Open your mouth and sing!
It has come to my attention that I need to post here a little more frequently than I do. I am not sure how many people actually read the musings I jot down, but just in case I have any loyalists out there, I'd like to let you know that I'm trying to commit to writing more about my passion for singing, music and performance in general. Now that I've gotten that off my chest, let's get to today's subject...Opening your mouth and making music!
I have noticed an alarming trend amongst younger pop singers in my studio in the last year. Students come in and can carry a tune, but will NOT open their mouths enough to let the sound out. I'm not sure where this trend started, nor can I trace it to any one particular style of music. But, I keep seeing kids who absolutely refuse to lower their jaw or open their mouth wider than a crack. It ends up looking like the student has had his or her jaw wired shut. I think it might be some kind of defense mechanism - a way to look "cool" or not give the appearance of "shouting" or looking "aggressive." These have been some excuses I've heard. No one wants to look like they might be "making too much effort." Here's the problem with that mentality: In order to make a decent sound, one HAS to open their mouth. Singing CANNOT BE DONE AT SPEECH LEVEL. I know there's a lot of teachers out there that are passionate about "speech-level singing," but it DOESN'T WORK!
Yes, we use amplification a lot these days. Not everyone's an opera singer in a big hall. But everyone who sings should at least have a basic understanding of how to produce sound efficiently in a way that can be heard in a small studio over a piano or guitar, and also how to keep that sound consistent even when using a microphone. It's actually not that difficult. Back in the early 20th century, even Broadway performers sang without amplification. It CAN be done, and it WON'T hurt your voice. The trick is to maintain the body and vocal apparatuses properly. A good friend of mine, who sings opera and also hustles some mean Karaoke once said, "A good teacher can teach a 500 meter dash, but it's a great teacher who can teach you how to run a marathon." This all begins with something so basic, so easy, you might roll your eyes. Opening the mouth!
When we open our mouths to sing, it's not just the simple hinge of the jaw that needs to work. Sure, you can open your mouth, but how far apart are your back teeth? Where's your tongue going? Is your soft palate rising up enough? There's a big checklist, and I have only mentioned a fraction of it here. I'm going to stick with one aspect of this list - opening up the back teeth.
When producing sound, you use a combination of resonators (Hussler calls them valvular functions), vowel formants, and different types of air pressure. It's all these components that allow a singer to create a large array of sounds. Keeping the back teeth open is probably the most critical action of all of these when it comes to resonance because of what the action allows the singer to accomplish. When the singer makes a conscious effort to keep his or her back teeth open, it allows for more ease of use of the other functions of the larynx. For example, singing a high note is a lot easier when one can stretch the back of his or her neck and throat. It's also easier to access falsetto and high notes when the soft palate goes up. In addition, one can create bigger vowel sounds and modify them more appropriately for any given circumstance. Essentially, in order to create more sound with less effort and more color, a singer needs to maintain that space in the back of the mouth.
When a young singer comes in and complains to me about how hard it is to sing high notes, the first thing I look at is how they're trying to create the sound. Are they pushing their airflow too high? Are they misusing their resonators, trying to "place" the sound somewhere they shouldn't? And, are they opening the back of their mouth enough? This doesn't mean that the singer should constantly "open up wide" like at the dentist's office (Although I have rectified this closed-mouth situation by making a student or two mimic brushing their back teeth). Rather, the singer should not be afraid to open up and let the sound out in the first place! The mouth is not a huge space. Therefore, we're talking about millimeters of space. But it's those small units that can make all the difference in how the sound travels and projects. Even just opening up the back teeth a fraction of an inch can increase volume, color and depth without the singer putting forth any extra effort.
So, I say to the young singers of the present, embrace the techniques of the past! Watch singers who open their mouths! Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Shirley Bassey, Barbara Streisand...heck, go for broke and watch the queen of open mouth, Ethel Merman (See clip below)! There's a reason why these voices were so powerful, and it all starts with opening up.