Pedagogy

DISCLAIMER

What I say on this page is accurate as far as it goes. I've tried to put down the essentials, the big points that I keep repeating in lesson after lesson. Many other people, especially Richard Miller and most especially my own dear Ellen Faull, have said all this, and much more, way better than I can. What I'm trying to do is to put it into understandable language that you can figure out on your own. We can't all study voice with Ellen or Dr. Miller, and heaven knows that although I do my best I'm nowhere near their league as a teacher. But then, they're not writing this website, and you are reading it! I hope you find it helpful.

What is my teaching philosophy? Over the last several years I have become very opinionated about a lot of things! but most particularly about singing, since it is what I think about every day. The act of singing, in essence, is very simple. The body and the breath really do know how to sing - but we let our heads get in the way, all the time. When a singer can figure out how to get out of the way and just let the body function the way it already knows, deep down, how to do, then singing is easy and simple. The hard part is learning how to get out of the way and let the body do its job. As a teacher, my main job is to show my students how this works. And yes, I've learned pretty much all of this the hard way. I've made some big boo-boos in my years as singer and teacher, and thankfully I have learned from them.

Recommended Reading:

A Soprano on Her Head, by Eloise Ristad
Psycho-Cybernetics, by Maxwell Maltz
Zen and the Art of Archery (or Motorcycle Maintenance, Skiing, or Tennis, or any of the other Zen-based performance books)
The Structure of Singing, by Richard Miller
Great Singers on Great Singing, by Jerome Heinz
Body Mapping, by Barbara Connable


SUPPORT

Alignment

One of the first and most basic elements of good support is alignment. Many people simply do not have good posture, for an infinite variety of reasons - emotional issues, including insecurity and attitude, are top on the list, but also physical issues that need medical or therapeutic intervention can be a major factor. Oftentimes the singer just needs to pay attention.

Ideal alignment, in my view, allows the body to operate from a central axis that runs from the crown of the head through the center of the body, just in front of the spine, all the way down. Staying centered on this axis while singing allows free and unobstructed inhalation, and centered and relaxed support and singing. Many of the average singer's vocal issues are caused simply by coming off this axis, usually in a forward direction.

Exercise:

Center your feet under your hips. Put a finger on the last link of your tailbone. Put the fingertips of the other hand on the crown of your head. Visualize a pipe running from the crown of your head down through the center of the body, all the way through to the other end. Breath from tailbone to crown.

In my mental image of the "vocal tract" this idea of the pipe running the length of the body and through the top of the head is the real length of the vocal tract. The singer has to be involved the entire length of this axis, or core. Breathing and singing are not localized to the mouth, throat and ribcage - you have to use the whole thing.

Yoga can be incredibly helpful in finding this axis, since awareness of it is one of the main things yoga works with. In the past I have estimated that my students who take yoga learn what I have to teach an average of %60 faster than those who don't. In fact many of the exercises I do in the studio have a direct correlation to yoga exercises. I have been so pleased to see in recent years an upsurge in the number of voice teachers incorporating elements of yoga into their teaching. It really works.

The Breath

Over the years I have come to have some very decided opinions about proper breathing for singing. I have had my own journey with breath and support, finally arriving at what works well in my mid-30's. As with much else in my singing it took studying with Ellen Faull for me to finally "get it". What Ellen taught me is at the core of what I now teach; due to my own experience with internal tension and how to get rid of it I have added those things that work for me and seem to work well for my students.

To begin with, no one is going to sing really well when they hold a lot of tension through the core of the body. Tension through one's core affects just about every aspect of singing, from intake of air through support, articulation, placement, vibrato, etc. So the first thing one must address is core tension. Everyone carries a certain amount of tension in the body; without it we would be lying down all the time! There is a difference, however, between productive tension and excessive tension. My goal is to release as much unproductive tension from your body as possible.

Exercises:

1) Lie flat on your back, arms at your sides. Breath out, releasing as much tension with the exhalation as you can.

