3 Common Myths About Singing

There is a lot of misinformation out there about singing and voice technique.  A lot of these problematic ideas are leftover from the days before technology enabled us to understand how the voice actually works. I especially don’t like seeing ill-informed “voice teachers” profit from teaching incorrect and potentially dangerous techniques to unsuspecting singers. I acknowledge that there are many different styles and approaches to singing, but some things are objectively true no matter the genre.  I believe in empowering singers with accurate knowledge about how to train and care for their voice.  


Myth #1 – Singing from the Diaphragm is Helpful

I hear singers talking about this all the time.  Yes, the diaphragm is important for breathing, but most of the time when it’s talked about in regards to singing, it is not accurately described.  

So first, let’s talk about the diaphragm:  It’s a layer of muscle located at the bottom of your rib cage and is shaped like an upside-down bowl.  When you breathe in, it flattens downward, which pulls air into your lungs. This happens automatically, whether or not you are aware of it.  We can’t really feel the diaphragm, because it is deep inside the body where we don’t have nerve endings.  

When the diaphragm moves downward, it pushes on the internal organs in the abdomen.  In order to get a good, deep breath, it’s helpful to relax the abdominal muscles– this allows the external organs to move out of the way so that the diaphragm has maximum range of motion. If the abdominal muscles are tense, it’s hard to get a complete breath.  This is where thinking about the diaphragm is useful: for inhaling deeply.  

Once you’ve started singing, the diaphragm isn’t active.  There are other muscles involved in breathing, all around the ribs and torso.  In order to have good breath control and to sing longer notes and phrases, singers train those muscles to release the air slowly.  Keeping some of the inhaling muscles active during exhaling (or singing) is part of healthy breath support, but trying to focus on the diaphragm often does more harm than good.  

Here are some videos that show more about the diaphragm:

3D View of Diaphragm – https://youtu.be/hp-gCvW8PRY

More about breathing – https://youtu.be/TQ24-WCsYN4

What’s so bad about “singing from the diaphragm?”  

Most of the time if I ask students what kinds of things they’ve heard before about the diaphragm, most of it is wildly inaccurate.  There are a couple of common ways it gets misunderstood:

Many singers think that this means they should squeeze the sound out forcefully, using the abdominal muscles.  This is problematic because singing with too much air pressure can lead to vocal fatigue or even vocal damage. Too much air pressure means the vocal folds have to open and close more forcefully, increasing the chances of injury.  

Many singers confuse the diaphragm with the abdominal muscles, and think that they move at the same time.  The diaphragm is actually deeper inside the body and higher up than the abdominals, although squeezing the abdominals can indirectly press on the diaphragm.  I have found it much more helpful to focus on strengthening my core muscles, and many of my students have benefited from core exercise as well.  

I’d also like to mention that there are different schools of breathing, and I’m not here to recommend one over another, especially to singers who are not my students.  Diverse bodies and genres benefit from different methods and I think that everyone should do what works best for them. Abdominal breathing can be really helpful for some singers, but thoracic breathing works better for others.  A knowledgeable voice teacher can help you develop a technique that works for you and is stylistically appropriate.  

Myth #2 – Singing From the Throat is Bad

There’s a particular sound that is often described (even by voice teachers), as “throaty.”  Or, “stuck in the throat,” etc. You probably know what I mean. This sound is caused by muscle tension, and an experienced teacher can hear which muscle is likely the issue based on the specific sound (if it’s not clearly visible by watching the singer).  Sometimes teaching with imagery is helpful for this, and I might encourage a student to “send the sound forward” or something like that. Often a student with this issue is trying to control the sound, so focusing too much on individual muscles can make them tense up more.  

If the “throatiness” is happening more on a particular vowel, where is the tension?  Lip trills and rolled R’s can relax the tongue and jaw. Switching to a brighter vowel like “ee” might also help by moving the tongue forward. 


Myth #3 – You Can “Place” Your Voice

A lot of teachers talk about placement of the voice.  This is an idea that’s leftover from before we understood physics and how sound waves work.  In short, the sound waves produced by your vocal folds are shaped into the sound that we hear by the way that they bounce around through the vocal tract and out the singer’s mouth.  Adjusting the shape of the vocal tract (aka the mouth and throat) changes the sound— vowels are a simple example of this, but there are more subtle adjustments happening as well. 

So, what is placement all about?  Basically, if the vocal tract is amplifying the sound waves just right, singers might feel a vibration or other sensation in the nose or cheekbones.  With a modern understanding of acoustics, we can see that this sensation is the RESULT of good technique, not the technique itself.  

I will sometimes tell students to “send” or “aim the sound” toward the front teeth or cheekbones if I’m noticing tension, but don’t ever talk about “placing” the sound or singing from anywhere other than the vocal folds.  Sometimes this kind of imagery might help, but other times it might just lead to more confusion. Where should I place this note? What about that one? What if I place it wrong? This is much less productive than just addressing the underlying tension.  


Practice Makes Perfect

One of the biggest challenges I face with my students is getting them to practice regularly.  Consistent, focused practice is a necessary part of developing good vocal (or any other instrument) technique.   Students with good practice habits progress much more rapidly than those who only practice occasionally or not at all.

The goal is not to practice for hours every day, but instead to practice carefully and deliberately, reinforcing what was learned in your lesson and practicing those skills so that they become comfortable.   Pay close attention to what you are doing, how you are singing, and how it feels.  Focus your attention on practicing difficult sections and trouble spots.  Don’t just sing through the same song over and over and expect the problems to fix themselves.

For more on how to practice effectively, see this excellent post on Bulletproof Musician: How Many Hours a Day Should You Practice?

Finding time to practice regularly is something I struggle with myself as well.  Besides teaching, I work an office job, and I don’t have a lot of free time.  I also live in an apartment building with thin walls, so I try to be considerate of my neighbors by not practicing too early or too late.  I’ve been trying different methods of scheduling my practice sessions, and have yet to find the perfect solution.  I usually do some basic warm-ups and vocalizes during my 20-minute morning commute, but it’s pretty much impossible to accomplish any productive practice while driving.

One thing that has helped for me is finding small chunks of time for practice, and setting a timer so I am not distracted by the clock or all the other things on my To-Do list.  Fifteen minutes is a good place to start when it seems like there is no time for practice.  Even with a crazy schedule, you can always find 15 minutes for singing, and you might be surprised how much you can accomplish in that short amount of time.  If I have a little more time, I’ll sing scales and exercises for 15 minutes, then work on a song for 15 more.  I am often more productive during these short practice sessions than I am when I have more time.

As a coloratura soprano, a lot of the repertoire I sing is very vocally demanding.  Repeatedly singing through some of these arias is tiring, and not the most effective way to practice.  This is where mental practice comes in– a technique I first learned about at the OperaWorks summer intensive program.    Especially with difficult coloratura passages, being able to hear the notes in your head (sung in your voice, the way you want it to sound) is crucial.  While mental practice is not the same as physical practice, really visualizing yourself singing (or playing) the way that you want to sound can be very helpful.  For more on mental practice, see this post, also from Bulletproof Musician: Does Mental Practice Work? 

For many musicians, keeping a practice journal also helps.  I’ve found that writing down goals (repertoire to learn, technical concepts to focus on, etc) can really help me focus my practice time.  Also, keeping a record of what was accomplished can help me track my progress toward those goals.

What do you think?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments.  Thanks for reading, and happy practicing!