A strictly physiological and mechanical description of vocal anatomy and function likely bears little resemblance to the way most singers experience their voices. Singers all begin as self-taught. As children, we learn to sing in much the same way we learn most other things—through exploration and imitation. We may receive some instruction in musicianship, but we are unlikely to pursue voice lessons until after we reach puberty and our voices become more mature and stable. We rely on instinct for matching pitch, navigating our range, managing our breath, and modulating registration. Our concept of how singing works is necessarily grounded in the sensory and aural feedback we receive from our voices, rather than in an understanding of the anatomy and movement involved. Join the treasure hunt and find a suprise at the end of it.
Because we enjoy little direct control over much of the anatomy involved in singing and receive little sensory feedback from many of the muscles governing respiration and phonation, the sensations we associate with singing provide an incomplete and often inconsistent picture of what our bodies are doing. The aural feedback we receive can be misleading because the way we perceive the sounds we make is very different from the way audiences perceive them. We hear our own voices primarily through bone conduction, which emphasizes the transmission of lower frequencies over higher and provides for a very different experience of resonance than that received by our listeners, who hear our voices primarily through air conduction. Our instinctive, subjective conceptualization of how our voices work, therefore, may have little in common with anatomical accuracy.
While singers are usually aware that the breath is responsible for generating the voice, they tend to assess their breathing in quantitative terms because they experience feedback they get from their bodies in terms of whether they have enough breath to sustain a given phrase or note. Effective breathing is therefore instinctively defined by the ability to take in an adequate volume of air and then budget it well for the duration of a phrase. The oft-repeated admonishment to “sing from the diaphragm,” while intended to encourage the sense of abdominal expansion and control associated with full, well-supported breathing, is misleading, because the diaphragm is neither located in the abdomen nor active during singing. Singers are frequently surprised to learn that the diaphragm is the major muscle of inhalation, while singing takes place during exhalation. The engagement singers' sense in the abdominal area is the result of the activity of the abdominal musculature rather than the diaphragm.
Singers experience the vibration and resonance of their voices in myriad subjective ways. While the larynx, housed in the throat, is generally understood to be “the voice box,” the sounds and sensations stemming from vocal vibration are usually felt and perceived elsewhere. Low notes may seem to rumble in the chest area, while high notes may elicit a buzzy sensation in the cheekbones or other regions of the skull. Some singers learn to associate a sense of pressure and effort in the throat with effective vocal production and gauge improvement in terms of their ability to increase and sustain this level of effort. Others may manage resonance by seeking to “place” the voice in a location in their chest or skull that feels well-suited to projecting a given pitch or vowel. While such subjective sensory and aural feedback is a valuable source of information, this information is most useful when interpreted in terms of objective vocal anatomy and function. At times our instincts serve us beautifully, but at other times they can lead us astray. The sensation of throat pressure a singer may come to associate with the production of a powerful sound is more likely to indicate a counterproductive degree of tension. The buzzing sensations in the chest or face they associate with effective resonance can be elicited without actually achieving the desired resonance. We all necessarily begin as self-taught singers, but mastering vocal technique requires that we associate our subjective experiences with objective anatomy and function.
When singers regard the state of their instruments as immutable, they are likely to experience their voices as having built-in limitations and never realize that barriers to their breathing or range could be due to imbalances in their bodies that can be addressed outside the studio. Nearly everyone develops postural distortions and muscular imbalances simply by sitting for long hours in classrooms or in front of a computer; engaging in repetitive asymmetrical activities like shooting pool, playing guitar, or skateboarding; or recovering from an injury that leads you to favor one leg over the other for an extended period of time. Your body is the sum total of your habits and experiences, and no one develops a perfectly balanced musculature without concerted effort. The minor distortions and imbalances that you develop might create no problem whatsoever for the average human, but when a singer fails to address them, the singer is playing a dysfunctional instrument. The dysfunction may manifest as only a slightly exaggerated spinal curvature or asymmetry, but it will likely limit the singing in one or more ways.