Hubble Bubble

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To get your lip-trill started, try playing with a toy tractorTo get your lip-trill started, try playing with a toy tractorI spend a goodly amount of time encouraging vocal ensembles to use the exercise of ‘bubbling’ in their rehearsals. By ‘bubbling’ I mean singing on a smooth, continuous ‘brrrr’ sound such that the lips are vibrating together. It’s also sometimes called a ‘lip trill’. It is a wonderful tool, and I thought it might be worth saying a few words both about why it’s useful, and how to get better at it if you are one of the people who find it tricky at first to do.

Vocally, it achieves two things. First, it develops the continuity of airflow that you need for legato line. Quite often people use the word sounds as a way of sneakily conserving air. Consonants such as t or p are made by momentarily obstructing the airstream, and if you hang onto them you can make the air in your lungs last a bit longer than it would otherwise. Unfortunately, this comes at the cost of breaking up the music. Bubbling removes all obstructions to the sound and thus teaches us how to sustain the flow of air throughout the phrase. When people are first learning to bubble, their instinct is often to give a fresh burst of sound for the start of each syllable, and they find when they learn to smooth it out that they are having to breathe in a much deep and physically-engaged way.

The second vocal benefit of bubbling is resonance. It is a wonderful technique for bringing the sound forward into the resonant cavities in the front of the face and thus adds brightness and clarity to the sound. It also sheds extraneous muscular tension in the face and jaw, thus allowing depth and richness into the sound. If you ask an ensemble to bubble a song for about two pages, then switch to singing it, you will see wonder and delight in their eyes as they hear just how much extra resonance they have developed.

Musically, bubbling makes you think about melody independently from words. If you’re not articulating the start of each word, but making a continuous stream of sound, you have to think the words along in your head separately to be sure you are maintaining the melodic rhythm – especially where the melody stays on the same note for a period of time. Hence it strengthens your mental representation of the music.

Some people find bubbling hard when they first attempt it. There are three common areas of difficulty, and they can appear singly or in combination.

  • Insufficient airflow. If you haven’t got the hang of breathing deep and engaging the support muscles you won’t be producing enough air pressure to keep the lips moving. Sometimes simply pointing this out can help: the phrase ‘put more airflow through it’ has worked as the magic words for me quite frequently.

    A good exercise to help people develop this is to breathe in to a count of four and bubble out to a count of four in alternation. The measured breath in fills the lungs more deeply than usual, and the necessity to get the air out past the vibrating lips in the same amount of time makes people push it out more actively. It gets the bellows working.

  • Tension in the face and/or jaw. Exercises such as chewing, scrunching the face up and sticking out the tongue are all good for unlocking facial muscles from their habitual set (as well as undermining the dignity that causes us to lock up our facial muscles in the first place – a stiff upper lip doesn’t help you bubble).
  • Embouchure difficulties. The detail of how people are holding their lips will affect how successful their bubbling is. This can be related to facial tension, but may not be – it may just be they need to adjust slightly to make things work.

    There are two common issues here. The first is losing a lot of air as the cheeks puff out, so getting brief bursts of bubble but being unable to sustain it. Some people have a cheat technique of holding their cheeks in with the fingers, which is okay when you’re first learning it, but after the first 5 minutes is a sign that they’ve not got the knack yet and need a bit more help. They need to get their cheek muscles to do the work that their fingers are doing - another instruction that sometimes produces the solution by itself. For those who prefer imagery to muscular instruction, a Marilyn Monroe pout works well to get the lips forward and the cheeks engaged.

    This is also useful for the second issue, which is getting the contact between the lips at the right point. For anyone who’s wearing lipstick, you can point out that bits of the lips that should be touching are just inside where the lipstick is – bubbling shouldn’t disturb your make-up. Another way of putting this (for more masculine sensibilities), is to note where the lips transition from dry to moist; it’s the moist surfaces that need to touch when you bubble.

For anyone who is still developing the skill, and is finding their bubbling stops and starts, it helps to revert to a hum whenever it stops. This keeps the continuous melody and resonance going, keeping the integrity of the musical experience intact while they learn to adjust the face and breath support to get the desired result.

The most important thing, though, is to recognise that this skill is a work-in-progress. What you don’t want is for someone who doesn’t get it at first to label themselves as unable to do it and therefore to stop participating with the rest of the ensemble. The thing is, if someone is struggling to bubble, it probably means they’re also lacking the area of vocal technique it aims to develop. So, both patience and persistence is required in helping them. Once people get a taste of how it can help, though, they’re generally quite willing to work at it – the key thing is to get them started.

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