“Singing is a sensory-motor phenomenon that requires particular physical skills. When these skills are developed in a sensitive performer, singing becomes an art.” – Meribeth A. Bunch, Ph.D. (Consultant in Voice, Associated Professor, University of Delaware, USA)
A singer, much as anyone involved in any activity in life, whilst performing, is engaged on two basic levels: the outer performance that the singer allows the audience to see, hear and experience, and the inner performance, that allows the singer to mentally direct and monitor his performance.
The outer performance, the performance that the audience experiences, takes years to master. The singer’s preparation usually requires the singer to take singing lessons, practise scales and vocalises daily, learn and develop songs for their repertoire, rehearse regularly with an accompanist, take dance or movement lessons, acting lessons, and invest in lessons in performance skill and stage craft, etc. Simultaneously, however, whilst engaged in the performance on this outer level, the singer is also engrossed in an inner performance, no less important, but much harder to see and if noticed at all, instantly forgotten.
This inner performance, again on two levels, takes place firstly in the mind of the singer where the obstacles are issues of self-doubt, anxiety, nervousness, fear of failure, lapses in concentration, distraction, etc. The physical impact on a singer is debilitating to say the least, and might include problems such as feeling sick, increased heartbeat, tension, loss of breath, dry mouth, inability to see or hear clearly, etc., all incapacitating and something which most performers have to deal with each time they perform, to a lesser or larger degree. The second part of this inner performance has to do with being a witness, “standing beside oneself” and being one’s own director as it were, in order to constantly monitor your performance.
Thus these two performances, the outer and the inner performances, have considerable impact on each other. All performers recognize the mental challenge and strength it takes to perform, and can recognize their capacity for getting in their own way. In fact, it is virtually impossible to participate in any activity without engaging both on an outer and inner level simultaneously, which is why most people can relate somewhat to what performers experience. The deciding factor between the success or failure of the outer performance, providing that everything necessary had been done to ensure it’s triumph, depends almost entirely on the inner performance.
For a performer, the most surprising element of the inner performance is not the things that go badly when the mind decides to have a running commentary on every mistake, every wrong note, every phrase on which your breathing let you down, every nuance that didn’t quite work, every lyric forgotten, every high or low note not quite reached, but the fact that it is almost impossible to remember much about the times when everything went well. Then there is only the sense of things falling into place, feelings of joy, of elation, of becoming the emotional aspect of the music through the textures, colours, shapes and passion in and for the music, an experience of the magic of the music and the performance, and an exchange of energy with the audience – all performers experience this from time-to-time. It happens only, however, when the performer is physically very relaxed and mentally alert and aware, but too absorbed in the moment to be running any mental commentary. Even more bizarrely, singers often perform better when they are slightly ill, or tired or in a mood where they don’t care whether or not they sound good, and completely relaxed, perhaps when performing for close friends – in other words, when their own mind gets out of their way.
The sounds singers make depend on many factors because the human vocal instrument is an organic one, it is constantly evolving, and therefore affected by everything, from the singer’s diet, travel – especially air travel – the amount of sleep or water they had that day, how fatigued they are, and even the humidity or lack thereof in the venue as well as the temperature both outside and inside the venue. The singer’s voice is also affected by their moods and emotions, the repertoire, how comfortable they feel with the band or orchestra, the amount of rehearsal they’ve had, the attitudes of the backstage people around them, the audience’s vibe and response, etc. Even simple things like their clothes and their footwear can have a fairly dramatic impact on a singer’s performance.
Those of us who have been following the uber talented singer, Adam Lambert and his Glam Nation Tour around America and the world, are familiar with the fact that each show, even though set and choreographed, has been slightly different from the others, primarily because of Adam’s astounding ability to improvise music and movement anew at each performance. This has been no mean feat when you consider that he performed more than a hundred shows over a six-month period whilst giving numerous interviews and participating in meet and greets with fans before every show! Of course there were times when he was tired and times when he was ill, but his performances just became better and better as the tour forged ahead – perhaps proving that he too, was able to improve his performance when slightly ill or tired. But one thing was clear from the very beginning: Adam Lambert, the consummate professional, classically trained musician, cares very much at all times, about how he sounds – a reassuring fact, although his dedicated fans would certainly have encouraged him to feel as though he was singing to friends. And this, his first headlining tour, must have been testing at times, as he performed in a variety of venues, some of which were clearly better equipped to deal with his sound system requirements than others.
