[From my Sept/Oct 1999 newsletter – thought I was done with all of these! I have tweaked this one quite a bit to incorporate some of the newer ideas I have on vocal technique.]

I’ve asked a lot of people how much time they put in on practicing each day. These are some of the answers I’ve received:

  1. Oh, I sing in choir every day so I don’t need to practice.
  2. I can’t remember what I’m supposed to practice.
  3. I’m too embarrassed to practice where people can hear me/my neighbors complain when I practice/I don’t have anywhere to practice.
  4. I get so busy I forget.
  5. I practice for hours, till I lose my voice.
  6. Never.
Okay, folks. Let’s address each of these in turn.
  1. Your choir director is preparing you for the art of choral singing. He/she is teaching you to blend as part of an ensemble. I am teaching you to develop your voice as a soloist. These are very different goals. You need to practice the exercises that you have been given in lessons in addition  to the vocalises that you do in choir.
  2. A lot of vocalises are done every week. A lot of them are done on the spot to correct your individual vocal concerns(s). During your lessons, I ask you how things feel while you’re doing them … this is so that you will do them with care and thought of what is going on in your body. Mindful of their function, rather than just throwing them off. If you really can’t remember your exercises, I invite you to take time during your lesson to write them down OR to bring a flash drive to insert into my piano and record the exercises. You can also do this on your iPod or iPhone (there’s an app for that!) Also, all of you were given my BRAAP sheets at your second lesson, which is an overview of a variety of exercises and their function (Breath, Resonance, Alignment, Articulation & Phonation).
  3. Oh come on.*
  4. Oh come on.**
  5. I’m so glad you’re so enthusiastic, but don’t practice more than an hour at a time. Your vocal folds are delicate folds of tissue and overuse can be damaging. Practice intelligently and efficiently.
  6. So why are you taking lessons? (See final paragraph of this blog.)
You should set up a regular time to practice. This is exercise, just like running or Zumba is exercise. You need to practice your vocal exercises (including, but not limited to, your repertoire) at least 30 minutes per day in order to make improvement. An hour  would be better. If you need to break this up into 10 minute increments, hey, whatever works for you.
So, how to structure your practice time:
  • Physically warm up. This means get into the appropriate physical place for singing. Rotate your shoulders, lift your arms up over your head and back down, gentle neck rolls, rag doll down and back. Stretch. 2 minutes.
  • Do some breathwork. Pant like a puppy, inhale on a K, exhale on a slow “sss.” 1 minute
  • Warm up the voice/isolate registers. Slides and sirens in your head voice on [u], lip trills, tongue trills, tongue between the teeth on “th.” Go to your chest voice and do simple short exercises on “no” or “ho” (Santa!) or “nyah.” 2 minutes.
  • Scales and vocalises/mix. Refer to the exercise sheets or your notes or recordings. 10 minutes.
  • Repertoire (The Music). Don’t just run through it. Take your time and do it right. “Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent.” (Marianna Busching, although I suspect others have said it as well.) If something is new, work through it on different syllables before you put in the words. Take it apart and work on it in sections. 20-30 minutes.
So there you have it.  30+ minutes worth of practice time, structured for your convenience. If you need to break this up or condense it, do it however and wherever you need to. You can do lip trills and sirens anywhere… people will look at you funny, but you can do them anywhere. (I know, I have!)
I can hear you now —
“But I was sick last week. I couldn’t sing a note. It hurt.”
– OR –
“We had houseguests over the weekend and they were in the room I usually practice in.”
Okay, but you can still do some preparation. You can:
  • Go through the rhythms. Clap them out, write in the beats if you are having any problems.
  • Go through the text. Make it mean something to you. Write it out for yourself. Take a sheet of paper and write out three columns:
    • The original text to be sung
    • The literal translation (if foreign).
    • Your “inner monologue.” What this text means to you. Create a character if you can’t find a meaning for yourself.
  • Go through the diction. Say it slowly. If you need to write in pronunciation cues for yourself, whether through IPA (international phonetic alphabet) or your own personal shorthand, do so.
  • Do some research. Find out about the poet. Where did the poem come from? What’s the historical significance? What was going on when this song was written? What was the composer’s story? Use the Internet – that’s why Al Gore created it. 🙂
  • Listen to recordings, not to imitate it but to hear how everything fits together: the text and melody, the harmonies, the instrumentation/orchestration, the texture. But really listen: don’t just use it as background music.
If you don’t practice, you aren’t going to improve. That’s all there is to it. If you want to sing better, you need to practice. If you can’t or won’t, you won’t get better and you’re wasting your money and both of our time. I don’t want to take your money just to hear someone who is the same week after week; I want you to improve and find your voice. Then we can have real fun!

Facing Fears and Performance Anxiety

[From October 8, 2001]

The recital is Sunday. You are going to get up and sing one or two songs in front of at least 23 people (the number of people who have signed up to sing) and, assuming they each bring two people, the total swells to 69. Maybe more. You have been working on your song(s) for the appropriate amount of time to learn the text, the melody, the rhythm, how it fits with the accompaniment, and to be able to find some nuances and subtleties with the text and music so that you are really giving a performance and not just spouting notes. In a word, you are prepared.

Yet you’re nervous and you’re afraid something will go terribly wrong. What are you afraid of?

