Tag Archives: vocal education

Breaking Bad Vocal Habits . . . The “Aha” Moment!

By Dina Else, Choral Clinician and Voice Instructor

“The more I delve into my singing, the more I realize that the problems I have as a singer are pretty much self-inflicted.” — Sebastian Gillespie

The above quote is from one of my private voice students, spoken this summer as he was preparing to compete in the final round of the Iowa State Fair Talent Competition. The young man has a fantastic voice coupled with a slew of bad habits that make his practice and preparation a pretty miserable experience. At the time, he habitually placed his chin a couple of inches in front of his sternum, causing his pharyngeal space to be cut off and the production of his tone to be strained at best. The higher the musical line went, the further out in front of his sternum his chin traveled! He also struggled with breath intake and management.

Growing up, his main focus was dance. Need I say more? His dance instructors, appropriately so, drilled into him that during dancing his abdominal wall should be pulled in and held in that position. As with many dancers, he found himself adopting this body carriage during the everyday care and feeding of his body. Needless to say, that torso positioning doesn’t help out a young singer who desperately needs to engage his breath support!

Sebastian is not alone in his quest to overcome poor singing habits. Private voice studios are alive and well and filled with singers like Sebastian who have lofty performance goals but find themselves at the mercy of their body’s long-standing debilitating habits. In today’s society of quick fixes and ready-made solutions, most singers find themselves waiting to be handed the magic bullet. I’m pretty sure that up until the “aha” moment I shared above, he thought that if he waited long enough, a quick fix was right around the corner, and all of his poor habits would be replaced by some magical piece of information I just hadn’t given him in the two years he’d been studying with me!

Does the above scenario sound familiar to anyone? Whether you are a solo singer, a singer in a choral ensemble, or an adult singer in a church choir, if you want to improve as a singer, you first and foremost must understand how the vocal instrument works (scientifically speaking), and then you must identify the poor habits that are detrimental to your progress and make a plan to replace those habits with new, more productive habits.

I’m happy to report that since this pivotal lesson in late July, Sebastian has begun to keep what I call a “habit busting journal.” As he stated so succinctly, his vocal frustrations were self-inflicted. Since that day in July, he has identified the poor habits that were stalling out his progress and has begun the process of replacing them with new, clearly defined habits. He is now actually using the tools I’ve been giving him for the past two years to correct his head and neck alignment issues, and he quickly catches if his chin and sternum aren’t lined up or his ears and shoulders aren’t lined up.

Let’s use Sebastian’s breath intake and management issues to drive home an important point. After two years of lessons, this young man clearly understood how to execute a correct breath intake, and he absolutely knew how to engage his diaphragmatic breath support. By the end of each 30-minute lesson he was always in good shape regarding both of these issues. He would walk out of his lesson confident that this was the turning point lesson, the lesson where he fully understood what he was supposed to be doing differently, and this time the information was going to stick. As his voice instructor, I would encourage him to begin the journey of taking that information and building daily habits that would solidify the information and move him forward . . . then I would keep my fingers crossed.

Unfortunately, after giving my students the necessary information, tools, and resources, the next step is totally up to them and out of my control. Sebastian would come back the next week and we would start the process all over again! Sound familiar? The issue with this young man wasn’t a lack of intellectual ability—he is truly one of the brightest students I’ve ever had. He just had an absolute blind spot in regard to the power of habit. I’m happy to report that at this point in Sebastian’s journey he is progressing quickly toward his goals. Not a moment too soon, since he’s a high school senior getting ready to audition for college scholarships.

As educators, I think we sometimes fall into the trap of dealing individually with each problem and issue that pops up, applying bandages as fast as we can manage. It pays to take a step back and really analyze the cause of the issue in the first place. If it’s a matter of habit, take the time to help your singers identify detrimental habits and hold them accountable to implementation of a more helpful routine!

Mrs. Dina Else is a highly sought after vocal technician/specialist, choral clinician, motivational speaker, festival conductor, and adjudicator through out the United States. The choral ensembles she works with are consistently awarded ‘Best Vocals’ and highest honors in competitions and festivals. Dina is a published author and columnist and currently serves as the Vocal Technique Columnist for Choral Strategies Inc.

