"I Like To Squeeze My Throat"

Many times I have encountered young singers who come into a first lesson with a list of things “they do”. The things they are “guilty” of fall into several broad categories…faulty breath support, manipulating or squeezing their throats, thinking too much, trying too hard. The list goes on.

I know before they open their mouths to sing one single note that all of this has been put into their head by some voice teacher or teachers. In every case, the student’s problems were not what they had been told.

Since most classical teachers have only three things to work with (breath support, resonance [placement], and legato) as direct technical tools, anything that’s wrong has to be handled by changing one of these dynamics.

Breath support is usually the first thing to get attention. There are all manner of procedures to address in breathing. Where and how to inhale or exhale, how to move the ribs, the belly, the back muscles, or the sternum, pulling in, pushing out, or pushing down on the abs, etc. When these changes don’t work, the student is told that they are “trying too hard” or “thinking too much” or some such thing. Then, perhaps, the student is told to “bring the sound forward” (or up, or up and forward, or toward the mask, the eyebrows, the nose, the sinuses, the cheekbones, etc.) and when this doesn’t work, the student is told “you are listening to yourself”, you are “holding the sound back” or some such thing. Finally, if the sound doesn’t just change the way it is supposed to, and the “vocal line isn’t flowing”, the poor student is told that they have to learn to “let go” and “stay centered” or what have you.

The amount of confusion in those who teach singing about what is cause and what is effect, or what can be done deliberately and what is a by-product of a specific stimulus, is huge.

Here are ten important points to remember:

If we remember that the entire system in always indirect and that the only thing one can do deliberately is sing a pitch, on a vowel, at a specific loudness, then we are at least at step one. If we remember that the vowel sound is shaped in the space between the vocal folds and the lips (in the vocal tract) and that the tongue is a big bunch of tissue in the middle of that tube (affecting the vowel), and that the entire thing is flexible, that is step two. If we understand that the larynx can move up, it can move down, it can tilt and it can change shape (it is cartilage, after all, not bone), that’s step three. If we remember the jaw can open a little, a lot or not at all, then we are at step four. If we know that the vocal folds are a reed in that tube, and that they, too, can change length and thickness, that is step five. If we know that you can only breathe into the lungs, (not the diaphragm, the back, the belly or the abs) and that the lungs are located in the chest or ribs, then we are at step six. And if we remember that the whole process hinges on what we hear, we are at step seven. You CAN’T sing what you CAN’T HEAR. If we don’t educate the ears of students, we haven’t taught them anything useful. And if we understand that all of this has to be coordinated, slowly, over time, then we are at step eight. The other two steps are: the sounds have to be connected to music (9) and the music has specific stylistic and technical criteria that must be addressed (10).

If you are a singing teacher who says “you are……..” to a student in a lesson, think before you utter those words. Do not make a verbal judgment about the student!!!! In an effort to make a correction you are issuing a criticism and labeling the person. It is better to discuss the sound, and the response the throat and body are making to the exercises you have been using. Then, the student can observe something objectively that allows him or her to target a specific element in the sound and make a change in that one aspect.

I have mentioned elsewhere that “mix” isn’t something to understand or do, it is something to be created and then discovered. What is also true is that voices don’t come under control right away. Even talented people struggle with some parts of the process of learning to coordinate the musical tones they sing when they seek to go beyond their comfort zone. Please don’t list for your students all they things they “do” that are “wrong”. Find ways to help your students sing better in each lesson and emphasize those successes.

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