It’s Not In The Exercises

One thing you can be sure of, singing teachers will always be interested in the exercises. Present moment attitudes regard them with greater understanding than did previous generations but the basic underlying and widely pervasive attitude is that the exercises will magically make you a better singer.

So, we have books of exercises or pages of the special exercises of teacher X or Y. We have the prescribed syllables on the specific pitches and the required dynamics. We have exercises to develop “correct” breathing. We have exercises for everything.

The problem with this idea is that it is simply a new version of the old saw: if you sing these exercises in this sequence on these pitches and syllables, using this kind of pattern in your body to “breathe”, sooner or later your singing will get better.

This is simply not true. No matter what exercise you do, no matter what patterns of pitches and vowels or syllables, no matter whether your breathing is consciously “hooked up” or not, if you do not know what it is you are striving to accomplish by doing the exercises, they are worthless. If you want to develop “chest register” (or modal voice, or TA dominant production, or lower register, or heavy mechanism, or whatever you want to call that same function), you need to understand what that function is and how the body and throat are responding when that function shows up. That’s the key: when it SHOWS UP.

The voice is a reflex that occurs as a response to a stimulus from the mind. It is not something that we do, it is something that happens. The impulse to make out loud sound is a deliberate choice, albeit most times a spontaneous one. We do not decide to “vibrate our vocal folds” or “resonate our sinuses”. We decide to sing a pitch on a sustained or quick (staccato) sound, typically on a vowel, but not always. Exhalation is almost always involved, but you can make a pitched sound on inhalation, even though this is not what we would do unless we were surprised or startled. You can minimize the amount of air that passes out over the closed and vibrating vocal folds but you cannot make sound while holding your breath. Sound making and exhalation occur together. It is impossible not to “sing on the breath”. If you do not do this, you are dead.

The musically based vocal exercises given without regard to the responses that should arise are almost limitless. You do them a certain way because someone you trusted told you to do them that way. If they work, good. If not, too bad for you or your student.

If you gather a group of experienced vocalists in a room and ask them about any exercise, “What should this exercise elicit from a human throat/voice?” you won’t get very many answers. And, for every answer you do get, a high percentage of them will be incorrect. What we feel when we sing isn’t always what the throat is actually doing. Perception isn’t the same as response within the system.

Exercises used as a means to an end (free and complete singing voice function) can be very helpful. One single five note scale, done in various ways, can take you very far to having a highly functional, professionally viable voice. Dozens of exercises, done mindlessly and/or incorrectly, can waste your time, cost you money and even cause you harm.

It’s not the what, it’s the HOW. It isn’t the what it is the WHY. You cannot know what these elements are without also putting them into a very specific context. The principles upon which the exercises rest have to do with a teaching philosophy. The context has multiple parameters including vocal health, personal ability, musical expectations, and other related factors or goals.

Singing training is never about the exercises. It is about what it done with those exercises. This is not a mystery. If you do not know, and you sing or teach, find out!!!!!

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One thought on “It’s Not In The Exercises”

  1. “What we feel when we sing isn’t always what the throat is actually doing. Perception isn’t the same as response within the system.” JL

    That is the golden nugget for today. Thank you!

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