When you think of singers, Elon Musk usually does not come to mind.  That’s because Elon doesn’t sing, at least not publicly.

But the trailblazing founder of Tesla and Space X does do something amazingly well that we singers can learn from.

Elon is able to break complex systems down to the most basic level, and then rebuild the system.

We can apply this same thinking to our singing, working on vocal problems at their most basic level.

If done correctly, this can lead to rapid development and breakthroughs.

In this episode, John looks at Elon’s system of “first principles” and how singers can use it to supercharge their learning and vocal growth.

Episode Transcription

Episode 41 – Singing From First Principles

Hey! This is John Henny. Welcome back to the Intelligent Vocalist! Thank you so much for spending your precious time listening to me babble.

Okay today, Elon Musk in singing. What the heck does one have to do with the other? Well, let me tell you how I came to this weird connection in my brain.

I’m currently revamping my teacher training program, previously Voice Teacher Boot Camp, and I’m doing a reboot if you will – reboot the boot camp – and as I was breaking it down and really looking how to simplify and stream line the learning process, I started to look at singing and the teaching of singing at its most basic level. And as I was doing some of the research and some of the thinking, I came upon an article on the blog “Wait but Why?” on Elon Musk. And it was just a brilliant in depth blog post, and the author had gotten a chance to interview Elon and talk with him.

And so, I got close, I actually taught his wife, which is crazy, and she’s an actress, wonderfully talented. But I couldn’t say anything because I had to be professional, even though I knew she was his wife and I was just total geek boy and freaking out. And I waited to see if she would bring it up, and she didn’t, which she shouldn’t have because then the whole lesson would have just been about Elon, and I would have been a total non-professional. But, I digressed.

So, in this article talking to Elon, and breaking down what Elon does, Elon talks about working from first principles. And so, first principle is an absolute bottom line fundamental truth from which everything else is built upon. So depending upon your first principle what you see is the fundamental truth or what you build on, you’re going to build a different system than somebody else. And the example that they used was Elon had a vision to help mankind through space exploration, whether we need to move to find other planets to colonize etc., he felt that being able to broaden our space exploration would be a benefit for humankind.

But the obstacle has been the cost and specifically the cost of the rockets to get us up in to space. And Elon, not a rocket scientist, did not go to college for that, he barely went to college at all. And so, as he talked to everybody, he was told that the cost of the rocket is what it is. “You’re not going to get them any cheaper. Sorry if this is a problem but this is what it’s going to cost.”

So he went to first principles. And so what he did is he said, “Okay, what is a rocket actually made of?” And a rocket’s primarily made of a handful of components such as aluminum, titanium, carbon fiber. And so he looked at the cost of these items on the current market, and when he priced them out they came to about two percent of a rocket’s cost, what people charging for rockets. So he knew that if he could find another way to assemble these components into a rocket that is more efficient, he could dramatically reduce the cost of a rocket.  And he did. He created space EX, and he has completely disrupted and revolutionized the space travel. And he did a same thing with Tesla motorcars. The great prohibitor is the battery, how expensive batteries are and how many batteries he would need for his vision etc. And he went to first principles and broke down what batteries were made up of, and then what those capabilities could be. And he revolutionized that industry again. So I’m completely inspired by this way of thinking. I just absolutely love this.

And so for you, for singing – singing is actually a very simple process, if you think about it. The very very core at its first principles, singing is moving air. You need to start air in motion. The air is met by your vocal cords, which close over and compress the air, which starts to build energy underneath. At its certain point, the cords pop open, that compress energy is then released into your resonators primarily the throat and mouth where it is filtered and enhanced and sent out into the world to be listened to. So you have moving air, you have the resistant vocal cord or vocal fold, and then you have your resonators and that’s it. And the complexity comes from the managing and the mixing and matching of these elements. And the common problems tend to come from with the air. There’s a lack of control of the air or there’s a lack of efficiency.

So let’s talk about first principle of air. Efficiency would be optimal, yes. We don’t want to work too hard or have excess effort for what it is that we want to do especially with singing. We’re going to need a lot of air depending on what were singing, and were going to need to control the flow rate of that air. So we need an efficient and controlled system on which to do it. Which is why you work on your breathing in order to increase efficiency and control. The reason you want efficiency and control, not only is it so that you have enough air, but the flow of air to the vocal folds there’s an optimal range within that.

