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!

"[e] / [o]" Vowel Modification

Vowel modification ("aggiustamento") is the great magic trick / lifesaver of classical singers. There are various theories: always modify towards schwa, always modify towards a more open vowel, etc. and I find that none of these work for me or my students. Their flaw is that they suppose that all vowels need to modify for the same reason. 

My theory of vowel modification is this: the real goal is to maintain resonance as a vowel ascends or descends into the extremes of the voice [these, after all, are the only times we modify vowels]. So, the singer must ask, "why is resonance being lost on this vowel?" If resonance is being lost because the vowel is too closed, then we must modify open. If resonance is being lost because the vowel is too open for the extreme range, then we must modify closed.

Now: is the vowel that needs modification a lip vowel or a tongue vowel? If it's a tongue vowel, it will modify towards [e]. If it's a lip vowel, it will modify towards [o]. Yes, it really is that simple!

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[NB: In the case of [a], this modifies nicely towards [o], as the famed "Caruso scale" teaches us. The other excellent option when [a] needs modification is [æ]. A little experimentation with a modification to either [o] or [æ] will quickly reveal which works best for a given situation.]

In other words: the [u] of the word "moon" at a high pitch level might lack resonance because of constriction (the natural vowel is too closed to stay resonant). It would benefit from modification towards [o].

On the contrary, the [ʊ] of the word "book" at a high pitch level might lack resonance because the open vowel needs focus (the [ʊ] is too open to stay resonant). It too would benefit from modification towards [o], but for a different reason.

The key is that vowel modification, when it is needed, is needed for different reasons. The written vowel is either too open or too closed to maintain resonance as pitch ascends. 

[e] and [o], as the moderate vowels on their respective sides of the vowel chart, have just the right mixture: they have adequate space to feel comfortable singing as pitch ascends, but adequate closure to easily resonate on both very high and very low notes.

Bullseye Productivity

My meditation practice is important to me. It grounds and centers me, raises my patience, lowers my reactivity, etc. etc. etc. But I find myself drawn to tangential activities--reading about meditationpodcasts about meditation, and other activities that keep me from, you know, meditating! In this scenario, meditating is the "bullseye," and those other things, relevant as they may be, stand the chance of distracting me and/or taking up enough time that I don't wind up meditating.

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The same is true for singers--there are many useful activities within your singing practice. Imagine you are assigned a new opera role--it's entirely valid and necessary to highlight your part, write in translations, do some background research, write in needed IPA, etc. But these activities can not be allowed to distract you from SINGING the role!

I once had a student who, daunted by a new song cycle, devised and re-wrote two or three different practice charts with various strategies on conquering the process of learning a big song cycle. It took some doing to convince her that the *practicing* was more important than the making of *practice charts* [helpful though they are]. 

Balancing our various practice activities is not as easy as it may seem. When I'm faced with a multi-part project, I like to incorporate my watch timer to limit how long I work on any one part of the project. I also try (I'm human, too!) to start with the "bullseye" activity so that, if my schedule suddenly goes haywire, I've at least gotten the bullseye activity accomplished. For instance:

Today I need to: 

  • Practice the first 8 songs of Winterreise
  • Write in the translations for those same songs
  • Do another 10-15 minutes of reading of a few resources I've found about Winterreise

My strategy would be to do them in precisely the order I listed them--they are, to my mind, listed in the order of their direct importance to the end task of SINGING Winterreise. 

Whatever your area of practice, define what the bullseye is, and what lies in the outer rings.

First Time = Best Time

Getting to "great" when it counts

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"You should have heard it in the practice room!" We've all thought it, said it, and we meant it: we know we can do better, we have done better... So what prevented us from achieving our very best when the "chips were down?" Here are a few strategies for getting to your best performance when it matters.

1. Visualize success. Let's start with the positive: what does it feel like when you perform your best? Notice that sensation in the practice room. What things led to that success? It sounds simplistic, but we need to be mindful of what leads to our successes so that we can repeat those things. If we do "smart singer" things, good things happen! If we do "dumb singer" things, bad things happen. Simple as that. So, visualize singing an excellent audition/performance. Now visualize it again, and again, etc.

It is CRUCIAL to plan for positive outcomes. As Henry Ford said, "whether you think you can or you think you can't, you're right." The vast majority of singers' problems can be helped (if not solved) by an improved mental outlook. Adjust your self-talk--if you hear your self saying "I always screw up the second verse," change it to "I need to think ahead so that I sing the right words in the second verse."

2. Anticipate the negative. I find it helpful to recognize that some things are going to go awry. Releasing myself from the bonds of "perfect" allows me to access "excellent." What happens to you when you get nervous--do your breaths feel a bit shallower, do your palms feel sweaty? Try to really imagine what that will feel like. Expect those things to happen, and then they'll become like old friends come to visit rather than enemies. 

