When a person is learning to sing in tune, meaning generally in the center of the desired pitch (not too sharp or flat or unsteady) pretty much instantaneously, we are witnessing a marvelous feat of coordination. Let's take a minute to just revel in the wonder of the human singing voice.
The primary muscle we use to control pitch is the cricothyroid. This muscle originates on the cricoid cartilage and inserts at the bottom of the thyroid cartilage. When it contracts, it pulls the thyroid cartilage down and a teensy bit forward, which elongates the vocal folds, allowing for higher pitches. When it relaxes, the thyroid cartilage goes back to its original position and we can sing lower notes.
Now, think for just a second about how small the vocal folds are. In female voices, you could lay the vocal folds across a dime, making them about 3/4 of an inch or 19 mm long. For male voices, the vocal folds could lay across a nickel, which is about 4/5 of an inch and 21 mm. Think about how many notes you can sing, and how that translates into the incredibly small and precise adjustments that the cricothyroid muscle must make in order to get to those notes accurately and instantaneously. This tiny muscle is an amazing thing! When we are learning to sing in tune, we are fine tuning this muscle's accuracy, which of course can take time. It never ceases to amaze me just how accurate the cricothyroid can be.
All singing begins in the brain, and for singers, that means we are often coordinating memory centers, language centers, emotional centers, speech motor centers, and all the life-sustaining areas of the brain.....ALL AT THE SAME TIME. I don't know about you, but using my brain to think about my brain is often overwhelming. It's just so neat how many things can happen all at once without so much as a second thought on my part. It just happens. Of course, there are things that can make the neuro connection either easier or more difficult depending on anatomy, training, and dysfunction, but there are very few people in the world who truly cannot sing or speak. It's nothing short of miraculous. I never get bored learning about this part of our singing journeys.
Of course singing requires breathing. In essence, singing is just a super fancy exhale. I have found a lot of singers really get hung up on the breath, though, and most of the angst about it is unhelpful. Breathing can be influenced by everything from body composition to trauma history, and sometimes if we hyper focus on the breath we end up doing more harm than good.
Still, to sing effectively, coordinating the aerodynamic aspects of the singing voice is needed. The breath can help us with dynamics, phrasing, range, and confidence. Plus, I have found that for some clients, playing with the breath can really help with body awareness when done in a sensitive manner.
I don't think this part of the singing process gets as much attention as it should when we are talking about the physiology of singing. Our emotions can have a direct impact on the physiology of singing. Just ask anyone who suddenly found themselves tight and breathless when walking out on stage because of nerves, or suddenly and inexplicably out of tune when under stress. To ignore this part of the coordination of singing is to our detriment, I think.
It is important to remember our own professional boundaries as voice teachers, and know when it is best to refer clients to outside help when emotions get to be too heavy to carry. But it is also essential that we be open and honest with our singers about our own experiences with things like stage fright, stress, joy, and sadness, and how it affected our singing. When singers don't know that emotional influences on their singing is totally and completely normal, they may look for a technical cause when there isn't one. This part of the equation is really important to acknowledge and teach regularly!
Putting It All Together
Considering the four major systems that are needed to coordinate together efficiently, accurately, and consistently to sing in tune, it's quite something that it happens at all! With all the ways that coordination could go wrong, it's amazing that it just goes right...most of the time. We're not robots, and so there will be times that things go wonky, often for inexplicable reasons. Then it's enough to just shrug and try again.
For those who are still learning to coordinate the systems, it can be a delicate balance of encouragement, good humor, and targeted suggestions to make that coordination more likely to succeed. And for kiddos who are going through this coordination process, it's really important that we educate their parents on just how amazing the voice is, how complicated it is, and how we must have patience while their kid learns. It takes longer for some than for others. I cannot tell you how many adults I have met that were told when they were young that they couldn't sing, and all that was really needed was patience, encouragement, and good teaching to get them to a place of good coordination. Indeed, many adults who have lived with the idea that they were "bad singers" find out that they truly can sing, if given the time to get those systems lined up.
For a little more info on how the cricothyroid muscle works, in particular, see the YouTube video below from my very first Five-Minute Pedagogy Class. And feel free to share this blog with your clients or studio parents who may need a gentle reminder of the need for patience during voice lessons. Singing is complex, and it is a wonder to see and hear! Take some time to reflect on it all today, and let that inspire you to keep going! Voice teachers are doing good work.