Category Archives: Jeanie’s Blog

Boundaries and Choices

It is necessary in singing, as in life, to have appropriate boundaries. Not to have them or be able to understand their usefulness is a mistake.

Even if you sing well and have solid vocal technique/function the only way to know what your voice wants to do happily is to work on repertoire. You can’t really determine how your voice will feel best doing only exercises. You have to read through and then thoroughly work repertoire of various eras, composers and styles in order to find out what your voice can and cannot do easily.

Yes, you can choose to make your voice and body sing in an unnatural manner through lots of hard work on both sound and breathing. Yes, you could manage to sing that way and survive. You may even end up sounding very good and making a great impression, but singing this way will require you to give up everything outside the sound as you have cultivated it. You will sacrifice variability for consistency. If, as an adult, you truly want to make this choice, and are informed about its consequences,  you have that right.

If you want to be able to sing with maximum freedom and versatility, however, you need to find out what happens when songs fully reside in your throat. If you work on a piece that exhausts your voice even though you are technically secure, that piece is a wrong choice. If you want to do contrasting pieces and styles, and you find that one style truly interferes with the other, then one of those styles has to  be adjusted vocally or you can’t sing them both. If you want a chesty penetrating high belt and a soft floaty heady high, alternately, I will tell you now — that isn’t really possible. It’s the old saw, “You can have anything you want, you just can’t have everything you want.”

Too much weight in the middle voice will (yes, WILL) pull you out of your top tones no matter how much breath support you provide and how much you work on “forward resonance”. It might feel good and sound fine, but it will not work up high. It will not. If you want to have easy high notes, the middle has to be calibrated such that it’s heady enough to stay connected to the high range without effort. You cannot make that work some other way. While you are young, however, you can probably get away with trying. After that, age will start to calcify your thyroid cartilage and you won’t be so lucky.

Will you read about this somewhere? I don’t think so. Am I correct? You will have to take my word or wait and see for yourself. If you are going to be a master of moving from one style to another you have to calibrate the entire machine to be able to do that easily and keep doing that all the time. If you are going to choose to be a high belter or a spinto soprano, you will have to specialize in that and not try to be a star at something very different.

Remember, you need to understand function measured against repertoire. In the end, your throat will tell you how far it can go and still return to the same starting place. It will tell you what it can do to vary things and still have the capacity for them to remain the same when you return to home base, vocally speaking. If you let your throat establish appropriate boundaries and choices are made based on how your throat/voice works in repertoire, you will have a safety net that allows you to sing anything (not everything) you want.

If you enjoyed this post please like & share:

Compassionate Teaching

Would you be surprised to know that many times students are blamed for the teachers’ lack of ability to communicate effectively?It’s sad but true. They do not know how, as teachers of singing, to deliver compassionate teaching.

Students come in to see me with a laundry list of “things they do wrong”.

I like to hold my jaw.

I like to squeeze my throat.

I am always thinking too much.

I don’t let go of my tongue.

I’m very resistant.

My breathing is messed up.

I remind them that they are students. Students have to think a lot, and they don’t really understand how to do some of the things on this list which is why they are students. They should not have to carry a list of things they “do wrong”.

If you are a singing teacher and you get to a dead-end with a student and you cannot find a way to help the student improve, what do you do? Do you blame the student? I certainly hope not.

You could, if you were motivated, look for smaller clues. Go over the same thing again but with a more perceptive eye and ear. Stop trying to get the student to fit into your agenda of what they are supposed to do and how they are supposed to sound and find out what they are doing and how they already sound. Look for simpler things that can be accomplished and request less obvious change. Be present with the student, with the student’s body and with the student’s voice. That should be enough.

You can also enlist the student. Say, “I seem to be out of options. Do you have any idea why you are not able to do what I’ve asked? Perhaps you could tell me what you think I want? Do you have any thoughts about how you could help me to help you? How do you experience our impasse?” You might be very surprised about the answer.

