Get a pen and paper. It’s time for your group to take the a cappella pop quiz.
No, this is not a test of your a cappella knowledge. I recently attended Sojam X and like all the other conventions I have attended, rooms are filled with dozens of a cappella groups who desire nothing more than to be recognized, be amazing, and be innovative.
The more I attend these workshops, the more connections I start to make. A cappella groups who have yet to achieve ICCA or BOCA fame struggle with concepts that extend far beyond innovation and energy. Elements of music that should be second nature to singers (blend, intonation, dynamics,) are more the problem than anything else.
How many times have we heard soloists “try” to belt. If soloists knew “how” to belt, they wouldn’t have to “try.”
How many times have we seen a cappella groups lose the tempo?
How many times have we lost focus as audience members because the group on stage is not demanding our attention?
So as part of my ongoing research to justify the a cappella college major, I designed a little quiz and will post a different section each week. I believe that knowing the answers to these questions (or discovering the answers below) will solve many of your groups difficult quirks. For maximum effect, have EVERY member of your group take this quiz. I think you’ll be surprised by the results. Ready…set…begin!
Quiz #1- Vocal Technique
1) What is resonance?
2) What happens in your body every time you inhale and exhale?
3) True or False: Breathing from your diaphragm is the best way to support your flow of air.
4) What is vibrato and straight tone singing?
5) What is the difference between a vowel and a consonant (in terms of air flow)?
6) What is IPA?
7) What is the soft palate?
8) How many vocal sounds are you capable of producing at once?
9) What is the difference between chest voice and head voice?
10) What is falsetto and who is capable of singing it?
11) What are all the possible voice range classifications for a singer (e.g. Soprano, Alto, etc.)?
Answers below (Don't peek...)
1) Resonance is defined as the amplification of the phonation by the air filled cavities through which it passes. In simpler terms, resonance is vibration and the increase of resonance means an increase in vibration.
Resonance is the healthy way to sing. Many singers still don’t understand this term, which leads to overuse of the voice and “cracking” on the high note. The art of “belting” relies on resonance. It’s almost a magic trick, but anyone can do it. Because singers do not understand this, they believe that the only way to reach that golden high note is by screaming from the throat.
To develop your resonance, use this method, which I use everyday with my choirs and a cappella groups:
Sing a phrase or a warm-up ENTIRELY through your nose. This will sound nasal and weird, almost like “The Chipmunks.” Sing this phrase over and over and try to pinpoint the area in your face that feels like it is vibrating. This should be the upper cheeks, the bridge of your nose, and even your forehead.
Sing the same phrase in what you define as a “beautiful tone” but continue to place the vibration in the exact same spot. The combination of singing beautifully while thinking nasally is resonance.
THIS is the key to belting. This is how I went from a Bass 2 to a Tenor 1 who can now “belt” a high Bb.
2) Several things happen when you breathe. When you inhale, the rib cage expands, the diaphragm moves from a more domed position to a less domed position, the stomach moves outward, and your pelvis drops slightly. The exact reverse happens when you exhale. Also, the primary breathing mechanism is your NOSE, not your MOUTH. The best breaths are taken through the nose, because the nose is where you take in more air.
3) False. Despite what your voice teacher tells you, the diaphragm is an involuntary muscle, which means you can’t MAKE it move. Asking someone to support or breathe through his/her diaphragm is like asking someone to concentrate on not floating away from the ground. Forces (like gravity) already keep us from doing this. What your teacher should be asking instead is to support your air flow by tightening the stomach muscles, which you can control and impact the air flow much more than the diaphragm.
4) Vibrato is a rapid pulsating change in pitch. Every singer has a natural vibrato, or a specific place in their voice where the vibrato naturally comes out, without being coaxed. This is something that needs to be worked on, not forced. Forced vibrato often sounds ugly and heavy. Vibrato also takes a tremendous amount of support, because it requires more air flow.
Straight tone singing is simply “singing without vibrato.” Vocal jazz groups, and even a cappella groups encourage straight tone singing for a few reasons:
1) Straight tone singing is more resonant
2) Often arrangements have very close harmonies and vibrato adds difficulty to blending and “locking” pitches. Barbershop singers call the successful blend of close harmonies “locking and ringing.”
3) Many a cappella singers are not trained classical singers, and singing vibrato is a skill they do not have time to work on, or even need.
4) Straight tone singing is used by the majority of pop artists today.
This is not to say that vibrato is useless. Vibrato is a technique, or a color, that produces an interesting effect when used sparingly. Soloists should experiment with vibrato to give their solo more of an impact. But a close harmony piece of music should use a little vibrato as possible.
5) A vowel produces air, a consonant stops the air flow. Even consonants that you can hold, like the s sound, sh sound, and f sound, are really just a combination of your throat producing a neutral vowel (like “uh”) and your lips, tongue, or teeth interfering with the flow of air. Contrary to popular belief, vowels are the only letters that can produce sound, which is why every word in every language has them.
6) IPA stands for the International Phonetic Alphabet, which is sort of like a language for sounds. Every symbol in the IPA represents one specific sound and words are the combination of multiple IPA sounds. Let’s take the letter B. When you say the letter B, it seems like you are only making one sound, but that is incorrect. You are really making two sounds and it looks like this:
The [b] symbol stands for the consonant sound that B makes (buh) and the [i] is the vowel sound (ee).
Why am I telling you this? Because understanding IPA is the key to understanding specifically what vowel sound you want from your a cappella group and exactly how to make that sound. Even the “guitar noise” that singers can make is a combination of multiple IPA sounds. For someone like me who likes to break down and understand the process, it helps to know exactly how a sound is made.
