Bridging the Gap – Applying Technical Exercises to Repertoire

 

Singers tend to believe that technical exercises are done solely before working on repertoire and that repertoire is a completely separate part of their practice regimen. Many singers even view exercises as “warm ups” for the voice and nothing more.  In truth, vocal exercises give singers a wonderful opportunity to explore and improve their vocal technique and their importance should not be minimized.  The more willing a singer is to work on exercises and then apply those concepts creatively to repertoire, the faster the singer improves.  Here I will explain how the best technical exercises can be effectively used to help transfer new and better vocal habits directly into repertoire.

There are many different types of technical exercises for the voice. Some are merely warm-ups and do not teach correct coordination of the voice.  I neither teach those to my students nor am I referring to them in this article. The best technical exercises, and the ones worth practicing and perfecting, directly train into the voice a very specific, healthy habit.  Some exercises even train more than one habit at a time.  These exercises are usually difficult, because it is in the process of learning to do the exercise correctly that the new vocal habits are formed.  As a consequence, these exercises require patience and an understanding that every student is not going to be able to execute every exercise perfectly the first time he or she tries them.  In fact, it sometimes takes several weeks to over a month for an exercise to feel comfortable and even longer to get the maximum benefit from it.

Vocal exercises are done first when practicing in order to get the voice warmed up and going, of course, but more importantly, to train the necessary, specific coordinations for singing and set up the ideal conditions for working on repertoire. That is why beginning singers or singers working on a new technical approach should spend a great deal of their practice sessions only working on exercises. Vocal exercises are designed to be much, much simpler to sing and sing well than any song in the world, so they are an ideal way to approach a new vocal concept.  By using limited vowels and consonants in a specific musical pattern that is repeated, it is significantly easier to initiate and maintain new coordination.  In mathematical terms, vocal exercises are simple equations with very few variables. When more variables are brought in, the difficulty of the music in increases greatly and it is more challenging to maintain technical changes.

The key to bridging the gap between vocal exercises and repertoire is to gradually increase the number of variables in what is being sung.  That means don’t go directly from vocal exercises with one to three vowel sounds and one consonant to repertoire with 10 or more vowel sounds with multiple combinations and 20 consonants, for example.  Instead take the limited number of vowels and consonants from a favorite vocal exercise and sing them using the melody of a song or aria you want to work on, keeping in mind what vowels work best in each part of the voice and making adjustments as needed.  A wonderful way to limit the variables in a song or aria is to simply sing the vowels of the words without the consonants.  This requires thinking of the words as you are singing them, but eliminating the consonants as you do so. It might seem hard at first, but after a little practice, you will be able to do it easily.

After applying one or two simple concepts from the vocal exercise to repertoire, go one more step and try making the variable a little more complex by adding another consonant or vowel to the mix.  The more gradually you can build up the number of variables while still maintaining the technical aspects you are working on, the more likely you will be able to keep that technical aspect going in the song or aria.  This approach requires patience and persistence, but is truly a wonderful way to ensure that you advance forward technically.

Vocal exercises that train specific aspects of vocal technique can also be used in repertoire. For instance, the thin edge function exercise using very light, barely-sung staccati can be very successful applied directly in repertoire to encourage and maintain the thin edge function.  Instead of singing legato lines, sing the melody on the same staccati, making sure that you are not singing full voice, but just barely bringing the vocal cords together and phonating.  Using the ng hum is a wonderful way to practice any repertoire, especially since the mouth position can be easily adjusted.  Do an ng hum, making sure that it is resonating in the mask, throughout any repertoire.  That then gives you a guideline for how much effort needs to be used when singing it with the words and how to maintain correct nasal resonance throughout the piece.

Every part of the vocal practice session pertains to vocal technique, not just when vocal exercises are being done.  Since vocal exercises are how vocal technique is really learned, using them frequently when working on repertoire is the best and easiest way to make substantial, positive changes.

