I'm not sure if I can ask this here, but I have a question about singing technique. My teacher once told me that all of your power behind singing should come from your diaphragm and that you shouldn't feel pain/tension in your throat. I interpreted this as "try to feel nothing in your throat". Is this the correct way to understand this part of singing? This idea was never fully explained to me...
It is true that most of your singing should come from your diaphragm. The diaphragm is able to push large volumes of air across your vocal chords with little to no strain on your throat while minimizing any strain on your vocal chords.
UPDATE: In reality, (from a purely technical point of view) you don't actually control the diaphragm itself when singing - but it can be controlled by the the internal intercostal muscles and abdominal muscles. According to Dr. John Messmer, MD, Medical Director - Penn State Geisinger Health Group (http://chanteur.net/contribu/index.htm#http://chanteur.net/contribu/cJMdiaph.htm) "To exhale fully, it requires us to contract the abdominal wall muscles and the intercostal muscles (between the ribs) since our diaphragms can not move any higher than fully relaxed." But it is easier to just say "use your diaphragm".
You should seek to always avoid singing with your throat. Many singers tighten their throat muscles to sing higher notes. If you do this, you will become hoarse and get a scratchy throat and your vocal cords will become inflamed. If you are tightening your throat too much, your vocal chords will be straining to push sound through a constricted airway in your tightened throat. To some extent tightening of your throat will tighten the muscles surrounding your vocal chords and force them to work harder to vibrate.
Try this exercise. Sing a note that is in the higher end of your range. If you are like many folks, you may feel a tightening of the throat as you sing the higher notes. Next try singing that note while making a conscious effort to push air from your diaphragm and keep your throat relaxed. It takes practice to learn to sing without constricting your throat but if you plan to sing much without straining your "voice" it will be necessary to learn to do this.
Don't forget to always warm up with simple low stress vocal exercises and stay hydrated.
The best I can offer is a couple of analogies: The longest ball I ever hit, in baseball AND in golf, felt like NOTHING on the hands. Like I had swung at air. Of course, there was a lot of power going through my hands, as both the baseball (400+ feet) and the golf ball (300+ yards) showed.
Same with the voice. If you feel it in your throat, then you're dissipating energy there, and that's not helping. The vocal cords are not supposed to be the place where moving air is converted to sound energy...they're supposed to be the place where frequency and tone are shaped.
I must add to previous answers by stating: The diaphragm is most emphatically NOT an involuntary muscle.
The diaphragm is the sole muscle in the human (and mammalian) body that enables you to breathe. When the diaphragm goes down or up, the lungs fill with air or expel air. There are other muscles that you have in your chest and costal area which you use to aid the diaphragm when you take a deeper than normal breath, but the diaphragm is the lone muscle required for breathing (if you are a mammal).
Every voice teacher/professor in the world will tell you that singing involves learning to bring your diaphragm muscle under voluntary control, and controlling it precisely with every breath you breathe in and breathe out as you sing. (You will also hear that the diaphragm is the single most powerful muscle in the entire human body; it's just that people who do not sing or play a wind instrument are often unaware of their own diaphragm and how to control it. Since this muscle is entirely internal, it isn't visible to you, which is another reason that people might not be aware of it.)
You can certainly control when you breathe and how often you breathe, and you do this by raising and lowering your diaphragm. You can also control whether you take shallow breaths or deep breaths.
Singing is breath control, and breath control means consciously and voluntarily controlling the movement of your diaphragm.
Everyone, whether they sing or not, knows how to deliberately hold your breath. When you do this you are voluntarily stopping your diaphragm from moving, and it is under your control. However, of course, if you hold your breath too long, your brain will override your willpower and force you to breathe in order to keep yourself from dying. And when you are asleep, your brain will automatically cause your diaphragm to raise and lower so that you continue to breathe when you are unconscious. Involuntary breathing, which everybody does throughout the day, is the reason that some people might wrongly assume that the diaphragm is an involuntary muscle, like those of the heart. But strictly speaking, it is not.
But none of this means that control of the diaphragm is involuntary. Control of the diaphragm is something you can and do for short periods of time when you concentrate on the task. The rest of the time your brain's automatic functions engage and keep you breathing when you are not concentrating on the function.
If the diaphragm were an involuntary muscle, you could not sing with any control.
