Vocal Health, Part II: Marking

Maybe the following situation is familiar to you: you’re in rehearsals almost every day for your upcoming production, summer musical theater campand your voice is tired.  Or you’re sick.  Or you’re trying to save your voice for another performance that evening.  You think about all the singing you’ll have to do in rehearsal, and wonder how your voice will ever hold up.

Fortunately, there is a strategy for saving your voice.  It’s called marking, and it means to modify your singing in order not to over-tax your vocal folds.

Even if you’ve never heard the term “marking” before, it’s likely that you’ve seen some version of it.  Maybe you’ve been in a rehearsal where another singer is singing in what we call “half voice” – lightly/quietly/at half of her normal volume.  Maybe you’ve witnessed another singer take his high notes an octave down.  These are both examples of marking.

How Do I Mark?

Like anything else with singing, marking takes practice, as well as knowing your own voice.  In order to mark effectively, you must already have solid vocal technique.  If you are still working out issues of dynamic range and breath support in your full voice, you should speak with your voice teacher before attempting to mark.

There are two main ways to mark:

  1. Singing in half voice.  This means to sing at a softer, less intense dynamic level.  In the musical theater world, it may also mean using your head voice instead of your belt register.  The idea is to lessen the amount and/or intensity of the work your vocal folds have to do, in an effort to prevent vocal fatigue.  Bear in mind, however, that no matter what volume you sing at, you should still sing with support.  Singing quietly does not mean singing off the breath!
  2. Singing high notes down an octave.  Especially if there are a ton of them, or you are in a rehearsal situation where you will have to sing them over and over.

When Should I Mark?

You can, and in some cases should, mark in the following situations:

  1. If you are in long staging/choreography rehearsals where the music/singing is a secondary concern
  2. If you are sick
  3. Working on elements such as text or rhythm which do not require full-out singing to learn

You should not mark:

  1. If the music/singing is the primary focus of the rehearsal (unless you are sick)
  2. If you are working on vocal technique
  3. In a final dress rehearsal or performance

Other Considerations

  • If you are unsure how to mark or what would be the best way to mark for your voice, talk to your voice teacher.  He or she will be able to show you how to do it safely and effectively.
  • If you plan to mark in a rehearsal, be sure to tell your director and any fellow actors who will be on stage singing with you.  Trust me, it is easy to be caught off-guard and miss your cue when you expect a big high note from the soprano and what you get is a lower, half-voice version of it.

Stay tuned for the next post in our vocal health series, which will talk about singing while sick!

Vocal Health, Part 1: Vocal Fatigue

Fall is here, and so are endless hours of rehearsals for choirs, shows, recitals, and the like.  It can be a tough time for the voice: even if you can manage to remain healthy (a feat in and of itself), all that singing can cause vocal fatigue.

When your voice gets tired, it’s important to know how to take care of it, and know when it is and is not safe to sing.  While every singer and his/her circumstances are different, this post will offer some general guidelines on how to keep from either temporarily or permanently damaging your voice from overuse.

Vocal Health = Overall Body Health

First of all, vocal health starts with overall body health.  Healthy eating (which means not only what you eat but also the appropriate quantities of food and how often), a consistent sleep schedule of 7-8 hours a night, sufficient hydration, and regular exercise are all necessary for keeping your voice and body healthy.  There are also many precautions you can take against getting sick – stay tuned for more details on that in the next post!

Common Signs of Vocal Fatigue

However, even if you are taking care of yourself and singing with good technique, it is still possible to overuse your voice.  Your vocal folds are incredibly resilient and incredibly fragile muscles at the same time.  Ideally, you want to do something about overuse before you end up with a real problem, so you need to be able to recognize the common warning signs of vocal fatigue:

1. Your speaking voice is hoarse, scratchy, or crackly.

2. Your singing voice is hoarse, scratchy, or crackly, or inconsistent (think “cutting in and out”).

3. You have difficulty singing something that is normally easy for you.

4. You feel abnormal physical tension in your throat or neck.

5. It doesn’t “feel good” to sing, despite your best efforts to sing well.

Like any other muscle in your body, your vocal folds need rest when they are fatigued.  Singing with vocal fatigue can cause muscle strain or other damage.  The baseball pitcher who throws hundreds of pitches a week can easily hurt himself, even if he is throwing with perfect technique.  The same is true for your vocal folds.  While a bit of swelling and an isolated case of laryngitis can heal fairly quickly with proper rest, more serious problems like nodes (i.e., vocal fold callouses) often require extended vocal rest, speech therapy, and/or even surgery to correct.

How To Recover

When your voice is tired, the best thing you can do is stop using it.  Take a day off from singing, if you can.  If you absolutely can’t, use your voice as little as possible: avoid talking, idle humming, or whispering.  If you absolutely must sing, do so with good posture and breath support.  Mark, if at all possible.  (Marking is modifying your singing to make it less taxing.  We’ll have a post on that soon!)  If you have a voice lesson scheduled, ask your teacher if you can do some non-vocal work that day.