For those singers with the drive, patience and discipline, working with technical exercises interspersed with phrases of the repertoire can very directly “bridge the gap” of applying the new, healthy habit to the music. This is not an easy approach and can be quite frustrating at times, especially because singers simply want to sing and stopping the flow of the music goes against our nature. Therefore, I would suggest that a certain portion of the repertoire practice time be allocated to this approach, still leaving a few minutes at the end to sing through your pieces more and retain the all-important emotional connection to the music. If you are very motivated to make positive changes, it is possible to use only this approach for certain period of time. However, if you start to feel frustrated and upset about singing, go back to singing through the music for part of the practice session.

Below is an example of how to utilize this approach to encourage correct nasal resonance in the voice:

 

Do normal technical exercises for 15 to 30 minutes, including ng and NyE – ri – tu – mi – kya – nya – bE – la exercises in my article, Training Ring Into the Voice.  Repeat those exercises at the end.

Sing through part or all of the chosen piece on the ng hum.

Go back to the beginning or the beginning of the section you want to work on.  Sing the first phrase on a ng hum.  Repeat.

Sing the phrase using NyE (consisting of nasal and with a glide into an open eh vowel) on each note, modifying the vowel at the top if necessary.

While retaining that feeling of correct nasal resonance, sing the phrase on a favorite vowel.

Repeat phrase on a ng hum.

Now, try singing the phrase with the words, keeping the sensation of correct nasal resonance that has already been built into it through the above procedure.  Pay careful attention to any notes that fall out of the nasal resonance and use the above procedure to work on consistency throughout the phrase.

Repeat the above procedure for each subsequent phrase.

After four to six phrases, start at the beginning of the piece or section and sing all the phrases on a ng.

Sing all phrases with the words, while retaining correct nasal resonance.  Continue to work your way through the piece.

 

Though very painstaking and exacting, this approach builds into the repertoire good, healthy habits almost by default and can be used for many different technical concepts, not just correct nasal resonance.  After several practice sessions using this approach, there should be some positive improvement taking place.  You might even notice improvement after one practice session!  Reinforcement will help solidify the changes.  Of course, simply focusing on one element while ignoring the rest of the technique is not a good choice.  You also have to be aware of what is going on with your entire voice and notice if you are altering anything in an effort to work on nasal resonance.  If you are, then you need to spend a few minutes addressing that before implementing procedure above again – everything has to remain in balance.

Below is an example of how to practice combining two different technical concepts at the same time, using here the ng ring and high soft palate to create the vocal protection:

 

Do normal technical exercises for 15 to 30 minutes, including ng and NyE – ri – tu – mi – kya – nya – bE – la exercises.  Repeat those exercises at the end.  Also do a descending five-note scale exercise, singing first ng and then popping the palate up on each note, e.g. ng-ah, ng-ah, ng-ah, ng-ah, ng-ah.

Sing through part or all of the chosen piece on the ng hum.

Go back to the beginning or the beginning of the section you want to work on.  Sing the first phrase on a ng hum.  Repeat.

Do the beginning of the yawn, while focusing on the sensation of a higher soft palate.

Sing the phrase on a favorite vowel, while retaining a higher soft palate.

Do the ng exercise in a key related to either the beginning of the phrase or the piece itself and directly afterwards sing the phrase with the words, keeping the sensations of correct nasal resonance and a high soft palate that have already been built into it through the above procedure.  Pay careful attention to any notes that don’t retain both elements and use the above procedure to work on consistency throughout the phrase.

Repeat the above procedure for each subsequent phrase and then apply to groups of phrases throughout the whole piece.

 

These are merely several examples of how singers can intelligently apply wonderful technical exercises to their repertoire practice time in a very effective manner.  If you understand the technical purpose behind your vocal exercises, it becomes easy to use them as tools to help you solve technical difficulties in repertoire.  They become like the colors on an artist’s palette, allowing you to use the right exercise for the right purpose. It takes time and experience to get to this level, but it is certainly possible and should be the goal of all singers. Of course, you always want to keep in mind the purpose of the exercise and make sure to apply it intelligently, not just willy-nilly.  When in doubt, consult your voice teacher or another knowledgeable professional for advice.

 

For more articles and information, visit my website, http://www.thebricelandstudio.com

 

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