Do not forget to include all manner of things from the student’s past  that may seem to have no bearing on singing. Old accidents, dance training, instrumental training, old scolding about singing, old feelings about the voice, systemic physical illnesses that effect the entire body and require daily medication. Old surgeries (not vocal), old habits from childhood (speech issues?), family history (mom was always hoarse from yelling?) Sometimes being the child of a famous or successful singer is difficult. (“Could I be better than dad without making him angry? Maybe it’s better not to try that.”)

Dig a bit. Ask questions. Be creative. Be kind. Be gentle. Teach human beings not throats. Teach people not larynges. Teach vocalists not time slots or lesson appointments. Teach singing not sound-making behaviors. Teach with compassion. How can you possibly develop artistry in singers if you do not work within a philosophy of compassionate teaching?

 

If you enjoyed this post please like & share:

Olympic Singing – Vocal Athlete – Body Type?

Olympic Singing? Vocal Athlete? Body Type?

Training As If It Mattered

We all know that the beach volleyball women are very tall. We know the female gymnasts are very short. We know that weight lifters have thick, dense muscles throughout their bodies and that swimmers, who are also very strong, don’t look like them at all.

It is so, then, that your eyes can see consistent body types in each sport and development of those bodies such that the very structure of them is consistent within a sport. In other words, many of their bodies in each sport look similar.

Why, then, would it not be so that voices are also that way? Someone in a large frame is more likely to make a big sound than someone who is tiny. It’s not that is it impossible for a small person to make a “big” sound, it’s just that there are tendencies. A tall man with a long tall neck and a large larynx is going to be a bass.

There is much discussion regarding “fach” or “voice type” in classical singing. There all kinds of designations of vocalists. In CCM not so much, but there are differences and similarities there as well. We don’t talk about them, but we should. If you search YouTube you can find belters who have similar vocal production — that is if you know how to listen for vocal production as a goal in the first place.

It would be great to have research along the lines of testing whether certain physical types are more or less likely to produce certain kinds of sounds, but I realize that this would be very hard research to do. That doesn’t mean, however, that it isn’t possible. There is such as thing as sports medicine and there is far more knowledge today than there was decades ago about how muscles work not only in each sport but in each individual in that sport. Trainers understand that many kinds of exercise are necessary in order to have a body that is uniformly strong and flexible no matter what the sport, but that work on specific aspects of that sport have to be mastered. They support each other.

It would be interesting to see how the small female gymnasts would do in beach volleyball and how the tall, lean women beach volleyball players would do in gymnastics. It would be equally interesting to see a true belter attempt to do an opera aria or an opera singer try to do some high belting. I know, a few have tried it, but no one has been really successful. There are reasons for that, surely, but we do not know what they are. We still have only our eyes and ears (and life experience) to guide  our choices in our professional students.

And, yes, training matters. You can’t train for volleyball and be good at gymnastics. You have to be trained for the sport you do. That’s true for singing as well. Being prepared is a combination of natural tendency, proper training, long-term conditioning and true dedication to the chosen goal, whether it be for sport or music theater, or gospel, belting, rock, or jazz.

 

 

If you enjoyed this post please like & share:

Positioning the Larynx, Moving the Soft Palate

If you are a teacher of singing and you are learning to “move your larynx” or “lift your soft palate” or constrict your throat in any configuration at all, in order to add to your tool box, please, please STOP!!!  You are wasting your time. You are doing things that do not need to happen and you are tying your throat in knots so you can “learn”. Do not practice things that interfere with the free use of your body’s own instincts. You may feel proud of the fact that you can wiggle your soft palate around like a little flag in the back of your mouth, but I seriously doubt that any great singer has ever done that while singing, even as an exercise.

It is literally painful to think that people who should know better  might still believe that “adding” to their teaching expertise would be enhanced by moving their larynx or positioning the soft palate, or doing any other deliberate activity that makes the muscles within the throat do things they do not need to do, things they should never do.  That is exactly not what Somatic Voicework™ advocates.

The body moves when it is free to move. It responds (eventually) to the mind. The mind and the body belong together. The idea that your body is a machine to be beaten into submission goes right along with Western thinking such as “no pain, no gain” and it feeds into the idea that if you do not force the body to “do things” it won’t be capable of doing anything. This is WRONG thinking.

