Words Matter

The lifespan of a note, as I was taught (along with countless generations of musicians), goes something like this… First, we attack the note. Then we hold the note… Finally, we cut off. My goodness, are we angry at the poor note???

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The purpose of this post is to explore the ways in which words used in the study of singing have serious connotations and consequences, many unintended, and most unhelpful… To use the earlier example—by using onset, sustain, and release in place of the much more aggressive terms above, we can help eliminate several traditional problems:

  • Onsets are slippery things—one must coordinate the beginning of the tone just so with the beginning of the exhalation. Calling it an “attack” obviously complicates a balanced onset, and leaves conductors and teachers with linguistic absurdities such as “gentle attack.”

  • Perhaps my favorite word substitution is replacing “hold” (which sends shivers up my spine every time I hear someone use it in conjunction with a musical tone) with sustain. To sustain something is an active pursuit. I often challenge myself in the practice room by simply singing “long tones”—no messa di voce, no nothing—just long sustained tones, perfectly free, even vibrato, no tension… Simple, but far from easy.

  • This brings us to release. What a massive upgrade we give ourselves when we use this term rather than “cut off!” Many students struggle with an elegant release, just as they struggle with an elegant and balanced onset. The singer’s mind has moved on to the next phrase, and the “falling action” of the phrase they’re currently singing is left to take care of itself, often to sub-optimal results.

Another term, handed down since time immemorial, is “breath support.” I don’t think I’m alone or over-reacting when I say that I’m troubled by the static connotation of the word “support.” The foundation of the building I’m sitting in is only operating optimally if it is absolutely still and static. To transfer that to my singing would be unthinkable! I vastly prefer talking to my students about how they energize their sound. Likewise, I replace the traditional term “breath control” with “breath budgeting.” Like it or not, “control” has negative baggage. “Budgeting?” No such baggage, but the clear invitation to spend the air, but to spend it wisely.

Perhaps it’s obvious by now, but I do not think this is a case of simple semantics… Words matter — they have connotations which we ignore at our peril.

Resonance > Volume

If I had only a 10-second voice lesson with a student, I’d say this: your primary goal should be to maximize resonance as you sing. Most young or young-ish singers sing in such a way that they maximize volume.

If my goal is maximum resonance, it sets off a domino effect of “smart singer” habits. If my goal is to maximize volume, it sets off a domino effect of “bad singer” habits. Let’s break some down:

  1. Breath: A singer trying to sing loud will blow too much air. The vocal folds will struggle to adduct, and either tension will ensue to keep them together, or breathiness will ensue if they fail to come together cleanly. Additionally, since the singer is spending so much air, they will struggle mightily to sing long phrases. In the effort to work on their “support,” they will likely create even more tension.

    A singer trying to maximize resonance, on the other hand, will sing with a balanced airflow. They will sing with the minimum amount of air to create a maximally resonant sound. In other words, they will experience balance and efficiency—the watchwords of great singing. Also, since they’re spending less air, they will easily make phrases that might have seemed prohibitively long before.

  2. Consonants: Many singers trying to be loud spend the lion’s share of their air launching consonants into the ether. But since their tone is not maximally resonant, the consonants fail to be expressive, even if they are audible. This of course also negatively impacts breath budgeting, and leads back to the aforementioned inability to sing longer phrases.

    A singer trying to maximize resonance will sing with the minimum amount of consonants while still being understandable and expressive. This, after all, is what we do when we speak. And when we speak, we never give a second thought to breath budgeting—we do it subconsciously. For years, I’m sad to say, I sang with an imbalance of consonants. My singing, as a result, was fussy, precious, and lacked virtuosity. Once I turned my attention towards efficiency and resonance, the balance of voice and text came into better balance.

  3. Vowels: Singers trying to sing loud will sing with big vowels. If space is good, then more space is better, right? Unfortunately not! And the notion of space is nuanced: the ideal vowel has space in the back of the mouth, but rounds/narrows in the front of the mouth. Very generically, the ideal vowel shape is like a funnel/traffic cone, but one we sing into, not out of. I keep a small traffic cone in my studio to show this: the back of the mouth is like the open base of the traffic cone, and the mouth is like the tapered end of the cone. [Incidentally, I see distended vowels constantly, especially on [a]. Even singers who have lovely, natural, minimalistic vowels tend to over-open [a]. By over-opening this vowel, it no longer “tunes” with the other vowels, and it causes jaw tension.]