It has been a revelation and exciting beyond words, however, to experience this journey with such an extraordinarily talented performer and vocal master as Adam Lambert. It has also been enormously enlightening to witness some of his inner performances, because his enormous success has its roots, most likely, in the fact that Adam seems to have given himself permission to fail. He evidently has no fear of the stage and releasing himself from the fear of failure: the biggest fear plaguing all performers, Adam has freed himself to focus his attention one hundred percent on the making of music and on communicating so effectively with his audience. He has courageously displayed an exceptional ability to be acutely aware of every aspect of his performance, yet, truly free – the most difficult achievement for any performer. It is his willingness to let go of the need to hold on to a specific technique (except for those all-important basic techniques that support his voice so well), or a particular genre of music, or any notion of “how it has to be done”, despite criticism, together with his willingness to be apparently “lost” in the music and in his performance, which allows his continued growth as a fluid, dynamic singer and a remarkable performer.
Long before Adam embarked on the inner performance’s journey, however, he first had to work hard on the outer performance, because that is primarily what the audience comes to see and experience. And for every singer, that journey starts with breathing for singing. That is, breathing that supports the vocal instrument, which is, in some ways, not too different than the breathing techniques required for all wind instruments, one of which is the human vocal instrument. Learning the correct breathing techniques for good voice support, however, can take years. But breathing is all-important for singers – it is the canvas upon which the voice’s pictures will be painted and therefore the “smoother” it is, the better the pictures will be.
“…breath is like the liaison between the excitement of feeling and the physiological effects. The trained singer especially feels this, since he must form the tone on the breath as a modulating process – and his success – apart from the mastering of the basic techniques – is qualitatively dependent upon requirements in the area of the soul.” Friz Winckel, Music, Sound and Sensation: A Modern Exposition. Mr. Winckel is a physicist who worked in the field of experimental voice and speech research, with a particular interest in the analysis of the human singing voice.
Firstly, therefore, Adam would have had to learn how to breathe rapidly and deeply by relaxing the vocal tract, offering low resistance to the incoming air. He would have had to learn to breathe only through his mouth, raising the soft palate whilst keeping the tongue, vocal muscles and abdominal muscles relaxed. As for most singers, in order to discover the wide airway that is needed, he most likely would have been told to “feel the incoming air creating a cold spot high on the back of the throat.” And he would have had to learn to exhale slowly and evenly, in a long breath, whilst singing notes or phrases.
To begin to support his voice, however, he would have had to learn to keep his rib cage out and open: in the same position as when breathing in for as long as possible. At the same time, he would have to keep the diaphragm expanding continually until the end of the phrase, whilst simultaneously lifting the pelvic muscles to support the voice. This is the only way to support tone and is rather difficult to master.
From The Science and Art of Singing by Lisa Roma, the world-renowned Swedish dramatic soprano, Birgit Nilsson, is quoted as saying: “One has to be conscious of support. Vocal cords you almost have to forget. They make the sound, but like the violinist, you must have…the sounding board (she pointed to a spot on her forehead an inch or two above her eyes). If one forgets the support it’s like a flower without roots, after a while it begins to fade. It’s the same thing with the voice. I hear so many young singers completely singing without the support. They’re singing from the chest and up, and it doesn’t sound well…I feel the higher the note goes, the lower the support. The support is as low as possible.”
After the basic breathing and voice support techniques had been mastered, Adam would go on to employ the techniques we can see him using today. Like all classically trained singers, he breathes with his entire torso. Of course we see clearly only his chest moving as it expands passively whilst the air is moving through it, because that is what we expect to see. But actually, he is breathing into his abdomen, his back and his sides, much as if his body was a barrel that expands equally in all directions as he breathes in. Thus Adam is “breathing” in as low down into his body as possible. This is very important for good sound production, because singers use muscles all the way down into their genital area (root chakra) to support their voice. All three pairs of the broad, flat sheets of muscle; the external and internal oblique muscles and the transversus abdominis - the most powerful muscles controlling breathing – are attached to the rib cage, making a complete tube from back to front. Only the external oblique has no attachment to the back bone, but rather reinforces the front and sides of this tube. This trio of muscle pairs are attached to the pelvis, and to the pelvic diaphragm at the floor of the pelvis, which is also formed by muscles. The pelvic diaphragm must contract during singing in order to maintain abdominal pressure, which opposes the diaphragm. Sometimes it is even necessary to clench the buttocks for further support.
If the breathing is too high in the body, therefore, then no matter how hard these muscles work, vocal support will be non-existent. In addition, a very important reason for “breathing” low into the body is to eliminate tension in the upper body, ensuring that voice production is free from obstruction. And any tension in the neck, shoulders and the chest gives a false sense of fullness, which will lead a singer to believe they have taken in enough air, and only when they begin to sing, comes the realization that in fact, too little air has been taken in and not enough air is available to complete the phrase.