If you trust your body, if you allow it to respond to your deep emotions in ways that human beings react naturally, you do not need to deliberately manipulate anything inside your throat at any time for any reason. Yes, in a skilled singer a lot of things move in a lot of ways. Or, they stay still because they stay still. You cultivate this behavior over time through exercise used as stimulus until the reaction becomes conscious and deliberate. Then you practice it until it becomes muscle memory and you forget about it even though you will use it every day. The way you measure movement or response is through the sound of the singing itself. 

Really, if you find that you treat your body as if it were dumb, you have completely missed the point of how the body operates. Your body is an amazing miracle. It is strongly programmed to stay alive by breathing. It has to go towards wholeness because the will to live is the strongest wiring we have. The body (and the brain) will unconsciously strive to keep your throat as relaxed as possible because that it the easiest way for it to take in oxygen.

THINK, people. THINK. Don’t just go to workshops and do whatever you are presented with. Question all of it. Do some outside study. Find out what the body does before you accept something presented, most particularly if it is presented by someone who cannot sing and sing well. If you are taking guidance from someone is 40 instead of taking guidance from someone who has been teaching for 45 years, I ask you, “Why would you do that?”

You can do parlor tricks with the structures within your throat or you can learn to sing honesty, expressively and with skill and leave things alone. Your choice.

If you enjoyed this post please like & share:

Coming Back After Vocal Injury

Coming Back After Vocal Injury or Illness

If you are a professional singer and you sing long enough you will encounter some kind of serious vocal problem that may have nothing at all to do with how or what you sing. If something impacts your vocal health, impairing your vocal folds and how they function, you are unable to do your job. Very scary indeed.

If you are lucky enough to have a laryngologist to see and you are told what exactly is wrong with your vocal folds, you can begin a path to recovery, hopefully. Hopefully  — because there is never a guarantee that you will recover, no matter the treatment or the person administering it. All health issues are unknown in terms of how much they resolve, or when they resolve, or even if they resolve.

If you do not have a laryngologist near you (and you might not since there are only about 400 nation-wide) you will have to see an otolaryngologist.  A laryngologist is a otolaryngologist with special training. The typical otolaryngologist (ENT) sees kids with ear infections, people with sinus infections and swallowing issues and all manner of other things that affect the ears, nose and throat.

A laryngologist specializes in voice issues. Not all ENTs understand the professional voice user (speaking or singing) so if you consult one, the more you know about vocal health, the better off you will be. Your vocal folds can look normal when visualized with a laryngeal mirror but not operate normally and that can typically only be seen with an exam that includes a stroboscopic look. If the problem is microscopic, you need a special high-speed camera that few doctors have since it is very, very expensive.  Even if you see a highly-rated medical expert you can still be diagnosed incorrectly because of the many factors that affect making vocal sound.

Depending on your diagnosis, treatment protocol or medication, you may have a minor problem, something that is moderate or something really serious. Most doctors will recommend doing some therapy first (with a qualified Speech Language Pathologist who has experience in voice issues) to see if what you have can be helped with therapy, but not all do. If you have some kind of intervention and the doctor does not refer you to a SLP voice expert, please find one on your own. Then, before you go back to singing, be sure to work with a vocal expert, preferably a Singing Voice Specialist, who understands how to gently but surely get you back into your best vocal game. You need  to work with someone who has experience and skill and a good track record. In this case, particularly, although it is the case in every situation, the singer is the one responsible for finding the person with the right expertise to help. There are no referrals for singing teachers who have an excellent track record of helping singers return to high level vocal skills, particularly if the singing is in a CCM style. Operatic training may not be helpful. In fact, it can be counter-productive. Much depends on the person teaching. Breath support and resonance may not help, no matter what kind of “breath support” and “resonance” it is!

Be aware that most singing teachers who are successful think they know everything. Many with doctoral degrees get some amount of vocal health training but that is not and will never be a substitute for Speech Language Pathologists with proper vocal health training. Be aware, as well, that an SLP who does not sing may not understand the demands of singing hard, driven music. Keeping your speaking voice in a nice relaxed place is terrific but if you sing powerful rock music or Broadway belt songs, that isn’t nearly enough to get you where you need to go.

