Singers and Airplanes – How do you fly your singing machine?
“Why can’t I sing like __________?” Over my years of teaching singers I’ve heard that question hundreds of times. The asker is directly comparing their singing abilities and sound to whichever singer they are impressed with and admire. Often the comparison is to a singer who can blast like nobody’s business. Whether or not that singer has had vocal injury from the way they sing seems to be of no concern to the asker of the question. So, let’s dig into this question a little deeper and examine the bigger picture of the long term effects.
While we LOVE a singer who can blast and live on the edge of what we might call healthy, we also need to examine how much of this can be done. I am, like many of you, drawn to a singer who can belt right to the edge of healthy without falling off. More recent singers of this sound would be ones like Idina Menzel and ones of years gone by might be someone like Chris Cornell, although there are many more names we could list. This sound is raw and on the edge. It’s hard not to give attention to the voice.
During the 90s, I can’t tell you how many male and female singers asked me about Chris’ voice. “How can he do that?” “How can I do that?” And, “It doesn’t seem to be hurting his voice, I saw him at a show in Oakland and he kept it up the whole show.”
My answer then was, “I don’t know.” That is still a part of my answer today. But today we have more information than we had back then. After years of listening to those voices and knowing some of what has gone on behind the scenes, I can say that each of us has a certain amount of energy to expend in the short term as well as the long term. We can either spend our energy efficiently or inefficiently.
Let me give you and analogy.
I love flying airplanes. I love riding in airplanes. I love looking at pictures of airplanes.
I recently flew to one of my client’s gigs in their private Gulfstream jet and while everyone else was busy with the in-flight amenities, I was obsessing over the plane with the pilot and learning all of the features of the communication and navigation systems of this tech marvel. While in-flight, I had a set of com headphones on and was monitoring communications with ATC. I love the whole thing, and flying and singing are pretty similar to me. Let me explain.
When I got my pilots license I trained, like everyone else, in a Cessna. It’s small and more like a VW Bug with wings than you’d think. However, it’s really an efficient machine. Part of emergency training is the “engine out” procedure. This is the process for landing this plane on a smooth surface with no engine. I won’t say it’s easy, but you do have about 15 minutes, depending on your altitude, to land this plane because it will stay afloat for a while if you handle it right.
The Cessna is designed to fly easily. With the prop running, you can go a long way for very little fuel. You won’t break any speed records, but you will make it from point A to point B very efficiently. It’s just not very exciting to watch.
On the flip side is the experience of watching a rocket take off. It is exciting! The rumble, the flames, the earth scattering explosion of it all is awesome. Rockets will fall back to the earth instantly if the blast is not happening and it will burn more fuel in the first mile than a Cessna will in a year of continual flying. But it’s impressive and fun.
The two laws that govern flying are Lift and Thrust. The Cessna is all about exploiting the lift side and rockets are all thrust. The combination of these laws can make a really fast efficient plane.
Comparably, in singing terms, we have source and filter.
The source is the raw activity of the vocal cords; the sub-glottal pressure that opens and closes them called PTP (phonation threshold pressure). PTP requires energy from our system to keep active and we are dealing with a finite amount of this energy, both short term and long term. This is basically the thrust of the voice.
The filter is everything that takes place above the vocal cords, which include the Epi-larynx and the vocal tract. The filter, like the law of lift, can enhance the singing process, make it more efficient and help us expend less energy if used properly. It’s like lift.
There is a law of singing called Inertive Reactance that decreases the amount of energy used to produce PTP and have a strong “chest voice” like sound. There is a law called Compliant Reactance that increases the amount of energy it takes to produces PTP.
Some singers rely on pure energy output to produce PTP and do not try to use the filter process to gain more from this. The truth is, there is a certain sound that this process produces that many find appealing. It’s just going to deplete the singer of energy quickly. (stay tuned for the next blog on the myths of support for more on this…)
This type of singer usually has an outlier type instrument that most singers can’t keep up with. However, even this singer will run out of energy at some point. The question is how much damage will occur before this happens.
Other singers learn to use strategies of vowel usage that use less energy to produce a strong PTP through harmonic alignment. This can give their sound more volume and presence.
In turn, this allows them to sing longer in both terms of a single performance and a life time of singing. The combination of using both thrust and lift will give the result of a very strong AND efficient voice.
So, back to the original question of “Can I do that?” from the many students. Now, after all the years of experience and training my answer is still, “I don’t know”. Each singer is different and can deal with complete thrust or not, depending on their instrument. This is similar to someone who smokes their entire life but somehow ends up with no ill effects.
But, I do know we all have a finite amount of energy to put towards producing sound. Your fuel tank is a different size than another singer’s and you might run out of fuel faster than they do. Each singer’s fuel tank is made from their individual genetic make-up and contains unique coding that dictates it’s capacity.
I also know that if you learn to use your vowels more strategically, you’ll get more perceived power from your voice with less energy spent. Lining up the harmonics just off to the Inertive Reactance side will give you a lot more power with less effort.
If you’d like to learn more about this I recommend you pick up Vocolocgy by Ingo Titze. It’s probably the most complete work on this subject and includes a ton of great information.
(This blog is information from houses 1 and 2. Each blog will be drawn from one or more of these houses)