Suspension: The missing tool in many singer's toolbox!

The act of singing happens, of course, as we exhale. But ask any singer, “how do you breathe for singing,” and they’ll 99% of the time talking about inhalation, and precious little on what the sensation should be during and just before the tone (exhalation) begins.

James McKinney describes what the Italians call “appoggio” beautifully: “Perhaps the best way to gain control of the exhalation process is to try to maintain the expansion around the middle of the body... while the diaphragm slowly begins to release its tension. This expansion will decrease in size as breath is expended, but should do this so gradually that the singer still feels expanded throughout the phrase.”

He describes this feeling of expansion as “suspension,” and goes on to quote Van Christy: “The feeling of holding back the breath is essential to establish “suspension,” and continues through the attack and the entire phrase following. When posture is correct, and all the muscles function properly in singing, there is a feeling of flexible, expansive openness in the body.”

Importantly: when in the suspension phase, the glottis stays open. If we were to close it, then there would be all sorts of pressure behind the onset. Yuck.

So how do we set up this delightful feeling of expansion? It requires that we practice 4-part breathing. Most singers practice 3-part breathing: 1. Inhale 2. Exhale (sing) 3. Recover. But this plan leaves out what should be the 2nd step: suspension!

So, our 4-part breath should be:

  1. Inhale

  2. Suspend

  3. Exhale (sing)

  4. Recover

To practice this skill, we have to breathe earlier than many are accustomed to. When watching any singer, I can’t help but breathe with them; it’s the voice teacher’s curse, I suppose. Interestingly, when watching professional singers, I nearly always breathe at the same time as them. When watching pre-professional singers, I nearly always breathe before they do… They’re waiting til too late, and then they don’t have time to either take in a high-quality breath or nearly enough time to set up suspension. Here’s an exercise to map this skill and to reinforce it. [“B” means “breathe” and “S” means “suspend.”]

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Examples abound in the repertoire, of course. One outstanding example is Handel’s “Endless pleasure” from Semele. Here’s what Handel wrote:

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Here’s a plan to sing it with suspension.

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If a singer habitually sings on their suspension, then the sensation is that one is singing off of the “interest” instead of singing off of the “principal.” In other words, singing off of the “principal” feels like the sound is originating from the vocal folds themselves (this is very tiring), while singing off of the “interest” feels as if the sound is originating from the appoggio muscles, the muscles of suspension. That is the proper way to sing, and will lead to much, much greater vocal stamina.

Need balance? Turn on your tomato!

I find myself tutoring my students on balance / efficiency / time management / practice strategies almost as much as I teach them concepts of singing. I quite enjoy this work—it has far-reaching ramifications way beyond music, and can help them learn to “adult” with some sense of ease and grace.

My central tenet of time management is BALANCE. I wear many hats, and I simply can’t afford to focus all of my day on any single project. I have to divide and conquer, bit by bit, drop by drop, day by day.

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And that’s where our friendly tomato comes in… In the 1980s, the “Pomodoro Technique” become popularized by Francisco Cirillo. He was reportedly inspired by his kitchen timer, which bore the familiar shape seen above. (“Pomodoro” is the Italian word for “tomato.”) According to Cirillo, the shtick is that you set the timer for 25 minutes, and then work assiduously on Task A. You then take a 5 minute break, reset the timer for 25 minutes, and then work on Task B. Etc, etc. By doing this, you get a little bit done on multiple tasks, and don’t fall in the familiar trap of getting a lot done on Task A while totally neglecting Task B.

Now, if Task A is truly pressing, you of course could do multiple “pomodoros” on it, but the above notion of balance and boundary holds.

I use timers on an embarrassing array of daily tasks: how much I sing, how much time I spend recruiting, doing yoga, meditating, tidying up, etc. They help me immensely to shift from one task to another, so that I can creep closer to that illusory goal: balance.

Even within singing practice, the block of time can be divided. For instance, I have a 45 minute block in which to practice. Quickly at the beginning I’ll jot down:

  • 10 minutes of vocalises

  • 10 minutes of Vaccai

  • 15 minutes of woodshedding notes and rhythms on the Bach

  • 10 minutes of writing out that Schumann song I’m memorizing

Now I’ve really moved the needle on four different items, and practiced very wisely. As mentioned earlier, I also avoided the “tunnel vision” trap—it would have been easy to keep going and going and going with the Bach, but instead I switched gears and made progress on multiple fronts.

