Being a Creative, Artistic Singer

 

The life of the classical singer is complex.  Singers are required to make significant technical and musical strides forward during their extended development process, as well as artistic ones.  Of the three, the artistic strides are by far the most often overlooked, especially the singers themselves.  But they are not overlooked by auditioners, management and directors.  Lack of an artistic finish is used to winnow otherwise exceptional singers from contention for gigs, roles and long-term contracts.

How do you work on your artistic development?  It is an individualized process, so there is no generic answer that fits every single singer.  However, below there are some general guidelines that can help you discover your own, unique process.

Get out of denial

This is the first step – to realize that you actually need to work consciously to develop your artistry.  Doing a few performance classes, workshops and concerts are not an adequate substitute.  Pasting some generic gestures on top of every aria you sing does not count as artistry.  You need a systematic way to explore your music, your characters and yourself on an emotional level that feels safe and is productive.

It is easy to believe that you are the exception to the rule and do not need to work on your artistry.  But that is just an ego trap set, which lulls you into a sense of smug complacency.  Just like everybody needs to develop and maintain a healthy vocal technique, everybody needs to work on their artistry – everybody!  It was consistent, effective, imaginative work that made the great operatic and art song interpreters what they were.  Maria Callas used to literally practice six or seven hours a day, day after day.  It isn’t humanly possible that she was singing for that extended a time.  Clearly, she was working on musicality and artistry the majority of the time, contemplating different possibilities and refining her approach.  She became a legendary singing-actress because she developed her natural talent to a high level, not just by accident.

Finding the right tools

There are not a plethora of tools specifically for singers available to help you become a more expressive and effective artist.  The best way is to research the resources available for actors and instrumentalists.

Formal acting training for singers is invaluable!  By its nature, it is designed to break down inhibitions and make you more spontaneous, as well as more creative, open to possibility and able to express emotions.  There are acting classes in most communities.  Avail yourself of several classes and discover how they can help you refine your artistry.  Don’t expect dramatic progress (forgive the pun!) right away, but instead a gradual peeling away of layers.  If acting classes feel uncomfortable for you, that is actually quite normal.  They aren’t supposed to be comfortable, but should give you the structure and guidance to challenge you to push past your usual boundaries.  However, if you do feel any strong emotions or memories arising as a result, don’t hesitate to contact a qualified therapist for assistance.

Acting training is so critical for singers, because it teaches you how to develop a complete character and portray that character in a realistic physical and emotional way to an audience.  Singing is emotionally based.  Audiences can tell very easily if a singer truly feels the emotions about which s/he is singing.  Great artistry reflects life, real situations and real feelings, allowing the audience to relive their own emotions in the mirror of the performance on-stage.  To become an artist of the first order, you need your own way to express yourself with complete honesty in performance and transfer that honesty to your body and voice.  Formal acting training offers a number of wonderful, time-tested tools to do just that.

It is also extremely helpful for singers to delve into the extensive musical training that instrumentalists undergo.  It is the combination of music and language that make up the singer’s medium.  The musical side can never be ignored.  Vocal coaching is simply not enough.  Don’t settle for being told what you need to do – learn in depth about your options and decide for yourself on the basis of knowledge and experience.  Listen avidly to all types of instrumental music.  It is crucial and exactly what my students tell me they don’t do.  Listen, listen, listen!  Become as sensitive as possible to music.  Hear how much phrasing, emphasis and dynamics can enhance musicality and affect your emotions.  These are the tools with which you want to become intimately familiar in order to be a true singing-artist.  Immerse yourself in music of the various musical eras, so you can understand their norms and appreciate their nuances.  Research other ways that instrumentalists develop their own musicianship and try those, too.  The better a musician you are, the more you will develop as an artist.

Of course, you also want to listen to the great singers as much as possible.  They are your ultimate role models, your shining examples of what is possible.  But don’t just listen and imitate.  Listen critically and break down what they are doing musically with phrasing, diction, emphasis, etc.  Figure out what makes one singer different from another artistically.  Which would you rather emulate?  Try applying these musical ideas to your music and see what you think.  Analyzing these subtleties requires time and attention, but will give you much greater understanding of how detailed you need to be when developing your artistry.

Daydream often

An extremely important part of artistic development is having free time to think.  But in our world of constant interruptions, 24-hour news and multi-tasking, it is easy to keep so busy we don’t have the time we need to be creative.

Creativity doesn’t sandwich itself neatly between appointments or phone calls.  We have to court the Muse gently in a place without external distractions… and then wait patiently for inspiration.  That requires dedicated quiet time to think inventively about our music, the meaning behind poetry or prose, characters, motivations, life experiences and, indeed, our own emotional connection to the music, text and dramatic intent.  Take on the challenge of being a truly creative artist by bringing to life the same type of interesting, complex, three-dimensional characters in all of your music.