    A singer maximizing resonance will experiment to find vowels that are comfortable, not distended. They will reject the ancient (and dangerous) advice to “drop the jaw,” a phrase which has perhaps done more damage than any other in singing history! They will find their resonating space in the throat and in the lifted roof of the mouth, not in the front of the mouth where the all-important tapering should be happening. They will also sing with slightly rounded lips on all vowels—emphasis on slightly. Watch virtually any great singer and notice that all vowels, not only the “lip vowels,” are sung with slightly rounded lips that are aiding tremendously in the tuning of one vowel to the others. Here’s a favorite clip of mine to illustrate this important phenomenon (watch it on mute, and try to find a vowel that doesn't have rounded lips).

    A crucial aspect of singing with resonant vowels is a proper understanding of vowel modification. For more on that important topic, see my earlier post.

  4. Tension: The singer trying to maximize volume will be working very hard: pushing a ton of air, spitting consonants, and distending the jaw for huge vowels is hard work! As a result, they will have a cocktail of all or most of the following tensions: abdominal, jaw, neck, tongue, lips, shoulders… They will perceive that singing is difficult and muscular. And, sadly in my experience, singers with this pathology tend to think that the solution is more effort, not more efficiency. They’ve adopted the wrongheaded notion that “if air/space is good, then more air is better.”

    The singer maximizing resonance has found, as a result of balanced airflow, minimalist consonants, and simple/clear/resonant vowels, that their best singing is relatively effortless. It is full of action, but devoid of effort/tension. They have mastered the ability to move a body part without tightening that body part.

I sang for several years at the beginning of my training in a way that maximized volume. It was subconscious, of course—our culture had indicated that good classical singing is loud, right? Well it is indeed loud, but it’s loud because it is so very resonant. A resonant voice will be loud. But a loud voice is not necessarily resonant… And voices are not heard over orchestras because they are loud, but because they are resonant. They have an acoustical advantage in a particular frequency range where the orchestra is weak—more on that in a later post. Suffice it to say: The best singing is healthy, efficient, balanced, and simple. 100% of pitches on 100% of vowels should resonate. When that happens, many other tangential facets of singing become effortless.

Know your "practice personality": chunkers and nibblers

Frustrated with your practice time? Not getting the results you want? Lacking motivation to woodshed your music? Perhaps the underlying problem is that you’ve not identified your “practice personality.”

I’ve noticed that most musicians are either “chunkers” or “nibblers.” Chunkers have determined how much practice time they need to log today, and they do it all in one big chunk. Nibblers work better by getting their practice time in shorter installments throughout the day. Both are valid methods, and both have advantages and disadvantages. The important thing is that your practice style accords with your “practice personality.”

Let’s dive in a little deeper:

Chunkers like the feeling of accomplishment that comes with getting a big swath of practicing done. They would feel uneasy having practice time “hanging over their heads” the rest of the day—better to just do it. They may also “chunk” because of their particular life situation—perhaps their class or work schedule does not allow for “nibbling.” The primary issue that chunkers face is “vocal load”—in order to stay vocally healthy, they must ensure that some non-vocal practice modalities are interspersed within their practice time (e.g. writing in translations, writing out lyrics for memorization purposes, playing melodies on the piano to solidify pitches, etc).

Nibblers feel overwhelmed / bored / less productive when “chunking.” They would much rather do four 20-minute practice sessions than one 80-minute session, for instance. They feel more alert, more productive, and more vocally fresh when they split up their practice. Their schedules have small gaps between classes or between lessons that they teach, but finding an 80-minute block of continuous time—are you kidding me? The pitfall for nibblers is that they must ensure they get all of their practice time in. It’s not so hard to get that first 20-minute session in, but they must be certain that they’ve planned the other sessions into their calendar, or else they will come up short from a quantity perspective.

For ALL practicers, I heartily recommend scheduling your practice into your calendar. Whether you’re a music student or a voice teacher or a freelancer, schedule your practice and honor that commitment just like you would honor a class time / meeting time / lunch date, etc. Students, I found great success with “accountability buddies” in college—I often had friends with similar schedules, and we would agree to go practice after a certain class or rehearsal let out. That sort of social aspect was very helpful. [In fact, one of my practice buddies became my wife!!]

Also: when it comes to practicing, both quantity and quality matter. So whichever practice personality you are, make sure that you’re getting quality practice, but enough of it! Students, talk to your teacher if you’re unsure what your quantity goal should be.

Alright, gotta sign off—time to practice!

In a nutshell...

From a text I sent to a student, which by dumb luck is about as concisely as I’ve ever described excellent, sustainable singing:

“Sometimes when I speak or sing, I feel like the sound is originating at the vocal folds, rather than starting with the breath and then merely passing through the vocal folds into the resonant space (mouth). When I focus on the activity at the ribcage and in the vowel space and “ignore” the throat, I get my best results.”