So, get those pomodoros / egg timers / iPhone timers humming, and up your productivity while balancing your life!

In praise of the core curriculum

In preparing for a recent discussion in my “Teaching Music in Higher Education” course, I reflected on my own undergraduate core curriculum. And, truly for the first time, I appreciated how much I gained from those experiences… To wit:

  1. In an “every-freshman-must-take-it” world cultures course, we read the Tao Te Ching. I was captivated, and some further research led me to Buddhism, which became the spiritual underpinning for my adult life.

  2. An honors course my freshman year was all about modernism. I have drawn on that knowledge of people / works of art / schools of thought involved in modernism an untold number of times, particularly considering that one of my specialties is new music.

  3. A sociology class which I was sure I’d hate was actually fascinating — I had never before thought about norms, social mores and folkways, group-think, etc. These issues are of course a part of everyday life, in and out of academia and the music business.

  4. And randomly, in a conversation about effective studying for an upcoming test, my math professor introduced the Pomodoro Technique. Anyone that knows me well will attest that I’m fascinated by productivity, efficiency, and simplicity, and this conversation was absolutely the seed of that lifelong interest.

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All of these things have direct influence on my daily life, and they all came from my studies in the core curriculum. So, I hereby vow to never again help my advisees “get the core curriculum out of the way.” Instead, I’ll do my very best to help them transfer knowledge and inspiration from those enriching activities to their work and life in their chosen field.

Learning how to learn

When we're starting out as singers, we don't know what we don't know. We might be perfectly willing to practice, but what are the elements of practicing? The Checklist I share below is nothing revolutionary--I certainly didn't make up any of its elements--but, it contains all or most of the fundamental steps to learning vocal music. 

By the way, this Checklist seeks to not only help you learn THIS song, but to grow your musicianship skills in the bigger sense as well. Things like count-singing, playing piano, etc. are designed for this double purpose.

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#1: A few handy websites for side-by-side translations are www.lieder.net for art songs and www.aria-database.com for opera arias. The library also has many books that have translations. Be neat when writing in your translation—don’t make a mess of your score.

#2: Write the context information for your piece on a piece of paper and put it in your notebook with your score. Know where the piece comes in the story of the opera/song cycle/oratorio/musical. Answer the following questions: composer name, composer nationality, composer dates, composer era, poet name, poet nationality, poet dates.

#3: Make sure that you know what every word in your score means, including expressive markings, tempo markings, articulation markings, etc. This includes markings in the piano part.

#4: Check-marks/commas are not specific enough. Decide on the rhythmic value of each breath, and alter your score to account for them. Also, drawing in phrase marks helps your eye to see phrases rather than individual notes.

#5: Be sure to keep counting through rests—this is where most singers zone out and lose track of where they are. Sub-dividing needs to become second nature.

#6: Play your melody in tempo: this won’t necessarily be up to speed, depending on your piano skills. If you’re a good pianist, play bass line as well. And play as musically as you can--this will build a tactile sense of what your melody "feels" like, and reinforce musicality and expressivity.

#7: Work on your pitch memory by checking to make sure that you’re staying in tune while singing unaccompanied.

#8: As your language skills increase, you may only need to write in a few reminders. Write in what you need, but have the IPA transcription handy. If you’re not yet able to make your own transcription, try www.ipasource.com or books of transcriptions.

#9: If the song is in a foreign language, monologue the English translation first. Then, once you know the poem, monologue the language. Don’t just read the poem: monologue it convincingly: you’re a singing actor.

#10: Speak-singing trains you to sing legato—it is a marvelous technique builder! It will also train you to budget breath.

#11: Now it’s time to put it all together!

#12: Memorize fully, long before you have to perform your piece under pressure. Practice performing the piece (not just singing through it) in front of a mirror or better yet a video camera. Fix whatever you see that is unclear, over-done, extraneous, or tension-filled. Be sure you’re independent enough to sing it with accompaniment—use recordings or tape a pianist playing your accompaniment to sing along. Don’t let a rehearsal, lesson, or performance be the first time you’ve ever heard or sung along with the accompaniment.

P.S. A major hat tip to Pamela Bathurst at the University of Idaho, who created a list like this for Freshman Vocal Seminar, and whose list formed the basis for the above.