By being quiet and waiting for inspiration, you will join an extremely illustrious group.  The great classical composers lived in quieter world, listened to the inspirations inside their heads and wrote them down, crafting them through into the magnificent pieces of art that still live today.  Perhaps J. S. Bach with his multitude of children did not have a quiet home, but he only had to leave the noisy children with their mothers (lucky man!) and go to one of his churches to think and create.  Genius flourishes in quietude with the right nourishment.  Give your own inspiration a chance by including enough creative solitude in your life.  That is the only way to develop into a true artist.

Be specific

A major mistake many singers make in trying to developing their artistry is lack of specificity.  We as individuals are not generic stereotypes.  You can tell who is walking down the street simply by their gait.  So why would all of your characters walk exactly the same way… and, coincidentally, exactly the same way you normally walk?  They wouldn’t, of course.  Take the time to develop specific gestures, postures and other body language for characters, even in art song.  This is exactly what you learn in formal acting classes – how to flesh out a complete, realistic, differentiated character with a life history, experiences good and bad and then to express that character physically.

Learn how to be specific with your text as well.  Words have great power and words carefully chosen for librettos and poems are well-chosen and meaningful.  Take advantage of everything the words can tell you about the character and add in your own subtext based on your creative musings and inspirations.  This subtext can change according to a number of factors and it is in fact one of the highest artistic achievements to be able to develop multiple emotional approaches for the same operatic role – truly allowing the character to live and breathe like a real person.

Think outside of the box

The previous ways are the more conventional approaches to training your artistry, but there are countless other possibilities you can find both in real life and by the miracle of the internet.  Open your mind and see how creative you can be.  Maybe listening to someone read the poem of a song you are singing in his or her native language would give you insight into the natural emphasis of the language or the emotional possibilities available to you.  A character’s gesture, body language or attitude on a movie or TV program can become inspiration for a particular operatic character.  Someone you know can give you ideas for a character’s motivation.  Mixing the personal experiences and characteristics of family and friends can bring to life interesting and complex characters quite quickly – just make sure to change enough so that no one recognizes him or herself!  Books and other researched writings offer descriptions of people, situations, historical realities and social history that can be enlightening and give you far more material for your imagination to work with when developing characters.

Personally, I find a great deal of inspiration listening to trained actors from the UK speaking, both as themselves and in character.  I don’t mean just Shakespearian actors, though they can be a revelation, but regular actors, as well.  The vocal training there for actors is unsurpassed and they are able to express such crystal-clear differences in meaning simply by changing vocal inflection ever so slightly that I am continually amazed, delighted and inspired as I listen.  Many of the great composers tried to express spoken vocal inflection in their melodies.  Having a better understanding of the enormous range of vocal inflections allows you to delve into discovering the various meanings these composers built into their music – a fascinating study.

The fine arts can also provide ideas.  A Debussy song can be inspired by the mood of an impressionist painting – just move past the obvious and make very specific choices.  A famous sculpture could offer the starting point of the physicality of a character.  Go beyond the arts, as well.  Having a very bad cold helps you understand a consumptive’s suffering.  A nasty co-worker’s habits can inspire those of a villain.  A crazy neighbor can force you to experience the visceral nature of extreme frustration.  Getting stranded in a car in a snowstorm brings to life the realities of a Parisian garret.  Your own life experiences can give you insight into the difficult choices operatic characters make.  Inspiration is everywhere.  Life itself is inspiration for the creative singer!  Let your imagination run wild, learn and develop the appropriate tools and then translate life directly into your performances.  Then you will be a truly artistic singer and the classical singing world will benefit as a result.

 

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

The Triumvirate of Vocal Support

The majority of singers that come to me have learned some way to support their voice from previous teachers.  But almost all of them exclusively use abdominal support to do the critically important job of controlling the outflow of air from the lungs through the tiny, fragile vocal cords.  These singers were not taking advantage of utilizing the other two areas of the body and that form the triumvirate of vocal support.

It has long been known that the number three is special.  J. S. Bach and many other composers have used it heavily when composing music, many world religions have three deities or one deity divided into three parts and the human body itself has the number three occurring with great regularity in its physical organization (see here).  Three is the minimum number of legs needed to support any sort of workable stool, table, etc.  Therefore, it is not surprising that the ideal breath management system for singing (or vocal support) is composed of three areas of the body – the abdominal wall, the back and the sternum.

There are important advantages to having three areas involved in breath management.  Distributing the required work helps prevent muscle fatigue and gives the singer more vocal stamina.  The amount of work can be finely adjusted between the three, allowing for finer levels of vocal control.  And having three points of support creates a triangle, each point reinforcing and balancing the other.

