Training the “Whole Voice”

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of adjudicating the local NATS student auditions.  It was wonderful to spend my day hearing so many talented young singers.  I was impressed at the overall level of preparation, as well as the commitment to the vocal and dramatic choices these young singers made in performance.

A few especially talented singers competed in both the classical AND musical theater divisions for their age group, and some of these even advanced to the semi-final rounds in both divisions.  This is truly impressive, not only because the vocal technique required for each style is very different, but because it also requires meticulous preparation of two sets of competition-worthy rep – in other words, hours upon hours of practice time.

Cross-Training

Cross-training – singing in more than one style – is an important aspect of training the whole voice, especially for the young singer.  While most of us eventually go on to specialize in one style of singing or another, knowing how to sing in multiple styles has lots of benefits.  It makes us more versatile singers; it keeps the various areas of our voice functional and flexible; and most importantly, it ensures that we train every aspect of our voice – not just the parts that are most frequently used for our particular style.

Training the Whole Voice

When comparing and contrasting classical technique with more contemporary styles, one of the first things that comes to mind (or, to “ear,” as it were) is the differences in the voice’s registration – i.e., the use(s) of head voice and chest voice.  While breaking things down into a chest/head dichotomy is admittedly a bit simplistic, it can be a useful starting point for training the whole voice.

In my teaching over the years, I’ve discovered that most young singers have a “dominant register,” similar to how everyone is born with a dominant hand.  Most young singers will default either to head voice or chest voice in particular areas of their range, as feels comfortable and/or natural for their instrument.  Even those blessed with a natural ability to “mix” have either a head-dominant or chest-dominant mix.

Then there are those singers who feel that their “signature sound” is so firmly rooted in one register that they are hesitant to use the other.  I sound really good singing this one way, they think – why do I have to learn to use the other part of my voice?

How Do I Train the Whole Voice?

As singers, we must of course build on our naturally strong register; however, we must also work to strengthen whatever area of our voice is weaker.  For most of us, our weaker register is NOT where we enjoy singing, so we tend to avoid it.  However, it doesn’t matter how much we dislike it.  Ignoring your weaker register is ultimately to your voice’s detriment.

For, example, if you prefer to belt, you must cultivate your head voice.  Why?  It’s a myth that “belting” is just bringing the chest voice up as high as it can go.  High belting is really a chest-dominant mix.  The head voice muscles must be involved to produce a sustainable sound, especially the higher you go.  A good teacher will incorporate some folk songs or classical art song into the musical theater singer’s rep, in an effort to cultivate the head voice.

If you’re a female who prefers to sing classically, you should still exercise your chest voice and your mixed middle voice.  Why?  Because it will lend fuller resonance to your lower notes.  It’s a myth that chest voice is harmful or counter-productive to classical singing.   While classical singers don’t use a chest-dominant sound very often, their lower process can and should be involved if they are singing below or even near the bottom of the staff – those notes will not project otherwise.  A good teacher will incorporate some musical theater of varying styles into the classical singer’s repertoire, to ensure that the lower half of the voice is strengthened.

Getting the Proper Guidance

In order to train all areas of your voice, it’s essential that you find a good teacher and meet with him or her regularly.  Seek out a teacher that specializes in the style you prefer; however, be prepared to explore a myriad of different styles in your lessons, in order to train your whole voice.  In the process, you may even find that you really like a certain style of music that you didn’t before – it’s amazing what can happen when you approach something with an open mind!

If you are looking for a teacher, the NATS teacher directory is a good place to start.  There are also websites like learningmusician.com, takelessons.com, and musiclessons.com.  You could also check out the Find Your Singing Teacher page on Facebook.

And of course, there’s us!  Kim and myself are seasoned, qualified voice teachers, and have loads of experience working with beginners and/or young singers.  If you’re located north of Boston and interested in lessons, contact us!

audition tips

The Last-Minute Audition

 

Consider the following scenario: you decide to try out for your school musical.  They announce that the auditions are just days away.  They either give you a few excerpts from the show that they’d like everyone to prepare, or they tell you you can sing whatever you want.

You’ve never had a voice lesson before, or been in a show, and you feel you need some help preparing for this audition.  So you go online, Google “voice lessons in [town x],” and contact the first teacher who comes up.  You set up a lesson with him or her, and are hoping the teacher can work some magic to help you land the role you want.

Or, consider this alternate scenario:

You auditioned for last year’s school musical, and didn’t get in.  This year, you’ve begun working with a voice teacher ahead of time in order to prepare.  You schedule extra lessons and coachings leading up to the audition, work your behind off, and… you still don’t get in.  Your teacher tells you that you should be proud regardless of the outcome, because you’ve made tons of great progress in the past weeks/months, but you’re still frustrated, and feel that you spent a lot of time and money on lessons for nothing.  You decide to “take a break” from lessons.

If you can relate to either or both of these situations, you’re not alone.  They are incredibly common.