Highlighting the passaggio

I'm increasingly convinced that two of the most crucial factors for singing success are mastering appoggio and the passaggi. Today, I'd like to offer some tips for the latter.

Our goal, of course, is to sing smoothly from the lowest note we can sing to the highest--for the register boundaries to be imperceptible. I tried, for quite some time, to wipe away these boundaries by simply ignoring them, and of course that didn't work. I finally reviewed my various texts on vocal technique, and realized that they all contained remarkably similar information about where a baritone's passaggi would lie: the consensus is that the average primo passaggio is around B3, and the average secondo passaggio is around E4. Once I started doing scale work with full knowledge of what pitches I was singing [I do not have perfect pitch], I realized that, lo and behold, I had passaggi at the predictable places!

Once I started recognizing the passaggi rather than ignoring them, my voice began to smooth out and my range expanded. And indeed, my goal of smooth transitions was realized. This is crucial: smoothing out my register transitions was only accomplished when I paid MORE attention to the passaggi, not LESS.

I'm a firm believer that a relatively brief period of intense focus on the passaggi can build the skills of smoothly transitioning, such that the singer can then turn their attention elsewhere and not be pre-occupied with the passaggi forever. Like any skill in singing, a short period of intense focus can lead to a sustained period of that skill operating well in the background. [Passaggio management is one of the many technique skills that we'd like to become habitual such that we can be in the moment during a performance and focus on the art of singing, rather than the craft of singing.]

I now help my students to become aware of the passaggi by highlighting their scores:

 For women, any notes at or below the primo passaggio are highlighted green, and any notes at or above the secondo passaggio are highlighted yellow.

For men, I only use one color: yellow, for anything at or above the primo passaggio. The reason for this is that, in my opinion, the laryngeal tilt,  vowel-focusing, and airspeed increase that men do starting at the primo passaggio simply continues through the secondo passaggio and beyond. [Many men have only a handful of pitches above their secondo passaggio.]

Once they've highlighted their scores, they have a visual cue to allow the voice to shift registers [I use the time-tested analogy of smoothly shifting gears in a manual transmission car]. I do not have them highlight every score, but some students find this practice so helpful that they transfer it to many, if not all, of their scores.

So here's an example from an actual score, Duparc's delicious "L'invitation au voyage." The highlights are for baritone passaggi.

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When I sing the above passages, mindfully moving into and out of the passaggi where indicated, all is well. If I am late to a register change, poor sound and vocal strain ensue.

Here's an example for a soprano, using the green + yellow system described above. Note that I'm using the standard passaggi of primo around E4 and secondo around F#5. For this reason (among others), I find the Estelle Liebling Vocal Course invaluable, since she writes out the exercises in the actual keys one would sing them in, and therefore the student can be looking at precisely what they're singing in progressive keys. This is Exercise 22 from the soprano volume of the Estelle Liebling Vocal Course.

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Empirically, I have found the vast, vast majority of singers to have "conforming" voices, meaning in this case that their passaggi are identical to or very close to the accepted norms. Perhaps there's a certain type of student who is drawn to being "different," who desperately wants their voice to operate in a unique fashion. Regardless, upon further investigation, all but a few voices I've taught conform very closely to the widely-shared average passaggi below. 

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My best advice is to face the passaggi head-on. As mentioned earlier, a relatively brief period of close attention to this issue nearly always solves a host of correlating issues, and also creates a habit base that can make this behavior nearly automatic.

The Wandering Larynx

A mistake I see time and again in beginning and intermediate singers is "the wandering larynx."

Laryngeal stability, like vibrato, is a tricky subject, because too much attention brought to the subject can be just as problematic as too little. BUT, it is a simple fix that can reap incredible benefits on the sound, and ignoring problematic laryngeal positioning is disasterous.

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So let's talk about the positioning of the larynx. It's yet another example of "The Three Bears" in singing, but this time there are four options... For simplicity's sake, let's call them, from lowest to highest:

  1. Lowest -- depressed larynx
  2. Comfortably low -- appropriate for classical sound
  3. Moderate -- appropriate for non-classical sound
  4. Highest -- raised larynx

Let's tackle the extremes first... Position 1 -- the larynx is pressed down too low. The sound is woofy, way too dark, phonation is uncomfortable, the tongue root is tight, etc. Position 4 -- the larynx is way too high, and the resultant sound is "necktie tenor," childish, nasally, bright. So neither Position 1 or Position 4 are ever desirable, except *perhaps* for comic effect.

