Zig Zagging

When tackling a tough vocal technique problem you cannot go in a straight line. It is very much like sailing into the wind — first you sail to the right, then you make a sharp turn and sail to the left, but always on the diagonal. It takes longer, but you get there.

If you attempt to get rid of deeply buried tension straightforwardly, you will likely make the tension you want to release worse. Since the remedies you use (from Somatic Voicework™, of course) work well on most people with simple problems, you will wonder, what’s wrong here? You might even start to blame the student/singer for not trying hard enough, for not being motivated, for not wanting to “let go” and a dozen other things. You could get frustrated and confused, and that would surely not help the vocalist.

It isn’t easy, as a singing teacher, to address such issues, but it can be done. The idea is to take your time, progressing slowly through several stages. If you are going to dismantle a building, you start with the things that do not support the weight of the structure. You don’t take down the support structure until the very end.

With vocal problems of this nature, you must first relax whatever you can see on the outside of the body and get a free response of movement there as well. That means that the torso, the neck and shoulders, and the head over the shoulders, should not only be free of visible tension but free of “holding” or “striving” as well, especially during the exercises. You need movements to be small, simple and gentle, for a long time (say several weeks, not several minutes), but you must vary them gently so neither you nor the student gets bored. You must work to create a wider arc of movement, using exaggeration and “tools” like the straw and the cork, and you can also have the student do gentle self-massage and other maneuvers.

In between each exercise, you must go back (at least in your mind) to the auditory balance between chest on the low pitches and head on the upper pitches and the kind of vowels you are getting. An unconstricted, open and balanced throat will produce an undistorted set of vowels, particularly if the singer has been encouraged to learn what undistorted vowels are along the way. Vowel distortion that shows up consistently when you are asking for a specific sound in someone who understands what is being requested occurs because the throat shape is distorted through tension. That is true of pitch as well, especially in someone who can hear the difference between being flat or sharp versus someone who does not. Those who have poor pitch sense will learn to hear better as they go along, because function will get better. Getting them to the ball park of the pitch, as you get the throat to be in the ballpark of openness and freedom can be tedious, unless you love humanity and you love singing and want to give another human being the opportunity to do something spectacular, like singing, by sharing patiently what you know. Then, it could never be tedious. It can in fact, be wondrous.

If you want the high notes to be “warmer” and “more open” and have a “fuller sound”, you have to create more space in the vocal tract. The way to do that is by going to the bottom of the range (low pitches) by singing in a relaxed “foghorn” sound on /o/ or /a/ for a while at moderate volume until the tongue and jaw are very relaxed and the larynx can rest low in the throat without manipulation. If you are working with a female, and then gently carried this sound up across E/F just above middle C, and back down again, over and over, gently and slowly, and gradually allowed it to get louder, that would be next. Then you would have to slowly increase the volume. The pitch range would vary with males and females but not the activity.

At just about the time this is all working, you would have to STOP and do something opposite. Why? Because if you do not, then you make the alternate behavior a destination not just a resting place and that’s not a good thing. Using the above example, you would then have to shake things up, going to tongue/jaw activities, because all constriction of the interior muscles of the throat causes tongue issues. It is your job, NOT THE JOB OF THE STUDENT to shake those tensions lose. There are a whole bunch of exercises that would be appropriate and work, but you would have to understand what to do with them and be patient while they had an effect.

Then, you would go to a small vowel, like /i/, but much higher and lighter, striving for head, but NOT open — closed — as this should be slightly easier. Staccati or rapid scales would be useful. Other exercises in this vein might be necessary, in succession, and there would also always have to be, in the back of your mind, the idea that you are listening to both register balance and vowel sound accuracy. You have to play with vowel sound shapes, with volume and with both slow sustained exercises and well as fast ones. Then you could go back to “foghorns” for a while. Zig zagging back and forth until you are close to the opposite shore in your sailboat.

Finally, you could do open octave slides on /a/ at about mezzo forte, rising slowly from mid range. If the breathing is good (and that would have to be addressed along the way, too), then there would be a very good chance that your student’s high notes would suddenly “pop open”. Ta-da – you are at the dock!

This entire process can take A YEAR if the person is an older person who has been singing for a while, and that’s with lessons not less than twice a month and consistent practice in between. During that time, the student/singer would be more or less “discombobulated” or go through a period of vocal “limbo” where the old habits were not always apparent, but not necessarily gone yet, and the new ones were not yet stable and taking over automatically. This is a scary and upsetting time for the singer and the teacher has to support this with explanation and encouragement.

If you want to read more about this get “Psyche and Soma” by Cornelius Reid. It’s out of print, but you might find it on line somewhere. He talks about functional vocal training at length. Just remember that he wrote for classical singers only and I took his work and stood it on its head, so to speak, to make it work for CCM vocalists. Somatic Voicework™, my method, is functional training but it includes the body as being part of the process, and the heart and mind as vital ingredients in making a vocal artist.

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One thought on “Zig Zagging”

  1. Thank you Jeanie! This resonates with me SO much. Most of my students are now very comfortable and even expect this kind of zigzagging at their lessons. New students, especially from other teachers who teach in a very linear progression, find it very difficult to “hop around”. Patience and lots of explanations usually save the day.

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