Voice teachers are usually happy to help their students with upcoming audition materials, even if it is somewhat last-minute.  They understand that schools don’t always allow students a lot of time to prepare, and also understand how much it means to their students to land a role in their school’s show.

The Problem, However…

In scenario #1, the student is at an immediate disadvantage because of the school’s short notice.  I applaud the student’s instinct to seek the help of a voice teacher; however, the student must realize that working with a voice teacher is not a guarantee that you will land the role you want – especially if it is just a single lesson, right before the audition.  Many students come to these one-time lessons or coachings thinking that the teacher can work some magic, or give the student a “silver bullet” solution to landing the desired role.  And they are disappointed when the audition results come out.

In scenario #2, the student has made the decision to work consistently with a voice teacher toward a concrete goal – a decision which I also applaud.  It’s likely that, in addition to working toward the audition, the teacher has also helped the student to progress in other ways.  However, upon receiving the disappointing audition results, it’s clear that the student has fallen into two common traps: the first is that she became so goal-centered as to be blind to the other benefits – and the real purpose – of voice lessons; and the second is that she expected her work with a voice teacher to guarantee her a role in the musical.

The student in scenario #1 doesn’t realize that developing technique takes time and consistent lessons with a good teacher in order to take hold; the student in scenario #2 doesn’t understand what the purpose of voice lessons and a voice teacher actually are.  Both students also need to realize that there’s a heck of a lot more that goes into casting decisions than just how well you sing – you need have the voice type, body type, acting abilities, and/or dance/movement skills the directors are looking for.  There are also issues of personality dynamics, reputation, work ethic, and – sadly – school/organizational politics.

Our Advice: Remember…

  1. Your teacher is not a magician.  Even a highly experienced, qualified voice teacher cannot work miracles.
  2. You need to practice.  That means practice now, last week, last month, tomorrow, next week, and in the weeks and months to come.  Building technique takes time, and giving a strong audition is a skill that does not come overnight.

Additional Advice:

  • If you are interested in music/theater and know you will want to take auditions, consider finding a voice teacher now, rather than waiting until an audition opportunity presents itself.
  • If you find yourself in a last-minute audition situation, go for it, if you wish, and do the best you can.  Schedule a lesson beforehand, if possible, and synthesize as much of your teacher’s advice as you can.  Practice, practice, practice in the little time you have.
  • Remember that neither working with a teacher nor hours of practicing guarantees or entitles you to anything.  Casting is a highly multi-faceted process.  If you don’t get cast, it doesn’t necessarily mean you were terrible – it just means that you weren’t the right fit for this particular opportunity.
  • If the audition results do not come out in your favor, use the whole thing as a learning experience.  Assess what went well, what could have gone better, and what you can improve upon for the next time.  Having a positive attitude makes a world of difference.

If you want to find a qualified teacher but don’t know where to start other than Google, you can search the teacher databases at nats.org or learningmusician.com.  Or, contact Kim or Ellen here at Rising Stars to get your lessons started!

 

voice lessons Reading MA

Back to Basics, Part 1: The Role of the Voice Teacher

 

It takes a village, as they say.

To make an artist, that is.

These days, it’s essential that young artists have their “team:” the voice teacher, the rep coach, the acting coach, the dance instructor… the list could go on.  In addition to comprising a great cheering section, each of these instructors and mentors brings a unique, distinct perspective to the table, helping to create you, the well-rounded artist.

It’s important, therefore, to know exactly what specific role of each of your instructors plays in your artistic life, and for the two of you to be mutually clear about your hopes/dreams/expectations for your professional relationship.  While there can be a bit of overlap among mentors at times, it’s important to recognize that each should have a primary purpose that is distinct from that of the others’.

Let’s talk about the voice teacher, shall we?

I’ve found that young students today have a wide range of expectations and goals when it comes to voice study, from improving their technique to landing more lead roles to just wanting to “sing for fun.”  And many begin their voice studies without any specific expectations at all.  

Now, to be fair, we voice teachers – especially free-lance studio teachers – do wear a lot of hats.  Our jobs are multi-functional because, let’s face it, being a singer in today’s industry is a multi-faceted career.

However, the primary purpose of a voice teacher, before anything else, is to be a vocal technician.

Meaning, her main job is to teach you how to sing.  Anything and everything else comes secondary to that.

