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.