Two important areas of support that most singers are unaware of are the back and the sternum.  The back I am referring to here is not the entire back, but a specific pair of muscles called the serratus posterior inferior.  This pair is located in a layer of muscles called the intermediate muscles of the back.  The intermediate muscles lie underneath the superficial layer of large back muscles that you can feel underneath your skin.  The serratus posterior inferior muscles begin at the spine towards the bottom of the rib cage and continue down into the lower back over about four vertebrae.  Largely rectangular in shape, they expand upwards and outwards away from the spine (in a northwesterly direction on the left-hand side and northeasterly direction on the right-hand side) to insert into the bottom few ribs themselves at the outside edge of the back.

The serratus posterior inferior are specifically designed to lower the ribs during expiration.  That means it is relaxing and lengthening on inspiration to allow the ribs to expand upwards and outwards and working and shortening on expiration to bring the ribs back down.  By taking advantage of the unique function of this pair of muscles, singers can slow the rate the ribs are lowered during singing and be able to control another aspect of the breathing mechanism and thereby, the breath management system.

To do so, singers need to be able to relax and expand in the lower rib cage upon inhalation, but not expand too much.  Overexpansion makes it more difficult to engage the serratus posterior inferior muscles on exhalation when singing – an easy expansion is all that is required.  As the lungs make their elegant transition from inhalation to exhalation, singers should take advantage of the innate function of the serratus posterior inferior muscles by consciously engaging them and expanding them directly outwards, slowing and controlling the rate at which the rib cage is lowered and the rate at which the breath exits the lungs.

Getting in touch with the serratus posterior inferior muscles can be a challenge for many singers, especially men.  They can seem very remote and inaccessible at first, but be patient with yourself.  These are muscles that no one normally tries to control on a daily basis, so learning to control them is a process.

Visualizing the location of these muscles is the first step.  Next, put your arms behind your back with the backs of your hands on their approximate location.  (You can find the bottom of your rib cage by poking around in the abdominal region and sides and then follow it around.)  Finally, simply gently ask those muscles to work and expand outward when exhaling.  It will feel like active work, but it shouldn’t feel terribly difficult.  You don’t want to completely suspend the movement of the rib cage, just slow it down!  Keep focusing on outward expansion and you will at some point begin to feel the muscles respond to your requests.

After you have experienced this specific activation of the serratus posterior inferior muscles, it is time to work on refining the coordination.  Making sure that the muscle pair is relaxed when inhaling, keep gently encouraging the muscles to expand outwards consistently during the entire exhalation with the stretchy feeling of trying to pull on a very thick, new rubber band.  When taking the next breath, completely release the muscles (though it can help to think that the muscles are releasing back inwards towards the spine, they are actually releasing upwards and outwards with the movement of the ribs) and then start engaging and expanding over again on the next exhalation.

With practice and persistence, singers are able to experience the engaged, consistent, outward expansion of this pair of muscles and apply it as part of their breath management system for singing.  This allows for many amazing vocal benefits other than superior breath resistance.  It is definitely worth the work required to attain this additional part of the triumvirate of vocal support.

P.S.  In case you were unconvinced of the importance of the number three, I actually used it as an organizational concept in this very article.  The majority of the paragraphs consist of exactly three sentences and several ideas I put forth I supported with three arguments.  Use of three in this way gives a sense of balance and order to which our minds instinctively respond, perhaps because our own bodies themselves are organized around the same numerical concept.

Part II

The third crucial part of the triumvirate is the sternum.  Like the back muscles, it is also significantly less utilized and rarely taught as an important part of support.  When it is addressed, singers are merely told to raise their sternum, which leads them to lift the sternum in an upward direction (towards the ceiling).  This elongates the front of the torso, creating a stretch in the muscles of the entire abdominal wall and adding unnecessary tension exactly where there needs to be relaxation for a low inhalation when singing.

So, what has to happen with the sternum instead and why is the sternum important when it isn’t even a muscle like the other parts of the triumvirate?  Those are excellent questions that I will address here.  True, the sternum is not a muscle.  It is the long bone attaching to the top seven pairs of ribs in the middle of the front of the body via cartilage and also articulates with the collarbones (clavicles).  The sternum itself is not one bone, but two bones fused together with a very small portion of cartilage at the bottom.  So when we singers refer to the sternum, we are not referring to the entire sternum, but instead to the very top, triangular portion of it called the manubrium (which means handle in Latin).

The manubrium, and indeed the entire sternum, are attached to various different muscles.  The important muscles for our purposes are the pair of pectoralis major muscles (pectorals) that lie across the entire breast area in the layer of muscles just above and on either side of the sternum, inserting into both the sides and top of almost the entire sternum.  Only the very top portion of the manubrium where it articulates with the collarbones and the very bottom part of cartilage at the very bottom do not attach with the pectoralis major muscles on both sides.  That gives the sternum the ability to affect the pectoralis major muscles quite easily, which is extremely helpful for singing.

