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The Myth of Free and Effortless Singing

Written by Molly Webb

There’s a pervasive belief in the world of vocal ped that good singing should always feel “free” and “effortless.” Voice teachers will often invoke images of babies quietly breathing who can then scream for hours on end without losing their voices. FYI, this is due to some quirks in their anatomy and not their irreproachable breathing patterns, but that’s for another post.

A prominent CCM voice teacher I worked with, whom out of (sincere) respect for her I won’t call out by name, rails against any kind of manipulation of your vocal structures—everything from your soft palate to your false vocal folds.

She explained to a large room full of applause that “free singing” and throat manipulation cannot go hand in hand. At the surface, it sounds like good advice because it succinctly draws on our unexamined myths about artistic expression, but as soon as you start to think about it, the idea starts to unravel.

How Skills are Acquired

Let’s start with the way a skill, literally any difficult skill, is acquired.

How about the very “natural” motor skills babies acquire? If you’ve ever watched a baby do “tummy time” to begin to build strength, you know that a lot of effort, tension, and frustration go into these early skills. Yes, they can work on these skills for hours, but babies are also sleeping like sixteen hours a day, so they pack a lot of work into the waking ones.

Walking and running might feel free and easy to us (although if you’ve seen my lousy running form, those probably aren’t the adjectives that would spring to mind); but they’re acquired with a tremendous amount of effort and even discomfort before we come anywhere near the stage in which we can forget all that and label them as “free” and “easy.”

Same goes for the ballerina. On stage at the Paris Opera House, she might look as if at any moment she‘ll take flight. And she probably experiences transcendent moments in which her dancing feels that way. But if you’ve been through a ballet class, you know that’s not anything like what her training felt like.

The ballerina was trained to both think about and manipulate the minutia of her anatomy, from her turned out, pointed feet all the way up through her swan-like neck. You know what she never heard her teacher say? “Stop manipulating your feet! Just be free!”

How Does This Relate to Singing?

In the example above, the ballerina has learned where her effort should go. With intense practice, she learned to dance on her toes and stretch her body into extreme positions without showing any sign of tension on her face.
In the same way, a singer learns where effort should go and how much to exert. He might exert effort into lifting his soft palate, into using his external intercostals to help manage airflow, and into retracting his false vocal folds (what many voice teachers refer to as “opening your throat), all while still breathing comfortably and not showing signs of tension or strain.

The outside world might call this “free singing,” and in fact, (similar to the baby who eventually learned to walk) these actions might be so well ingrained that they feel effortless to the singer—but there’s a lot going on here. In most cases, if this singer decided to switch styles of music to something less “natural,” all the effort it takes to produce a particular sound would come flooding back. And that’s okay!

Why is the Myth of Effortless Singing Dangerous?

It isn’t just that the statement about effortless singing is wrong, it’s that it’s a debilitating belief that causes new singers to give up before they even really begin to work. Look at it this way. If singing should always feel free and effortless, where does that leave the vocal student who (though tension free) can’t produce a sound anyone likes? To put it succinctly, the effortlessness myth sustains another insidious myth: that if you aren’t born a singer, you’ll never be a singer. And I don’t think that’s what any decent vocal educator wants new singers to believe.

So in What Ways Should Singing Feel Free?

I think we have to abandon the idea that singing should be free and effortless, but the idea has clung on enough that we should take a second to acknowledge why so many people feel this way.

  • First of all, there’s the matter of releasing extraneous tension. Ideally, once you’ve trained long enough, the effort you put into one part of your anatomy won’t wreak havoc with the others.
  • Then there’s the matter of constriction. You may be putting a lot of work into retracting your false vocal folds (or keeping your throat open), but this work’ll pay dividends for the freedom your true vocal folds will feel.
  • Finally, once you’re at a point in which you’re on the stage and totally comfortable with what you’re singing, you’ll ideally hit a point in which all that stuff you’ve been working on coalesces into something free and transcendent. You’ll have worked through all those things you need to put thought and effort into so many times that it feels like it’s simply flowing out of you.
  • But here’s something I really want you to remember, because I have to remember it myself. If it doesn’t feel that way, and you still need to shoot yourself that reminder to hold back more air while smiling with your eyes and pulling your jaw back because when you feel “relaxed” it’s actually jutting way forward, you haven’t failed.

    You’re just thoughtfully working on your craft, and all that “free” and “effortlessness” stuff you’ve been force fed over the years is more overhyped vocal nonsense you’re “free” to toss out. I promise.

Molly Webb

Molly is the founder of Molly’s Music. She is a dedicated singer and pianist whose musical journey spans 2.5 decades, with stops along the way to sing for the pope, pass Certificate of Merit at the highest level, study with Gwen Verdon and Ben Vereen, and record an original album.

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