There’s a persistent myth floating around the vocal world suggesting that singing should be effortless. I can’t tell you how many new students I get telling me that they were told that singing would just “feel free” and that if they had to put physical work into it, they were somehow doing it wrong and abusing their voices. As you may have guessed by now, the short answer to the blog’s title is, no, singing should not necessarily be effortless. But let’s dissect the concept a little more and figure out where it came from and whether there’s any truth to it.
Why Do People Say Singing Should Be Effortless?
Singing may not be effortless, but the statement isn’t completely out of the blue. Inexperienced singers sometimes think that the best way to get a difficult note out is to push as hard as they can and to blow a lot of air. Their throat will feel tense, but they’ll push through it with the no-pain-no-gain maxim and end up coughing and possibly injuring themselves after a particularly rigorous vocal session. This is not the best approach, and it’s led to voice teachers to go in the opposite direction.
In What Ways Should Singing Be Effortless?
1. Your Throat Should Not Feel Constricted
First off, your throat should not feel constricted when you sing. This is not to say that no work is being done in your larynx, or voice box. Your vocal folds are vibrating, and your larynx is probably gently moving up and down. But your false vocal folds, the two thick folds of mucous membrane that protect your true vocal folds, should usually remain retracted and not squeezed together if you want to maintain good vocal health. If you feel a tightness or discomfort in your throat, try laughing silently to feel what it’s like when everything is unrestricted.
2. Your Tongue Should Remain Free of Tension
While your tongue may do a lot of work when you sing and should not just lie lazily in your mouth, you also don’t want to feel a bunch of tension at the root of your tongue. If your tongue feels like it has to tense up in order to get a particular sound out, you may want to do some tongue exercises. Tongue twisters set to a variety of pitches work well for this.
3. You Should Not Feel Your Neck Muscles Bulging Out
If muscles are popping out around your neck, and you feel your chin jutting forward and your shoulders rising toward your ears, chances are, you should work on loosening up.
4. You Don’t Want Jaw Tension
Your jaw will certainly do plenty of work when you sing, but if you feel it locking up or needing to maintain a taut position while you’re singing, it’s time to work on freeing it up a bit.
So Where is the Effort in Singing?
This may surprise you, but there are a number of muscles at work when you sing: muscles that lift and lower your soft palate so that you can control nasality; muscles that change your tongue position to form vowels; muscles that keep your spine erect and your shoulders broad to anchor your neck and torso in place and give your smaller laryngeal muscles maximal control; muscles to keep your ribcage expanded to allow for better control of air; and many, many others. Singing can be both physically and mentally tiring, especially at the beginning, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Vocal students of mine who sing effortfully in all the right ways will let me know how physically tired they are after working through a difficult passage. This doesn’t mean that their throats hurt and they’re coughing. It just means that their core is a little sore, their backs are a little tired, and maybe they’re even a little bit winded.
How Much Effort Should You Put In?
The answer is, as much as you need to. One of the primary roles of a voice teacher is to help students sing with a maximum amount of efficiency. If a song is easy on your voice, sounds great, and is at the volume you want it at, you may not want to pull out all the physical stops to make your voice carry more. This is a time to conserve your energy. If you’re singing at the top of your range, you’ll need to experiment and learn exactly how much to stabilize your torso, how much to lift your soft palate, and how much to control your airflow. It’s going to be different for different singers and different and different on different days, so try not to be attached to any particular amount of effort something takes.
Most importantly, don’t stress out if singing doesn’t always feel easy. Sometimes it’ll truly feel effortless, and that feeling can be exhilarating and cathartic. Other times, it’ll take mindful control of 20 different muscles just to get through a tough passage of a song, and that’s okay too!