When thinking that the manubrium is very slightly moving either directly forward (straight ahead) or directly backwards (behind) when singing, the entire sternum moves ever so slightly and the pair of pectoralis major muscles gets activated as a result, giving a great deal of added stability to the front of the upper torso.  Famous singers like Kirsten Flagstad have described this as feeling as if they had a breastplate on when singing and could literally lean into it.

Getting the manubrium to activate the pectoralis majors in this important way is not difficult.  However, it does take a little patience for singers to achieve.  The movement is quite subtle, but it is movement, consistent and energetic.  The choice of direction of this delicate movement is up to the singer.  Some people can only feel the activation when thinking the manubrium is moving slightly forward, others can only feel it when thinking it is moving backwards and some are successful thinking in either direction.  Experiment to find out what works best for you and then stick with it.  Make sure to keep the movement subtle.  You want to feel activation only in the upper chest area, not in the abdominal wall itself.

The advantages to using the manubrium in this way to activate the pectorals becomes clearer when looking at the triumvirate as a whole.  For breath resistance, the abdominal wall tightens and gradually comes in, helping control the rate of the rise of the diaphragm.  The back muscles widen and expand gradually outwards to help control the rate at which the expanded rib cage lowers.  Thus far, everything is moving and nothing is stable, even though the abdominal wall and back are on different sides of the body and each can use the energy occurring in the other area to resist against.

When you add the final piece of the puzzle, the sternum activating the pectorals, the whole picture changes.  Suddenly, there is a stable part against which both of the other areas can resist.  The two parts turn into three and the shape becomes a triangle, an extremely strong, basic geometric shape, which encompasses a majority of the torso, including both the front and back of the body.  This balances the breath management system amazingly by sharing the work to be done over a much wider area.

There is a special relationship between the serratus posterior inferior muscles of the back and the pectorals.  The activation of the pectorals via the manubrium helps the serratus posterior inferior muscles stretch outward more actively and the stretching serratus posterior inferior muscles help the pectoralis major muscles activate.  Each consistently reinforces the other, offering a sense of stability and giving the singer a range of energetic options for low, middle and high notes.

Both the serratus posterior inferior and the pectoralis major muscles benefit the work of the abdominal wall by creating a stronger platform against which to resist.  After all, it is much easier to control a gradual, inward pull when there is something to pull against.  It is almost as if the more static serratus posterior inferior and the pectoralis major muscles create between their two points a stable, angled wall through the plane of the body (because the serratus posterior inferior muscles are stretching, but with a smaller, overall excursion than the abdominals) and the abdominals therefore have a much larger, sturdier area against which to pull.

The beauty of this triumvirate triangle is that the stability is located at the top of the torso, where there is significantly less motion required and the movement control is located at the bottom, where the rib cage has the ability to expand and the real work of breath resistance is done.  Because there are more muscles working, the work can be distributed much more evenly and accurately.  Each set of muscles can be trained to do exactly what it needs to do without performing double duty and infringing on the work of the other muscles.  Singers end up feeling as if they are doing less work as a result.  In reality, they are exerting the same amount of effort, but the work is being shared.   A system of this type is much more efficient and can be maintained over an entire opera performance or a very long rehearsal.

Using the triumvirate of vocal support versus only abdominal support offers numerous advantages to singers.  The stability of the shared work of the triumvirate is a more complete system of vocal support or breath resistance, which drastically improves sound quality.  It is the ideal toward which all singers should strive and is achievable with correct instruction and practice.

 

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

Audition Etiquette for Singers

 

Though these are rarely spoken of, there is a set of rules for good audition etiquette.  It can take a long time to learn these by trial and error, so I thought I would lay these rules out clearly to enable people to be cognizant of them and more considerate to their fellow performers.

Keep all advice to yourself

As harsh as this might sound, before an audition is the last time to give advice to any other singer.  It is up to each singer to determine in advance what to do the day of an audition.  This can include special foods to eat or avoid, supplements or medications, gargling or nasal hygiene, exercise, extra rest, extra hydration, etc., etc.  Keeping to a schedule is important for some, whereas others treat an audition day just like a normal day.  The crucial thing is to find what works for you.  Once you do, any last-minute changes can throw everything off.  That is why advice right before an audition is unwelcome.  Afterwards, when there is time to experiment, it is fine to make suggestions.  But the last thing a singer needs to be thinking when walking on-stage to do an audition is, “I should have tried that menthol steam so-and-so told me about on my sinuses last night.”  The singer needs to be focused on the situation and the music.

As a singer, you need to trust in your own experience when preparing for an audition and not be easily swayed.  The history of operatic performances is littered with unusual quirks and customs.  A famous soprano used to eat hot dogs before every Metropolitan Opera performance.  It sounds unorthodox, but it worked for her.  If you feel better singing with nothing on your stomach, you are in the camp of many an illustrious singer, so do that.  Everyone is different and your unique body needs to be honored.

