Tone Talk: Singing to help voicing and playing an instrument

Image Creditsinging and playing an instrument

Does singing a note before playing it on an instrument help you play it better?

I'll address that question in this week's Tone Talk post.

In the context of playing a musical instrument, voicing describes the ideal shape of the oral cavity to make the best tone. However, looking deeper into the word "voice", its meaning offers a number of useful clues and queues as to its implications for wind instrument players.

Let's glance at the history of the root word of voicing- the word VOICE:

From an online etymological dictionary:

Voice (n.) late 13c., "sound made by the human mouth," from O.Fr. voiz, from L. vocem (nom. vox) "voice, sound, utterance, cry, call, speech, sentence, language, word," related to vocare "to call," from PIE base *wekw- "give vocal utterance, speak" (cf. Skt. vakti "speaks, says," vacas- "word;" Avestan vac- "speak, say;" Gk. aor. eipon "spoke, said," epos "word;"

Just look at all those roots from which the word and meaning of voice comes!

Of course, a moremodern definition of the word voice describes voice as:

Musical sound produced by vibration of the human vocal cords and resonated within the throat and head cavities.

Focusing the meaning further, for musicians who play a wind instrument, you could define voicing as:

the shape of the inside of the mouth "oral cavity" used to create a beautiful, ringing tone on a wind instrument.

It is that specific use of voice which I ought to mean in this article.

However, in my usual fashion, I believe the truth goes deeper than such an anticeptic and specific meaning. A more effective and truthful definition might stem from the etymology quoted above. Descriptions such as sound, utterance, cry, call, speech, sentence, language and word hold more useful meaning for playing than you may think.

Why would these more primitive/original meanings help us play a wind instrument? After all, we don't make the sound with our real voices, we make them with a reed, or lips. Perhaps you see where I am going.

Singing a note, or a phrase, before playing it on your instrument can actually help you play it better.

How does literally singing help with paying a non-singing instrument? It does two things:

  1. Singing (even badly) engages deep, instinctual memory of meaningful expression. Emotions expressed in such ancient utterance, cry, call or speech are the very stuff from which musical expression evolved.
  2. Singing helps a wind player find an appropriately resonant oral cavity chamber for each note. Rather than talk open throat or high tongue, sing a note and play it.

In other words, effective voicing techniques for playing a wind instrument stem by default from the roots of voice, especially singing.

Singing before playing initiates ancient physical (hereditary and cultural) instincts in our bodies, going back to the dawn of human culture with meaningful expression in language, song, poetry and rhythm. Giving sounds meaning and repeating them helped to communicate a great deal among primitive cultures with no written word. Songs are even used as memory aids to guide travelers over long complex routes.

Speaking and its musical extension, singing, settled deeply into our shared history far before instruments were commonly used to express musical ideas. Singing itself helps share emotions, make connections through meaningful melody. Of course, meaningful sounds can also be traced back to birds and other animals uttering calls as expressions communicating their situation.

Those expressive and communicative roots are the reason we play music, to express, to utter something meaningful.

It cannot be otherwise, or it is merely empty noise. A novice, or even an expert musician who plays an instrument is more likely to lose touch with their singing memory than someone who sings with their voice.

The second, more practical effect of singing before playing is that it sets up the shape of the oral cavity to match the shape of that note for maximum resonance.

If this idea sound familiar, and if you are a flutist, you may know of flutist Robert Dick's book Tone Development Through Extended Techniques, which includes a chapter on "Throat Tuning". I quote from it below:

... the tone of the flute is not just the tone made in the instrument, it is a complex combination of the flutist and the flute. The sound we hear is that of the air vibrating with the flute, but resonated within the body of the flutist! (emphasis is Mr. Dick's) ... the vibrations pass not only forward from the embouchure into the flute, but back through the mouth, neck and chest...

If one looks under the bars of a vibraphone, a resonator tube is found beneath each bar. Each of these tubes is of the correct length to amplify its note, and the throat can function in a similar, but bar more sophisticated manner. The vocal range of the flutists, nd the octave the flutist's voice is tuned to, do not seem to be critical factors; the accuracy of the pitch, however, is.

Robert Dick also recently posted a series of YouTube videos detailing and demonstrating the technique, the first of which follows:

Of course, some people may not be able to sing a pitch before playing it, someone tone deaf, for example. Even in this case, an attempt at singing is more effective than none. It initiates many other systems of deep memory, such as gesture, utterance, cry.

Beyond singing one note, it is also easier to "feel" a musical phrase when the actual voice is used. It helps to first feel the phrase as you would sing it, and then with the same intention play it on your clarinet, or oboe, bassoon, trumpet, even string instruments or piano.

Would you like to share practice ideas with other musicians? You could do so at the Practice Café.

