“Placement” is a term that often confuses singers:

How do I place the voice?

What is the right placement for my voice?

Is there a lever to move my voice forward and back?

What does this even mean?

In this episode, John goes through the proper use of placement, and how to control these sensory guideposts.


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Episode Transcript

Episode 83 – What Is Placement

Hey there, this is John Henny welcome back to another episode of the intelligent vocalist. I do so appreciate you spending your precious time with me. You know, episode 83 so 83 times I’ve had to say, you are listening to the intelligent vocalist podcast and I’ve realized that intelligent vocalist is kind of hard to say like it’s one of those things, if you say the intelligent vocalist 10 times really fast, you’ll get a little tongue tied and it makes me feel a little better about the fact that very often when I tell you, you’re listening to the intelligent vocalist podcast, I ended up having to do it three or four times and I think what the heck is wrong with me? And having had to read my audio book, that oh my gosh, my next book I’m really going to be careful about the sentences I write because, you write things and then you go to read them out loud and I’m just tripping all over the place. 

But my audio book is now available. If you go to amazon.com and look for teaching contemporary singing, I will read to you. It is read by me and what’s cool is if you sign up for audible, you can actually get the book for free and if you get my book for free and then quit, I’m not going to tell Amazon but yeah, you can get my book for free so you can, I can read to you and teach you all about how to teach singing. Hey, I’m going to be a good podcaster today. I want to tell you about this really great vocal masterclass I’m going to be teaching at and this is the Osborne Head & Neck Institute. They do this vocal masterclass, it’s for an amazing cause, where they bring elite head and neck surgery services to people all over the world and communities that don’t get to see this level of healthcare. 

I know they just got back from a trip in Peru, where they were helping people there. They also help people in the U.S It’s just an amazing foundation. So this is all for charity. But if you are going to be in Los Angeles, June 21st 22nd and 23rd, there is just three days of an amazing training for voice teachers and on Saturday the 22nd that’s open to the general public. You can well, the general public’s not going to want to go to this. I mean singers and voice actors but they’re you know, they’re going to cover such things as the singer’s guide to the actor’s voice, finding your artistic identity, getting over stage fright. I mean it’s just a whole panel of these great vocal experts and I will be presenting on Friday, June 21st. I am going to be talking about voice and acoustic science and I’m going to also be teaching how to teach high belt. 

So if you really want to learn how to make those real high intense belty sounds without hurting yourself well that’s going to be my class. But yeah, they’re going to go over how to do scream safe lamb and this is just an amazing lineup of a voice teacher. Some I’m honored to be there. So yeah, it is going to be June 21st 22nd 23rd. I will put the link on the show notes. If you go to johnhenny.com/83 you will have the link there. I will also go ahead and link my audio book, so there ended the commercials. 

What I want to talk to you about today is placement. You know, there are certain ideas in the voice that I have always found not necessarily confusing, but they’re just terms almost in search of a meaning and one is support. Support is, it has definitions that vary sometimes from teacher to teacher and ideas of support and then there is placement and placement I find can really confuse singers. Oh, confuse teachers as well. Well the teachers usually know what they mean by it. But I find singers get really confused by it and I sometimes see and I’m going to break my rules here because I don’t like to talk down about others teaching that I’ve seen. So I’m going to preface it by saying that I didn’t get to see the whole lesson and maybe things were explained a little better. But I was just popping around YouTube the other day and watching some voice lessons and seeing some really good stuff and then, I’m seeing where the teacher will tell the student. “Hey, you need more chest voice, you’re a little too much in your head. Can you bring that forward?” But then the mechanics of how to do that aren’t explained. They’re just told to somehow find the lever that brings the voice back or brings the voice forward or makes it brighter. 

And some singers admittedly respond well to these instructions and perhaps that was what was going on. I was just jumping around but I remember, when I started lessons with this very, very famous drum teacher who’s since passed away, by the name of Freddie Gruber and Freddie was teaching all of these drum lessons and the drummer of rush Neil Peart, I think that’s how you say his name, Peart, Pert. Anyway, the guy from rush took a year off of his career to study with Freddie. That’s how legendary Freddie was. So I go on, I’m 19 years old, 18 and I’m going into this legendary drum teacher’s house. 