Curl your toes and feet into a flexed position, and hold for a slow count of five. Release. As you release, inhale and exhale. Visualize the inhalation entering your body through the soles of your feet, sweeping up through your skeletal structure and out your hands and the top of your head as you exhale. Visualize this breath sweeping all of the tension from your body. Next, tense all the muscles from toes to glutes. Hold for a slow count of five and release, with the same process of inhale/exhale to release all the tension. Repeat, and tense everything from waist down. Inhale and release tension on exhale. Next tense everything from shoulders down and repeat the exercise, and the next time tense your entire body from toes to scalp. Scrunch your face up, make fists, the works. Release as you inhale and exhale.

Breath deeply, from soles to scalp, two or three times. Feel your core release all the way from pelvis to skull.

2) Lying on your back, continue to breath deeply while visualizing the air intake coming through the soles of your feet. Visualize your entire body as an empy shell. Visualize the air swirling into your empty body through your feet, like water from a faucet filling up a vase. Breath two or three times with this visualization. Now change the image slightly - imagine that air entering your body is getting colder. As the air cools it gets heavier and slower, until instead of swirling like water into a vase you now have heavy clouds of air, like fog, billowing and rolling through your empty shell. The air is heavy enough to settle into the half of you that is against the floor, pressing you into the floor. Don't try to physically press yourself into the floor! this is all imagery. Breath into this image for a few minutes, untill you really feel it. Now, imagine the air is warming up. As you continue to breath, the air gets warmer and warmer. As the air warms, the particles speed up and expand, until the air is fizzing through and expanding into your empty shell. You begin to feel buoyant, as though you might rise right off the floor. Continue to breath into this image for a few minutes.

Inhalation

The process of inhalation is exceedingly important to proper support. I see many, many singers - teachers and students alike - who inhale through a tight jaw, into a tight thoracic and abdominal system, and then try to sing from the upper third of the body's support system. The ideal inhalation flows through open mouth and nasal space together, with a released jaw hinge from in front of and slightly above the ear canal, and slightly flared nostrils, with the body's release on the inhalation reaching all the way down to the level of the pelvic diaphragm. This allows the the inhalation to prepare the jaw/nasal/pharyngeal area for singing, as it is now in proper position, and allows the maximum expansion through the abdominal/thoracic area for proper support. The idea is to release as much tension through the core of the body as possible on the inhale so that there is minimal tension present as you start to sing. This allows the singer to keep the center of gravity in the body, and thus the center of support, as low as possible.

Exercises:

1) Lie down with your knees bent. Place the fingertips of each hand on the ball-and-socket joint of your hip - not where the hip bones stick out below your waist, but where your leg joint is at the bend of leg and hip. Wiggle your legs around so you can really see where this is. Now - imagine a 3 inch PVC pipe reaching from one hip joint to the other, right across your body. Inhale, and visualize the air coming in through the pipe. What happens to your breathing? Where do you feel the center of your release? Now, visualize a second pipe attached to the center of the first, the second pipe running up under your sternum, at a level just in front of your spine. Breath in "across" the first pipe and "up" the second. What does this do to your breathing? Now extend the second pipe all the way through the crown of your head - how does this affect your breathing?

2) Stand with feet balanced under your hip joints. Place a finger on the very end of your spine, the last link of your tailbone. Place the fingertips of your other hand in the center of your sternum, roughly even with the center of your armpits. Let the tailbone act as your fulcrum, or center of gravity, and stand up straight from tailbone to sternum - from hand to hand. Feel the space this creates in your abdominal system and breath into it. Visualize the breath coming from your fulcrum to your sternum. How does this change the way you breath?

The result of this combination of exercises is usually that the singer feels a breath more centered in the abdominal system, expanding through the back, sides and lower ribs, with the result that the thoracic cavity (ribcage) tends to maintain an open position as the singer sings.

