Episode 110 – Sensation Based Singing

It’s not enough to understand your voice – you must feel it in a knowing and precise way.

Cataloging all the various sensations of pitch, vowel, color, and intensity is a large part of becoming a masterful singer.

In this episode, John discusses the sensations of singing and how you can develop a greater awareness of your own voice.


The New Science of Singing 2.0

Episode Transcript

Episode 110 – Sensation Based Singing

Hey there, this is John Henny, welcome back to another edition of The Intelligent Vocalist. I do so appreciate you spending this time with me. Okay. I’m actually pretty excited. Next month I’m going to be traveling a bit. Going to Denver to lecture at the International Voice Teachers of Mix, or IVTOM convention, and I’m going to be lecturing alongside some pretty impressive people. So I’m going to be working on my PowerPoint notes quite furiously. I’m going to be doing, I believe, three different presentations there, and I think that the lectures are going to be webcast. So what you can do, this is episode 110, go to johnhenny. com/110 and I’m going to try and get some links to see if you can get in on that. I believe there is a fee which goes to the International Voice Teachers of Mix.

They do great work in training voice teachers. I’m always happy to work with them, their conventions. They’re just fantastic people. And if you happen to be going, I really look forward to seeing you there. So that will be next month in Denver. I believe it’s September 26th, 27th and 28th. Anyway, getting on today’s subject. I just did a podcast interview with Natalie Weiss, and if you don’t know who Natalie Weiss is, get on YouTube right after you finish listening to this and look her up. And she’s just an amazing singer and vocal coach. She does a great series called Breaking Down the Riffs. That’s where I first heard of her. And as a singer, she really is phenomenal. Just a great vocalist, very versatile, can riff like crazy. And as I was discussing singing and teaching singing with her– and that podcast will be coming up very shortly, I believe it will be my next one released if all goes according to plan. If not, very, very soon.

And as we were discussing, I realized she comes from a very sensation based place and as I was looking back through my podcasts, I realized I had not done an episode just really focusing on the sensations of singing. And I think that’s really important. And one of the reasons I don’t always talk about sensations is sensations can be a little different for everyone. But you need to catalog sensations. As a singer, if you’re approaching this from more of an intellectual place, understanding registration, understanding vowel tuning and how resonance works in the muscles of the folds, that’s all well and good. And I love learning about it. I love sharing it. I do believe that it really gives you a place to analyze your voice from.

And if something’s not going right, you can break down why it isn’t going right. But to really become a complete singer, you have to begin to catalog sensation, what these different registers and intensities and colors and vowels feel like in your voice. And sensation based teaching will often lead to using imagery and imagining, and that can be very effective for singers. But one of the problems I found utilizing it is what works for me or another student won’t necessarily work for you. So you need to start creating your own catalog of sensations and imagery. And that’s one of the things, when you listen to my interview with Natalie, she really gets in and talks about. And she has very specific imagery that helps her get into the right place, and then the sensations will tell her she’s in the right place. And as she’s casually demonstrating as I’m chatting with her over Skype, she’s just doing these beautiful vowel adjustments.

I mean, just spot on. And yet she’s really not coming at it from this scientific place of vowel tuning. She just knows what it feels like and she knows ways to coax her nervous system into that place. Now, even though the sensations will tend to be different for everyone, there are some general ways that we tend to feel things and that’s why we get– I’ve talked about it in other podcasts– that’s why we get singing terms that are rather confusing, because they will talk about the sensation as opposed to what it is that is going on. And the sensations are misleading in that if you use a sensation to try and extrapolate what’s happening acoustically or physically, it often leads to pseudo-scientific misinformation and some of these voice teacher ideas that haven’t really turned out to be true, as far as sound wave splitting and the way it travels, and all these different ideas of registration, and even some of the misapprehensions that I’ve been under and had been taught early in my teaching career, such as vocal cords zipping up and different things as you transition in that first register.

