Throwing Out The Baby With The Bath Water

Got your attention with that cliched title, right? Good!!

I have a concern about us contemporary voice teachers.

It is a little disconcerting that we seem to actually discourage our clients from learning classical music. We are so caught up in making everyone sound commercial that we throw out a very rich body of art that can add to what our students are learning as vocal musicians. Why is it bad to have teen singers who we are training in a balanced, unaffected technique try some art songs or arias to complement their pop/R&B/rock/musical theater repertoire? Now, I am not promoting the invalid notion that learning to sing classical music means you can sing anything- that has long since been proven to be untrue. However, I do think that we do them a disservice if we don’t challenge them beyond styles of music they already know and love. These young vocalists may discover a real talent and love for traditional art music. Hey, everyone is not meant to be a pop star!! 

Let us be mindful that some of our students may want to attend contemporary pop music programs such as Belmont University or Berklee College of Music. Guess what? They will be required to do some classical vocal study to augment their non-classical training. Besides art songs, they may need to know Concone and Vaccai exercises. We can set them up for greater success by making sure they have already been exposed to these materials before getting to college. 

Look- I get it. I am an R&B/pop/gospel/rock dude myself. I never had any plans to sing opera. As an undergraduate voice student, I sang nothing but classical music and legit theater stuff in the private studio. The only time we touched pop music was in preparation for my senior recital, and that was not very in depth. I love my teacher from those days, but his approach with my voice, though beneficial is many ways, didn’t quite prepare my voice technically for what I needed when singing demanding R&B and gospel songs. BUT I am forever grateful that I was exposed to repertoire that I never thought that I could actually sing before. It made me a better musician, even if the technique didn’t transfer adequately to what I really did outside the private studio. 

If we have professional clients or those who are working towards serious careers in popular music, I understand focusing their studies expressly on the style(s) that they will be recording and performing. That only makes sense. My hope, though, is that we will not be the kind of elitists that we accuse classical voice teachers of being by not broadening the cultural and artistic horizons of our young students. 

The Vocal Athlete

Singing……it’s one of the most powerful means of human communication. It is wonderful to listen to- it can take us away from our worries and concerns. It inspires. Opening up our mouths to do the singing can be even more powerful. It can be so much fun!! We can release things that we have inside of us that we may not be able to get out any other way. What a blessing to have it in our lives!!

Some people would believe that singing is reserved for only those born with significant vocal gifts. I believe that singing is for everyone!! In general, ANYONE CAN LEARN TO SING!!! When we understand that singing is a psychomotor skill- a task that is controlled by certain muscular patterns- we may realize that a usable, consistent voice can be developed through proper training. This is why I like for singers to view themselves as athletes. The mastery of their instrument should be approached in a similar fashion to runners, ball players, tennis pros, and gymnasts. A regimen that teaches the muscles proper coordination so that they remember what to do is a necessity. It is only with this building of muscle memory that the singer will be able to have the freedom to perform with ease of production with a wide range of pitches and command of tone colors and textures. This allows them to be free to serve the art- to communicate with audiences.

At Earl Harville VOX, students are viewed as elite singing athletes. They train with a growing knowledge of how the voice actually function and are given the tools for developing it to its fullest.


Watch How You Talk!!!

Let’s clear up a few things, why don’t we. The speaking and singing voices are not two separate instruments!! We do not possess two sets of true vocal folds with one controlling talking and the other singing. The vocal folds, or cords, function to form speech AND sung sounds. They are one!! Singing differs from speech in that pitches are created over a wider range of notes and tones are held out for a longer duration.

Because speaking and singing come from the same source, it is important to know how much influence they have on one another. Particularly, the way we speak can have a huge impact on the quality of our singing. It is quite common to find that a singer’s issues with the a run-down voice come from their speech habits. We generally will do more talking than singing on a given day, so we must be careful to monitor how we handle speaking chores.

Here are some helpful hints for healthy daily vocal use:

– Don’t speak on pitches too low for your voice. Men tend to be big offenders here, but women have the issue as well. This habit tires the voice out quickly. If you were to say “mm-hmm”, you should get a sense for where you average spoken pitch should be.