The Hookup

For years I heard people talk about "The hookup" without really understanding what it meant. Teachers - most notably Barbara Pearson, when I studied with her in Chicago - tried to get me to do it, but it just never meant anything for me. Finally, two things clicked for me in my lessons with Ellen Faull. First was the concept of appoggio. No one had ever really explained it to me. Ellen used maybe one sentence and that did it - the idea that, as the body begins to draw in the musculature as the breath expires, the singer maintains the open posture of breathing in - i.e., expansion. (Check out Richard Miller's books, particularly The Structure of Singing, second chapter.) Demonstrating with one hand, Ellen showed the action of the muscles resisting collapse. That, she said, creates real support. Suddenly all my bobbing and weaving in search of a "real" breath was completely extraneous and the light went on in my head. Ahhhh, that was it. Then, as I worked on the this concept, Ellen had me work on saying "hmm, mmm-hmmmm" as she motioned again with her hand to demonstrate the slight outward movement the muscles of the abdominal system must make as I said the consonant. Barbara had had me do the same exercise, but at the time it wasn't making sense. Now I got it.

Exercise:

Place a hand on your belly and a hand on your waist, between hip and bottom ribs. Inhale properly, feeling your abdominal system (and by that I mean the entire band of muscle around your middle all the way back to your spine) expand. This should be a relaxed breath, not a "power" breath. Say "Mmm". Feel the muscles under your hands respond by bouncing outward slightly. I'm not asking you to force the muscles out, just let them react because you said something. Many singers have been taught to forcefully contract these muscles to "support" the breath. Contracting them actually injects more tension into the singing tract all the way up into the throat. I'm looking instead for an open, centered inhalation and a slight outward bounce on the spoken syllable, that feels like it comes from the center of your body and travels out till you feel it under your hand. Say "mmm, mmm-hmmm" several times in a row, with focus on the proper sensation of a gentle outward bounce. Now say "Mmmaaaaaa" and continue the sensation of gentle outward expansion as you say the long word. Now sing it, maintaining the same sequence of motions.

Sustained Support

The concept of maintaining a sense of the motion of inhalation or expansion while singing applies directly to sustained support. What I have found helpful is the imagery of singing right down into the abdominal system and hips, instead of thinking up and out along with the vocal line. The singer has to allow the notes to take care of themselves and keep the breath centered in the body. That mental separation, letting each part of singing function in its own realm, can really take a lot of tension out of the singing process.

Low Support

Generally speaking, one feels the bulk of support in the section of the abdominal system between the top of the hip and the bottom rib, in a band all the way around from front to back. For that extra boost one needs for high notes and extra long phrases, the lowest support muscles must engage. Ellen likes to point to a spot midway between the navel and the pubic bone and indicate a slight outward movement. She also likes to say "Clench your fanny!" for high notes. Laugh you may, but it works like a charm - puts support in the largest free muscle groups in your body while centering the breath far back on the axis.

Exercises:

1) Put a hand on the lower abs between navel and pubic bone, the other hand over the sacroiliac (center of the bony plate between your hips) on the lower back. As you sing the high note, bend your knees slightly, maintaining the straight up-and-down alignment of the spine; do not bend at the waist. Just coming down like this will give you extra support; the motion of bending the knees engages the low abdominal and pelvic muscles for that little support boost without you having to think too hard about it. If you find yourself bending at the waist you can place one hand on the crown of your head instead of on the abs, and that will help you maintain the axis from crown to tailbone.

2) Place hands on hips, right where the abdominal band of muscle meets the bone of the upper end of the hips. Place thumbs on your lower back, right above the bone. Inhale, releasing from tailbone to sternum, feeling the muscle group right under your thumbs move. While you sing, feel for the same muscle group moving in a similar fashion.

Staccato/Coloratura Support

Support for staccato notes and coloratura runs feels a little diffent than support for lyric phrases and high notes. The base of all support needs to be the open expanded abdominal system and ribcage, all the time. But support for staccato notes and coloratura runs needs to feel like it's coming right off the top of that expansion, from the area around the bottom rib/upper abdominals. One student described it accurately as the feeling of an inner tube sitting on top of a beach ball; that is, the expanded coloratura breath around the bottom of the ribcage and upper abs sitting over the open abdominal support system through abdominal cavity, hips, and back. There are two important points I need to make here. One is that the open support described in the previous sections is always, always present in event the most staccato and/or coloratura passages. Support is always anchored low in the body. The second, very important point, is that in singing coloratura passages and staccato notes, one cannot use all of that low support system the way you would in a lyric line. While the lower support is present, it's basically just parked there till you hit a high or sustained note. If you try to engage all that support system for each and every note in a run it's like hauling baggage upstairs at a run - heavy and unwieldy. If you can see it this way, it's as though you maintain a reservoir of expanded air and just let the coloratura fly off the top. What does this mean in real terms? Well...try these.