And Freddie was just one heck of a character. But I had, previously been studying with a very famous drummer, who still today is renowned as one of the great drummers and now he’s a clinician, but he’s just phenomenal. But when I studied with him, he would just tell me things like Oh, clean that up or let’s see if you can play that more steady and so I was saying to Freddie, you know well, he would tell me to clean it up. And Freddie saying, Hey man, how are you supposed to do that? What do you do? You just take some magic pixie dust and sprinkle it on your hands, man. How are you supposed to do it, man? That’s what you need to be taught. And he was right, it’s not enough to just say, clean that up, make it smoother, play it faster, bring it forward, bring it back, have less chest voice. 

What are the mechanics of that? So I want to talk to you about the mechanics of placement, what that is? What play? How I think of placement? Since it’s my show, I’m going to give you my interpretation of placement and then you can adjust accordingly. Here’s the bottom line. Your voice doesn’t go more forward or more back. Your voice doesn’t go from your chest to your head. Your voice doesn’t change direction. When your vocal folds, which sit at the bottom of Adam’s Apple basically there and they buzz like a trumpet player’s lips when they close over, compress air and then pop back open, they create puffs of vibrating air and those positive vibrating air take the same pathway no matter what you are singing. They travel from the throat to the mouth, a little bit, spills into the nose and out past the lips to the listener’s ear. 

The key is how they are vibrating, what parts of the sound wave are vibrating and, as you begin to change and you change brightness, darkness, vowels, pitch, all of these things. The sound waves vibrate a little differently as they take their same path and as they take their same path. Well I’m gonna modify that a little bit for the more science minded when you were singing a bit more optimally, the energies will actually they’ll kind of turn back on themselves a bit and reflect down to the vocal cords and that helps you sing a little bit better. So the little more complicated than that, but they’re basically going the same way. There’s certainly not going up into your head and people will say wow, I feel my head voice. It’s up behind my eyes and it’s like yeah, but the sound isn’t there because I’d like to think that space is being occupied by your brain. 

But what happens is as these energies change, as different parts of the sound wave become excited by the resonators and the interactions, we experience that in different ways and it changes the sensations we experience as a singer and that’s the key. There is what is actually happening in the voice and then there’s what we experience as a singer and that can be very misleading. It can, it’s brought up all kinds of crazy ideas about the voice and from the sound waves then splitting and going in different directions and behind the soft palate on certain notes and it’s not, it’s the sensations there of, and what placement is? Placement is a sensation that you experience as a singer. Alright, you may feel if I have you say ooh waa, you will likely, although I don’t dictate sensations to singers, but you will likely feel ooh sit a little further back in terms of what you’re experiencing, with the resonance with the vibrations and as you go to aah that made feel more forward and out the mouth. 

Alright? And what is happening is you are changing the size and shape of the resonators as the sound wave is fed through these resonators. It is like an EQ system. The ooh is like the DJ. So you have the I would say CD, but these days it’s an MP3 file, something coming from the computer. Although some old schools may use a turntable, let’s say it’s a turntable. Let’s go really old school. So you have a physical record, you have information on the record of the song and the information is the same on all the records of that song. So the information is then fed into the DJ’s rig, but the DJ can take this filter and turn all the way down so that the sound goes to see bug bug bug bug. 

And your chest getting this muffled bass, and then the DJ can bzz bzz bzz bzz open up the filter and start cranking the highs and it creates this new experience and it makes the song more exciting and it builds and that’s what good DJs do. I am not of the opinion that a skilled DJ is not a musician. I think, DJ’ing is actually a marvelous creative skill where you’re essentially reproducing and re-mixing music right on the fly, depending on the energy of the audience, not the people who fake it and just twiddle knobs with a computer where everything’s already been pre done. But although if they did the work beforehand yeah, their skill in that. But anyway as usual I digress but getting back to that filter but no matter what you do with the filter the information on the record is the same. 

The information being sent by the record through the rig remains the same. The information being sent from your vocal folds is the same. But I’m going to use my filter to filter out the bright at quality when I say ooh, and then I’m going to add back in like the DJ cranking up the filter oooh aah. To bring in the brightness and what that does when I change that filter is it changes the sensation of the voice. So I feel it in different ways. We’re all wired a little bit differently those who have a more acute kinesthetic awareness. Wow, two fancy words in a row, acute kinesthetic, that mind body awareness will, they’ll feel it a little more intensely. They just may have a greater awareness of it. And that ability is pretty good for singing. But if you don’t have it, it’s okay. 