Dina has had 17 years of high school choral classroom experience and 10 years at the collegiate level including: Ithaca College, Wartburg College, Drake University, the University of Northern Iowa (where she received her Bachelor and Masters Degrees), and the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music (where she completed all of her doctoral coursework in Vocal Performance and Pedagogy).

As a mezzo-soprano, Dina has performed many opera and oratorio roles as well as several recital and guest soloist appearances. She is also a highly regarded private voice teacher in the Des Moines area, heading into her 25th year of teaching privately. She is committed to researching, acquiring, and sharing new knowledge concerning voice science and pedagogy.

Please visit dinaelse.com for more information or to contact Dina.

Gateways Are Not Gates

John Glenn PatonBy John Glenn Paton

Gates may be open or shut. But a gateway invites you in, gives you a friendly access. That’s why three of Alfred’s collections of classical art songs are called “Gateway” books—they invite you to come in and explore a repertoire that, frankly, requires a bit of introduction.

The first two Gateway books gave voice students the basic repertoire they needed in Italian Art Songs and German Lieder. Our third and newest, Gateway to French Mélodies, gives them a helping hand with a style that students often find a bit scary. French is full of pitfalls for singers: unfamiliar vowel sounds, multiple silent letters, and consonants that are sometimes heard and sometimes not, even in the same word. In the Gateway books, such problems are solved by the phonetic system for pronunciation called IPA that is now taught in nearly all university music departments. The IPA pronunciations are placed right next to the printed song, where the teacher and student can look at them together. Translations are there, too, along with notes about interpretation. There’s no need to flip back and forth between different parts of the book or even to buy a separate book.

We expect a lot from classical singers. They are supposed to sing in at least four languages, even if English is the only one they learned in high school. And they have to know the meanings of the words they sing if they want to reach the hearts, not just the ears, of their listeners.

Singing in recitals in my student years, I used to hope that there was no one in the audience who really spoke the language that I was trying to sing! My goal with the Gateway books was that today’s voice students should understand their songs better than I did as a student. Shamefully, I didn’t always understand the meanings of my songs very well. The resources just didn’t exist then. But with the Gateway books, students and teachers have everything they need to prepare for a meaningful performance that makes an emotional impact on their listeners.

Wishing you the best in all your musical endeavors,
John Glenn Paton

Prima la Parola, Seconda la Musica (First the Words, then the Music)

Jennifer SeigerBy Jennifer Seiger, Adjunct Instructor of Voice,
North Carolina State University

How does one begin the process of taking a song from an unknown new piece of music to a fully memorized and expressive personal statement? Often, one opens a book, heads to the keyboard, and begins plunking out the notes of the melody bit by bit, singing through short musical and textual phrases in much the same way as one might pick their way along an unfamiliar, rocky path. As a young singer this was my standard method of music learning. Along the way I added translations and IPA for any foreign language songs, but I always began with the notes.

This was until my first opera apprenticeship. The company director looked at the chorus of apprentices during one of the staging rehearsals—most of us armed with index cards for the words we had not yet been able to commit to memory—and shouted, “You all learn your music backwards! It shouldstart with the libretto!” The libretto—the words—and not the notes were his suggested
“point A.”

Backwards is the new forwards. Not only do I approach any songs that I will perform from memory in this way, I encourage this method of learning among all of my private students. As singers, we have to communicate a text in addition to singing beautiful, musical gestures. Using the text as the starting point creates deep, multi-layered memorization.

The first step is to isolate the text. Before going any further, memorize the text of your song completely—including repetitions of words or phrases as they have been set by the composer. For foreign language pieces, this will include the translation and phonetic pronunciation. Speak the text, write it out, record it and listen to your own playback—whatever method enables you to remember each detail. A valuable time of day for memory work is that time just before we go to sleep. Let the poetry you will be singing be the last thing you focus on before you sleep. When you wake in the morning, see how easily you can recall the poem or text.