Classical singers: there's more than one path

[The purpose of this post is to share some thoughts about the various paths of classical singing. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the corollary careers of many classical singers, such as voice teaching, church work, voice-over work, studio work, etc. More on those in a future post, perhaps?]

To quote Mikado, “I’ve got a little list…” In advising my students about YAPs, I noticed that most listings of the programs are all mushed together—opera-heavy programs next to song-heavy programs, etc. How is one to tell these apart? It got me thinking: as I see it, there are 8 primary avenues that classical singers can pursue.

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Here’s the kicker: Most classical singers I know pursue 3-4 of these, and almost none of them pursue all of them.

Early on in your training, it’s wise to not “pigeon-hole” yourself. Your voice, your taste, your exposure to styles/periods/languages… it all needs to develop. BUT, the world is big, and time/finances are finite. At some point, it can save a LOT of heartache for a singer to decide where the intersection of their talent, skill, and taste lies. For me, I figured out [through the help of my first great vocal mentor, the terrific Steven Stolen], that mine would be a career of art song + oratorio/concert work + early music. My background as a trumpet player and my early exposure through a top-flight children’s choir bolstered my musicianship chops, and thus new music was added to the mix for me. And rather by accident, I landed my first gig [and then another, and another, etc] in the pro choral singing world. That ecosystem didn’t even exist when I graduated from college, and so it was not on anyone’s radar screen as a legitimate avenue for professional singers. Fortunately, that has changed drastically!

Note: I am not at all suggesting that I wholesale exclude other genres—I love to sing opera when it’s right for my voice and the timing works with the rest of my life. I love singing jazz standards, but not as a main line of my career, etc.

I now use the above list, and when the time is right with each student, we discuss which of these will be the primary avenues they pursue. Seeing 3 or 4 checkmarks on this list then empowers them—spend your time and money on YAPs, competitions, etc. that play to your strengths. If you have no interest or aptitude for new music, then for goodness’ sake don’t pursue it. If musical theater was your first love, then cross over, child! If musical theater makes you want to hurl, then take a hard pass and don’t apologize! Don’t feel bad for a second that your list is different than other singers. You do you. I hope the list above can help you (or your students) to thoughtfully forge their path in the classical singing world!

Kyle Ferrill teaches voice and vocal pedagogy at the University of Memphis, SongFest, and the Interlochen Arts Camp and performs around the country, primarily in art song and oratorio.

Better teaching through observation

I was very fortunate to study under Dr. Clifford Madsen during my schooling at Florida State University. A legend in the field of music education research, he implored us to regularly observe our own teaching in order to truly see what we are actually doing with our instructional time.

I recommend a handful of observation types, and you likely know which is most important for you:

  1. Percentage of lesson time spent on student performance vs. teacher talk vs. student talk

  2. Number of approvals vs. disapprovals vs. approval error vs. disapproval error*

  3. Percentage of complete cycles of instruction** vs. incomplete cycles of instruction

  4. Percentage of lesson time spent on-task vs. off-task

Observation periods need to be long enough (at least 10 minutes) to account for the flow of lessons / classes / rehearsals. Taking samples from various lessons taught over time will give even more valid results.

I have found that tracking over time builds awareness while I’m teaching. I very regularly can hear the “tick” of a mental clock when I’m talking too long and we need to get back to singing. I’m convinced that this awareness has been built by observation.

Here’s a video tour of an app that makes timed observations a snap! [This is a great app to help with timed observations, such as #1 and #4 above]

*Approval = saying something was right. Disapproval = saying something was wrong. Approval error = saying something was right when it was wrong. Disapproval error = saying something was wrong when it was right.

**Complete cycles of instruction: Put briefly, a complete cycle of instruction is prompt—>attempt—>feedback. Too often, students make an attempt without getting clear feedback. Not knowing whether the attempt was “right” or not, the time spent making the attempt is less useful than had they received feedback.

Kyle Ferrill teaches voice and vocal pedagogy at the University of Memphis, SongFest, and the Interlochen Arts Camp and performs around the country, primarily in art song and oratorio.

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.

Kyle Ferrill teaches voice and vocal pedagogy at the University of Memphis, SongFest, and the Interlochen Arts Camp, and performs around the country, primarily in art song and oratorio.

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!

Kyle Ferrill teaches voice and vocal pedagogy at the University of Memphis, SongFest, and the Interlochen Arts Camp and performs around the country, primarily in art song and oratorio.

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.

Kyle Ferrill teaches voice and vocal pedagogy at the University of Memphis, SongFest, and the Interlochen Arts Camp and performs around the country, primarily in art song and oratorio.

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.

Kyle Ferrill teaches voice and vocal pedagogy at the University of Memphis, SongFest, and the Interlochen Arts Camp and performs around the country, primarily in art song and oratorio.