If your college has a music department, most likely they have a class in IPA, but it is usually called “Diction.” If you don’t have a class, you can view more information about IPA here:
7) The soft palate is the soft tissue located on the roof of your mouth towards the back. If you place your tongue on the roof of your mouth near the teeth, you’ll notice the roof is very hard. If you move your tongue all the way back, you’ll notice it gets softer.
Raising the soft palate opens the throat and maximizes the resonance your voice is capable of. This mainly affects intonation. Singers who often sing “flat” do not raise their soft palate enough (among other things).
The best way to practice raising the soft palate is to yawn. Yawning raises the soft palate to its maximum height. Singers should try to replicate the feeling of the yawn while still trying to sing “beautifully.” (Singing through a yawn produces a breathy, sleepy sound)
8) If the answer is anything but “more than one,” you are incorrect. The lips are capable of making sounds on their own. Your throat is capable of making sounds on its own. That’s already two sounds. Believe it or not, you have the ability to hum and whistle at the same time. This is the process Bobby McFerrin uses to sing harmony with himself. The throat can sing one note and the lips can direct the air flow (whistle) to produce another.
9) Technically, the human body has several registers in which they can produce sound. For singer’s purposes, the two most important registers are the chest voice and the head voice. The best way to distinguish these registers is to sing from your lowest note to your highest note and put your hand on your chest. In the lower notes, your chest should vibrate significantly. This is your chest voice range. When the chest stops vibrating, you have entered your head voice range.
The problem comes with too many singers who misunderstand the difference. Singing in the chest voice is often incorrectly referred to as “Belting.” This sound is what most pop singers and Broadway singers produce, thus it is the sound desired by future singers. Someone who tries to sing higher notes in their chest voice without the proper technique will “crack” or “break.”
In fact, the vocal “break” is the exact note in which you switch between registers and this CAN be worked on. Think of a break as a muscle that just hasn’t worked out. You can’t lift 200 pounds without working up to it and your break can’t support the weight of your voice without working on it.
10) Falsetto refers to a register that falls in a specific place in the vocal track. ONLY MEN have falsetto. There are many people who believe women possess the capability of singing falsetto and this is just incorrect. While men singing in falsetto can reach the ranges that females have, falsetto is not classified by the range of notes. Men can sing falsetto on any pitch in any range (believe it or not). Falsetto is classified by where the sound actually falls in the human body. Simply because women were born with different anatomy than men (something you should have learned in Kindergarten), women are incapable of producing falsetto
11) There are 8 official vocal classifications, with 2 extreme classifications that apply to extreme registers.
Voice classifications are often mislabeled, because only the range of notes is taken into account. This is incorrect. The ease of note production, the anatomy of the singer, and the timbre (or specific sound) of a voice classify the singer. For example, I am able to sing all the way down to a low F, but that does not make me a bass. My voice is naturally more resonant and higher pitched, so I am a tenor.
Soprano is the highest voicing possible. Females are classified as sopranos. There are also boy sopranos, who are young men capable of singing in the soprano range. However, men who have already gone through puberty and can still sing in the highest range are not sopranos. Sopranos can sing in the high range WITHOUT the aid of falsetto. A natural soprano should be most comfortable singing in the high treble staff.
Mezzo Soprano is the next voicing down. Mezzo sopranos are most comfortable singing in the middle range, where sopranos consider too low for head voice and altos consider too high for belting. Typically, this is a voicing classification for operatic singers. I have yet to see the justification for classifying an a cappella singer as a mezzo, but I welcome you to prove me wrong.
The Alto is the under the mezzo. A true alto is most comfortable singing in the lower treble clef staff and below. Altos often have difficulty producing notes, either in chest voice or head voice, above a C in the middle of the treble staff, but that does not apply to every alto.
A contralto is rare but exists. This is a female voice who not only can reach notes typical for a bass singer, but also feels most comfortable singing in this range. If you don’t know whether or not you are a contralto, you probably aren’t. Try singing for a long time on C, D, E, and F below the treble staff. If the sound is not very loud, or this hurts your voice, you are not a contralto.
The highest male voice is the Counter-Tenor. This voice classification is also rare, but becoming more common in recent years. A counter tenor is most comfortable singing in an Alto or Mezzo soprano range WITHOUT the use of falsetto. A good example is Kurt on “Glee.”
Tenor is the most common high singing male. True tenors should be able to produce high notes WITHOUT the use of falsetto. Many baritones attempt to “belt” tenor notes, as tenors are the most coveted male voice in popular music. It is possible to train your voice to have a more substantial tenor range (I did), but this takes a lot of practice and time and you are still not technically a tenor.
Baritones are the middle register of male voices and comprise the majority of male voices. Baritones are most comfortable singing in the middle register of their voice. Baritones can often have a wide range, both high and low, and are usually mistaken for basses. To determine whether or not you are a baritone, try to figure out where in your range your voice is most powerful.
Basses are the lowest voice classification. A true bass is most comfortable singing in the lowest part of his register, and true basses can comfortably sing below a low F without difficulty.
There are two extreme classifications of voice types, Coloratura and Basso Profundo. A Coloratura soprano is comfortable singing in the highest part of the highest Soprano range. Coloratura sopranos are often classified as such in classical music, most notably, operatic singing. For example, the “Queen of the Night” aria from Mozart’s “Magic Flute” is a coloratura aria. A Basso Profundo is also an operatic classification. These basses are not categorized by their massive range, but by their massive volume. Basso Profundos often have a heavy vibrato, useful for singing operatic arias. A Basso Profundo could also apply to a person who has a naturally low voice and sings very low.