3. The Performance Scenario. Visualize (as best you can) the performance scenario. What does the space look like? What will it look like with people in the seats? What will the light look like / feel like?

If it's an audition, who will be there? Where will they be seated? Perhaps you don't know answers to these, but once you've done a few auditions, project from those past experiences what it will feel like. Be prepared to take some negative things in stride: if they never look at you, or eat a Snickers bar while you're singing, or talk to one another--whatever, you just do your thing.

4. Be "BULLETPROOF." There's a point in my preparation when I know my repertoire well enough to sing it through. There's a further point when I can sing it from memory reliably. There's a yet further point when I could roll out of bed and sing it cold--THAT'S "bulletproof," and that's where the FUN of performance happens. I don't practice because I enjoy practicing--I practice because I LOVE performing when I'm bulletproof. The absolute #1 problem I see in students is that they simply don't know their material well enough--they're not bulletproof yet.

5. Manage the "pre-game." Be mindful of what you can do before the performance to set you up best. Hydrate. Stretch out. Eat enough so that you're energized, but not so much that you're full. Sing enough to be well warmed-up, but not so much that you leave your best notes in the practice room. I recommend singing through part or all of the material you're about to sing. "Load it into your memory." I especially do that with performances of song cycles, like Winterreise. If I've "loaded" that on the morning of a performance, it's much more ready for recall than if the last time I sang it was the day before.

With some planning, you can dramatically increase your odds of an excellent performance. Plan your work, then work your plan. 

Buzz Words

Concise, consistent language for voice teachers and choral conductors

One of the most humbling experiences for a teacher is to hear a student recite back what they've recently learned. Invariably, something gets lost in translation or is simply forgotten. After all, it's not what a student *learns* that matters, it's what they *retain.* I play a game I call "You Be the Teacher," and it's one of the most valuable teaching modalities in my toolbox. Having the student teach the concept back to me shows what they've clearly understood, and what needs further solidifying. And one of the strongest mechanisms I've used to enhance student retention is a pared-down vocabulary, which I call "buzz words." 

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Take, for instance, "open throat," or "OT" for short. This is perhaps the most powerful of all the buzz words I regularly employ. Go ahead, think "open throat." With one simple instruction, you very likely just 1) lifted your soft palate, 2) allowed your larynx to comfortably descend, and 3) relaxed the muscles of your throat. You're instantly in a setup that benefits inhalation, onset, resonance, proper chiaroscuro, etc. And since that one concept evokes so much, you can write in your score "OT" wherever you typically constrict. 

A second example: Several years ago, I was teaching undergraduate vocal pedagogy, and we were discussing breathing. A student said, "would you recommend teaching appoggio, or do you think it would be better to teach our students expansion or suspension?" My heart sunk... The student (and probably others) had not grasped that those concepts were synonymous. So, now I try to teach the term appoggio exclusively to avoid confusion. The other advantage to this particular buzz word is that it doesn't carry any baggage. As we all know, words like "placement," "cover," and "high note" carry connotations for some students that create more problems than they solve. Choosing buzz words that lack such baggage is wise. [I've also found that some students really respond to the Italian terminology--many treasure, as I do, a sense of connection to the great lineage of singers and teachers from the vaunted "golden age" of singing.]

Now, let it be said: not all students respond to the same concepts or images, so teachers have to build and diversify their toolbox. BUT, there is value to employing a concise and limited vocabulary, and allowing your students to drill the fundamentals without drowning in synonyms and a seemingly never-ending flood of new terminology. Whenever a concept or buzz word clicks with a particular student, I write it down in my notebook so that I can stick with it in subsequent lessons. I'll even ask them to play the aforementioned "You Be the Teacher"... "John, you really responded to the concept of Traffic Cone last week--teach that back to me"...

If we choose our words wisely, it is the buzz words that will last. Lessons must be repeated (and repeated and repeated) in order to truly stick. It's been 13+ summers since I studied at Tanglewood with Phyllis Curtin, but I still remember "tiger teeth" and "Raggedy Ann cheeks" like it was yesterday. The evocative power of those buzz words lingers, years later. 

Basic Breath Budgeting

Breathing--it’s the absolute most important element to great singing, but so many singers are unclear about exactly how to do it.

The fact is, when we breathe to sing we need to do a few things differently than when we breathe normally. When we’re at rest, our ribcage expands with inhalation, and then immediately collapses. When we’re singing, however, we want to maintain the expansion of the ribcage. This is mainly done by staying in a noble posture, but it also requires some management of the rib muscles, which are called the intercostal muscles. The trick is to maintain this feeling of expansion without tightening your abdominal muscles. With some experimentation, you can find the sweet spot between too much muscle activity and not enough. The Italians call this balance “appoggio.”