Other things that will help your voice to recover could include:

  1. Drinking plenty of water
  2. Tea with honey (don’t go overboard, though – caffeinated tea can dehydrate you)
  3. Staying away from caffeinated/dehydrating beverages like coffee, soda, and alcohol
  4. Stretching and massaging tight muscles
  5. Doing some breathing exercises
  6. Straw phonation

How Do I Practice When My Voice is Tired?

There are a number of non-vocal ways to practice, including:

  1. Memorizing
  2. Character work
  3. Presentation
  4. Researching/listening to recordings
  5. Musical and/or textual analysis

When returning to regular practicing after a hiatus, it is best to proceed with caution.  Don’t attempt heavy or prolonged singing until you’re back in shape.  Instead, do some light warm-ups that will connect breath to sound right away without tension or pushing – lip trills or straw phonation is a good place to start.

If problems persist, alert your voice teacher.  Perhaps a technical adjustment is all you need.  If, however, your teacher feels that your issues are cause for concern, you should see an ENT who specializes in treating singers.  Do not ask your voice teacher to diagnose your problem – we know our pedagogy, but we cannot see your vocal folds.

Listen To Your Body

In short, caring for a tired voice is a lot of common sense – listen to your body and your voice, and be cautious if something doesn’t feel right.  It is better to take a little time off from singing and recover than to push through and hurt yourself even further.

Stay tuned for the next two posts in this series: marking, and singing while sick!

Do You Get Bored During Vocal Warm-ups?

Virtually every singer knows that vocal warm-ups are an important part of any practice session.  Just like the athlete has to warm up his muscles before training, singers need to warm up their instruments in order to prevent fatigue and/or injury.  Hopefully you have a complete, consistent warm-up routine that can get your voice going quickly and effectively; if not, speak to your voice teacher about what your warm-up routine should look like.

Recently, I wrote a post about the purpose of warm-ups: the why’s, the what’s, and the how’s.  If you haven’t read it, I recommend doing so before diving into this post.

Knowing that warm-ups are important and why, you would think that all singers would execute their warm-ups with thought and care all the time.

Sadly, this is not the case.  I’ve taught many a student who just zones out after the first few repetitions of the warm-up, forgetting all my instruction and thus falling short of the warm-up’s intended goal.

Now, in the students’ defense, warm-ups are pretty repetitive.  You sing the same pattern over, and over, and over again, all throughout your range – I get it; it’s easy for the brain to disengage when you appear to feeding it the same information again and again.  It’s like those endless homework assignments your math teacher assigns you: why do I have to do 100 problems, you think, if I’ve proven I’ve mastered the concept after doing just 5?

Vocal warm-ups are not like those repetitive math assignments, however.  Singing is not a one-skill event, ever.  Unlike a math problem, you cannot just apply the same formulaic approach to every repetition of every warm-up.  Your brain has to be engaged constantly – with the right things – for the warm-up to be effective.

So how can you keep yourself from getting bored and zoning out during warm-ups?

  1. Be mindful of the basics – i.e., posture and breathing.  If you think about nothing else, at least make sure these foundational elements are in place.  If you start singing with a collapsed rib cage, gaspy inhales, or shallow breaths, chances are you’ve gone on auto-pilot.  It could also mean that you’re tired, or concentrating so hard on something else that you’ve forgotten about them.  Whatever the case, back up and reset.
  2. Be mindful of the warm-up’s intended purpose.  What is the goal of the exercise?  Breath management?  Articulation?  Smooth registration?  Every time you sing a new repetition – that’s a single segment of a single warm-up, by the way – ask yourself, “Did I achieve the goal for this exercise?”  If the answer is no, do that repetition again, and again, and don’t move on to until you’ve achieved it.  Yes, it might take forever to work this way, and no, you will not have the time or vocal stamina to do this every day.  But you must do it frequently nonetheless.  This is how we build technique.
  3. Be mindful of where you are in your range, and make technical adjustments accordingly.  It’s easy to go on auto-pilot and, whoops, we’re already in high-note land!  And you haven’t adjusted your breath or your resonance, and so your high notes start to tank.  Again, warm-ups are different from the one-approach-fits-all math problems: different parts of your range require different things from your body, even if it’s all the same pattern.
  4. If your teacher gives you an instruction during your warm-ups, you must assume, unless told otherwise, that that instruction applies to every repetition of that warm-up.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve reminded a student “silent inhale,” and they do it only for that repetition, forgetting about the instruction literally 5 seconds later when we’ve moved up or down one half step.

Building Mental Focus

If you haven’t realized this already, singing involves a lot of mental discipline.  It takes time to develop this kind of focus. 

  • If you find yourself getting mentally tired after a couple warm-ups, take a break for a few minutes, and come back when you feel fresh again.  It’s better to do this than to sing your warm-ups mindlessly with poor technique.
  • Make sure that your practice space facilitates focus.  If it’s too hot/cold/noisy/small/big/depressing/dry/smelly/whatever, and you don’t enjoy being in it, you’re going to have a hard time focusing on your singing.  Make sure your space is comfortable and meets all your needs.
  • Consider minimizing distractions.  Distracted by your phone?  Put it on silent and out of reach – in the next room, even.  Find yourself gazing out the window too much?  Pull the shade down or face the other direction.  Family members getting in the way?  Consider practicing when they’re not home, or request that they stay out of your practice space.