So the first principle would be optimal efficient flow to optimally adjusted vocal folds. So the vocal folds were going to have an area where they adjust for the pitch that you need, okay? Because first principle is, we have to vibrate at a certain rate in order to get the pitch, or we are going to go flat or sharp or not have the note at all. Little bit of wig of room in there, but not a whole one. So the first principle has to be in tune. That’s going to come from the vocal folds.

Then the vocal folds need to close over that air. There’s a range in the closed quotient. I’m throwing some big words out here but just follow me ill explain it. Closed quotient is just how long the cord stay closed against the air. If I have a very low closed quotient, then my sounds going to very breathy. if I start moving that closed quotient very high, then it’s going to be squeezed. So within that at a closed quotient, that zero percent, I have no sound. At a closed quotient that’s a hundred percent I have no sound, which stays completely closed. So between zero and a hundred I get different levels of sound waves but not all are optimal. Okay? Yes, we can have some extreme sounds, but for basic singing we have to find the muscle closure that is optimal so that were not under using or over using.

So on our first principles, we want to send a controlled flow of air to vocal folds that have the right amount of muscle, that have the right amount of resistance. In the untrained singer you are going to misjudged how much resistance you need. Singers will either typically not give enough because they’re unsure of their instruments and they sound kind of breathy and weak, they’re little afraid. And then you have these singers who are a little more brave, and they go for it but they go the other way and they over muscle. So they send too much air to cords that are too muscled up, and they begin to constrict and yell.

So we get optimal air into optimal resistance of the vocal cord and then the final part of the equation is resonance. There’s only three things – air, resistance, resonance. Your resonators are primarily your throat in your mouth. The way you control them primarily, at least in my experience, the easiest way is through vowels.  It’s to creating different shades of vowels. That’s going to be easier to control in your awareness than thinking, “Get my larynx up, get my larynx down.”

Now there are tweaks that you can do that. You can go, “I’m going to do an AH vowel but I’m going to move my lips back a little bit so I get a little more brightness in the sound etc.” But even that, I think of it as vowel. I think of it as just move it back and get slightly brighter vowel.

But basically you need to control the size and shape of these resonators. The reason being is when the sound wave enter into this resonators it acts like a filter, it acts like an EQ system. So all this information from the sound wave is going in and bouncing around in these resonators. And then the resonators, depending on the size and shape, are going to take certain parts of the sound wave and make it louder. Other parts of the sound wave make it less loud. And what that filter does is, it gives us different, not just colors of tone, but also different vowels. So, as I change the size and shape of my resonator, I get different vowel sound.

So what we need to do is we need to find the most efficient shape of our resonators to give us the vowel sounds that we need and the color that we need. And within that you’re going to have different shades of the vowel depending on if you want to sing more brightly and more intensely. Or if you want to sing more rounded and have a little bit of a darker tone, a little more mellow. All of this is available to you in that part of the three steps process – air, resistance, and then the resonance.

The resonance to me is so important and so primary because the whole system interconnects with each other and the energy that’s created from good resonance. When you get the vowel just right the interaction of the sound wave is going to create energy. And the energy is not just going to emanate from the mouth out to the listener, but the energy will also go back the other way and press down in the vocal cords and help them hold back the air. It’s this wonderful system when it all works together. But if you think about from first principles, you just have to learn to control your air, you need to learn to control your vocal fold resistance and then you need to control your resonance the size and shape of your resonators. And that’s it.

If you keep it that simple and not get caught up in all other kinds of worrying of this or that, when you hear your voice and it’s “Oh I sound nasal-er” or “I’m cracking, or I’m running out of air, or I’m straining. My voice hurts and I have no vibrato.” All of these issues, when you come back to first principles, really just have to do with those three things – the flow of the air, the resistance and the resonance. And if you get those in alignment all of these problems begin to disappear. Registration of the voice, going from low notes to high notes with that whole cracking area where the voice wants you to become unstable and becomes weak, that disappears. Your range will expand because everything is being use efficiently and optimally. You will not run out of breath while you are singing. You’re not going to have to over think how to breathe. You don’t have to make this incredibly incredibly difficult. The tone and quality of your voice will improve dramatically.

