BWW Blog: NYC Vocal Coach Bob Marks - Understand the Basics of How Your Voice Works

By: Mar. 28, 2016
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There are some conflicting opinions among singing teachers about how much you really need to know about the biological mechanics of making sound. Although it is true that you don't need to be an expert mechanic to drive a car, you are a more independent and a much safer driver if you know basics of car maintenance, like how to check oil and tire pressure, before you set off on a marathon road trip. Also, knowing what a car should feel like when you are driving safely in gear will alert you to much bigger problems earlier on, and save a lot on new transmissions! This is a case where I think a little vetted information goes a long way in preventing injury and expediting progress.

The actual source of the voice, the vocal cords (sometimes referred to as "vocal folds"), are a bit of a mystery to most people because they are hidden within the muscles and tissues of the neck. The vocal folds in humans are located within the larynx (pronounced "lar-ingks"), sometimes known as the voice box, which is a small, walnut-sized organ situated at the top of your windpipe and below your jaw. The larynx has two main functions in the body, sound production and airflow. It also serves to prevent food and liquid from passing into the lungs.

When air passes between the vocal folds, the folds come together and vibrate to produce sound, which is called phonation. You can feel this happen if you place your fingers on the top of your neck beneath your jaw and hum; notice the vibrations you feel. Now, notice when you stop to take a breath that the vibrations stop; that is because the vocal folds parted, allowing the lungs to become refilled with air. Just like it is essential for your car to have adequate fuel to make it to your destination, when singing it's important to have sufficient flow of air through the vocal folds to create the particular sound you desire. Learning specific breathing techniques can be very helpful for singing, especially intercostal ("between the ribs" breathing).

The muscles surrounding the vocal folds change pitch by increasing or decreasing tension. If you pluck a rubber band, the pitch rises as the band is stretched and lowers tension is released. The vocal folds behave in a similar way: the thinner and longer they are, the higher the pitch. When the folds are thick and short, they produce a pitch that is lower. Minimizing excess tension in the throat should be one of the main focuses of voice lessons, particularly when singing higher pitches.

The third contributor to how your voice sounds, sometimes referred to as the "filters," includes your nasal passages, oral cavity, teeth, tongue, and lips; basically, everything above your vocal folds. The sounds produced by the vocal folds alone create a metallic, harsh buzz, a lot like a duck call used by hunters. This is where the power of your instrument comes from. Like the body of a finely crafted violin, the filters shape and magnify certain qualities in the sound, enhancing the beauty and clarity of the sound, leaving us with the "complete" voice.

In a voice lesson, you will work all three aspects of production: 1) how the body manages the breath, 2) how efficiently the vocal folds are creating sound (phonating), and 3) how well all your filters are working to shape the sound. You'll find that often a deficiency in one aspect of the system quickly causes problems in the other two.

Noted vocal coach Bob Marks specializes in helping singers showcase their talents to their best possible advantage. He is in the process of writing a new book (with Elizabeth Gerbi) about auditioning for musical theatre. Until the book is published, is pleased to offer weekly bits of audition advice. Please feel free to submit any specific questions you'd like to have answered in these blogs.

Bob Marks maintains a busy vocal studio in New York City, working with performers of all ages and levels of experience. He also teaches performance workshops throughout the US and Europe. He was a pianist with the original Broadway production of Annie, and spent two seasons as the Associate Conductor of the St. Louis Muny Opera. For several years, he was the host and musical director of the acclaimed Youngstars performances of professional children in New York City. His well-known clients have included cast members of almost every current musical on Broadway, and stars such as Ariana Grande, Lea Michele, Natalie Portman, Laura Bell Bundy, Constantine Maroules, Britney Spears, Ashley Tisdale, Debbie Gibson, and Sarah Jessica Parker. He holds a degree in speech pathology, and has taught at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, the Professional Development Program for the New York Singing Teachers' Association, and at Nashville's Belmont University as a special guest artist. As a vocal coach, his clientele ranges from beginners to Broadway cast members, as well as singers of cabaret and pop music. He is an expert in helping performers present themselves to their best advantage in auditions and onstage.

Elizabeth Gerbi, Assistant Professor of Music Theater at the State University of New York at New Paltz, is well known across the Northeast as a singing teacher, voice coach, choral conductor, and music director/pianist (150+ productions). As a singer-actor, she has appeared in regional productions ranging from Annie Get Your Gun to I Pagliacci to The Kenny Rogers Christmas Tour. Recent projects include musical directing The Chris Betz Show at Rose's Turn and The Sage Theatre in NYC, Side Show and Tommy at Westchester Broadway Theatre, The Sound of Music at the Wagon Wheel Theatre of Warsaw, Indiana, conducting Dreamgirls and Seussical at Debaun Auditorium in Hoboken, NJ, adapting Starmites 2000 with Broadway composer Barry Keating, and accompanying master classes for Broadway veterans Ken Jennings, Lindsay Mendez, and Lisa Howard. She is also a former consultant for the Rodgers and Hammerstein Music Library, and currently serves as a both New York State School Music Association Solo Adjudicator and a respondent for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. She attended Ithaca College (Bachelor's of Music in Voice Performance and Music Education) is a Level-III graduate in Somatic Voicework: The LoVetri Methodô, and completed a Master's in Music Education from Boston University.

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