– Breathe!!! Too many people actually hold their breath as they speak. This will fatigue the voice and cause excess tension in the larynx. Remember, it takes a steady stream of air to the vocal folds to create a healthy sound!

– Don’t scream!! As a school teacher, I know first hand the tiring effects of this habit!! The cords will get slammed together and will likely swell as a result.

– Stay hydrated. The vocal fold shave to be well lubricated to function at their best. Dry cords can become irritated easily and are more susceptible to injury. Drink plenty of water during the course of the day.

If you are a professional speaker, you may find that vocal training will reap the great benefits for your voice even if you’re not a singer. The techniques taught at Harville Vocal Studio serve to develop healthy vocal function, for singing or speaking.

Make ‘Em Work For It- Finding A Vocal Coach

Let’s be honest- voice lessons can be expensive!! In this tough economic climate, it becomes an even larger sacrifice to spend money on vocal training. For that reason, if you are making the investment, the vocal instructor you choose should be worth your hard-earned dollars. There are waaaaaay too many charlatans out there who are, in essence, ripping you off!! They are not leading you into vocal freedom and are nothing more than vocal cheerleaders. You should be making your teacher really work for the pay. I want to share with you some things to consider in terms of teacher accountability.

First of all, let’s be clear: If your vocal coach can’t explain clearly and simply how the voice works, RUN IN THE OTHER DIRECTION!! A REAL teacher should be able to lead you into a working knowledge of your instrument. It is only when that happens that you will truly master your voice. He should be able to give you a purpose for any and every exercise that is given. I tell my students that if I don’t give you the reason behind the vocalese, they can smack me. When the client is away from me, he will need to become self-sufficient and fend for himself on the road, in rehearsal, or in the studio. Knowing what exercises serve what purpose will keep you able to function on a daily basis. For too long, singers have been allowed to be the ‘dumb’ musicians, lagging behind their instrumentalist cohorts in knowing the nuts and bolts of their axe. A solid coach won’t allow that.

Beware of voice teachers who throw around trite directions like “sing from the diaphragm” and “place the tone forward”, for example. This is often a sign that they have no clue as to what is pedagogically sound. Famed vocal coach Seth Riggs warns against such ‘ teaching by result’ instead of by cause and effect. They should be able to give specific exercises to bring the voice into balance. Teaching voice is an artful science and a scientific art. The scientific knowledge must be there. If not, move on to another teacher.

A good voice teacher doesn’t need to be the best singer you ever encounter, but if he can’t sing, MOVE ON!!!! The coach should be able to demonstrate the concepts and exercises for their students. You should put the teacher on the spot. Ask her to sing through her passaggi or bridges. If she can’t make easy transitions, she shouldn’t be teaching you how to do it. The trainer should possess the technique that they claim to teach.

By the way, a degree in voice doesn’t guarantee that the voice teacher is truly qualified to be training other singers. There are a number of wonderful teachers that may have degrees in music education, musical theater, or speech pathology. Also, don’t be overly concerned with the piano skills of the coach. They need to able to play the exercises and chords, for sure. But their principal job isn’t to be the accompanist. The main focus should be on your watching and listening to you as you vocalize and then move into song work.

Set the bar high, folks. Don’t throw your money away. Do your homework. Ask good questions. Audition the teacher. You will not regret the effort you put into the search when you find your voice growing into the instrument you’ve dreamed of having.


Dealing With A Rising Larynx

A common problem for vocalists is the rising of the larynx, or voice box, which houses the vocal cords. For the most part, your larynx should not move up much when singing higher. The vocal folds stretch and thin to create higher notes and that’s most efficiently done if the larynx stays more neutral or slightly lowered for classical singing. When it rises, the lifter muscles responsible for moving it for swallowing purposes are engaged. This is not very efficient for most singing and can lead to fatigue and other unwanted problems.