On the contrary, learning to sing involves learning to control and manipulate and become very aware of your diaphragm and how you control it.
Wikipedia article on "Diaphragmatic breathing" which is how a human being voluntarily controls the movements of their diaphragm.
To understand the relationship between singing and breathing, it is first important to see what the diaphragm looks like and learn how it functions. The diaphragm is a large muscle sheath ... that stretches across the bottom of the rib-cage, ... separating the lower organs from the heart and lungs. During normal breathing, the diaphragm naturally flattens drawing air into the lungs, then it releases into a “parachute” shaped position letting the air out of the lungs. “Supporting the voice” and “singing from the diaphragm” means flattening the diaphragm slightly more than during normal breathing and then, maintaining the diaphragm in that position to control the release of air and the air pressure that streams across the vocal cords when you sing. To sing better, a vocalist must learn to preserve that reservoir of air drawn into the lungs when the diaphragm flattens.
I feel the best way to cover this information posted between @RockinCowboy and myself is to add another answer.
All voice teachers teach that singing correctly involves learning to control the movement of your diaphragm muscle. But this is a shorthand way of getting across a more complex concept, involving not only the control of the diaphragm but also other muscles in coordinated, voluntary conjunction. So when we say "sing from your diaphragm" we mean a more elaborate process involving many muscles.
So practically speaking, and not strictly physiologically or medically speaking, when you sing you think in terms of controlling your diaphragm, which is true, but it's actually more complicated than that.
I see that @RockinCowboy has just updated his answer with the sentence "But it is easier to just say "use your diaphragm"." I think he and I are finally in agreement here.
Remember that theory follows practice. The technique of singing, and how it is taught, is a combination of the actual experience of singers over the centuries, with references made to anatomy and physiology. Thus a voice teacher would describe all this in different terms than a medical doctor would use. Furthermore there is not 100% agreement among all voice teachers on all points.
I found a web page on vocal pedagogy which explains things from the point of view of one particular teacher. What I have pasted below is a series of sentences culled from flash cards on that page.
The muscles and the organs of breathing (trachea,lungs, bronchi, diaphragm, ribs and abdominal and back muscles) act in coordination.
What is the largest muscle in the body? The diaphragm
The diaphragm is the single most important muscle or inhalation or exhalation.
In quiet breathing, inspiration requires only the involuntary contraction, and expiration is an entirely passive process.
What is the main purpose of the intercostal muscles? To aid inhalation and exhalation and help to create a subglottal (below the vocal folds) air pressure for voice use.
By use of intercostal muscles, how is voice use created? Coordinating and balancing the action of the inspiratory and expiratory muscles and by providing checking action to the passive process of respiration.
What is one common misconception of the diaphragm? The first misconception is that diaphragmatic action cannot be consciously controlled , except indirectly as when willing to hold a breath
Powerful singing comes from a direct connection of the diaphragm to the mask, the front part of your face without involving the larynx which sits open and unmoving in a low relaxed position in the neck as you can verify by lightly touching it.
Anatomically, that description is a load of bull. But that's what it feels like when you don't constrict your airways unnecessarily and thus cut your resonance chambers into pieces or take from the elasticity of the air column by tensing msucles (like the intercostals) unnecessarily. This elasticity is both what picks the energy off the vibrating vocal folds and transmits it and what cushions them. If you impede that flow of sound energy, the vocal folds are wheezing undampened without sound actually arriving at the listeners.
Open pathways and the perception of resonances and activity in mask and diaphragm are core to effective and healthy singing. "All your power comes from the diaphragm" may not be the best description, it's more like that's where your anchoring point is and you have to keep contact with it.
A singer "fully singing from the diaphragm" will still be hampered by broken ribs and other problems in the air path.
By the way, a good mental aid is wearing a belt and making sure to sing against its resistance.
I think this whole sing with diaphragm concept refers to inhaling not exhaling. But you should aspirate properly in order to sing decently. When you contract your diaphragm during inhalation, you, firstly, take in larger volume of air, secondly you don't expand your rib cage too much. Don't forget about the latter though. It's also really important for singing. It's because once expanded, rib cage arbitrary, without use of any muscles, comes back to it's original size and shape. So in order to maintain as big control over your voice as possible, you should minimize the rib cage expansion during aspiration.