Position 2, sometimes called the "comfortably low larynx," is one of the pillars of good classical sound. Position 3, a moderate position of the larynx, is a totally healthy location for the larynx, and renders a sound that is more appropriate for pop singing, folk singing, musical theater--basically all non-classical genres.

So, when you hear musical theater being sung "too operatically," it's highly likely that one of the primary issues is that the larynx is too low--it's in Position 2 rather than Position 3. The reverse is true--when you hear "popera," and the sound is too poppy for the genre, the larynx is likely in Position 3 rather than Position 2

Within either genre, singers need to be aware of certain situations in which the larynx tends to rise. As pitch ascends, it is very common to see a singer's larynx rise. Especially when pitches leap up suddenly, it is all too easy and tempting for the larynx to pop up to try to "reach" the pitch, as if it is "up there" somewhere. A good fix for this is to go back to the beginning of the phrase and breathe in the position of the highest note--thus, you're ready far in advance for the leap. Another way to practice is with pitch glides. Start with small pitch glides, something like 1-5-1, keeping the larynx in a comfortably low position. Then gradually expand the glides, keeping the larynx comfortably low. Also, it is critical to let the larynx rock and tilt within all of these positions--the larynx needs to be free to make subtle adjustments within the positions described above.

Caveat 1: There is also a vogue of artificially darkening the sound, especially among low-voiced male singers. In other words, baritones wanting to sound more "manly" by singing in Position 1 when they should be in Position 2. This is to be avoided, as it makes a fake sound and can "shave years off of careers!" I have observed that younger singers too often sing with a higher larynx than they should, and older singers too often sing with a lower singer than they should. 

Caveat 2: Any experimentation with laryngeal positioning should be done with supervision of a competent teacher.

Recitative: How to Learn and Polish

Some time ago, I wrote up a brief guide to learning and polishing recitative. I thought I'd share it, in hopes that your students find it helpful! I've also shared the PDF at the end of the blog post. Enjoy!

How to learn and polish secco (dry) recitative

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You’ll notice that this method starts with the words, and doesn’t add notes or rhythms until quite late in the process. This is very much on purpose! Note: you’ll often hear recitative sung very fast on recordings. Don’t worry about speed--work this plan, and speed will come in time.

1. Read through the translation in English to get a sense of what’s happening. If you have a side-by-side translation, fine, but for now the printed translation will suffice.

2. Speak through (don’t sing or pay any attention to the rhythms) your text in the language in which it’s written.

3. Cross out any rests that don’t make sense. They are a musical convenience only (to make the bar work in 4/4), and should be eliminated. [By convention, virtually all secco recitative is written in 4/4, and without key signature].

4. Underline or put a box around the most important stressed syllable in each line. If your languages aren’t very developed, have your teacher and coach help with this.

5. Now practice speaking again, thinking about what you’re saying, and aiming for the stressed syllables.

6. Now learn the notes on a neutral syllable, like [du] or [la].

7. Now add the notes + words, still letting the stressed syllables shape your phrases.

8. It’s important to know what harmony is underneath you--most of the chords in Mozart recit will be in 1st inversion. Go through your score and write in what harmony is playing each time it changes. Your music will be mostly diatonic (do, mi, or sol) plus some passing tones.

9. Play the chord on the piano as you sing your lines. Now you will feel how your line moves within the harmony.

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Notes:

--Whether to observe rests or not will ultimately be the conductor’s decision. Practice being convincing both with and without rests until you know the conductor’s desires.

--The last gesture of the recit must “dock” with the aria/ensemble that follows--the energy of the recit needs to adjust to the energy of the aria/ensemble that follows.

--Recitatives usually present a change in the character’s circumstance--they learn a new piece of information, or they become more upset or more peaceful--regardless, the character is usually in a different state of being at the end then at the beginning--there’s a journey.

 

Here's the PDF of this guide.

"Boil the Frog": Practicing, Slow and Fast

You're working on a challenging song. You know you're not sounding your best. Stop and assess: what's the challenge? Almost always, SPEED plays a role. Either a) this passage (notes, words, maybe both) is so rapid that I'm unable to sing them with accuracy and comfort. Or b) this passage is so slow that I'm unable to keep the line going with beauty and comfort. So here comes my earth-shattering advice: 

Practice slow music fast;

Practice fast music slow.