You absolutely can come back after the majority of vocal health issues. If you are determined and look until you find the help you need, you can get there. Many others have. Do not give up!

I welcome questions on this topic, by the way, so do contact me if you want an answer here (but not personally).

 

If you enjoyed this post please like & share:

No Boundaries — No Life

It has been written elsewhere that if every kid gets a ribbon then the ribbon loses its value. If all things are equal, then there are no boundaries between winning and losing, good and bad, right and wrong, forward and backward. There’s nothing but grey. You can get lost when everything is grey. You can get severely lost and not even know that you are! Some people spend their entire lives in grey.

These days, there are few boundaries in our society that seem to work. The old ways don’t hold, the new ways are still being created and the in-between moves around so much it isn’t really possible to tell what it is at any given moment. There are the folks who want to “go back” to what worked in the past because they view it as being “better” (safer) through the lens of their memory. There are folks who want to change everything as soon as possible because they  have a utopian vision. (Nothing changes that quickly unless it is through exceedingly abrupt, sometimes violent means.) In the messy transition time, leaders are those with a clear vision that is not extreme, straightforward but not rigid, encompassing of the good things from the past but hopeful enough to go forward newly without fear. Rare thing, to find this combination but not impossible.

Humans are being and always in a state of movement, as is the entire known universe. Even things which seem to be unchanged are changing, although that could be at a rate too slow for most to be able to notice. The test of time, however, is the only valid test. That which lasts a very long time, which endures, has to have value. This is particularly true in human beings.

Character is built by resistance to difficult, challenging circumstances through months and years. Those who are most to be admired have withstood tests and emerged victoriously and become better for the experience. Those who let adverse circumstances make them hard, bitter, resentful, defensive, angry or revengeful lose out in the end. Those qualities eat away at us over time from the inside out. They diminish our inner light. They make us sick. They subtract rather than add to who we are.

Honesty, integrity, truthfulness, vulnerability, openness, trust, warmth, flexibility, loyalty, gratitude, appreciation, compassion, caring, forgiveness, kindness, generosity, humility, acceptance, patience, perseverance, tolerance, nobility, graciousness, courage, remorse (for something negative you have done or said). This list is not the entire list of words that describes what we would call someone of “good character”. It used to be that people were taught about these qualities as children as part of being “good”. Not so much now. They also learned about the 7 Deadly Sins which are pride,  greed,  extravagance/ lust,  envy,  gluttony,  wrath, and sloth. In the USA we actually encourage pride, greed, and extravagance and don’t notice either sloth or gluttony. Lust and envy are useful tools in Hollywood movie scripts.

If you don’t evaluate yourself from time to time, probing to see what qualities you consider yourself to be in possession of, you might think of doing that. You might also consider what your vices are. They will show up in how you view the world and in what you do with your life on a day-to-day basis. They will also color your artistic possibilities, and that’s not good for an artist because you can’t transcend what you do not recognize. If you want to have appropriate psychological and professional boundaries you need to understand what those are. Many people don’t have clear, flexible boundaries and that causes trouble.

If you teach, you can’t afford to live in a murky grey haze. As a teachers of singing, you will make a deep impression on your students. With singing, as you teach, you are asking people to trust you, giving you something very personal, with the idea that you will treat them and their voices kindly and with wisdom. Have a good talk with yourself and be brutally honest with your self-assessment, thinking about the words in the previous paragraph. Rate yourself. Then think about how that is part of your own singing and your teaching. What enduring qualities do you bring to your art? It matters.

If you enjoyed this post please like & share:

Voice, Lies and Videotape

Quite some number of years ago I did two workshops with the noted  Speech Language Pathologist, Dr. Daniel Boone (grandnephew of the famous D. Boone). He has been an important researcher in mid-20th century into speech science and has his practice in the southwest. He kindly told me I was the only singing teacher he could ever understand. The blogpost title here was the one we used for the first workshop.