Exercises:

Place a hand on your bottom rib, wrapped around the side with your thumb in the back and fingers in front. Place the fingertips of the other hand on the center of the upper abdominal muscles, in a line with the bottom rib - find that "bouncy" spot you feel when you laugh or say "Hey!" Now you're going to pant - steady in-and-out, loose and relaxed, feeling the muscles around the level of the bottom rib gently bouncing. Keep it loose, relaxed, and easy, not too big a movement - hee hee hee hee hee. Do it a few times to get the hang of it.

Sing a five note, staccato scale, 5-4-3-2-1. Any vowel is ok, although after the hee-hee exercise an Italian "i" vowel is perhaps easiest. You're not going to breath between the notes in the scale, so the pant and the staccato exercises won't feel exactly the same, but they both should employ a gentle, relaxed bounce around the bottom of the ribcage and top of the waist, centering on the "bouncy spot" in the upper abdominals. Repeat the hee-hee exercise, and then the 5 note staccato scale. Let the staccati be dry, light, and easy.

A common mistake singers make with staccato singing or coloratura singing is trying to employ all the musculature of the abdominal wall in each staccato or running note, creating a HAH! HAH! HAH! effect. That's way too much work and disturbs the musical line. Ease up, maintain the open posture of the abdominal system as a whole, and let the muscle movement for the staccato remain quite small and localized. This will allow relaxed, accurate singing through the longer coloratura or staccato line, without getting bogged down in each individual note.

"Let, not make!"

One of the most important concepts of singing - maybe even the most important! - came to me from Rita Shane, with whom I studied voice at the Eastman School of Music. I was bellowing my way through an aria when Rita stopped me and said "Janet - let, not make!" The light bulb went on with blinding clarity; instead of trying to hunt down the technical point I was trying to execute and shoot it till it was dead, she was asking me to relax, sit back and let it come to me. What a concept! It took me years to really implement it. As singers we all work so hard, and it seems that the harder we work the more elusive those frustrating technical details become. When it comes to breathing, in particular, the "Let not make" principle works very well. Support is not about clamping down on your abs to force the voice out, support is about maintaining the open posture of inhalation through the abdomen and ribcage, in order to provide a bouyant foundation of breath to support the voice.

Placement

I don't always love the concept of placement, per se. If you just park the elements of the vocal machine in the appropriate positions and let them function as they were meant to do, the voice places itself. You just give it air and space and hang on for the ride. Trying to "place" the voice somewhere in particular almost always leads to trouble and tension one way or another.

Face Position

I'm sure you've heard of the phrase "inner smile". If you haven't, let me explain. The pads of the cheeks should feel slightly lifted when you sing, as though you had an amusing thought, or are trying to yawn with your mouth shut. When you find your "inner smile" it will help to seat your vowels properly, centering them in the roof of your mouth. In conjunction with the inner smile, the nostrils should be flared and the lips in a pouty, forward position. I call this the "supermodel" face. The flared nostrils assist in opening nasal space and the forward lips help to release tension through the cheeks, jaw and tongue. Having these elements in place helps to align the voice properly. You don't really need to do any thing else with them, just park them on your face and leave them there. I've been calling this the "groove", since it aligns up the front of the face.

Exercise:

Having trouble keeping your face forward? Place your fingertips under your cheekbones, along the roots of your teeth, all the way from your back molars to your canine teeth. Keeping your fingertips in this location, flatten your fingers against your cheeks with your pinkies landing along the corners of your mouth. Let your jaw drop. Now you should have a slight "fish face", lips in a gentle forward position, cheek pads lightly lifted by your fingert tips. Try a few vocal exercises on ah, and see what this position does to your singing.