But essentially when you are in your lower register, or mode one as it’s beginning to be called, and you have thicker folds that tend to be dominated by the muscles within the vocal folds themselves, the TA or thyroarytenoid muscles– that’s not something I can say 10 times real fast– you will tend to feel more sympathetic vibration in the chest, in the breast plate right there. And that’s where we get the name ‘chest voice.’ Now, I’ve seen teachers talk about getting more resonance in their chest cavity. That’s really not how it works. The resonators are your throat and your mouth. Those are your primary resonators. It’s not spaces within your chest, however you will feel in your chest. And that’s a very, very easy sensation to feel. If you just place your hand up there high on your chest and you say “uh,” you’re going to feel vibrations there. 

Now if you keep your hand there and say “whoo,” those sensations basically disappear. Now, you’re utilizing the same resonators but the sound wave is interacting in a different way, and you will tend to feel more sympathetic vibration in the head. And people would talk about how the sound splits more and goes behind the soft palate. That’s really not what happens. The sound is always traveling the same way. It’s just the way it vibrates is different on different vowels and different pitches. And we will tend to experience it in different places. But in general, you will feel sound– lower notes, you’ll feel in your chest. You’ll get more of a sensation in your mouth off your hard palate. If you place your tongue on the roof of your mouth, that’s your hard palate. If you drag it back after a while it gets a little soft and squishy at the back.

That’s your soft palate. You’ll tend to feel more reflection off that hard palate. Now as you go higher, it feels as if the sound begins to travel back behind the soft palate and up behind the eyes. Now, there is no resonance cavity up there behind the eyes. That should be taken up by your brain. Now, there is some resonance in the nasal cavity, but that– the nasal cavity, and especially with the nostrils, it’s just too small to be an effective resonator and doesn’t really contribute much to a finished sound unless you’re specifically making a nasal sound, which we don’t tend to want to do as singers unless you’re singing in French. And there are certain nasal sounds in French. But in English– I mean, we do have the N sound, but we really don’t have nasal sounds and certainly not in our vowels. But you will feel this split, and you can feel that a little more intensely if you give me the NG of ‘sung’ and hold that, and just let yourself glide up. And as you do that on that glide, and if it flips, that’s quite alright. But just go ahead and give yourself a glide, and if it jams up, then certainly let it flip. Let it go light. But as you do that, pay attention to where you feel the vibration.

So when I begin that, I tend to feel it most intensely, at the beginning at the lower notes, where the hump of my tongue is meeting the roof of my mouth. That feels like the energy’s there. As I go higher, it feels as if it travels up the soft palate and begins to go behind the eyes. And this is the feeling that people will call mix or passaggio, or that little area of blending that transition. And what is happening is, as you’re handing over from one resonator sound wave combination to another, and in very simplified terms, your throat resonator is giving up as the dominant resonator over to the mouth resonator. But the sensation doesn’t feel like that. It feels as if the sound begins to be off the hard palate when you’re singing, then it begins to split behind the soft palate, and then finally go up and behind the soft palate into the eyes.

That is a general sensation. If you don’t specifically feel that, that is okay. When I was first learning to sing, I didn’t really feel these sensations at all. My brain was just ping-ponging and firing, trying to figure out how to do all this, that picking up the nuances of these sensations was beyond me at first. It took a while for me to really begin to feel these. And the other thing is once you feel these basic sensations, then you want to start paying attention to sensations on different vowels. How an “ooh” vowel feels different from an “aah” vowel, from an “ee” vowel. And they will have particular sensations because the relationship of the sound wave to your resonators and the parts of the sound wave your resonators are boosting will change from vowel to vowel. You are taking your resonators and changing their size and shape to give us different vowel perceptions. You’re filtering the sound wave. And then if you go to sing more intensely, if you want to really belt into it, that is going to create a different sensation versus if you’re singing very lightly. That’s a different sensation. Now, one of the primary sensations that I feel– the difference between belting a note strongly and doing one softly. So if I’m saying “ee,” when I begin to lean in, I feel more depth. And what I’ll do is I’ll usually deepen the vowel a little bit. I’ll go from “ee” to “EE.”

