I remember a voice teacher once telling me that he had completely built a particular singer’s voice from virtually nothing. I had never had that experience in my teaching up to that point – all of my students had arrived in my studio with some voice present that could be worked with and developed. However since that time, I have had to build several voices from nothing and will relate one of those journeys in truncated form below.
Sara (name changed for anonymity) came to my studio around nine months ago. She was 18 years old and had never studied voice before, but had a strong desire to sing, an excellent work ethic and was highly intelligent. She had previous musical experience playing other instruments. Sara did not have any specific bad singing habits, but when she sang, her voice was tiny, barely audible at all, vibrato-less and breathy. I could not hear her if one note was being played on the piano simultaneously. This did not bode well, but I did not judge her harshly and kept an open mind. I have seen great transformations take place using the tools of the Swedish-Italian School, so I knew what was possible for her with hard work and application.
I started Sara off with the thin edge exercise, along with the cuperto and ng vocaleses for several weeks. This got her used to the voice lesson process and working on her own with the exercises. We also discussed correct breathing for singing. Soon, a little more vocal sound was present and I judged her able to start working on the cord closure exercises to help address the leakage at her vocal folds when phonating for singing. (I had already noted that her speaking voice did not display any air leakage.) I explained to her precisely how to approach them and cautioned her not to overdo in any way – simply to sing the exercises normally. They are designed to bring the cords together automatically.
After practicing the cord closure exercises at home for a week, Sara came to her lesson with a healthier phonation and more core sound when she was singing. Clearly this was very helpful approach for her, so I reinforced that by working on her breathing again and introducing lower back expansion and the rev. Since lower back expansion is directly related to healthy cord closure, it seemed the obvious choice. Sara was able to grasp the concept easily and took it home to practice. At her next lesson, her cords were approximating more closely, but she was working too hard to expand her back muscles, which added extra tension. I explained that it was the slow, continuous engagement of the muscles that was necessary to ensure the desired effect and she made adjustments. Her approach at the next lesson was energetic but balanced, which is precisely what is needed. With the right amount of energy from the rev, her tone gained even more core of sound and a hint of the lovely instrument inside could finally be heard.
While continuing to work on back expansion and the rev, I introduced the idea of energizing the abdominal wall to add in another important aspect of the support mechanism. Sara had been singing pop music and taking chest voice far too high, so I explained the differences between the registers and the importance of switching over to a mix of chest and head registers for the middle voice. She tried it and her voice was airy and weak again using a mix, which, since she had just been battling that very problem and was finally making good progress, she didn’t like in the least. I asked her to keep trying the mix and to use her back expansion and the cord closure exercises to help bring the cords together.
Sara’s lessons continued. Because her voice had very little natural ring, I asked her to focus on the ng exercise and gave her nje-ri-tu-mi-kya-nja-bel-la. The combination of more core in her sound allowed her to benefit even more from the vocal protection as she developed it and her sound began to grow. Working with her on the cuperto, identifying a “heady” approach and carrying that down into the middle voice helped her gain more confidence in her naturally weaker middle voice, but it remained more airy than the rest of her voice. Hearing that this is the norm for women and would eventually be solved helped reassure her.
Then, I introduced the concept of the lower larynx, which she was able to do easily practicing it at home for one week. Having a relaxed lower laryngeal position naturally gave her more depth and color in her voice and increased her volume. I then explained the pre-vomit reflex and the combination of the lowered larynx and more open pharyngeal space made a big difference in her sound. Sara said her voice also felt more secure, reliable and easier to produce with this approach. To continue on with opening her resonance spaces, I gave her soon thereafter exercises to open the back and side walls of the throat behind the mouth. This also increased her sound and helped her voice feel easier.
Sara was more willing at this point to try a mix in her middle voice and with the help of expanding her back, her vocal cords were learning the good new habit of maintaining better cord closure. She said her high notes felt a lot more comfortable and that she felt she wanted to sing higher as a general rule. Having a more functional technique overall was reorienting her high voice towards its innate tessitura. I continued to have her work on ring and the vocal protection, which enabled her to start showing signs of a healthy vibrato for the first time. Working on a lowered larynx helped her voice continue to grow in size and color.
An excellent and dedicated student, Sara valiantly worked on her vocal technique daily and in particular, worked on her back expansion and breath resistance until it was connected with her vocal production. After nine months of study, her voice has truly been transformed! It is now at least 20 times bigger than her wispy sound in her initial lesson, is easily produced and is taking advantage of her natural resonance. She has both some ring and some warmth in her voice. While she still tends to revert to taking chest voice a little too high in performance situations, she says that her middle voice in a mix is starting to feel just a secure (with back expansion, of course) as her chest voice. Victory!
Sara is extremely grateful to me for her tremendous amount of improvement in the last nine months. I tell her that she took the tools and guidance that I gave her and ended up teaching herself whenever she practiced. That is the way it is supposed to be. Because she was intelligent, listened to my explanations, was aware, observed her own process and asked pertinent questions, she had the tools she needed to work on her own voice and improve. The right tools and the right attitude are both equally necessary for success. Sara will continue to study and her voice will continue to improve by leaps and bounds.
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