Vowels

First of all, check your tongue position. The tip of the tongue needs to touch the back of the bottom front teeth for any variation of "I" - the "eeeee" sounds. For "Ah" based vowels the tongue tip drops under the dental ridge, the fleshy bump under your bottom front teeth. The tip does shift position depending on the vowel, but it pretty much stays parked right there at the front.

Vowels need to center in the roof of your mouth, within the confines of your teeth. You should almost feel the vowels center right over your teeth, along the roots of your teeth. Vowels should stay anchored here and change their shape from the roof of the mouth to the surface of the tongue, taking what space they need. Let the vowels change their own shape - you think the vowel, it shapes itself and takes the space it needs. This is a very hard concept for a lot of people, more of "Let, not make". Most of us want to make things happen, and as a result put way more force into shaping our voices - and of course, vowels - than is ever necessary. This winds up using way more jaw and tongue musculature than is healthy or useful. Ease up and see what happens.

Keep in mind that although the vowel is centered within the cage of the teeth, the other elements of the voice must still occupy their proper positions. The voice must still take up all of its space - don't try to fit the voice into the same space the vowels occupy.

Exercise:

Place your thumbs along the bottom (biting) face of your upper molars, all the way from front to back. Inhale around your teeth through both nose and mouth. Feel the sense of space above your teeth open up? Say "Aaah". Where does the vowel center now? Feel how little effort it takes to create it, and how strong and attached to the air it feels? Try some "ah" exercises, simple scales or triads. Let the notes change themselves, don't try to define each note. Take your thumbs out and keep singing. Can you maintain the location of the vowel? Now try changing to an "I" vowel. Can you let the vowel occupy the same space as the "ah"?

This exercise doesn't work for everyone, but when it works it's a great tool.

Consonants

Start with the vowel space. Find your "ah" vowel. Feel the space above your teeth? Let your concept of consonant start with this space. Consonants are much easier to deal with if you have the "face" on and vowels properly centered. Ideally, your jaw is loose and relaxed, and as much as possible not involved with the production of the consonants. Dental consonants are formed on the dental ridge behind the upper front teeth by the tip of the tongue. It's not necessary to use your jaw a lot for most of the dental consonants; the tip of the tongue is largely sufficient.

Exercise:

Find your "ah" vowel and feel the space between (across hard palate)/over top teeth. Visualize the consonants forming themselves in this space and then dropping onto the tip of the tongue. All on one note, beginning in middle range, sing "d-d-d-d-n-n-n-n-t-t-t-t-l-l-l-l rrrrrrah", using a schwa vowel to vocalize each consonant and adding a rolled "r" at the end (rrrah). Maintain the "groove" face position and the sense of space in the vowel space. The idea is to release the jaw and allow the tip of the tongue to do the articulation.

Resonance

When reading books on the voice, you will find that the vocal machine has several resonating areas. I'm not going to talk about resonance in this technical sense. I am talking about where you feel the most intense vibration as you sing, so bear with me. Generally speaking, most people feel the maximum vibration in the "mask" area in the middle range. Now, here's the deal: that sense of resonance has to shift around while you sing. In middle voice you will certainly feel maximum vibration in the middle section of the face. If you sing lower than middle voice, you will feel the "resonance" in the throat and chest, hence the term "chest voice". As you ascend from middle voice to upper middle, high, and through the roof, you will feel the resonance shifting from mid-face, to the upper sinus area, to the hairline, and back along your scalp. All this is generally known as "head voice". For a soprano's highest notes the sense of vibration will go all the way back to the crown of the head (Joan Sutherland was quoted in "Great Singers on Great Singing" by Jerome Hines as saying she felt her high notes come out the back of her head. Really big voice, really high notes!). This is all right and proper - this is the way it's supposed to work and you just have to let it go where it needs to. Now, don't confuse letting the resonance, or sense of vibration, travel back with letting vowels travel back. It's not the same thing at all. Conversely, don't confuse feeling resonance in the mask with trying to put your vowels - or your voice - there. That's not the same either.

