Category Archives: Jeanie’s Blog

Using Exercises Effectively

In order to use any vocal exercise effectively, several things have to happen. First of all, the person singing or the teacher has to decide what direction to take….we call this in Somatic Voicework™ “diagnosis”. We have to decide “what is going on here?” with the voice from a functional place. The first decision must be about registration. Is this a voice with two strong, functional registers? Do they seem equal? Are the low notes solid and the high notes easy? Is the middle undistorted and natural-sounding? How does the sound connect to the body? What is the posture like? Where and how does the person breathe?

Addressing these issues alone can be a very big task. If one register quality is missing, how can it best be coaxed into existence? If one or both registers needs attention (likely), which one is weakest? What would strengthen it? What else is out of balance due to this situation? (jaw, tongue, face, mouth, head, neck, upper chest, torso?) Is the sound nasal or breathy? Is it squeezed and held or flabby and under-energized? How do we address these issues with exercises? (That’s the first course of action, but not the only one).

And if the goal of the sound is not to make “resonance”, which in SVW it is NOT, then what should be the goal? What is a functional voice anyway? In order to measure disfunction, you have to recognize function first. One can never be too familiar with functional sound and its application to style. Health first, style second. When that is organized in the voice, the process can be reversed. That means that a singer with a really healthy, functionally varied voice, can adapt the voice to the style at hand without causing vocal distress. That happens only after the singer is skilled and experienced, and has the voice fully developed and available, a process that takes from 2 to 5 years of regular, disciplined technical work.

The exercises are simple. How we use them can be varied in multitudinous ways. In order to evoke the desired response from the vocal mechanism, we need to know what the result is before we ask for it. That’s the intention for the exercise — stronger high notes, a brighter vowel, a clearer middle voice, etc. After that, things get easier. If you need assistance, go to the Solution Sequence (for those who have completed Level II of my training), and look up the references.

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Understanding Mix

I have run into this phrase quite a lot: “I don’t understand mix” or “I don’t understand how to mix”.

This makes me think the student regards mix as something one does rather than something that is created as a response in the vocal mechanism. It implies that the student can “think” the voice into a mix. This also goes along with the statement: “I don’t know how to mix” which I also hear frequently. My reply to this is: “How do you speak?” Mix is speech (in most people, not all). The implication is that mix is model register (chest) and that we speak there. The problems arise when the chest register is weak or inactive, or the speaker is a head-dominant speaker (not so unusual as you might think), or when the speaking voice doesn’t go up very high because there is pronounced break at a certain pitch.

In dealing with mix, you need to have both registers present. Taking a light speech sound higher isn’t so hard, especially if you allow the sound to go towards head as it rises (chesty/mix to heady/mix with no break). If you want to take a heavier quality up, you have to do more work both on strength at the bottom of the range and on flexibility of the tongue and jaw, and on the coordination of the body in terms of the ribs and abs. True mix goes to chest when it is louder and head when it is softer, on any middle pitches, without disturbing the vowel. Mix that doesn’t go to head smoothly, on the way up the scale, isn’t mix. The purpose of Somatic Voicework™ is to create this response in the voice. It’s the teacher’s job, not the student’s. The student shouldn’t be trying to “understand” mix, but should be discovering it and using it as it arises.

If mix doesn’t happen, go back to register isolation and development and spend more time there. Watch the main break for changes and adjustments and keep tabs on the speaking quality as the bridge.

If it doesn’t work, something else is stuck………..another discussion!

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Specialization versus Generalization

Broadway performers are the only ones who are asked to sing in separate register qualities on purpose. Classical singers must generate resonances to carry over accompaniment without electronic amplification. Singers of other styles just sing however they do.

Broadway dancers must be able to do ballet, tap, jazz/modern, and sometimes other styles. Actors might be in a Broadway show at night and do commercials during the day. The specialization in theater is generalization.

Training anyone to do just one thing at the level of mastery takes a long time. Ten years seems to be what it takes to be at an elite level at anything….golf, tennis, dance, music, singing, acting. There are reaons why there are very very few top experts who are good at more than one art, sport or skill. People who cross over often don’t do too well, as they just can’t fake having skills on the other side of the fence that are equal to the ones they have at home. Wynton Marsalis plays mean jazz and very good classical music. I believe Andre Previn plays both classical and jazz piano. Trying to think of other examples is difficult. Most of the folks who have successfully switched genres have done so by quitting one and going permanently over to another.

Why is this important? Because the people who deliberately cross train, like atheletes in the triatholon or decathalon, or the Iron Man/Woman Races, train in several ways, not just one. And, they do not complete against the atheletes who are specialists in only one of the sports they do. They can’t. For singers, if you want to try to be a high belter, you can do that, as long as you work with someone who understands how that happens, but you CANNOT also sing difficult classical music at the same time and do it really well. You might be a really great country singer, but that isn’t going to help you do a Broadway show like “Show Boat”, no matter how well you sing, as the vocal skills are very different. And you might be a terrific opera singer but that isn’t going to help you sing “Tits and Ass” from A Chorus Line.