So the vowel gets a little deeper. I’m dropping my larynx a little bit. I’m getting a little more depth there. And I’m also increasing the intensity of the contact of my vocal folds. It’s this feeling, almost like a cow is what I feel. And I begin to flex a little more muscle within the vocal folds and fatten them up ever so slightly. But if I go too far, they’ll jam up. It’s just a little bit. And then as you get that little bit more intensity, you’re going to get a slightly more robust sound wave. And then as you filter it, it’s going to sound different, and the shade of the E is different. The amount of vocal fold that you use is different. And understanding that is fantastic, but you’ve also got to catalog the sensation, all the different shades of E and the different intensities, and then on each and every note.

And you’re going to do that for all the different shades of “ooh” and “oh” and “uh.” And when I talked to Natalie, she said something that really caught me, and she talked about practicing. And she talks about that she didn’t spend a lot of time working scales and doing formal practice, but she was constantly just feeling what her voice felt like going from different vowels and sliding up and hitting different pitches. And she’s so in tune with the sensations of singing. It’s absolutely remarkable. But man, can she sing. And I’ve had teachers– there are debates, you know, but sensation based teaching and using imagery versus more concrete, voice science and, you know, results based teaching. But she really showed me that cataloging the sensations is incredibly powerful.

So here’s what I suggest you do. Here’s what I want you to do– is just really start playing with your voice and feeling your voice. Just start taking these snapshots of what those sensations are. When you do an “ooh” vowel, what does that feel like to you, as opposed to “ah”? What’s the difference? It’s not just the sound. What are you feeling? Where are you feeling that if you get louder on it? What does that feel like as you go up in pitch versus down? Where do you begin to feel that transition or that mix come in? Is it different on different vowels? Is it a little earlier on certain vowels in a little later on other vowels? What do you need to watch out for when you begin to sing very strongly in the head voice, because you’re going to have to preset this expectation.

In other words, if you’re going to belt a high note– if you’re a female singer and you’re going to lay into a D5, the D an octave above the middle-C, you have to have an idea of what that’s going to feel like. Then the nervous system presets everything. It’s called prephonatory tuning or before-sound adjustment. Prephonation, pre-sound. And all of that has to click into place before you start making the sounds. You can’t just take a wild leap guess at it because you’ll likely just jam up. So it’s understanding that sensation and feeling it over and over. And Natalie will talk about mentally being above the notes on those higher notes. And that’s actually a common idea that singers will talk about. But begin to really feel your voice. Experience your voice. It’s not just enough to understand it.

It’s obviously not just enough to read about it, listen to podcasts like this. You’ve got to get in there and you’ve got to sing. And if you’re really having trouble, get with a good voice teacher. And she talks about the breakthroughs that she had in college with her a voice teacher Mary Saunders Barton, who does Bel Canto Can Belto. Actually Mary will be lecturing at the conference I’m going to be at next month, so I’m very, very excited. And I certainly have enjoyed her book, Cross-Training in the [Voice] Studio. And she actually uses disciplines from classical singing to coax belters into getting a really open, relaxed belt. It’s some great stuff. But get with a teacher who can get you into the right place. You’ve got to get there so you can experience it before you get there reliably.

I know that’s Captain Obvious. But sometimes we try and do something and we just take flying leaps at it before we really begin to get the sensations. And so going into those upper notes, going in lightly, it’s going to increase your success rate, right? It’s very hard to get up on higher notes and increase your range when you’re singing loudly. You don’t want to do it. You want to just get in there lightly and begin to feel what that’s like. And then slowly but surely begin to build a little more intensity and you can press it a little more, drop your jaw a little more, open the vowel a little more, and you’ll stay in that same basic spot, but now it’s a spot that’s familiar to you. You’ve experienced it in your nervous system and you’ve cataloged it. And so that anticipation before the note is no longer this question mark. It’s not this guess. You know exactly where it is that you are going. So get in there, try it out. Just really start feeling your voice and let me know how it goes.

Hey, if you ever have any questions or suggestions for topics, you can always reach out to me, [email protected] If you want to know more about me, check out my website, johnhenny.com. I’ve got a courses there. My teacher training course. There’s also an aspect of the teacher training course if you are a teacher where I will coach you in your business and increasing your reach and your visibility as a voice teacher, maybe help you get some product out there that people can purchase and learn from you all around the world. And until next time, to better singing. Thank you so much. Bye bye.