By Toh Xun Qiang
Famous singers like Adele and Sam Smith have been in the news lately — for undergoing surgeries due to vocal breakdown caused by improper singing techniques, resulting in the cancellation of their concerts.
An article reported by The Straits Times last year revealed that the rise in vocal injuries is linked to the change in what is considered as good singing — the louder one’s voice, the better it is. This has led to many singers straining their vocal cords in order to achieve a more powerful sound.
To protect one’s voice, the use of proper vocal techniques is essential and once mastered, can be adapted to suit different genres of singing.
Professional bathroom singer to tenor
When Albert Yeo first joined the NTU Cultural Activities Club (CAC) Choir four years ago, he was a veteran singer — with the bathroom as his stage.
“I only sang in the shower,” said the final-year School of Material Science and Engineering student.
However, Yeo’s interest in singing compelled him to join the choir in university as he wanted to learn proper singing techniques.
Now, the 21-year-old sings tenor — the highest singing voice of the adult male range — in the choir as well as in Harmonix, the university’s a cappella group.
Despite the differences between choral and a cappella singing, Yeo found that it was not difficult to switch his singing style.
Choirs emphasise unified singing and the enunciation of lyrics. In a choir, female singers tend to sing with their head voice — which refers to the vibration in the head when singing in higher pitches — in order to reach higher notes.
On the other hand, a cappella, or singing without any accompaniment, is performed by a group of five to eight members. A cappella music is aligned with pop music, and singers slur the words as part of their singing style, unlike in choir.
However, for Yeo, the key to singing well in both styles of music lies in the basics.
“It’s about the fundamentals,” he said. “I apply the same techniques for choir with a cappella. We use breathing support in the choir, and we engage our diaphragm just like for a cappella.”
Breathing support refers to the inhaling and exhaling of air in a controlled manner. It is usually done through diaphragmatic breathing, where air is inhaled into the lower lungs.
This causes the abdominal wall near the waistline to visibly expand and prevents singers from tiring out while singing.
Road to transitioning
20-year-old Cheryl Koh, who has four years of experience in choral singing and is now a member of Harmonix, agreed that the mastery of basic singing techniques is crucial in becoming a versatile singer.
The second-year School of Social Sciences student said that her choir experience gave her a leg-up when she picked up a cappella.
“It was easy picking up a cappella because in choir, I learned how to blend my voice with others to sound like one. It’s the same for a cappella, except you have fewer people to blend with,” Koh said, adding that her transition from choral to a cappella singing was smooth.
However, Wee Xuan Yi, 23, who started out as a jazz singer four years ago, had difficulty adapting to choral singing when he first joined NTU CAC Choir a few months ago.
The first-year Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information student is currently a vocalist in the NTU CAC Jazz & Blues Club and a baritone — which is a range lower than the tenor — in the choir.
While the repertoire of songs performed in choir mostly consists of classical music, jazz, an American musical style that originated in the late 19th century, is characterised by rhythmic beats, deliberate alteration of tones and unique improvisations.
Having joined the choir with the intention of learning new vocal techniques to improve his singing, Wee said that the biggest challenge he faced was trying to blend his voice with the other singers, something that his seniors often called him out for.
This was different from his experience with jazz singing, where he normally sang the vocal parts on his own and had the freedom to change up the notes and rhythm according to the accompaniment of the instruments.
Still, the vocal exercises that he learned in the choir and Jazz & Blues are interchangeable.
Wee improves his voice for both choral and jazz singing with an extensive set of exercises that includes light full-body stretches, diaphragmatic breathing exercises, pitch glides, raspberries vocal warm-up and articulation exercises.
Pitch glide refers to singers enunciating a word to its highest pitch possible, while raspberries vocal warm-up, as its name suggests, involves shaping one’s mouth and blowing a raspberry consistently while making a tone at various pitches.
He said: “While the different forms of singing sound vastly different from one another, the vocal techniques applied are a shared vocabulary that one can expand and use according to your needs.”