Currently, we have a plethora of videotaped “experts” from all over the globe offering every possible manner of “instruction” regarding the voice, particularly the singing voice on the web. It  is the case that the vocalist has to be really careful as there is no organization, no governing body, no objective set of standards and/or expectations to guide a singer, (or a parent), nor is there any recourse to having spent thousands of dollars and many years (even decades) on training that turned out to be very substandard. PT Barnum had it right when he said “a sucker is born every minute”.

Further, many of the people teaching all over the world, cannot or could not themselves, sing well. They were limited in what they could sing and how they were able to sing it but that did not stop them from developing methods based entirely on their own abilities (or lack thereof) and marketing them to countless thousands of people who knew nothing, or almost nothing, and could not deflect the ridiculous information being sold. This is still true. Most people don’t know enough about singing to recognize the good from the bad, the truth from the lies or the able from the not-so-able, until it is too late.

The voice is inside the body in the larynx, and we must choose to   make sound deliberately (we can speak or remain silent). Sounds  like  laughing, crying, coughing, sneezing, or shouting,  typically happen spontaneously and are not exactly choices. Cultivating deliberate vocal behavior, enhancing natural capacities, has been a goal for over two hundred years, but it has not stopped people from making up truly crazy ideas about what people can and cannot accomplish through training.

I say again, and again, and again — if it sounds good and it feels good, it probably is good. If it doesn’t fit the music, or sounds wrong, it is probably wrong. You can learn to make any sound comfortably but some sounds take longer to master than others and why that is the case has many factors. You can shout, yell or bellow your way through music and voice lessons but that does not mean you will sing well for a lifetime, and if you are willing to sacrifice your long-term vocal well-being for a quick result, hopefully you do that from a very informed place.

As I have also said here previously, I have a number of people who studied with me on a regular basis for at least a year (some for quite a bit longer), who are using my work as if the concepts and approaches in it are things they came up with on their own. They claim to be vocal experts when they are absolutely not, but there is no one to stop these individuals from using what they gleaned from  my work as if the ideas were their own. If you encounter one of them, you will be at their mercy and you are on your own with what they have made of my lifetime of study, investigation and application of principles which operate in accordance with vocal health, vocal honesty and artistic integrity.  From what I know, it’s unrecognizable and I guess I’m glad for that. It would be worse if they were publicly claiming to teach my work and making a mess of it in my name. Yikes!

Be careful of videos, and the multiple lies about voice. Just because someone says something doesn’t mean it’s true or accurate. Keep your guard up, folks. It’s a wild world out there.

If you enjoyed this post please like & share:

Virtual Reality Singing Lessons

Would you take a painting course online if the teacher could not look at what you were painting and make suggestions? Would you take a course in writing online if the teacher couldn’t read what you were writing? Would you expect to learn to play piano by looking at web videos?

If you seriously want to be a better singer, someone with expertise has to listen to you while you sing and give you feedback. Better still, you need to find someone who not only sings well herself but also knows how and what she is doing while singing. For the most part, the people on YouTube don’t have a clue. They are there so they can make a lot of money from eager beavers who don’t know any better.

It is flat-out impossible to learn to sing exclusively from watching a video, no matter who makes it. You can learn about singing, as intellectual information, but you can also find that in a number of books, especially recent ones. If you consider just singing songs in any old way as a path to learn to be a better singer, you can waste a lot of time and lose a lot of money and never get anywhere at all. Please, don’t spend your hard earned cash on websites and YouTube videos. Go find a live human being and study until you get better and know why.

Remember that we in the USA are living in a very strange time when people are famous because they are famous. Being a “celebrity” requires nothing except that you got lucky and became a “brand”. Being good at something always requires spending a lot of time with it — years, not months. Being an expert requires about 10 years of diligent work even if you are very talented. Doing something that is a physical skill (which singing is) requires that you do it under the guidance of an expert. Being an expert ought to mean that the person teaching has both training and life experience and, in the case of singing, they should sing well. The only exception to that would be when the teacher has had some kind of injury or illness that precludes them from sounding good, but it should be assumed that that was possible in the past.

