Basic rule of thumb – what’s good for a brass player’s sound is good for a singer’s.
And the one thing that brass players do that is very rarely part of any singer’s warm up or technique practice is Long Tones. This used to be part of singers’ routines and was known as Messa di Voce – but for some reason it’s not as much a part of singing culture as it once was. Certainly it’s almost unheard of amongst amateur choral singers.
Pick a vowel, any vowel, and sustain it over a longish period of time – 12 to 16 beats. In the classic Messa di Voce, or Long Tone, the sound begins at a very quiet volume, builds to a loud volume, then gradually decreases again to the original level. However, I’d recommend forgetting all about the dynamic changes to begin with, and just sing the 12 to 16 beats at about a mp. (Volume 2.5 out of 5)
This gives the body time to find the ‘sweet spot’ – the place of most forward resonance, and most relaxation of tongue and jaw.
Recently I’ve been asking singers to just forget about everything they were ever told about opening their mouths good and wide – which, with amateur singers causes disruption in the legato line, and shifts in and out of the correct placement. When the jaw drops, the sound tends to move backwards in the mouth.
Wide open mouths also cause accentuation of unimportant syllables, and for choirs, real difficulties with synchronization.
For this exercise, I ask singers to keep their teeth about a fingernail width apart – as if they were biting a nail – and the jaw relaxed relaxed relaxed. Lips are fairly relaxed, with just a little teeny bit of trumpet bell flare – as if you were trying to keep the lips from touching the front teeth. As you sing, think of breathing out a stream of air right through your teeth – not between, through.
Keep thinking as clean a version of the vowel as your mind can manage – and then keep clicking ‘refresh’ on that thought, many many times during the 16 beats of the Long Tone. Scan for jaw and tongue tension.
When I’ve asked some singers to make this part of daily practice, the most usual response is that they don’t have time. Long Tones only feel like they last a long time. If the average red traffic light lasts about 30 seconds, that gives us time for two Long Tones on two different vowels. So in a minute and a half (three red stop lights), we can make our way through one cycle of the 5 most important vowels – ee, ay, ah, oh and oo. I’d recommend at least ten minutes per day of Long Tones if you want to make a spectacular difference to your singing – but even a minute and a half will move us along in the right direction.