Below are some examples of Adam breathing perfectly for singing:
“A very short time (200-300 milliseconds, Wilder 1979) before the act of singing a phrase, a pattern of coordinated activity is initiated in the muscles of respiration… The singer’s ability to initiate this complex process can only come after desirable patterns have been so practised that they become habitual and unconscious… This is accomplished by trial, error and performing experience. Once this process is acquired and programmed the artist can take command of the act of singing. He can only develop fully as an artist when the muscular control has become an unconscious reflex and his concentration is devoted to interpretation.” – Meribeth A. Bunch, Ph.D., Dynamics of the Singing Voice (1982)
Mastery and use of the lower abdominal, as well as lower back muscular control during performance, however, often tends to lead to sexual arousal in the singer. How can it not when the muscles into the genital area are being stimulated? This is a completely natural and normal response by the body and not something over which the singer has any control.
According to the neuroscientist and former rock music producer, Prof. Daniel Levitin, music activates the brain area responsible for feeling pleasure, excitement and satisfaction. “Music has been shown to cause activity in brain circuits associated with physical reactions, such as sweating, sexual arousal, and ‘shivers down the spine.‘”
From the website, Darwin vs. the Machine, NY, an article had been posted called The Rockstar Effect – Singing Produces the Same Chemicals as Sex (June 2010). Quoted from Integrative physiological and behavioral science : the official journal of the Pavlovian Society 2003 vol. 38 (1) pp. 65-74 – Does singing promote well-being?: An empirical study of professional and amateur singers during a singing lesson, by Christina Grape, Maria Sandgren, Lars-Olof Hansson, Mats Ericson, Töres Theorell, National Institute for Psychosocial Factors and Health, Stockholm, Sweden. “Further studies have revealed a statistically significant link between singing, and the release of the neurotransmitter, Oxytocin in the brain. Oxytocin is called the “trust hormone” and when released, the user experiences a feeling of well-being and trust. The same chemical is produced during sex, and has to do with establishing an emotional link between the individuals…We love the feeling this chemical produces, which is why American Idol is one of the most popular shows of all time…”
The sexual arousal experienced by singers during performing is completely normal, and very common, although with female singers it is not quite as apparent. American mezzo soprano, Frederica von Stade, said: “We don’t see the instrument…so much is in the imagination and what you can do with it…Singing and sex are two forms of expression that come from inside the body.”
Internationally acclaimed singer/actress, Dame Julie Andrews, DBE, who expected never to sing again after an operation on her vocal cords in 1997 left them damaged, has found new techniques to manage her music. In her biography, Home, she says singing is “as addictive as opium” and “like sex before the moment of climax”.
Swedish Soprano, Elisabeth Anna Söderström, CBE, said in her autobiography, In My Own Key (1979) “How can I describe the ecstasy you feel when every fibre in your body vibrates on the same wave length as the notes, when a high C-sharp suddenly sparkles in front of you as if a sun had appeared in the auditorium…It is an intense desire to be allowed to share the worlds of beauty from which I myself derive such endless stimulation.”
And on SingersSing.com, Welsh recording artist, Duffy, describes how she feels like she is having sex every time she sings her 2008 hit song, “Mercy”.
Shelley Winters, Oscar nominated American actress said of her experience working with Marlon Brando in the stage production of “A Streetcar Named Desire “- 1951 “There was an electrical charge and almost an animal scent he projected over the footlights that made it impossible for the audience to think or watch the other performers on the stage. All you could do was feel, the sexual arousal was so complete. I don’t believe that quality can be learned; it’s just there, primitive and compelling. The only time I experienced a similar reaction was when I saw Elvis Presley perform in Las Vegas.”
Male singers can find sexual arousal highly embarrassing, as it is easier to witness. Adam Lambert, unlike most other male singers, however, seems to revel in this natural situation, and uses his arousal on stage to his advantage during his performances, rather than shying away from it or trying to hide it. And as a result, his performances are characteristically honest and uniquely charged with sexual energy – one of the most powerfully creative energies of the human body. It is, after all, our gate-way to participating in the co-creation of life – and something everyone can relate to.
During an interview in Malaysia, he said: “My performance will probably still have a lot of ’vibe’ about it. It’s not really something I can control…” (1:11)
How wonderful it must be to have the courage to be that free as a performer, both with your voice and your body – in other words, with your entire instrument. And how wonderful for us, the audience, to be that freedom’s grateful recipient!
We do not own the copyright to any of the pictures, music or videos presented in this programme, only copyright on all scripts presented here, and no copyright infringement is intended. Pictures of Adam Lambert kindly supplied by Grrr_girl.
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