For many singers, both amateur and professional, the word diaphragm has become weaponised; a “Word-of-Mass-Confusion”. Many is the time that choral singers have been told to “sing from their diaphragm”. How is the singer supposed to respond? Especially when most people aren’t sure where the diaphragm is.
When I ask groups of singers I work with to point to their diaphragm, most people usually point to their tummies. I imagine this is because they are aware that this area of their body is somehow involved in good singing; and sometimes it is because they have seen a choir conductor vigorously slapping their own tummy while bellowing “Come on, sing from your diaphragm”!
I’m not going to explain here what the diaphragm is, where it is, and what it’s function is. There are plenty of excellent explanations online, and great animations on Youtube that show you precisely how it all works. What I want to explore is why the conductor tells the choir to “sing from their diaphragm”. Surely in almost all cases, it is because they want the sound of the choir to change?
So, what’s wrong with the sound? Usually, it is one of three classic problems:
1. The pitch is off (most likely flat).
2. Singers are struggling with high notes
3. The sound isn’t energised enough
As singers, we want to avoiding being in a state of tension. I believe that confusion about where the diaphragm is and what it does, is more likely than not to result in unhelpful tensions in the singers’ bodies. Instead of being tense, singers need to be in a state of athletic readiness to sing to their full potential. This requires concentration and physical stamina, that is hard to sustain over a two-hour rehearsal (even for professionals).
So, what can you do when you know that your conductor is unhappy with the sound of the choir?Here are a few tips:
1. Make sure your posture is good. If you are sitting down, sit forward on the chair, and don’t use the back of the chair. Try lengthening the distance between your hip joint and your lowest rib. This will stop you collapsing in your middle, and allow the muscles which work with your diaphragm in controlling the breath to work properly.
2. Look up at the conductor. Then place your music where you can see both it and the conductor (if your neck is bent forward, this is putting pressure on your larynx and constricting your airway, which is unhelpful).
3. Release your jaw. If you have a difficult high note or high passage to negotiate, you will need to make more space in your resonator (the space between your vocal folds inside your throat, and your lips). If you jaw is tense and fixed, you can’t increase the resonating space very much. Instead, allow the jaw to be free, so that it can hang freely and adjust, according to the pitch.
4. Make a bigger space inside your mouth. Often when the passage we are singing is quiet, we try to sing quietly by closing our mouths. This is likely to make the vowel dull, the tone saggy, and can cause flatness. Aim to make a sound that is vibrant and clear, whatever dynamic the music requires.
5. Don’t let the energy drop as the pitch drops. As a phrase descends in pitch, it is easy to let the energy sag. Keep the energy in your body, and in your sound, to avoid flatness.
Oh, and one last tip:
Eyeball the conductor, and look happy. That always cheers them up!