Training needs to be specific to the task. Each of the CCM styles requires the vocal apparatus to be used in a unique manner, albeit from a chest register (speech) driven place. The confusion about making the “right” sounds has to do with understanding what type of default production is necessary in that sound and how close or far away any given singer’s throat is from making that sound naturally (or easily, if it is learned).

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It’s More than Resonance and Breath Support

It is my fondest wish that all people who teach singing really understand how profound the human voice is. Part of that would be understanding how every single muscle, every single movement of the vocal system matters. The sound isn’t just the vocal folds and the vocal tract with some air passing through it. The sound is the person. “Per” (by) “Sona” (sound). Your sound is as unique as your fingerprint. Your voice is you.

All voices function the same way. So voice is a perfect example of how we are all the same and all unique simultaneously.

It is imperative to understand that voices are NOT limited, but that they have limits. This means that any voice is capable of making any sound, but not all sounds are equally at home in any given human being’s throat, and some sounds are happier in some throats than others. People who are trained to make only classical sounds are sentenced to make those sounds and no other sounds, until and unless they refuse to accept that prison. It is a choice to stay there.

A young person capable of making a pop sound comfortably sets up the vocal muscles (separately from the breathing muscles) in a particular “default”. They likely have no idea what that is or means, as they “just sing”, but making the correct acoustic behavior requires an appropriate and corresponding adjustment in the throat (done through the “ear” or mind). If the young person is then sent to a classical teacher who just puts the classical training on top of this default, because they don’t know there is one, because they don’t think it matters, or because they can’t hear it anyway, the classical training will NOT WORK. The student will not be able to produce correct resonances and will not be able to find the shapes in the vowels that are necessary to generate a viable classical end product. Of course, the student can force the voice to make a pseudo classical sound, through manipulation. That is what most young singers in the above scenario do (not necessarily deliberately). This is why some people think that vocal effort is necessary and correct — they have never experienced truly free vocal sound and don’t know what it is or how it behaves (poor souls!). Add generations of repetition and you understand how vocal training could have gotten to the mostly bizaare place where it has been for the last 50 years. (Make the tone vibrate in your eyebrows. Place the note in your cheekbones, etc.)

Since the classical training sits on top of another vocal adjustment and cannot produce results, the student must be dumb, stupid, stuck, unmusical, untalented, “listening to himself”. etc. But if that were true, no one would ever be able to learn to make more than one kind of sound authentically. Clearly some people do learn, so something else is at work.

When I was young I could “just belt”. I taught myself. It wasn’t hard and I didn’t lose my voice. I could still sing other sounds, so I did. The problem was that the classical sound never got completely to where it was supposed to go. I was told that singing other than classical music would “ruin” my voice, but I did not know what that meant. Was it that it would ruin my ability to sing up high? How high? How high was high enough? Would it ruin my ability to generate those resonances in my foreheard, cheeks, eyebrows, back of my skull, etc.? If so, how? Why? How much resonance was too little? Was resonance the same as volume? How loud did I have to be? What kind of “ruin” were they talking about?

If only all of this confusion were gone! Just this summer I worked in a master class with a 17-year-old high school senior who said she had been “studying voice for two years” but that her teacher didn’t know anything but classical vocal training and she had taught herself to belt. She sang well enough, actually, but in a song that was not a good choice for her. For learning all of it — the music, the performance and the sound, she had done a decent job, although she had many of the typical habits that eventually develop into problems if they are not corrected early. I was looking at myself 40 years ago and it broke my heart. No forward progress in four decades!

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The Great Divide

Surely, some classical vocal training really allows a person to delve into the voice in all its aspects. It incorporates a good, solid knowledge of how the body should look and feel, and it encourages the vocalist to investigate every type of vocal quality and sound.

BUT

I had 8 voice teachers, 8 opera/art song coaches, and have also had countless encounters with other singers and teachers. I am in New York City for 31 years now. I am a Past President of an organization teachers of singing and member of two others. I have traveled the world dealing with singing teachers for more than 20 years. I have found that these teachers are very, very rare. The brave souls who are willing to work with any and all styles of music, with doctors and speech pathologists, with skilled and novice singers, with speakers, with the physically challenged and the gifted, are like rare tropical flowers, and just as hard to locate.

I always ask, if classical vocal training is good for every kind of vocal sound, why don’t opera singers get hired to sing in Rent, or Hairspray or Suessical, sounding like opera singers? Is everyone completely deaf? Don’t they know the difference between the sounds of a classical singer and a pop/rock singer? Have they no common sense?

And isn’t it the responsibility of all voice teachers to know more than their students about what they are teaching? Isn’t that what a teacher is, an expert? How do all the strictly classical teachers presume to teach rock or jazz vocal development when they have never made those sounds, don’t understand how they are produced, and couldn’t correct them if they were wrong. Saying “the students know how to sing these sounds” is just plain stupid. If the students really did know what they were doing there wouldn’t be so many of them getting into trouble after they get out of school.

