and social factors, and more impact our daily usage habits.

Clearly some people are more naturally coordinated for singing than others. Hence, the term “natural singer” we hear so much. Most people can learn optimal vocal function if they apply themselves over time. Singers can learn the dual coordinative dance required in most complex skills. They can learn to simultaneously “let go” and “connect.” They can learn to correctly coordinate the muscles of the voice in order to create freedom of vocal tone. They can learn to do this at the same time as releasing the muscles that impede this freedom.

This balance feels great, even easy, when discovered and implemented. It can be challenging, though, to find. It’s like hitting the sweet spot of a tennis ball to ace a serve. Imagine a tennis player who sets up for an amazing one. If he or she even slightly tenses the wrong muscles, then the otherwise smooth, seemingly effortless coordination fails. If the player tightens muscles that stiffen the arm instead of letting it flow freely, or fails to engage the muscles of the core that provide the power needed to deliver the serve, the serve can fail. The serve can fail for either reason: tensing the wrong muscles or not engaging the right ones.

When a vocal critic says, “just relax” that’s only half right. Or if someone says, “you need to sing out, or support more,” that’s also only part of the answer as well. It’s a “yin and yang” dance that must happen constantly and simultaneously. This repeats itself for every note sung, on every vowel, on every phrase of a song. The audience then experiences a consistent thing of beauty which appears effortless and seamless.

Coordinating letting go and connecting properly characterizes beautiful singing. It does not matter whether someone naturally has this coordination or gains it over years of study. The principles of good singing are universal and can be learned. For most of us, however, finding this “zone” of optimal vocal functioning, applying it, and maintaining it is a significant commitment over time. Even very fine natural singers who sing professionally take instruction to improve and maintain their skills.

For these reasons, it is critically important for a singer to take regular voice lessons with a competent and compatible professional. To sing optimally and naturally, singers must also perform applied consistent personal practice. When the singer practices and maintains these skills, the voice can function at a very high level for a lifetime.

A voice student learns how to “let go” of (yin) all unnecessary tensions that impede optimal function while properly using and coordinating (yang) the muscles that need to work to engage the voice in optimal function. Singers can be too tied in knots with tensions. These are not always easy to unwind. Others may be generally relaxed, but uncoordinated in their bodies, when the complex muscles needed to work in tandem are not engaged. Roughly speaking, there are the under-doers and the over-doers, and various combinations thereof. So it’s a process of balancing and rebalancing the “yin and yang” of singing.

I have taught voice professionally for over thirty years. I have noted across the board that these are the two main issues impeding voice students. When these are properly addressed, conditions for rapid improvement and even optimal vocal function can be created.

Upcoming, I will discuss the four things that my current teacher and colleague Dorothy Stone shared with me. We have control over these as singers and we need to engage and develop them: correct pitch, intensity of tone, vowel integrity, and proper balance of register adjustments on each note of the range. For the voice student to learn to sing at his or her natural best, these keys of fine singing must be addressed with a professional competent voice teacher.

In the meantime, when it doubt, “let go” and “engage with energy.” Use the yin and yang of singing. And as my late voice teacher, Dr. Thomas Houser, used to say: “Singing is energy in motion, stimulated by emotion.”

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