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9 comments for “Tone Talk: Singing to help voicing and playing an instrument

  1. John Peacock
    February 21, 2011 at

    Hi David. I tried Robert Dick’s exercise, but I wasn’t entirely convinced. It’s not too hard to sing along, but getting the pitch of the note you sing to match can be tricky: easy to be a fraction of a semitone out, and then you get rather violent beats between what you sing and what the reed’s doing.

    But as I turned the volume of the singing down, I didn’t notice much a of difference in feel with the note I was playing, whatever exact note I was singing. My provisional conclusion is that the space inside your throat isn’t a very precise resonator (which fits what you hear when you “pop” your cheek using your finger under pressure – hope that description makes sense!). The pitch of the singing notes must come mainly from the tension of the vocal chords, not the shape of the cavity around them.

    So I suspect the vocal cavity is a bit like the soundbox of a violin: it resonates equally well over a range of piches without needing to be a precise size. Presumably there is some tendency to make the cavity smaller with higher pitch (and there is a youtube video of a clarinettist playing under X-rays that seems to support this). But using the violin analogy, I suspect this adjustment only has to be approximately right to have as good an effect, and that it probably goes into place automatically (unless you very deliberately disrupt it to help a gliss along, as pointed out by Rachel Y. above).

    • February 22, 2011 at

      Hi John. Try this correlated voicing exercise: Whistle a scale and notice how the tongue moves precisely to create the pitch of each note. Also, try “whistling” far below the range for clear whistling, down to where the tone is more a pitched “hiss”, very airy. Now whistle a pitch down there and find the matching pitch on clarinet; go back and forth between whistling and playing, trying to position the tongue in about the same position for both. The “voiced” note may or may not sound better to your ears than unvoiced. But I am willing to bet you would have more control over that note in attacks and articulation, perhaps even pitch, than without the subtle influence of the “voiced” shape.

  2. February 21, 2011 at

    It is with a sense of rather profound excitement that I come upon this post. Although I play the piano, all of what you have to say not only “applies” – it is at the very center of my methodology in practice.
    For one year I studied techniques of practice with musicians in India, among whom were Vamanrau Deshpande and Bhimsen Joshi. I was not studying Indian music, but rather the transfer process by which the inner sourcing of the sound might be applied to Mozart and other great masters.
    I believe the introduction to these basic, indeed primal, attitudes, techniques, and approaches can be offered to any student of music from day one.
    Very inspiring post.
    Thank you.

  3. February 20, 2011 at

    “the shape of the inside of the mouth “oral cavity” used to create a beautiful, ringing tone on a wind instrument.”

    I have to add to this definition that voicing is also crucial to multiphonic sounds and pitch bends – for those of us who at times strive for sounds other than a “beautiful, ringing tone.” 🙂

    • February 22, 2011 at

      Hi Rachel, I stand corrected. Indeed voicing accounts for control over other types of tones and results such as glissando or multiphonics.

  4. February 14, 2011 at

    After watching this throat tuning video with fascination, I was determined to somehow make it work on the bassoon, even though I didn’t think the odds were very high. Imagine the noises being produced as I discovered that indeed, singing while playing the bassoon is physically impossible. (My dog ran for cover under the bed.)

    Now I can focus on the rest of the post, which is applicable even to bassoon players. Thank you for this fine and convincing analysis of the concept of singing before playing.

    • February 18, 2011 at

      Hi Betsy. LOL about the video. Singing WHILE playing is certainly very, very odd in sound and feeling! I mentioned him and the video because Mr. Dick is certainly highly respected, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that he had previously discovered this idea of a relationship between singing voicing and playing voicing. I happened to have come up with it on my own, and after mentioning it to my sister, whom you know is a flutist, I found out that Robert Dick had found a similar connection. Small world, isn’t it, that of meaningful vibrations?

  5. John Peacock
    February 14, 2011 at

    Hi David, this is a very thought-provoking post; I’ll try it out. It fits with what I’d long assumed: that clarinet tone is related to your natural internal vocal acoustic. Jack Brymer was also a long-standing radio presenter, with a deep and plummy speaking voice. It seemed a good guess that this carried over to his special clarinet sound. Seems a bit unfair on those who, like me, don’t have a decent singing voice.

    Let me also relate that this singing-playing thing works both ways. I used to find it very hard to sight sing, until I realised it became much easier if I imagined I was fingering each note: by bringing the feel of the fingers to mind, I could hear what the intervals should be. Doesn’t work in bass cleff, though!

    • February 18, 2011 at

      Hi John, just catching up with comments. I am not surprised that the opposite relation is true. The brain benefits from associating a known quantity to help familiarize an unknown one. The nice thing about singing is, most people do it at least a bit more “naturally” than playing, giving a good step up to the same kind of comfort while playing.

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