Exercise

Using a lip trill, sing full scales. Keep ascending till you are at the top of your range. Place the tips of your fingers wherever you feel the fullest sense of vibration in your face. As you ascend notewise, follow the sense of vibration with the tips of your fingers. This should give you a good sense of where each range of your voice needs to resonate.

Parts and Pieces

The fact is that when you get the correct facial position, naso-pharyngeal space, and vowel position all put together, more often than not many breathing and tension related problems resolve themself. Key to this is letting all the parts and pieces stay where they belong, and function as they need to. It has become increasingly clear to me that many, many singers and teachers are unclear on what the parts are and how they function. (Read Barbara Connable's work on body-mapping!) So many people cause themselves unnecessary problems by trying to squish all the vocal functions into one space, usually either way forward or way back. Each part of the vocal instrument has its own place and can only function in its own place. The breath sits in the body. You can't move it. The vowels sit in the "cage" of the teeth. You can't move them. The voice proper sits in the larynx. You can't move it. The "groove" sits on the front of your face. You can't move it. You need to feel space from the front of the sinus cavity to roughly between your ears. You can't move it.

Probably the most common error I see in technique has to do with erroneous ideas about where everything goes. The easiest place to feel resonance is generally in the frontal sinus area, and consequently many singers attempt to put everything here, and I mean everything. You cannot use the tongue to push the voice into this frontal resonating space, it doesn't fit there and just causes lots of vocal tension. The converse of this is to try to create space for the voice to function by forcing the throat open and allowing the vowels to sit behind the back molars. Once again, all the vocal parts and pieces don't fit there, and this just causes more issues. The singer must have a clear picture of where all the functioning bits go, and how they work together - and then allow the parts of the vocal instrument to sit where they belong and do what they do best.

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Teaching Philosophy

SINGING AND PSYCHOLOGY

All voice teachers are to some degree psychologists and counselors. So many of the vocal problems we as singers deal with have their cause in emotional or psychological issues, it's just inevitable that teachers wind up working with these issues as well as what we see as strictly vocal problems. Knots in one's emotional and psychological shoelaces have corresponding knots in the body, particularly in the breath system. This can really hinder one's ability to let the body do its job correctly. It's incredibly important for a singer to learn to recognize when there is an emotional component to the physical issues he or she is experiencing, and to go ahead and deal with it actively through therapy or other intervention. My philosophy about therapy: We go to teachers to help us learn to sing, to read, to write, to play piano or soccer or basketball or any of the other skills we acquire along the way. Who teaches us to deal with emotions, bad habits, trauma, or the other myriad issues we as humans deal with in our lives? If we're lucky, our parents are equipped to teach us to deal with life. Unfortunately, parents are also people with issues and the handbook doesn't necessarily specify this as part of the job. So I highly recommend finding a skilled professional to teach you how to sift through whatever it is that's interfering with your ability to function effectively. Remember that not every professional is equal, and you may have to shop around to find someone you're compatible with. If you see your need for help, keep looking till you find the right person to help you. Wonderful people are out there for you.

SINGING AND MEDICAL INTERVENTION

Quite often I find a physical cause for vocal issues. Aside from the standard problems of nodes or other vocal cord problems, I frequently see structural alignment problems requiring chiropractic, osteopathic, or massage therapy; ear, nose and throat problems that need to be directed to an otolaryngologist or ENT doctor; issues with dyslexia, ADD, depression or anxiety that require medical intervention; or even problems with stance caused by foot or leg problems that need to be addressed by a competent podiatrist. It amazes me how often I find singers who resist dealing with these problems. Sometimes they are worried about money, sometimes they worry about stigma, some cannot admit they are less than perfect, sometimes they just don't want to have to deal with it. I ask you, why would people who are happy to spend lots of money every week to pay for a voice teacher and accompanist resist dealing with issues that are causing them endless grief in their singing? If your car blew a tire or sprang a leak, you would deal with it, wouldn't you? If your fiddle snapped a string or had a slipping bridge, you'd fix it, right? Your body is your vehicle for singing - you have to maintain the parts and pieces or it isn't going to work right. If you have a problem, figure out what it is and FIX IT!!! You'll be amazed at how much better your life and your singing can be!

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