When practicing, monitor the voice box by lightly placing a finger over the larynx and pay attention to any tendency of it to move too much when ascending. To combat a rising voice box, add a pouty or dumb approach to your sound. Use syllables such as ‘mum’, ‘goog’, ‘bub’, or ‘wun’ with a slightly exaggerated goofy sound. This will keep the swallowing muscles from pulling the larynx up and constricting the throat.

So here goes!! Using ‘goog’, we will phonate on the following pattern. Make sure it is produced with a Bullwinkle or Rocky Balboa dopey sound or as if saying ‘duh’.

goog goog goog goog goog goog goog goog goog goog
1 3 5 8 8 8 8 5 3 1

This is not supposed to be a pretty sound. Its job is to deactivate those overactive swallowing muscles that interfere with easy tone production. Remember to keep a finger placed lightly on your larynx and you should notice it staying down even as the pitch rises. It may also helpful to do the exercise with your fist lightly on the chin to make sure your jaw stays loose. One you get the hang of it, you can move on these patterns:

1 3 5 1(next octave) 3 5 4 2 7(in original octave) 5 4 2 1

1 5 3 8 5 3 1

This is an extremely effective exercise……and its silliness makes it fun!!!

The Daily Vocal Warmup

The modern singer is a vocal athlete. Dancers and elite sports professionals know the importance of preparing the body correctly for performance. Vocalists need to be the same way! Just like the skeletal muscles should be systematically stretched before demanding usage, so should the muscles of the larynx that are involved in phonation. The principle of veisel dilation is the same- blood needs to nourish the muscles with oxygen to increase flexibility and decrease the chance of injury. DON’T SKIMP ON YOUR VOCAL WARMUP!!!!

A singer should NEVER go into a lengthy rehearsal, recording session, or performance without a thorough warmup. It should last somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes to make sure that all the musculature is properly coordinated, with the head and chest registers easily connected and the full range engaged. Physical stretches are also helpful as are stretches for the tongue.

I begin the vocal warmup with glissandi, or slides, either on a hum, ‘oo’, lip trill, or tongue trill. Either starting lightly in head voice and descending or sliding up easily from chest voice work well. The first scales will be on sounds that serve to stretch out the voice- lip trills, tongue trill, and the ‘ng’ sound. I use the octave and a half pattern and then into the mixed octave scale. These exercise sounds allow for a very effective warmup over a wide range without undue pressure and unwanted muscular interference. And they can be revisited throughout the day to keep the voice fresh.

Now we move on to the dumb or crying sounds. These exercise syllables will help you balance good cord closure with efficient air flow- not too much, not too little. Use syllables such as ‘mum’, ‘goog’, ‘bub’, or ‘wun’ with a slightly exaggerated goofy sound. This will keep the swallowing muscles from pulling the larynx up and constricting the throat. Then change the sound from the dumber approach to more of a whimper or cry, bringing the larynx to a more natural, neutral position. This is not supposed to be a pretty sound. Its job is to deactivate those overactive swallowing muscles that interfere with easy tone production.

Then, the ugly but invaluable pharyngeal sounds are employed. They were referred to as ‘the witch’s voice’ in times past and that’s exactly how you should sound!! No sounding pretty here!! With a bratty, witchy tone, we will use the syllables ‘nay’ and ‘naa’. These sounds will allow again greater air flow and a produce a tone that is deceptively powerful but actually quite easy to make- no strain needed. The exercise allows a very easy, effiecient connection of the chest and head registers, creating the much needed middle voice or ‘the mix’ that is so important for most modern vocal styles. Remember, the goal is not prettiness. The ugliness in the exercises is helping to build a solid technique, so enjoy the chance to sound like a looney as you build a killer voice!!

Once you have gotten through this portion of the warmup, you may move onto exercises that work on agility, sustains, and dynamics, but only after the voice feels loose and the cord closure is well coordinated with the breath.

This is a map of the basics of the daily warmup. It will vary according to many factors, such as energy level, time of day, amount of sleep, the size of the voice, and many others. But this is a general approach that we will use as the core of regimen. It is very imporant to find a knowledgeable voice teacher to help you develop the proper routine for your voice and its unique demands.
Remember, you are a vocal athlete and you must train with that idea in mind.