When people tell me that they don’t have a good sounding voice, I think that’s almost never true. What they’re doing is they’re just using their voice in an unsatisfying way. They have setup the system, that three parts system, in a way that the result is not pleasing. Everyone’s voice, unless there are some type of physical damage or some type of defect  in the instrument, everybody can sound, my opinion great. They sound like themselves. But I think every voice is capable of sounding wonderful. And that uniqueness, that finger print, is what is beautiful.

Now, not every voice can do everything. You’re going to be suited to certain things more so than others. And certainly within classical music you will, within the system, you will have a delineation, so that a voice that’s well suited for Mozzart, is not going to be as well suited for Vaugner. They’re just bigger roles, different types. But certainly, as you get in to within jazz and pop music and all these things, pretty much you can find the music that you can sing and will be acceptable to the listener. And some people are going to have prettier voices, some people going to brasher voices. Some are louder, some are softer. Some have crazy high range and crazy low range. Some are just very very clean, some are very textured. Some are warms, some are bright. It’s just phenomenal. I just love the uniqueness of the human voice. I love to hear people sing, and I find it sad that almost everybody wants the same but few people think they can, if you look at the population as a whole. And I think if people really understood that it is a simple system.

Now, some of us have different limitations and that our coordinations need to be enhanced. The muscles to the vocal folds are little tricky to control because they’re done indirectly. Some people will start training in a way that is not optimal, that’s not giving them efficiency, that is getting them to squeeze, that’s getting them to push or they’re trying to go beyond the boundaries of where there voice is right now. They’re chasing the wrong thing. They’re chasing crazy high notes when what they should be doing is working on their acoustic transitions, going from that break area between the low and the high. Again, first principles come into play.

So first principles is, if you look of the type of music that you are singing or want to sing, break it down. What’s the first principle of that music? What do you need to be able to do? And that what you need to work on. You don’t want to be trying to get whistle voice when nothing your singing is going to warrant that. There’s very few songs where you’re going to sing whistle voice, unless you’re in a Mariah Carry cover band.  So, using first principles in all areas of what it is that you are doing within singing, so that you can get to absolute fundamental truth and then build from there, that’s what would I recommend.

So, what you can do with this right now is kind of take stock of your voice. If the first principles of singing are being able to give efficient controlled breath, efficient controlled resistance at the vocal folds, and then proper resonance, look and see where you’re having issues. Kind of break it down and look and say “Okay, my voice is too breathy or I’m running out of air or it feels like I’m yelling.” All of these things. And then, with a little study, you can take all of these problems, start to break it down into issues within those three components.

And as you begin to see what’s wrong in each component, one or more, you can take the steps to fix those. Can you learn to do this on your own? Yes I believe so. As a voice teacher I believe you can teach yourself the same. As a voice teacher I believe you can learn to sing from a program of CD’s that you bought or from a Youtube video. Not everyone agrees with me, I tell not every voice teacher agrees with me, but I believe you can. However, it’s a whole lot harder. And you run the risk of doing it wrong. And when you do something wrong, not only have you now got to learn the right way, but you have to unlearn the wrong way to get to the right way. So, best case scenario is you find a really good teacher who understands these fundamentals that doesn’t muddy the waters, that keeps things really simple, explains it in ways that you understand and can get you on track. And if you really focus and really practice, and really keep simplifying and breaking this down and not seems singing is this overwhelming thing, but just working on this three components, on this first principles, you can actually get good pretty darn quick. It doesn’t need to be this painstaking, super long process especially if your goals are realistic and you’re not trying to sing crazy music that maybe will take you a little bit longer. But if you do it in a very logical, concise way, you can improve very very quickly.

Hey! Thank you so much for listening. I really appreciate it. If you want more information, you can go to my website johnhenny.com. I am taking on a few students if they’re a good fit. If you think that I’m the type of person that you’d like to work with, you can get lesson information at my site. I’m cutting down on my private teaching but I still have a passion for working with the right people. So, If you’re that person, I would love meet and talk with you, whether it’s in my studio or on Skype. I’d like to do some good work.

And until next time, to better singing! Thank you so much! Bye!