Don’t expect normal behavior

If you are auditioning with a group of colleagues, let everyone do their own thing the night before an audition.  The colleague always up for a beer in the evening might want to forgo it and head to bed at 8 pm.  Someone else might stay up late reviewing music.  It all depends.  Just realize that everyone needs to focus on themselves and you do the same.

If you are dealing with someone else auditioning, give them their space.  I remember one audition I did for which I had to fly half-way across the country and stay with hosts the night before.  After six hours in airports or airplanes, I was tired by the time I got there and really just wanted to rest.  My hosts were delightful people who were fascinated by my being an opera singer, but they did not have any boundaries.  I ended up having to talk to them for four hours, when all I could think of was lying down.  I was too nice to be firm.  Don’t make the same mistake.  If someone wants to take over your time before an audition, just explain to them kindly, but firmly that you have a set of important preparations to perform your best and ask for their understanding.  If you smile sweetly when you say it, they probably will.

Be considerate of others when warming up

On the day of the audition, you will have to warm up and make sure you are ready to do your best as soon as you walk in to sing the audition.  However, you might not have the facilities available to you to do your normal warm-up.  A hotel room at 7 am is not the place to spend an extended time warming up, nor is the bathroom at the audition venue.  Know your voice and develop a short warm up you can do with humming, lip trills, etc. to help get your voice going.  Research ahead of time if there will be a place for you to warm up.  If not, rent a practice room and organize your day to include that.  If possible, ask the audition organizers for suggestions.  By planning ahead, you will be able to make sure that you are as prepared as possible and won’t be warming up during the audition itself.

At the audition

As nice as it would be to chat and have a social hour before the audition, especially if you meet old friends and colleagues, realize that many people don’t want to do that.  Some people are happy to chat and then walk directly in to sing, but others need to focus.  Make sure to respect the needs of others by keeping talking to a minimum and at a low volume.  Remember, the auditioners might also hear you talking, so quiet is best.  If you decide to have an extended conversation, take it out of earshot.

Always dress appropriately for an audition!  Audition dress doesn’t vary much with the whims of fashion.  It is always better to overdress than underdress.  Skirts or dresses for women should be longer than the knee and men should wear ties and at least a sports jacket.  Wear attractive, comfortable shoes that are polished.

When called in to sing for the audition itself, walk briskly, smile, be pleasant, give you materials to the auditioners and get focused to sing right away.  They have lots of singers to hear and you don’t want to waste their time.  Try to seem friendly and approachable, while maintaining professional composure.  Answer any questions promptly and don’t get defensive.  Smile again before leaving and say, “Thank you”.

After the audition, it is best not to hang around.  Again, you want to be respectful of your fellow singers.  Set up times later to catch up with colleagues and leave the venue quietly, feeling that you have done your very best for now and learning everything you can from the experience.

 

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

The Voice Lesson – Learning on All Levels

 

Voice students learn crucial, technical information in the voice lesson. This is absolutely necessary to develop a healthy technique that will serve you well long-term.  However there are also other lessons that are learned subconsciously from voice teachers that have a huge impact on each student.  You want to make sure that this other information is similarly positive and helpful for you.

Voice teachers have the great responsibility of being examples for all singers.  They represent authority and expertise in a highly specialized, august field.  They are also the only path toward success for you the singer, giving teachers a huge amount of power.  Finding the right teacher is so paramount that singers often put up with other behaviors that are less than ideal.  Unfortunately it is these behaviors that can undermine singers’ ability to pursue a successful performance career.

Self-confidence

Whether it be unintentionally or intentionally, teachers can easily undermine the self-confidence of singers.  Since teachers are the authority figure, you as the student tend to believe what your teacher says is well thought-out, based on experience and absolutely true.  This is often not the case.  Not only are many teachers merely seeing the situation only from their own point of view, with no regard for the student, but some feel it their “duty” to discourage students who they believe have little professional potential.  Perhaps this would be a good thing if all teachers were equally skilled at helping students improve technically. But since many teachers are not particularly skilled at helping singers with different vocal issues consistently progress, singers with a great deal of talent and potential are often discouraged from pursuing performance careers simply because that specific teacher is unable to help him or her.  The fault lies with the teaching.  However, the burden of guilt is given to the student to bear with disastrous results.

It is always incumbent upon the teacher to think first before speaking and to utilize language that is positive and encouraging.  It is very easy for highly-sensitive singers to pick up on any negative-leaning comments and remember those instead of all of the positive feedback.  These negative comments can do a great deal of damage to a singer’s fragile ego, especially as they accumulate over time. Singers deserve teachers who are sensitive to the power they have to affect the student’s self-confidence and are willing to build up versus tear it down.