There are two main breathing problems I see in singers. 1. They don’t give themselves enough time to breathe, and so they take a shallow, rushed breath. To combat this, think ahead and breathe earlier. Plan your breath, and be specific about the rhythmic value of the breath--almost always we should be breathing either an 8th note or a quarter note before we sing. If an 8th note breath makes you feel rushed, then try a quarter note breath. Breathing in the rhythm of the piece also makes the breath feel more organically part of the music-making and the expression of the piece. And mark your scores with the appropriate rest--don’t rely on less specific markings like commas or check marks.

The other main breathing problem I see in singers is that they spend way too much of the air on the first few beats of the phrase. Imagine that each breath you take is a dollar, and that you have to budget that dollar out so you don’t run out before the phrase is over. You don’t want to spend a quarter on the first note, or else you’ll run out by the end! Be particularly aware of consonants that waste a lot of air, such as /f/, /s/, /th/, and /h/. Practice making clear consonants that don’t take a lot of air. To use the budget metaphor--practice making a clear /s/ that costs a nickel rather than a quarter. I recommend practicing consonants with your hand held close to your mouth. Try to make clear, focused consonants without blowing a lot of air against your hand.

I hope these tips will help you to manage your breath better. Air is the power source of our instrument, and most of singers’ bad habits come from insufficient air. If you give yourself time to take a great strong breath, and then budget your exhalation, you’ll sing more efficiently and beautifully.

Teachers, step awaaaaaay from the piano

I just completed a survey on the teacher's use of the piano in undergraduate voice lessons. This is a "soapbox" issue for me, so allow me to mount my soapbox.

As all singers are aware, there is a "singer stigma" when it comes to musicianship. We are looked down upon, very often for a good reason, as having lesser musicianship skills than our instrumentalist brethren. I am increasingly convinced that one major contributing factor to this is the lack of independence expected of us. S.O.P. in most voice lessons is *some* level of accompaniment, virtually at all times--in exercises, and especially in repertoire. As a result, students rarely sing unaccompanied, and therefore rarely have to face the particular challenges of that skill. Furthermore, when the teacher's attention is divided between monitoring student behavior and playing some percentage of the song, they are rendered less effective at both tasks.

My first instrument was the trumpet. My lessons took place in a room with a piano, but my teacher never touched it. That is of course not practical for singing lessons, as we must be furnished with starting pitches, etc. BUT, I have noticed a massive improvement in my students' pitch memory, a strong uptick in the level to which they prepare their repertoire, and an increased sense of musical independence / confidence since I started teaching almost exclusively unaccompanied. As their teacher, I have noticed so much more in their singing, and particularly visual information, since my eyes are no longer buried in the score. 

I also have urged my students to practice unaccompanied. In school, I used to play the bass line as I sang. That's lovely, as it's a decent proxy for singing with a pianist, but again it divided my attention. When I started practicing unaccompanied, I noticed so much more that was going on, and I more closely approximated a performance environment.

So, teachers: I encourage you to nudge your students towards practicing unaccompanied. Not only will they learn their music more thoroughly, but when they do eventually collaborate with a pianist, it will be on an equal musical footing, not as a dependent. And maybe, just maybe, we can narrow the "musicianship gap" with our instrumental neighbors. One lesson at a time, together.

10% forest, 90% trees

It can be overwhelming for a singer to look at the entirety of their career. What's the next move? How am I doing? What do I need to work on? It's difficult to "zoom out" and clearly see the "forest for the trees."

I've found a lot of peace in my career by focusing instead on my short-term goals as a singer and a teacher. These are much more concrete, manageable, and achievable. It is satisfying to hit my daily practice goal or to schedule that next recital or to see my students succeed in memorizing a piece or achieving a technical milestone. These are the "trees" of our singing practice. Added together, they of course make a "forest." But as a young singer it is so intimidating to look at older singers and see the amassed experience of years and decades of a career.

So my goal for myself and for my students is to spend 10% of our time evaluating the "forest" so that we know where we stand. But let's spend 90% of our time, the vast majority of our energy and time, working on the small goals, the incremental wins, that amass with time, diligence, and patience.

Marchesi Decoded

Mathilde Marchesi's Opus 31 Exercises are a masterwork--a thorough kick in the pants for any singer. However, they are NOT progressive in the sense that they flow from easiest to most difficult. They are terrific exercises that will ground you in the techniques of bel canto. However, if you simply go straight through in order, they get treacherous quickly!

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Marchesi difficulty levels

To help singers "decode" these exercises, I've created the above PDF. Start with those labelled "Basic," and once you've mastered them, proceed on to "Intermediate," and finally to "Advanced."

I hope this helps!