Just remember: be patient and honest with yourself.  Practicing can be tedious at times, but the reward is well worth it!

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!

goals

Back to Basics, Part 2: Vocal Warm-ups

We’ve all done them, or at the very least, heard them before: the endless patterns, scales, and weird noises that singers use as vocal warm-ups. While, to the untrained ear, we may sound like dying cats or like we’re screaming bloody murder, any experienced singer will tell you that warm ups are absolutely essential to a good practice session or performance.

This is true, of course. But why? 

Most young or inexperienced singers will say that warm-ups are essential to “get your voice going.”  While this is perhaps the most basic aim of warm-up exercises, an effective warm-up routine must consist of at least these three goals: 

Goal #1: “Lining Up” the Voice

This initial part of a singer’s practice routine is usually what people are referring to when they say “get the voice going.”  However, the point is not simply to use your voice.  You must execute your exercises with thought, attention to detail, and self-awareness. 

This stage usually begins with some stretches and an alignment check, and then energizing the breath in some way.  (Check out this video for posture tips, and this one for breathing exercises!)

When you begin to sing, choose an exercise that will help to connect breath to sound right away (voiced consonants like z or v are great for this).  As you sing, you want to make sure the various parts of your mechanism are released (throat, jaw, tongue, soft palate, etc.).  Use a variety of vowels, and travel up and down your range, feeling the changes in resonance.  (For a few suggestions, check out this video!)

Goal #2: Technical Specifics

Once you’ve ensured the voice is functioning properly, start to think about specific techniques.  What technical ideas have you been working on in your lessons lately?  What problems have you been trying to fix?  Choose warm-ups that will help you work on these things – perhaps some of the same exercises you did in your most recent lessons.  The main idea here is that every exercise have a specific purpose.

 

Goal #3: Preparing for Specific Rep

What songs will you be working on that day?  If it’s something with a lot of high notes, you should make sure you stretch up there.  If your song has lots of staccato, make sure you include some in your warm-ups.  If it’s got lots of runs, long scales should be a part of your routine.

 

How Long Should I Spend on Warm-ups?

The answer to this question varies depending on the level of the student, his or her vocal abilities, the demands of his or her rep, and other considerations.  In a 30-minute practice session, I would advise spending 10-15 minutes on warm-ups, and the rest on repertoire.  In a longer practice session, 15-20 minutes is fairly standard for more advanced students.

Other Important Considerations:

Your warm-up routine should be consistent, yet evolve with your vocal needs.  In other words, have a regimen of exercises that serve your needs and goals for right now; as your technique grows, you may find that certain exercises no longer serve a purpose or are not stretching you enough.  This is completely normal.  Work with your teacher to find new exercises that will suit your needs.

You should keep your day’s voice use in mind when warming up and practicing, and monitor how your voice is feeling.  You may find, for example, that your voice gets tired on days when you have school chorus.  This means you should consider doing a lighter warm-up that day, so as not over-tax your voice.  Or, if you know you will be singing a lot in your evening production rehearsal, you may choose to scale back your practicing session to save some voice.  In these cases, the primary goal is usually to do what is necessary to get things connected and functioning properly, and then move on.  

If you find that a certain exercise just isn’t working, re-assess how you’re feeling/what’s happening and try something else.  It’s better to abandon something that doesn’t feel good than to keep going and work more tension and bad habits into your voice.  You could just be having a bad voice day.  It’s frustrating, but it happens.

You do not need to warm up to the extremes of your range every day.  You should choose one exercise to stretch your stratosphere (or your basement) a couple times a week, but you shouldn’t sing up there every day, especially if you are young/new to singing.  Singing in these areas of your range too much can be extremely demanding on the voice.  Unless you are singing rep in which these notes are required, it’s not essential to exercise them every day.

In General…

Remember – specificity is key!  It’s better to do fewer exercises – each with a specific goal – than to do more exercises without a purpose in mind.Curious to learn more?  Contact us with any questions, or, better yet – sign up for lessons!

 

singing tips

In Singing, There Are No Shortcuts

Have you ever seen those sketchy-looking Internet ads that pop up on those less-than-reputable websites?  The ones that entice you with titles like, “Get rid of belly fat with this one weird trick!” or “The secret about preventing [health problem x] that doctors don’t want you to know!”

It’s obvious to anyone with even a shred of common sense that these ads are total bunk.  As most intelligent people know, there is no “one trick” to losing belly fat, and doctors are not hiding valuable information about disease prevention from us.  The creators of the ads are obviously looking to make a quick buck on some weird gimmick.  Let people think they have been duped by [whatever/whomever] all along, and they will surely buy into our stuff! Read more

good performing techniques

The Mixology of a Good Performance

Have you ever sat there in the audience, listening to a singer who maybe *sounds* good enough, but whose stage presence is just… awkward?  I’m talking hapless, seemingly random gestures, a deer-in-headlights look, a wild lack of visual focus, and/or an obviously huge emotional disconnect from what they are singing about.  Yes? Read more