Self-reliance

There are a number of voice teachers out there who have built studios by keeping their students reliant on their help on a weekly basis.  These teachers are able to make effective technical changes in the student’s voice during the lessons, but never explain fully how they are making those changes, in order to empower the student to work more effectively on his or her own.  Without this information, the student has to rely on repetition and feeling to try to re-create the studio experiences, often with mitigated success. So the student returns to the studio the next week for more help, sings better during the lesson and struggles again when alone.  This pattern keeps the teacher busy, but takes power away from the student to reinforce the improved coordination him or herself, which is what changes the overall pattern habit most quickly.  You the singer need to be in control of your voice on every level.

The other huge downside of this approach is the fact that students are not always able to see a teacher every week and need to have tools with which to work on their own voices independently during rehearsals and performances.   Intelligent use of vocal technique is critical to performance success for singers.  If you the singer are unaware of the basis of your technique and how to adapt and change it for the better, then you are flying by the seat of your pants.

Teachers need to inform their students about how the vocal mechanism functions, the fundamentals of an excellent vocal technique and how to achieve them.  This isn’t rocket science.  Teachers should be able to explain what they are trying to achieve during the voice lesson.  If they cannot, as I have said before, it is a warning sign that the teacher him or herself does not truly understand the technical concepts and it might be time to find another teacher to help you.

Positive thinking

Some teachers work with their students using an overall defeatist attitude.  They themselves have had disappointments in their careers and are unable to believe their students could have different experiences.  This type of defeatist thinking is entirely counterproductive in the voice lesson.

Performers are now learning more and more from sports psychology about the power of positive thinking.  It can make all the difference between a good performance and a stellar one.  Singers must learn to transform negative thoughts into positive ones and what better place to learn than the voice studio?  It is a teacher’s responsibility to provide an example by being positive and encouraging to all of their students.  Singers have critics enough and need both their teacher’s support and an optimistic viewpoint to audition and embark on a performance career.  A can-do attitude is absolutely essential.

Conclusion

These are just some of the additional lessons learned by voice students in the studio.  There are others more subtle and difficult to distinguish.  Think about your own lessons and take note of what you might be learning, besides technique.  You want to ensure that they will not affect your singer’s ego in a negative way.

 

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

The Missing Piece of the Puzzle – the Thin Edge Function

 

With many of the singers I hear, there is simply too much unnecessary vocal weight being used, unconsciously or consciously, when singing.  The problem is most singers are not taught that it is possible to release that weight and be instructed gradually over time how to accomplish that consistently throughout their range when singing repertoire.  The majority of teachers are unaware of the issue, don’t have the ability to discern exactly what the problem is and/or don’t have the tools to address the problem of excess weight. Because the aural indicators of extra vocal weight can sound vary from vocal fach to vocal fach, they can therefore be very easily misdiagnosed.  However, excess vocal weight is a hugely important issue that needs to be addressed.

Fach misdiagnosis

Lack of the thin edge function can easily lead a singer’s fach to be misdiagnosed.  The excess weight can be perceived as real weight that is inherent to the voice. The singer then works on inappropriate repertoire that is too heavy for the real instrument, which exacerbates the problem and even encourages more unnecessary weight to be added.  This is a dangerous path for singers to tread, but it occurs quite frequently.

I worked with a young woman who was using too much excess weight in her voice.  On the recordings she sent me, she sounded like a young mid-weight lyric soprano with a lot of issues.  A previous teacher believed that she might even develop into a dramatic soprano.  In the studio, the voice sounded much smaller than in the recordings and was clearly shut down.  When introduced to the thin edge function over the period of her first lesson, her voice changed radically.  As the excess weight began dropping away and the thin edge function of the cords worked more consistently, her true fach of coloratura soprano became apparent – quite a distance from a lyric or dramatic soprano!  The excess vocal weight had truly “weighed down” her voice completely, including her high extension.  After several lessons, she had regained the natural facility and ease in her top notes that she had lost and her voice was healthier, freer and more beautiful.  The thin edge function allowed her to rediscover her true fach.

Resonator dampener

Unnecessary vocal weight also keeps the voice from being able to utilize fully the all-important resonators of the vocal mechanism.  Extra weight results in an unnaturally heavy sound that cannot possess as much pharyngeal resonance or correct nasal ring and thereby can never reach its full size and impact.  Since maximizing the size of each instrument through the resonators is crucial for classical singing, this is clearly a major problem.

I worked with a more mature singer last week who did not exhibit any initial, apparent signs of too much vocal weight.  However, since the aural indicators can vary so widely between voices, I had her work on the thin edge function anyway, as I do with all of my students.  It is helpful for everyone, as it reinforces proper vocal functioning at the highest level.  After just a couple of minutes, it was clear that she had been using too much vocal weight, even though it hadn’t been obvious in the least.  With the thin edge function, her voice grew half again as large as before and was much easier to produce.  The student was stunned and asked for an explanation for how such a dramatic change in her voice could take place so quickly.  I explained how the thin edge functions works and how she could use this concept on her own in practice sessions to ensure that she was singing with the thin edge function.  She was extremely grateful to have such a helpful tool in her arsenal as a guarantee she was singing healthily and with maximum resonance.