 

This means your voice teacher should be teaching you:

  • Vocal function: How your voice works, how to use it properly, and how to keep it healthy.
  • How to practice, including specifics on what and why and how often.
  • How to choose appropriate repertoire.  In other words, guidance as to what pieces might be a good fit for you and why.
  • How to use your technique to facilitate artistry.  Want to float that high note, or having trouble singing with the appropriate registration for your song?  Your teacher will show you how.  In the process, you’ll probably also get some interpretive advice.
  • How to prepare for auditions – both from a musical/vocal standpoint, and from an etiquette/protocol standpoint.  It’s important not only that you sing well, but that you present yourself professionally.  This latter category can include things like what to wear, how to format your resume, how to work with an audition pianist, and other general do’s and dont’s.
  • Musicianship skills, especially if you’re beginner and/or have never had any musicianship/theory training.  Once you’re at the college level though, your voice teacher should not be teaching you musical basics.  Your musicianship training at this point will focus more on specific repertoire styles, with the assumption that you’ve already mastered the fundamentals.
  • Your music, if you’re a beginner, and/or have little musical background.  This is usually done both by teaching the song in the lesson, and giving you the tools/resources to help you continue learning it on your own.  Once you’re more advanced, however, your teacher should not have to spoon-feed you your songs – you should have some skills and a music-learning system in place to learn your music independently.

 

Now, let’s take a look at some of the things your teacher is NOT:

 

A human karaoke machine 

Your teacher’s job is to make you a better singer, not simply to be a live background track to which you sing your favorite songs once a week.  

But can’t I sing the songs I like? you ask.  Yes, you and your teacher can and should work together to find rep that will both help your voice grow and motivate you to practice.

However, singing through *the same songs* week after week, with little to no attention to technique or musical detail, is not going to help you become a better singer.  Instead, you have to keep introducing new rep that presents healthy, conquerable challenges for you, thoughtfully implementing the technique your teacher is teaching you.

Also, bear in mind that, while it would be ideal for everyone to sing only songs that they enjoy, you will also be asked to sing songs that you don’t really care for – both in your lessons and in the real world.

Finally, keep in mind that most voice teachers aren’t highly trained pianists, and that the degree of piano skills will vary with each teacher.  If you are looking for someone to play full accompaniments for your songs, you should seek out a vocal coach.

A trophy-giver

When you’ve conquered some technical hurdle, or met some musical goal, it’s completely appropriate to throw a mini-party in your lesson.  We’ve all been through the process and the struggle, and we know how exciting it is to finally feel like you’re doing something right.

The rest of the time, however – which will be most of the time – your teacher’s job is to address your technical problems.  

Yes, you have technical problems.  Virtually all of us do.  

And your teacher is there to to fix them – hopefully in an encouraging, supportive way.  Even if you already sound pretty good, her job is to make you sound even better, not just to keep telling you how great you are.  Her job is to make you better at singing, but it’s hard for her to do that if all you’re looking for is praise.

If you truly feel like your teacher is mean, or that her style somehow makes you uncomfortable, then that is a legitimate concern you should address with her.  However, if it’s just you being unable to handle constructive criticism, then you have some soul-searching to do.  If what you are looking for is constant affirmation and positive feedback, then you are considering the wrong field, not to mention setting yourself up for many a disappointment in other areas of life.

Your servant

While your teacher is there to serve your goals, in a way, she is not to be told how to do her job.  You are not to demand that she teach you according to your specifications, telling her how she should structure the lessons, what she should be addressing, and how.  

Aside from this attitude being completely discourteous in general, this is insulting to your teacher.  She has spent years practicing, studying, and honing her teaching style in order to help you grow.  She knows more than you – that’s why you are paying her, after all – so you should defer to her professional judgement in all things singing-related.

Furthermore, an entitled, demanding attitude sends your teacher the message that you will be very hard to work with.  In this field, reputation is everything.  People, including voice teachers, talk to one another.  You don’t want them to say the wrong things about you.  

And when it comes to recommendation letters for colleges, etc.?  Teachers are very honest.  So, make sure you give them good things to say.

If there is something you’d like to ask of your teacher, ask, don’t demand.  It’s better to say, “Is it okay that we do a shorter warm-up today, so that we have time to work on all three of my audition songs?” than to say “I need you to shorten the warm-up today so that we can work on my audition songs instead.”

A miracle-worker

A good teacher can do amazing things with a willing student, sometimes even in a short amount of time.  However, the key word here is willing.  The student must be open to the teacher’s instruction and practice consistently in order for improvement to be made.  And even with the best teachers, change will not happen overnight.  

It’s also important to acknowledge that, even with practice and improvement, you will still not land every role and get into every ensemble that you want.  Unless your teacher has literally no idea what she is doing, it is not her fault if you don’t get into select chorus, land the lead in the school musical, or get the solo in your a capella group.  That’s not to say it is your fault, necessarily – remember, there are approximately a million factors that determine audition outcomes.  But simply casting blame on your teacher is dishonest, shows a lack of personal responsibility, and is just plain bad form.

Remember…

Voice teachers, just like any other professionals, have gone to great lengths to cultivate their skills in order to help their clients.  It’s important to know what those skills are, and to respect the teacher’s education and experience.  Remember, voice teachers want to see you succeed, and many are happy to go above and beyond for a student who has the right attitude and work ethic.  

If you have been thinking of signing up for voice lessons but have questions about the experience, contact Kim or Ellen to find out more.  We’re happy to help, and would love to see you in the studio!