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!

 

audition tips

How To Ace a Choral Audition

Congratulations – one month of school year down!  Only… 8.5 more to go?  But who’s counting.  

These past few weeks have probably either felt like a time of exciting, new beginnings, or a time of exhaustion and stress.  Or maybe both.  New classes, new teachers, new workload.

Fall is also when many school music programs hold auditions for their various choirs, choruses, and a capella groups.  Since I’ve helped many a student prepare for choral auditions, I thought it would be worth a blog post.  Even if your school’s choirs have already held auditions, remember – senior and junior district auditions are still to be had (November and January, respectively)!  And many select groups hold auditions at the end of the school year for the next academic year.  So you’ve got plenty of time to up your choral audition game, and opportunities to show it off! Read more

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