Working With The Problematic Voice (amended)

If you don’t have any radical techniques or approaches, if you just do reasonable things, you can be quite successful with people who have a nice voice, a decent ear and are motivated to practice. If they are also naturally expressive, you could end up with a person who sings very well.

But if you have someone come to you for lessons and that person’s voice is not functioning efficiently or is below normal, or maybe even way below normal, you had better know what you are doing. There are so many ways singers can get into trouble and so many bad habits they can develop, it’s not just a walk in the park to help them not only stay safe but also be expressive in whatever way they desire.
The only devices we have are the pitches (specific frequencies from lowest bass to highest soprano), the level of volume (from about 70 Hz to 110 Hz – or pianissimo to fortissimo), and the vowels we sustain. Yes, you can sustain a sound on a hum or by hissing out the air in your lungs, but most of the work of singing is done by concentrating on vowel sounds and their behavior. You also have posture and the inhalation/exhalation process that takes place in the torso. All of these things combine to produce sound made with ease and freedom.
When the inside muscles of the throat and mouth are doing the wrong thing or not doing anything at all, the old idea was to say to the person, “You should not sing. You should not even try to sing. Go home.” The reasoning was: you sound “bad”, you have a “bad” voice, you are not “talented”. The foundational belief that some people can sing and others cannot was not actually challenged by anyone. Since the typical training for singing perpetuated this myth because it was only musical and not functional in approach, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Either you could sing in the first place and got better with help or you couldn’t sing well in which case you were told there was only one option — to give up! Many people did.
The truth is, however, that there are a great many people out there now teaching with some kind of functional approach. That’s the good news. Unfortunately, we have gone from another old adage: Never think about the throat, to a new one called, manipulate your throat muscles on purpose while you are singing. This is not an improvement.

A freely produced sound does not ask the vocalist to do anything while singing except sing.
The idea is that one gains control over the sound by practice, aiming at the kind of sound one would need in whatever repertoire one is singing. Control over inhalation and exhalation is important, too, but there are ways to develop “breath management” by trial and error and not just through deliberate instruction. If you were dealing with any high level, long-term, successful singer who has had a career, you cannot automatically assume that training was a part of that person’s path to becoming a professional unless the people is singing classical repertoire. People learn by doing and if what they do works, they typically stay with that, with or without a teacher.
If the person has to “do something” while singing, other than communicate the words and their meaning or the expression of the melodic, rhythmic or vocal elements of the music itself, something is wrong. Holding the larynx down, pulling it up, making the sound go into the nose, keeping the throat very still…..all of these are things that singers are taught to do on purpose that make free, unadulterated singing impossible.
This does not preclude, however, that beginning singers wouldn’t find it hard to execute the kinds of sounds they ideally seek to produce. It takes quite a bit of time to get maximum acoustic vocal function to be both available and easy. This is the reason why I always say that songs should be BELOW the level of the technical exercises because if they are not, the singer has to struggle and can’t really express very much of anything that will feel and sound authentic.
In working with a problematic voice, the singing teacher has to have in his or her mind the idea of what a well-balanced, well-developed voice does while singing. This knowledge has to be colored by what a career oriented voice does in each of the separate kinds of repertoire, and has to be coupled to the ability to evaluate the voice in terms of its optimal function, before any other criteria are applied. It also has to include the desires, goals and wishes of the vocalist (unless it is a young child who might not have any aspirations yet) and stick to them as closely as possible. By examining the characteristic behaviors of anyone’s voice and associating it with its pitch parameters, it is possible to assess what is interfering with free vocal production. Then, through the use of exercises designed to provoke change in the habitual patterns of the vocalist, the musculature effecting the sound can be coaxed into new behaviors and responses. SLOWLY. Over time. No deliberate “doing” of the throat is necessary once the new behaviors become automatic responses and no one has to be stuck in any one kind of vocal production if they are willing to learn others and keep them available through practice.
Therefore, the problematic voice can get to be a voice without problems. It can go from sounding “bad” to sounding “good”. It can become musically expressive. When that transformation is complete, it is likely that the sound being made by the vocalist is quite different than the sound when it was “off” in terms of function. Or, it can remain “characteristic”, with obvious flaws, but those flaws will no longer inhibit what the artist can sing. Rather they will be trademarks of the sound but not limitations of expression or of vocal health. There will not be a need for the vocalist to “make” something happen while singing. Such adaptations will simply melt away.
No one can ever say what another person will or will not do or what that person is capable of accomplishing. No one has the right to say “You should give up,” particularly if the person doesn’t want to. No one can say you have to sing a certain way or you can’t sing a certain way. That determination comes from the above stated criteria: personal and musical goals, dedication to the process of improving as a singer and a willingness to practice.
Working with a “problematic” voice is a great gift if you know what you are doing. It is thrilling and challenging and very rewarding if you are patient.
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