You can work through it. but it is helpful to have that good mind body awareness as you change that view will tend to feel the note come a little more forward as you go higher because the dominant, resonance shifts from and to really simplify it from a little more energy boost in the throat to a little more energy boost in the mouth. As you’re kind of belting and singing contemporary singing, you’re gonna feel this lift. It’s going to the sensations are going to change and we equate those sensations with placement and people get quite good at mapping where they feel certain things depending on pitch, intensity, vowel, etc. and that creates a correct expectation and correct expectations are extremely valuable. I describe learning to sing as in the beginning. It’s like going down a flight of stairs in the dark. 

And when you go for a higher note, as you step down and you’re not sure if there’s another stair or if there’s a landing, you can be in a bit of trouble if you think there’s a landing and there’s more stairs. you have an incorrect anticipation and when you’re first learning to sing, you’re getting your voice together, your anticipations, your expectations are not dialed in and getting control of your voice is like turning on the light and now you see whether there’s a stair or a landing and then your balance adjust accordingly in that moment before you take the step. So your balance is able to adjust in that microsecond before you sing the notes. I was going to say hit the note, but since we’ve always, teachers like to argue about everything, people will argue about saying the word hit because that denotes that you’re using tension and you’re slamming and yeah we had semantics. 

Again, it’s talking about singing is Frank Zappa said it’s like dancing about architecture. It’s kinda hard. But anyway, so you want to create and map out these different anticipations and the sensation that you’re going to feel is a big part of it because that’s how we have to guide this good ship singer. You have to be able to utilize sensation because we don’t have conscious control of these muscles as I’ve talked about before. That’s what keeps voice teachers in business. As you create this map of these sensations you become, you have more awareness of placement. But placement in and of itself is a result, it’s not a cause. When somebody tells you to move your voice forward, move your voice back, let it sit higher, let us sit lower. What is the mechanism to make that happen?

If you don’t have control of the mechanism for that, then you’re just guessing. And that’s sometimes when I’ve seen teachers do that. I just want to scream, but what’s the tool? What’s the mechanism? What do they control? And to really simplify it, I view the singers controlling the air, cord and vowel or resonance, those three things air, cord and vowel I see it all the time. ACV, ACV. That’s one of my little triangles, part of the teaching triangle that I have in my book, teaching contemporary singing audio books available on Amazon, amazon.com and audible soon to be iTunes. But commercials are over and so that air, cord and vowel those are your mechanisms. I will tell students, you know, placement is kind of like you’re driving your car and the placement is, you know, you want to go to that store you see over on the corner. 

But you don’t take your hands on the wheel and your foot on the gas and just stare at the store and think about going there. How do you get there? You get there by controlling the steering wheel, the gas and the brake. You get there by controlling your air, your cord and your vowel, and then the placement is a result. So if you’re just thinking about placement without having the tools in place, I think you’re going to do some wheels spinning and it’s going to be less and less effective for you. So here’s how I want you to think of it. I want you to work on your voice and get control of what you actually do control, right? That the flow of air to the vocal folds. Then the vocal folds, their job is to adjust for pitch and then to hold back a certain amount of air depending on the intensity so that it becomes compressed and turned into a sound wave. 

And then your vowel is the shaping of your resonators at which time you become a passive vessel. You just now have to allow this energy to interact with your throat and mouth resonators that to then be passed onto the world. And however you feel that when you control those to get the desired result, whatever that sensation is, that’s your placement. That becomes your guidepost and ultimately then these sensations are catalogued and your awareness of them is strengthened so that when you go to do this note again you know, if you’re there right, then sensation becomes something that’s valuable. A placement becomes something that’s valuable. If you’re chasing placement too soon, if you think that that’s what you control, you’re chasing your tail a little bit. So get control of those tools. 

Hey, I want to thank you so much for spending this time with me. If you want more information about me, you can go to johnhenny.com. All the back episodes of the podcast are there. You can also subscribe on iTunes and audible. No, not audible. That’s where my book is. No Spotify and please, please if you really liked the podcast, please share it. Spread the word. I’m very happy with the way listenership has been growing and I’ve been hearing from a number of you. If you’re interested in lessons, get on my email list. You can always find out about upcoming courses I have and different things I’m doing and I also share different thoughts and ramblings about singing, etc. and until next time to better singing. Thank you so much. Bye bye.