Nowadays a number of voice teachers and conductors train their singers to sing in the mask (ie. place the sound forward in the face, in the sinuses, nose, etc.) The theory behind placing the sound forward is that it is “amplified” through placement in the facial cavities which act as resonators, like the body of a violin. The exercises used for such an approach include singing on n, m, ng, humming, lip trills, and initiating the sound with a forward [ee]. Unfortunately for those who have been taught this method, the voice does not work that way. The head cavities do not amplify the sound.
The forward resonance belief is based on false information from the Manuel Garcia II theories. As discussed in earlier articles, in his search for quick fixes Garcia came up with a number of counter productive approaches that are unfortunately still in use today. His theories have lead to a number of misunderstandings of the function of the voice, from putting too much importance on breathing to focusing on the wrong aspects of voice development. The most prevalent of these is singing in the mask or forward resonance.
What happens when we sing in the mask? Basically, the sound gets trapped in the “resonators”. The singer can hear him/herself very well, but the sound does not reach much further than a few feet in front of the singers. The sound is unidirectional and limited in range. From up-close, the singer sounds loud, but from afar the sound is spatially limited to one spot. Those singing in the mask will often sing flat, and produce an unpleasant edgy nasal sound.
In contrast, a sound that is not focused in the mask is omni directional and projects far distances with little effort. The singer can still hear his/her own voice, but because the sound is not buzzing in the head he/she can also hear the other singers or accompaniment with much great ease.
Singing in the mask can damage the voice. Since the sound does not project, often times the singers will try to sing louder and more in the mask, which as a result forces singers to push their sound, which is counterproductive. This is especially crucial for children who often have to sing repertoire that is much too low for their voices. In the low range, notes are usually softer, and those youngsters are often asked to sing louder and push their sound, creating vocal problems very early on.
Using the “non-mask” approach, the singers do not have to sing loud to be heard. In fact, from up close they tend to sound quite soft, but from a distance they fill the performing space. No need to push the low notes to be heard. The high notes become easy to reach and are round and rich. Those attending my workshops are amazed by how easy high notes become and how little they have to work to be heard.
I have experienced the difference between the two approaches time and time again. I have observed the phenomenon on numerous occasions as far back as my early training. While living in Montreal, I was conducting a children’s choir to whom I taught the “non-mask” approach. We avoided humming and other forward sound placement. I had them imagine directing the sound up and behind the head and made sure they never sang in the mask. As a result the blend was excellent, the low notes were easy, and high notes sparkling and effortless.
The real test of the success of this approach came one year when we held a joint concert with another local children’s choir. During the afternoon dress rehearsal the two choirs were on location. After I warmed up my choir, the guest choir proceeded with theirs, using humming, n, m ng, forward resonance, and mask placement. The parents of my choir who were sitting at the front of the church, near the children, started commenting on how loud the other kids sang compared to the children in my choir. Although they were right that from that perspective the guest choir was much louder, I invited those parents to join me towards the back for the church (a fairly large 800 seat sanctuary). From there they experienced something quite different and revealing. When the guest choir sang, their sound was loud, clearly located at the front of the church, and localized in that area. When my singers began singing, all of the sudden their sound filled the entire church. It was not restricted to the front but came from everywhere in the building. In the joint numbers, eventhough the guest choir was much larger than my choir, my singers were the ones who could be heard over the others. The parents never complained again about my singers being too soft.
On another occasion I dealt with two singers for a special event: a tenor recommended by a friend and a soprano who was studying with my teacher. The tenor sang in the mask, the soprano did not. During rehearsals the organist for that event complained that he could only hear the tenor from up close. At a later date, listening to the recording of the event, again we experienced the exact opposite of what we could hear from directly in front of the singers: the soprano was completely covering the tenor, who could barely be heard.
Nowadays, in my vocal workshops I explain how singing forward actually impedes good projection. I demonstrate by singing the same passage in the mask and then not in the mask. I explain that all the amplification actually happens in the throat. A properly formed sound will carry much further than any forward placement.
To improve your voice and that of your singers and choristers, here are some practical exercises. First of all, avoid placing the sound in the mask, stay away from warm ups and exercises using humming, n, m, ng, lips trills, and forget the idea of forward resonance and placement. Instead open your mouth as if you were going to yawn. A trick to know if you have opened enough is when you can breathe in and feel cold air at the back of the throat. Imagine the sound projecting from the top back of the head at a 45 degrees angle upward. Think of singing for the audience in the balcony behind you, never the audience in front. Sing easily without pushing. Starting on a middle A (preferably A above middle C, even for men), practice long tones starting on oo while keeping the back of the mouth wide open and the lips almost closed. You will soon start hearing overtones. Slowly move up and down the range one note at a time and keep practicing until you can hear those overtones consistently on all the notes. Once you have achieved that stage, move on to oh and repeat the process. Continue with vowels ah, uh, ee, and ü. Work slowly and continuously and you will soon enjoy the results. To learn more about healthy singing watch for upcoming workshops.