Remember, common sense. If it feels bad and it sounds bad and it’s very hard to do and it doesn’t make it better, it’s WRONG.

 

If you enjoyed this post please like & share:

Anything Can Be Demanded

If you watched the Tony Awards in June you would have heard a variety of singing. Broadway covers all styles and all kinds of voices. You would also have noticed that there is a lot of belting and that, in fact, the belting is louder and higher all the time. The idea that people are shouting while singing seems to have disappeared because now it’s just “the way people sing”. In fact, loud for loud’s sake is the name of the game.

Yes, belting is exciting. It is amazing to know that people can sing that high and loud in a powerful sound but if you had a moment  to listen to Bebe Neuwirth, you might have noticed that she has a pronounced wobble. Twenty years ago when she was in Chicago (and she was terrific) she screamed her way through the show and I wondered then, how long will this voice hold up, given how she is singing? The answer is, not too long. She is, after all, only 56. Maybe the problem is caused by something other than her singing, but I wonder.

The need to sing in a loud, high belt isn’t going to change any time soon. The need to make this sound if you are going to work on Broadway continues to be essential. Considering that a lot of singing teachers are still old enough to have been exclusively classically trained, most have only a vague idea of how to approach it.

You must understand that belting arises out of chest register. It requires a very open mouth (dropped jaw), strong pressure from the abdominal muscles and the ability and willingness to lift the head on high notes.

If you are singing this music, understand that it takes a toll on the vocal folds, even in those who are good at it. If you sing 8 times a week in a show, you are even more likely to incur vocal injury. You MUST learn to do this sound with the least amount of effort possible. If you have a teacher who asks you, “Does this feel OK? Are you belting now?” RUN away. RUN away!!!!! If they are asking you how you are singing, they should be paying you.

Remember, if it feels hard and sounds bad, it’s wrong. Find another way, another teacher, another coach. You only have one voice and if anything serious happens to it, you might never get it back.  The world is full of people who think they know because they do.

If you enjoyed this post please like & share:

Falling On Deaf Ears

Sometimes words don’t stick. They don’t “go in”. They don’t compute.  No matter how much a person thinks he or she wants to learn something, there can be reasons why they don’t or seem unable to, even when they are highly motivated.  In this case, the person speaking can have the experience of feeling like the message is falling on deaf ears.

Even if you are doing your best to communicate in a very clear manner, and you can explain yourself in myriad ways and you can cover the topic in a variety of approaches and you check in to see if what you are saying is being understood, the message can still not do what you had hoped it would do. For me, this is one of the most disheartening aspects to encounter in a relationship whether it be in a friendship or with a student.

Over the years, even with students who have studied with me for a very long time, some of the things that I consider basic to good vocal production just don’t “connect” deeply enough and I am chagrined to see and/or hear that what has been worked on and accomplished in the lesson process over time has simply gradually slipped away again down the road.  Occasionally it is because there were external or personal circumstances that have made it nearly impossible for the singer to keep her skills up but I admit that sometimes I believe the singer never really understood in a deeply profound manner just how important some of those skills really were to her own artistic expression. It could be a difference of opinion, philosophy or attitude about that aspect of singing, perhaps unexpressed or unconscious, but it’s not always possible to know where the break-down is.

You cannot make someone learn something. You cannot force a person to understand the impact of what you are saying (or teaching). You can’t make someone change and stay changed. If you have worked on something over and over again through a course of months or even years, sometimes the only reasonable thing to do is let the whole subject go, particularly if the singer seems to be doing OK and just doesn’t care.

All of us have to choose what we focus on and what we let go of. Do we work on things that are difficult and require complete attention all the time or do we do what is easiest and live with that? How much time do we devote, on a daily basis, to all the aspects of singing, even at a professional level when singing is our full-time endeavor? There are so many things to attend to and only so many precious moments to invest, how do you choose?

If you find that different people from different walks are telling you similar things, pay attention. Maybe the universe is prodding you to listen, to pay attention, to think about what the words could mean. Don’t let yourself walk around with ears that don’t hear.

 

If you enjoyed this post please like & share: