As singers we often set goals pertaining to our vocal technique. During the first lesson with a new student, I ask them what their technical goals are and receive certain answers regularly: “I want to increase my range”, “I want to be able to riff”, “I want to sing the high notes with more ease”, and “I want to learn how to belt”. All of these goals are noble and important to articulate as you set out on your vocal journey.
In order to achieve all of these goals without physical strain or excess muscular tension, the voice needs to operate EFFICIENTLY: achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense. In other words, vocal efficiency is achieving the ideal output of sound, with minimal input!
Why is efficiency important?
We benefit from singing in such a way that enables us to produce our optimal vocal sound again and again over the course of our lifetime. It may take time and practice to figure out the coordination that allows you to produce your desired aesthetic without compromising your vocal health. It is worth the wait and a far wiser long-term strategy than creating the sound you want in a way that is inefficient and potentially damaging.
If we aim to freely express ourselves while singing, then feeling physical discomfort as we vocalize can be distracting to the audience and us. When performing, we should be able to focus on communicating the lyric in a truthful and expressive manner. When we are distracted by our vocal discomfort and unwanted tension, our vocal technique is not serving our expression but, rather, robbing it.
Having the freedom to move throughout the vocal range means shifting smoothly between registers, using surprising dynamics, and adjusting vocal timbre for expressive purposes. When the voice is not working optimally, these tasks are much harder to achieve. It is wonderful when we witness a singer perform a very difficult vocal maneuver effortlessly.
The Functional Unity of the Voice
The voice benefits from a functional unity of its systems. The systems are connected, and, in reality, cannot be totally separated. The behavior of one system will often impact other systems. For the purpose of clarity, I’ll separate the systems into two parts:
Breath is what fuels vocal sound. The vocal folds cannot vibrate or have self sustained oscillation without breath flow, just as a gas-powered car cannot drive without fuel. It is a lot easier to go on a road trip if there is gas in the tank. The result of efficient breath use is an even and easy vibration of the vocal folds regardless of register, dynamics, or range. It is ideal for vocalists to be acquainted with how the body can move (ribs, abs & sternum) so that they can use the breath to fuel vocal sound as they need to.
The vocal folds are complex in the many ways that they vibrate. The numerous muscles, both inside and outside the larynx, have a direct impact on the vocal folds’ length, mass, tension and proximity to each other. The efficiency of the vocal folds vibration is dependent upon optimal positioning of the vocal folds immediately prior to phonation. There are even more muscular factors that contribute to optimal function: a muscle’s balance with the other muscles; the speed at which the various muscles are able to act; and the ability of the muscles to stretch.
Breath and Muscular Coordination: The Flow/Pressure Ratio
The coordination of breath and muscular activity is then vital for vocal efficiency. The relationship of breath and muscular activity can be thought of as a Flow/Pressure Ratio. The airflow is the amount of air that flows between the vocal folds during each vibratory cycle. The sub-glottic pressure is the air pressure that builds up under the vocal folds. It is important to emphasize that airflow and sub-glottic pressure are not the same thing, even though they both are integral elements of phonation. Think of the Flow/Pressure Ratio as a continuum:
Breathy: In this type of phonation you often run out of breath the quickest, and the sound will have an aspirate quality. This is because air escapes between the vocal folds before they are adducted, or brought together.
Pressed: On the other end of the spectrum you have pressed phonation, which utilizes a high amount of sub-glottic pressure. Pressed singing creates a louder, brighter sound. This can come at a physical cost as the high amount of sub-glottic pressure causes the vocal folds to have greater collision. As singers, we usually feel this as tightening in the throat or strain.
Flow: In the middle of the continuum is Flow Phonation, a term coined by world-renowned voice scientist, Dr. Johan Sundberg. Flow Phonation is defined as “The highest amount of airflow, with complete glottal closure”. This coordination of breath and muscle is regarded as highly efficient; it is usually loud, easy to produce, and the timbre is balanced with bright and dark tones both present in the sound spectrum.
It is important to remember that this is a continuum, and that there are degrees of efficiency and inefficiency. Leaning toward breathy or pressed phonation for stylistic or expressive purposes may prove useful in performance, but, first, establish Flow Phonation as a default vocal setting for optimal health, balance, and muscular efficiency.
Optimal Resonance Configurations
The way a singer resonates sound can enhance or diminish the efficiency of the vocal fold vibration. In other words, it can have a direct impact on the flow/pressure ratio. Resonance is a back and forth relationship, not a one-way street. For this reason, singers benefit from shaping vowels strategically to enhance vocal fold vibration. This usually results in clearer, louder, and more balanced sound, as well as more efficient breath management. Each musical style has its own resonance strategy for optimal efficiency.
When these systems work together in harmony, it is often easier for singers to express themselves musically and dramatically. The functional unity of these systems often increases the ease with which a singer moves throughout their range, changes dynamics, and negotiates register transitions. Whatever your vocal aspirations, I encourage you to aim for efficiency as a macro goal. This process is made easier when working with a voice teacher who understands vocal anatomy, physiology, and acoustics, and is skilled in practical application. I believe any vocal aesthetic can be made in a functionally efficient way. It often takes time and practice to learn and master the efficient coordination, but, in the long run, your voice will thank you!