If you’re a singer, chances are there is that one performer who you want to sound like. It could be anyone from Andrea Bocelli or Charlotte Church to Janis Joplin, Barbra Streisand, or Freddie Mercury. Perhaps there’s a certain style you hear and love, regardless of the singer. Some singers are drawn to classical sounds like opera, while others to boisterous Broadway belting or soulful, hoarse rock ‘n’ roll.
Since the body is your instrument, it’s important to understand how factors like the shape of your face and body determine what your sound is. Soprano Stella Markou, director of vocal studies at the University of Missouri St. Louis, says it’s no coincidence that a lot of great Broadway singers share the same physical facial features. “Patti Lupone, who is one of the greatest belters, has this amazing resonance and a ping in her sound,” says Markou. “Look at her long, angular nose, cavernous mouth. Yes, vocal folds have something to do with it, but look at her big high cheekbones. The sound has to resonate and get amplified somewhere. Look at Bernadette Peters’ cheekbones, as well, there is that same broadness.”
Markou adds that great opera singers usually share the same physical features, as well: broad face and larger body. “Genetically, they need to have a cavity or space to allow resonance to accommodate sound,” says Markou. “It’s not very different than a grand piano; that’s your resonator. Look at faces and accept genetically what you are given.”
Even though you may not be a dead ringer for your favorite singer, Markou says perfecting your singing voice has a lot more to do with practice and studying the fundamentals of vocalization, such as breathing using your diaphragm correctly, and releasing tension, than having natural talent or ability.
Although different performers have sounds that vary from a soaring aria to smooth jazz, Markou says many of her students are surprised that all of these musicians share fundamental skill-sets no matter what genre they claim to sing. Using vibrato (natural voice oscillations on a sustained note) and mixing or alternating between the head, chest, and middle voice, are fundamentals that all singers use, regardless of genre.
To get a better idea on the different vocal styles you can achieve with your instrument, check out some tips and pointers from Markou and former voice instructor and choir director, Jonathan Green of Sweet Briar, Virginia. Keep in mind that vocal health is Classical extremely important in cultivating a nice sound. Besides staying hydrated and wellrested, make sure you breathe properly. Excessive strain and overuse of vocal folds can severely damage them forever.
One way to get a handle on your sound is to record yourself. Since you hear your voice inside your head, it’s hard to know how it sounds to others. Try recording yourself as you experiment with these vocal techniques and sounds.
Understanding your face and body shape goes a long way toward figuring out how to maximize your sound and get the most out of your natural voice.
Many vocal teachers and choir directors believe classical is the best starting point for learning the proper vocal techniques.
Classical (or bel canto) singing, may sound intimidating to singers who are drawn to musical theater or other styles, but it is fundamental to learning how to synchronize breathing with your body’s natural resonators. “What scares people about classical singing is the consistency of vibrato, resonance, and sort of ideally mixing all vocal registers—head, chest, and middle voice—in a unified sound,” says Markou. “Most operatic singers have a two and a half or three octave range so to hear that voice unified with vibrato is powerful.”
To get the most out of classical singing is to train your body to rid all tension, allowing the breath to actually release and connect to your vocal articulators. Find your center of balance, while you sing, by keeping your knees slightly bent, feet eight inches apart, and try to keep an imaginary line from your tailbone to the floor. “The vocal folds are very tiny. For a soprano, they are a diameter of a dime; for mezzo, a little bigger than a penny; for tenors, a nickel; and for baritones, the size of a quarter,” says Markou. “You don’t want to put all your weight and strength into something so tiny, so you need to find your center and use your diaphragm to support the sound and sustain it.”
Perhaps the most sought after and envied of singers, the sound of a powerful Broadway belt like that of Idina Menzel, who starred in Wicked and Rent, seems more accessible to budding vocalists who sing along with the soundtracks to their favorite musicals.
With the belt it’s important to not strain the vocal chords and use appropriate support. Before attempting to belt, use your tongue to feel the roof of your mouth to find your hard and soft palate. The hard palate is the arch directly behind your top teeth, and the soft is towards the back of the throat made up of muscles used for swallowing. When you belt, you want to shoot the sound in a tighter space (the hard palate) than the soft palate which is more for classical. “There is a higher volume of pressurized air shot in a concise space in your mouth so there is less vibrato,” says Markou. “Using the same resonance you would have in opera singing, allow more space in the mouth and be conscious of breathing. A belt is taking the chest voice much higher, where the middle and head voice belongs.”
Pop and rock singers usually have the benefit of electronic amplification so there is less need for vibrato or extensive breath support. “Pop music should sound natural, not like you’re trying hard,” says Green. He recommends changing pronunciation, vowel sounds, or throat shape to achieve different results in pop music. For example, The Rolling Stones did some country songs in the early ’60s and changed their sound merely by faking an accent.
In pop singing, the performer will usually speak the same way they sing. “Opera singers don’t sound the same when they talk,” says Green. Another difference between pop and classical singing is the amount of space in the mouth and throat. “Think of keeping a hot baked potato in your mouth that you don’t want to spit out, and don’t want to get burned by. This leads singers to open that space up,” says Green. “That’s a nice open position. With popular singing, you eliminate that expansion and use the same approach as when speaking. Classical singers make that arch in the throat, while pop singers basically just keep a flat space in the back.”