Next, look at the rhythmic structure of the piece. Often the rhythm of the music will be an outgrowth of the rhythm of the naturally spoken text. Learn to speak the text in rhythm. Notice where the strong beats help emphasize the stressed syllable in a given word, or the climactic word within a phrase. And then, how can you make the text stresses work in the places where the rhythm does not provide this underlying support? When speaking the text rhythmically, use a sing-song approach that allows you to incorporate elements of articulation and dynamics.

With these two steps you have built a solid foundation for the next layer—the music. Students often remark how easily they are able to marry tune and text—even when the melodies are wide-ranging or full of leaps. The more difficult the melodic material, the greater the benefit of already having the text and rhythm memorized. Finally, with all of the information you have accumulated, interpret the piece and allow the diligence of your preparation to blossom into full artistic expression!

Song Selection for Beginning Singers in Five Simple Steps

By Andy Beck
Managing Editor, School Choral and Classroom Publications

Andy Beck

One of the most important tasks we take on as vocal teachers is the selection of repertoire for our students. Each of us has an unofficial (or official) list of standard favorites, but finding the perfect fit for our youngest singers’ vocal skills, musicianship, personal tastes, and personalities is critical to their growth.  Here is a simple checklist for approaching repertoire selection.

1. Vocal Range (“I can’t hit that note!”)

There are two things to consider: singing in a comfortable tessitura allows students to develop optimal vocal tone and freedom; and, carefully exploring a few pitches outside of the most comfortable zone can expand a developing vocal range. For beginning singers it is best to err on the side of caution, working primarily in the healthiest part of the voice to develop good singing habits.

2. Appropriate Musical Challenges (“Can I hear that again, please?”)

Again, there are two areas of concern. The first is melody. Are the intervals achievable? Does the melody provide a desirable contour for cultivating this singer’s most beautiful, natural tone quality? The second is rhythm. Can the student comprehend and master the rhythms required? Avoid teaching by rote at all costs. But rather, teach music reading as an essential skill for all singers, slowly progressing to more advanced concepts.

3. Supportive Piano Accompaniments (“Don’t you play my part?”)

Developing vocal independence can be quite challenging. A supportive piano part can make a big difference. For “first-timers,” melodies may need to be doubled note-for-note throughout an arrangement. Then, as next step, look for chordal accompaniments that avoid clashing with the vocal line and provide clear rhythmic direction.

4. Text and Subject Matter (“Sorry, but I don’t get it.”)

In order to create a compelling performance, vocalists of any age should sing with expression and emotion. Even when it’s as simple as joy, sadness, surprise, or anger, the meaning of a text must be fully understood and internalized before a singer can convincingly deliver the song. Choose subjects that are appropriate for the age of the performer, ones with which they can easily associate.

5. Overall Appeal (“I love that song!”)

A big part of teaching a young singer is motivating them with songs that they find enjoyable. It is through an aesthetic connection to repertoire that students will most easily develop artistry. The very best teachers know when to challenge a singer with a foreign language, a sophisticated poem, or an advanced musical concept, but they also know how to balance challenges with songs that are just plain fun!

Finding repertoire that meets all of the criteria above may seem like a tall order, but happily Alfred offers an entire series that fits the bill. Our “READY TO SING . . .” Series features songs arranged for piano and voice in a simple style appropriate for beginning and young soloists, unison classroom singing, and elementary choral groups. Uncomplicated piano accompaniments double or strongly support the singer, keys are carefully selected to accommodate moderate vocal ranges, and the wide variety of texts and subjects are age-appropriate. Plus, these books are cost-effective, offering reproducible melody-line song sheets for each song. Learn more about the four books in this series by clicking through the links in this blog!

Ready to Sing . . .  Folk Songs Arranged by Jay Althouse

Ready to Sing . . .  Spirituals Arranged by Jay Althouse

Ready to Sing . . .  Christmas Arranged by Jay Althouse

Ready to Sing . . .  Broadway Arranged by Andy Beck