The Challenges of Teaching Big Voices

There are a number of unique challenges to teaching big voices.   Large voices are more complex in nature, and there are more variables that can play into taking their development to a professional level.  The impressive nature of their instruments can lead mediocre teachers to excuse vocal faults, believing the voice will be appreciated anyway.  Because of this, it is incumbent upon large-voiced singers to understand that their needs will not be met by every teacher.   They need to keep an eye out for areas of their technique that might be overlooked and underdeveloped.

Vocal problems that are relatively easy to diagnose in small and medium-sized instruments are often much harder to determine in truly big voices.  The problems present themselves in different ways.  Without the requisite experience of teaching other large voices, a teacher can easily mistake one issue for another and lead the student down the wrong technical path.  To work effectively with large voices, a teacher has to be willing to admit that s/he does not necessarily know the correct issue right away and be willing to experiment and find out over a few lessons how that particular voice works.  More experience of hearing the voice should help clarify what the underlying technical issues truly are.  Getting feedback from the student is also a huge help in helping the teacher understand the instrument inside and out.

Good teachers are open to listening to the technical concerns of their students and addressing them in the voice lesson.  This is, in fact, an important part of the process and can clarify the reasons behind certain vocal issues for a teacher.  After all, the singer is the only one who can actually feel what is taking place during phonation.  The feedback of a sensitive singer can play a crucial part in constructing a wonderful vocal technique, so don’t be afraid to speak up.  It is your voice and you have every right to ensure that it is being developed correctly.  The right teacher will listen and respect you for it.

Once well on the way to developing a healthy, working technique, there is the ever-present danger of not going far enough when addressing various technical aspects of the voice.  Because large-voiced singers can often make a lot of sound relatively easily, subtleties can be accidentally overlooked when the voice starts coming together.  It is imperative that all of the necessary components of an excellent technique are addressed and enough time is devoted during practice sessions for the muscle habits to change.  A slapdash effort is not enough.  Here, it is the responsibility of the teacher to ensure that the singer understands what the goals are and how to reach them.  It is the responsibility of the singer to make sure that s/he understands and works towards the goals assiduously, while remaining open and free.  Singing is all about refining the basic principles.  From a technical standpoint, there is nothing else to work on but these basics.

Spinto Tenor

I had an extremely talented spinto tenor come to me recently for lessons.  He told me that he was having issues with his top and with sustaining phrases.  He studied previously with a well-respected teacher and understood all of the necessary components for an excellent technique intellectually.  Many of those components were included as part of his technical coordination, but not all of them.  Some of those that were included were not taken far enough to make the necessary differences in his technique and sound.

This tenor was familiar with the thin edge function, having worked on it in the past.  But he had moved away from reinforcing the concept in his practice sessions and had gradually reverted using more thick mass of the cords.  This is common in singers who don’t take the time to reinforce the concept consistently.  When I took him through the thin edge exercises in his first lesson, reminding him about the correct way to execute the vocaleses, his voice changed dramatically.  As the excess weight dropped away, it gained in size and beauty, taking on a wonderful sheen and polish.  He also found his top was now easily accessible again.

There was still an unusual raspy, static-like sound in this tenor’s voice, the cause of which I was not able to identify immediately.  But I knew his soft palate was “lazy” and was not high and wide enough, so I addressed that.  As his soft palate expanded, I was able to tell that he was lacking in the necessary expansiveness in other areas of his oropharynx and pharynx.  He was doing some expansion, but not enough.  Opening the back and sides of his oropharynx added additional color, size and freedom to his sound.  The same lack of full release of the larynx was true, as well.  The larynx was a little lowered, but not enough and not consistently.  Working on a lowered, relaxed laryngeal position changed the voice even more, increasing the size yet again and, interestingly enough, removing the previous raspy sound.  His voice was now clear as a bell, gorgeous, rich and very resonant.  Through this process, his breath issues disappeared on their own.

This tenor will continue to work with me to learn the full extent to which he needs to apply these concepts and to find the precise balance.  This was clearly an example of either (1) the failure of the previous teacher/s to push a large-voiced singer to implement the required technical changes, (2) a lack of understanding of on the part of the singer of the degree to which the technical changes had to be taken or (3) the failure of the singer to practice intelligently and reeducate the existing coordination until the new habit became second-nature.


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