Singers, singing teachers and vocal coaches have long taken to metaphors and imagery in language to try to understand and adjust our voices.

We all do it, and there is incredible value here! Why do we do it? Well, first – you can’t actually SEE your vocal folds and vocal tract from the inside when you sing. With other types of art and physical activity, you can actually look at the form a dancer is using or the way a baseball player is swinging a bat. Coaches and teachers can actually physically adjust their student.

But with the voice we don’t have that same capability, so we have to describe things, and visualization helps tremendously. And in case you didn’t notice – we singers are creatives 🙂 So getting creative with descriptions is our jam!

This imagery and symbolism have its place, but when it is passed down from singer to singer for years WITHOUT clarification as to exactly what it means in relation to what is physically and anatomically happening, it can all start to get blurry. This is why it’s SO important to understand the difference!

Here are three metaphors, commonly confused with reality that I hear regularly from folks:

#1. Sound Placement:

When a vocal coach says to sing “in the mask” or tells you to “place the sound” somewhere – what do they actually mean? Is your voice actually moving? Are sound waves resonating in your cheeks? NO! Sound is always created from the vocal folds oscillating back and forth as air flows through the vocal tract. So what do teachers mean when they ask you to “place” the sound? In my experience, they are asking for an adjustment in the shape of the vocal tract (your throat, mouth, and lips) to change the color or timbre of your sound. This, in turn, changes the vibratory sensations, the sympathetic resonance, so we also feel things differently. When you get that specific timbre sound your teacher is looking for, they ask you to remember the sympathetic vibration change, the physical feeling so that you can re-create that sound. Just remember the sympathetic vibration of buzz in your cheeks isn’t causing that change, but rather the adjustment of the vocal tract shape.

#2. Breath:

If I had a dollar for every time I heard a teacher say “you just need a better breath”… OK but seriously, when you hear the phrase “support with your breath” – let’s get specific. Is the airflow actually holding something up? No, this is a metaphor. A metaphor to achieve what? More air pressure? More diaphragm engagement? Less throat tension? Less vocal fold closure? That is the problem, I just named four different intended results (and this barely scratches the surface) and there are a variety of other ways to approach those goals that may be more effective than a breath metaphor

#3. Head Voice, Mix & Chest Voice:

Registers in general – they are metaphors! ALL our sound comes from the same source and filter, we don’t have two (or three) different “voices” – it’s all one and the same. So what actually causes the perceived sound shift in our vocal range? Muscular and acoustic shifts, with a side of variation in vocal fold closure patterns. Mumbojumbowha? Basically, it just means that you are singing with ONE VOICE, and those cracks, breaks, passagios, and changes are all something you can learn to manage.

Here’s the REALITY: Metaphors alone might work sometimes, but when they don’t – it’s important to understand what you are actually trying to physically change so you can try alternate approaches. Singers, you may not necessarily need to know all the nitty gritty for every metaphor – but you should make damn sure your teacher knows the difference!

Oh, and uh, we do know the difference here at Songbird.

So use your metaphors, dive in deep with that colorful, creative visualization – but make sure you understand the difference! Use your metaphors responsibly!

Want more singing tips? Be sure to subscribe to our newsletter below where you’ll get updates on new posts and can ask direct questions to our voice experts!