Vocal polish

One of the huge differences I hear in today’s singers compared to singers of the past is an overall lack of vocal polish in the sound.  This type of polish should be present throughout the voice, but is often most apparent at the top. Vocal polish is directly related to the thin edge function!  Without it, the voice lacks this final, finished quality of sheen, spin, freedom and exquisite beauty.  Again, the aural indicators can differ widely, but the lack of thin edge function in the voice can lead to high notes that range from unexciting to “squalid” and ugly.  Singers can learn to accept this sound as part of their natural instrument, but it is often purely related to how the vocal cords are functioning and the use of too much excess vocal weight.

I worked consistently on the thin edge function with a mature baritone who had been pushing his voice and singing with too much unnecessary vocal weight over a long period of time, to the detriment of his career.  It took him over a month of lessons and intelligent practice at home daily to reteach the vocal cords to release the excess weight and utilize the thin edge function instead.  The change in his voice overall and his high notes specifically could not have been more dramatic.  His voice regained a professional quality with sparkle and sheen.  His top became easy and his truly gorgeous, high notes could be heard once more.  His voice was working in a healthy manner, because of the thin edge function, and he was ready to get out and audition again.

Conclusion

The thin edge function is a necessity for every singer and is not a coordination that is regularly taught by the majority of teachers.  Some students luck into finding that correct functioning and are able to maintain it, but most have to seek out help from a qualified teacher to learn how to release the unnecessary vocal weight and truly reach their full potential as singers.

 

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

Free Your Neck, Free Your Voice

There is still misunderstanding on the part of the classical singing community regarding the Alexander Technique and what it has to offer singers.  Some have a vague idea that it would be helpful, having heard or read it, whereas others deny the need for any help other than technical work from a voice teacher.  In order to have a clearer idea why the Alexander Technique directly affects the main concerns of singers, let’s think about an important part of the vocal mechanism – the larynx.

The larynx or voice box houses the delicate vocal folds that enable us to sing.  The larynx is suspended from the hyoid bone by a web of membranes and therefore moves up and down vs. being fixed in one position.  This is extremely useful for us singers, because a released, lowered larynx increases vocal quality, size and color.  It also means that its function can be affected adversely by excess tension or misalignments that could keep it from working exactly as it was designed to.

F. M. Alexander, the founder of the Alexander Technique, discovered several extremely important new principles, one of which was the main pattern of tension that all humans and many other animals exhibit.  It is the pattern of tension in the relationship between the head, neck and back that he called “down and back”.  In this pattern, the muscles at the base of the back of the head connecting to the neck tighten and shorten, which rotates the head back on its axis.  This brings the weight of the head directly on top of the spine, compressing it.  The muscles at the back of the neck also shorten and tighten, along with the connecting muscles between the neck, back and shoulders.  The end result is a compressed, tight neck and excess tension in the upper back.

F. M. astutely observed that this pattern was pervasive in many people in various degrees and also seemed to be the key to unlocking other patterns of tension, so much so that he named it “the Primary Control”.  When this tension pattern was released, the coordination of the whole body improved.  So, the Alexander Technique is designed to focus very much on this head-neck-back relationship and encourage more freedom and ease there.

Back to singing now – because the larynx is not fixed in place, but is instead suspended, its functionality is vulnerable to anything that changes the structure or function of the neck.  Since this down and back pattern creates tension and compresses the neck, it has an impact on the functioning of the larynx and, as a direct consequence, the voice.  And the larynx is just one example of the vulnerability that is inherent in the delicate vocal mechanism.  There are many ways in which down and back and subtly and not so subtly affect the optimal functioning of the vocal mechanism.

Here’s the rub.  Because we are not consciously aware of this excess tension in the head-neck-back relationship, we believe everything to be absolutely fine and assume that our larynx and other important parts of the vocal mechanism are functioning normally.  However, that might not be the case!  It is entirely possible for singers to have various degrees of tension that would take a good voice teacher many years to address, but which could be released through studying the Alexander Technique.  It frees physical tension that creates vocal blocks, resulting in a significant improvement in vocal technique.

An Alexander teacher uses a gentle hands-on touch to send messages to the nervous system, calming down the muscular system and relaxing unnecessary tensions.  By releasing the tensions in the head, neck and back and suggesting a healthier, more coordinated relationship between the parts, the teacher helps the student experience what it feels like to be rid of that chronic, habitual tension.  Just like in voice lessons, with repeated experiences and the right tools, the student gradually learns to be able to release those tensions him or herself.