It is disgraceful to think that an entire generation of singing teachers is parked in university positions with no clue as to why what they THINK they know is dangerous. It is also foolish to think that the hearts and minds of the young people whose voices are being pushed and pressed into singing music they cannot handle aren’t also involved. How many tears have been shed in my studio while I try to repair voices distorted into pitiful condition! Yes, the vocal folds may be functioning normally, (although sometimes they are not) but what about the rest of the instrument? Vocal folds don’t operate in isolation! Huge vibratos, squeezed throats, tight tongues, rigid necks, all caused by singing CCM material (mostly belt songs) without any idea of how to do that correctly. Even if the student realizes something is wrong, where can they turn for help? To the same teachers who caused the problem in the first place?

The profession will continue to be divided until these singing teachers realize that their skills are, indeed, limited. Even if some students do manage to translate basic vocal skills like good posture and breathing into usuable vocal production, that is because the STUDENT figures out how to apply those skills on his or her own. The teacher just sits back and watches.

We are far apart on this topic, like the walls of the Grand Canyon. It is the Great Divide, and it needs to end, but I do not see this happening soon.

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Nothing Different in 40 Years

Yesterday evening I spoke at length to a young woman who is looking to get a graduate degree in CCM vocal pedogogy. No such animal, I told her. She is also in interested in Ethnic Music. Good luck, I said. She told me how frustrated she feels that she is interested in these topics but no one takes her seriously, at least no one except me. She said she was glad I understood what she was saying. I told her not to give up trying to get some college to give her what she wants.

She said that in her early undergraduate work no one could teach her how to belt properly and she couldn’t find instruction to help her do what she wanted to do. Instead she switched schools in the hope of getting something closer to the education she had in mind and was partially successful. Here we are 40 years later, with this young woman having the same experience I had. Does that tell us something?

When I was in school, I wanted to sing like Connie Francis. I, too, had to go learn “Caro Mio Ben” although I wasn’t particularly interested in it at first (although I always loved classical music). I taught myself to belt, and didn’t get hurt, thankfully, until years later when my opera teacher pushed me into singing heavy classical material.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to spread practical, vocation training for singers who want to do pop/rock music, and couple it with vocal health, voice science/function, and general musical knowledge? Why does that seem unrealistic? I hate to think that I will die and things will still be the same.

Let’s change the system!

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Where I Stand

This is the first day of my Blog.

I am interested in speaking my mind about issues that concern me in the profession of teaching singing for Contemporary Commercial Music. I understand that what I have to say may strike some as being controversial, others as being a relief.

I have very strong feelings, passions I suppose, about contemporary commercial music and how it should be handled by singing teachers. I have equally strong and generally negative opinions about the way many teachers approach teaching CCM styles. I do understand that some few teachers have worked out their own methods or approaches that are healthy and serve the needs of their students, but my experience (35+ years teaching and 45 years singing CCM) have shown me that there are a lot of singing teachers out there who have no idea what they are hearing when their students sing CCM. This makes me angry.

I think students have a right to study with teachers who make the kinds of sound they expect the student to sing. I think that not making those sounds oneself, when one is teaching, is, esssentially, unethical. I know some teachers who don’t sing at all, not one note. That strikes me as being very odd indeed. I don’t think one can teach something that one doesn’t do. I don’t.

I also think it is fraudulent for singing teachers to say “the kids know how to make the sound”, so we just find the music. Is the teacher the authority, or is it the student? Should we be paid for listening to the students do something we don’t have any basis to evaluate? If so, how is that ethical?

And when the process backfires, as it often does, and when a young singer has to come for repair of both the voice and the heart, because their teacher attended a couple of lectures and then knew everything, shouldn’t the TEACHER be held accountable? Shouldn’t the person who “guided” the singer into such wrongful vocal behavior be held to explain what was going on? Should we allow the teacher to blame the student (which always happens) by saying that the student “wasn’t listening” or “trying hard enough” or by saying that the student is “tense” or “nervous” or “squeezes”? Just exactly when and where does the buck stop?

And when someone, like me, does actually go in and do damage control, and says so, should that person be looked at as an ego-maniac? I have been seen as being “overbearing” (to put it mildly) in saying “the line in the sand is drawn here”. Healthy singing is based upon healthy function and each kind of singing puts its own demands on that function. There is no such thing as “generic” voice training. If I can turn a ruined voice around in a few lessons, isn’t that proof that the student wasn’t to blame for the problems he or she had? If I can get the voice to do what it needs to do in such a short time, doesn’t that mean that I am using functionally sound principles to get the results? If others can learn and replicate the methods I teach, so that they, too, can fix a troubled voice quickly and effectively, doesn’t that mean that the method holds up to scrutiny? And doesn’t that mean that what I am doing has NOTHING AT ALL TO DO WITH ME, but with the method? Isn’t it so in science that experiments are only valid when they can be replicated by others who get the same results?

The profession of teaching singing is going to change, whether it wants to or not, as time is marching on and the days of being a “strictly classical” singing teacher are truly numbered. Training that addresses the full needs of various styles, without having that training be based upon “classical” or operatic ideas, will be the training of the future. It isn’t a question of if, it is of when, and time is really speeding by.

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