This seems like "Captain Obvious" advice, but I'm *amazed* at how often people don't heed it. Particularly the first part is for some reason not intuitive. Teachers often assign slow-moving music to young singers because the very pace of the music keeps the student from being overwhelmed by fast-moving notes, rapid text, etc. BUT, slow music often lacks moto-rhythm and requires a young singer to provide all of the energy to make the piece flow. In other words, slow music is easy to SING, but hard to SING WELL. Often the accompaniments of those songs lack subdivision, syncopation and other energy-giving features. Many young singers aren't up to that task of providing all of the energy by themselves. SO, identify the eventual target tempo, and then move the metronome up significantly. For the sake of example,  let's say the piece is eventually going to be Q=60. Why not start Q=100, which would feel downright fast! Then work your way down gradually: Q=92... Q=84... Q=76, etc. Never lose the vitality, the subdivision, the inner dance of the music as the metronome gets gradually slower. "Boil the frog," so to speak, and you'll sound and feel much better singing slow music.

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As for fast music, such as difficult coloratura, I recommend identifying the goal tempo, and then cutting it in half. As an example: suppose the eventual tempo is Q=120. Start at half of that, Q=60, then work your way up one metronome notch at a time, earning your stripes and accruing fluidity, accuracy, and ease along the way. With this kind of practice, you can sing even the thorniest coloratura with command, elegance, and ease.

I hesitate to even write all of this, as it seems so obvious. But, one of the things I've noticed generally among singers is that we know what we SHOULD do to prepare a piece, and we just don't ROUTINELY do it. It is this routine that I'll be discussing in my next few posts, as I tackle the HOW of practicing. I hope this all helps--happy practicing!

The Art and Craft of Singing

"Technique" is a word that often gets bandied about, but what on earth is it? My definition is that technique is the proper way of doing somethingIt is HOW we do a task. Technique is, therefore, a combination of habits. As a singer, I'm an amalgamation of all my singing-related habits. What are my tongue habits? My breath habits? My what-am-I-supposed-to-be-doing-with-my-hands-right-now habits?

These habits are not the "sexy part" of singing--the sexy part of singing is the WHY of singing. What made YOU fall in love with singing? For me, it was that nothing on earth makes me feel the way classical music makes me feel--nothing gives me chills, takes my breath away, or makes me say the almost silent "wow" like that chord or that suspension. It is crucial that I stay tethered to my WHY, no doubt about it. I should re-kindle that WHY regularly with listening, concert attendance, etc. But if singers don't attend to the HOW of singing (technique), then where will they be?

Truly, the only reason to accrue a singing technique is to provide the tools to fulfill your musical imagination. Practice so that what you hear in your head can faithfully, consistently come out of your mouth.

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If we keep WHY we sing in mind, then the work of HOW to sing will not be tedious. Think of a gardener--the goal is roses. The start of that process is to till the soil, clear out the rocks and weeds and leftover leaves. At this point, there are no roses in sight. But the wise gardener knows that the roses are coming... And, in fact, the veteran gardener begins to enjoy the tilling and the smell of the soil on its own merits, though they love the blossoming rose even more. 

"Nudge" Yourself to Better Singing

One of my favorite podcasts, Freakonomics Radio, did an episode awhile back entitled "Big Returns from Thinking Small." It explains the concept of the "nudge," a concept that suggests that small adjustments to our behaviors can yield huge results. The core idea is to change by suggestion and by small degrees rather than making some drastic change that won't last. For example, instead of going from no exercise to an hour 7 days a week, it's more sustainable to simply take the stairs rather than the elevator, or to park a bit further away when you go to the grocery store. How's this for a silly example: the little bee stickers they put in urinals effectively nudge men to aim better...

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So, let's nudge ourselves to better singing: instead of doing vocalises for 10 minutes, do 11... don't let yourself watch an episode of that new Netflix show until your practicing is done... instead of repeating that thorny phrase 5 times, do 7 reps... With extra time and extra repetitions, we unleash a powerful cycle:

effective practice --> noticeable improvement --> enjoyment --> desire to practice --> effective practice --> noticeable improvement --> enjoyment, etc.

After all, we're always, always strengthening habits, no matter what we're doing. We're either strengthening good habits, or we're strengthening bad habits. And, most importantly: we have the power to choose. 

Well, gotta go--I'm feeling nudged to go practice!