This is why the Alexander Technique is clearly an amazing tool for singers.  It deals directly with releasing tension in precisely the place that singers need to be the freest!  Singing with excess neck tension is like swimming upstream – difficult and not very efficient.  Sometimes, all it takes is turning around and going with the flow.  Developing one’s vocal technique is of course crucial, but if the functionality of the vocal mechanism is compromised by unnecessary tension, it will work at the optimum level required by the rigors of the performing classical singer.

 

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

The Importance of Flexibility for Singers

 

I often muse on the differences between the successful singers I have known and those who were equally or even more talented, but were hindered in having a career.  One of the big differences I can see between the two was the amount of flexibility the singers possessed.  Flexibility here does not mean that they perfected their coloratura passages or did more yoga, but instead that they were open to new information coming from various sources and able to adapt to new circumstances.

It is easy to denigrate the importance of flexibility to a successful career, but that would be a mistake.  The more flexible and open the singer, the more likely that person is to notice helpful information and use it to his or her advantage.  This starts during the beginning stages of training.  A young singer who sees learning opportunities everywhere, including at every recital and performance, would notice what works and what doesn’t work for other singers and make adjustments, improving musical and performance techniques over time.  S/he would listen to the opinions of the faculty about professional singers, make his or her own assessment and then do more research, being willing to change a previously held belief.  S/he would absorb new ideas from every possible source – teachers, colleagues, books, websites, recordings, etc. – to build up the base of musical knowledge that every singer should possess.  This is how to grow as an artist.

Compare this type of young singer with one less flexible.  This singer would believe s/he already knows what to do and would not see the learning opportunities that exist in every experience.  S/he would not believe change was as necessary for professional development and would have more difficulty making adjustments, even when specifically advised by the faculty.  S/he would be less open to learning from non-traditional sources and miss out on a great deal of wonderful information.  This approach limits one to just being “a voice”.

Flexibility is crititcal in the voice studio at all levels.  A flexible singer is willing to try new approaches given by expert teachers without prejudging them.  S/he is able to develop and hone observational and listening skills about his/her vocal technique, as well as that of others.  It is extremely important that singers develop superb skills in these areas.  Not only does s/he learn vocal technique in voice lessons, but is also willing to listen openly and take in all of the other information and advice the teacher is imparting, e.g. professionalism, communication between colleagues, etc.  S/he can adapt to various teachers’ styles and not be tied to only one way of learning.

A more rigid singer would learn less from voice lessons, be unwilling to try certain approaches or techniques, lose opportunities to work on important technical concepts and perhaps display disrespect for the teacher in the process.  S/he would be uncomfortable with a different learning style and could potentially miss out on studying with a fabulous teacher as a result.  These singers are the ones who are often willing to put up with poor instruction, because it comes in a familiar form or style.  Seeking comfort over the opportunity to make healthy change is a huge mistake.  S/he would see the voice lesson as a place simply to learn technique, instead of a place to learn to be complete musician and artist.

In rehearsal and performance situations, the flexible singer has a huge advantage.  S/he can observe and understand much more of what is going on at a vocal and musical level in everyone around, make important assessments and adapt his or her singing as needed.  S/he can also adapt to the social norms inherent when different groups of people come together and have an easier time getting along with everyone, thereby being a good colleague and helping further his or her career.  A flexible singer has an easier time learning staging and adapting to changes during the rehearsal process.  Very importantly, s/he can also adjust adroitly during performances to anything new or different that takes place, a crucial skill for any singer.

In comparison, a more rigid singer would be self-focused during rehearsals and performances, losing the opportunity to learn from others and pulling away from the ensemble.  S/he would have a more difficult time adjusting to different personalities, temperaments and needs, making the rehearsal process challenging and potentially closing doors to further opportunities.  Multi-tasking would be problematic for a more rigid singer, as would adapting to changes in staging and direction.  This drastically limits the level of artistry any singer can reach.  Any surprises during performances that require adjustments would be a nightmare for the more rigid singer, which would affect the quality of his or her performance.

A flexible singer is more aware in general.  S/he is willing to listen to helpful advice, however it comes, use it wisely and be open to change.  So much important information is imparted in a casual way when musicians gather that it is necessary to be attentive.  S/he sees learning as an on-going, life-long process and never expects to stop growing in knowledge and understanding.  Therefore, even a strongly-held belief might have to change in the face of shifting circumstances.

It is virtually impossible to be flexible in every area of your life at once, but choose to be as flexible as possible as a singer and artist.  That requires grounding and stability in other parts of your life.  That type of stability allows you the assurance to be much more flexible as a singer.  Being flexible does not mean accepting everything that comes your way, good or bad.  It means being willing to assess if a new idea would be helpful and try it out to see if it could be vs. rejecting it out of hand as worthless or ignoring it all together.  It means fighting from an ego-driven place less and going with the flow instead.  It means being willing to change for your own betterment.  It is as simple as that.

 

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