  1. I’ll crack.
  2. I’ll forget the words.
  3. I’ll miss a note/make a musical error.
  4. People won’t like my voice.
  5. I’ll trip.
  6. I’ll wet my pants.
Let’s answer each of these in turn.
  1. Often a crack is only heard by yourself and those really close to you. It rarely travels into the audience. Keep yourself hydrated the day before and morning of, and eat an apple or chew something (your tongue?) right before you go on. If you crack, keep going!
  2. Put the words on an index card and speak them to yourself in the days before the performance. If you still miss a word, say something else. No one will have the words in front of them.
  3. You miss a note, you make a mistake, you go on. Just have the “I meant that” look on your face and beat yourself up later. Nine times out of ten, no one will know unless you tell them.
  4. Not everyone will like your voice. You aren’t going to like other people’s voices, either. (After all, Britney Spears has had a career for over 10 years now, despite what I think.) I’m sure there are people who don’t like my voice. (Those people are called morons.) As the late Rick Nelson said, “You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.”
  5. In 1989, I sang my first Messiah. My dress was too long and I had to climb steps to get onstage, while holding music. I dropped my hem just a fraction of a second too soon, walked UP my skirt and fell face first into the first violinist, knocking over his music stand. This was not a subtle “oops.” I was sprawled on the stage. I had to fight the temptation to cry, to run off the stage, and even, for a split second, to say, “Live from New York, it’s SATURDAY NIGHT!” Instead, I had to get up, compose myself, look at the audience, and nod to the conductor to let him know I could go on. The music began and I sang, “Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened.” (Not kidding. I thought the tenor was going to wet himself laughing by the time I got to the line, “Then shall the lame man leap as an hart.”) If anything would have stopped me from performing for the rest of my life, it would have been this moment. It didn’t.
  6. Remember what I said about staying hydrated in #1? Stop in the bathroom before you sing, please.
So now I’ve addressed your fears. If you need any other coping devices, talk to me in your lesson (or read Shirlee Emmons’/Alma Thomas’ Power Performance for Singers or any other wonderful books on performance anxiety).
Toi toi toi.

Being a Good Colleague

[From the Winter 2001 newsletter]

As I write this, the holiday season is in full force, and the overwhelming sentiment is “good will toward men.” Unfortunately, as I write this, I’m also surfing the Net and reading discussion boards regarding my various interests. I’m finding a lot of people who are hostile and insulting, criticizing not just the content of people’s posts, but the people themselves. It’s very disturbing, because the boards I frequent are usually populated by polite people – these are “trolls” that come to stir things up and then leave (usually when they go back to college at the end of break!).

The problem is not limited to online newsgroups. Singers are notorious for gossiping about each other – when I was in grad school, the “Peabody Curse” referred to the phenomenon of someone walking into the room just when you were talking about him/her. (I witnessed this many, many times.)

Gossip is poison. It makes you look jealous, and petty, and will affect your being hired again. Even if the person you’re gossiping with seems “safe,” later on he or she may become friends with the person you’re talking about and he/she will tell that person what you said. And somehow, you will be solely to blame for the gossip, even if you weren’t.

Everyone remembers that grade school report card category, “Plays well with others.” Some of us did well in that area, others needed more work. (My problem was always “talks too much.”) The 1970s era was called the “Me Decade” by writer Tom Wolfe because of pop psychology’s encouragement to individuals to develop their own individuality and take care of their own needs, often at the expense of those around them.

Coach Phil Jackson, formerly of the six-time NBA champion Chicago Bulls and five-time champion L.A. Lakers, writes of the strategy he used in building a winning team in his book, Sacred Hoops. Players used to hot-dogging and grandstanding had to “surrender the ME for WE.” It was a hard transition for many of his players, but the results were obvious. This is an excellent book for singers and sports enthusiasts alike.

Baritone Mark Delavan, in an interview with Classical Singer magazine, talked about his attitude adjustment and the subsequent change in his fortunes as a performer. The turning point was someone telling him, “I’m not gonna work with you anymore because you’re an idiot.” Although he was well respected for his vocal abilities, his life habits, which included gossip and a harsh competitive edge, lost him work. Now that he’s cleaned up his act and focused on the process rather than the outcome (which is the focus of Shirlee Emmons’ & Alma Thomas’ book, Power Performance for Singers), he is internationally recognized and sought after.

In Joan Dornemann’s book, Complete Preparation, she says, “Pay attention to basic human behavior and courtesy. Act with consideration for all the people who help you along the way.” Do not “dis” someone just because they’re “only” office staff or backstage crew. They have a voice as to whether or not you will be used again. Today’s secretary may someday be an administrator, today’s pianist is tomorrow’s conductor, today’s stage manager is tomorrow’s director.

These life lessons aren’t just for singers and actors. Substitute the words “accountant” and “programmer” for “pianist” and “stage manager” and “Chief Financial Officer” and “Chief Information Officer” for conductor/director, and you can see how this goes beyond the realm of opera/musical theater.

So don’t be a troll. Practice goodwill toward all. No matter what the season.

Learning Your Music

[From the April/May 2000 newsletter]

Many of you probably go about learning your music the same way I have for most of my life – through constant repetition. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I would like to address the topic of learning and memorizing your music so that we can work toward a more polished performance.

First of all, there is a lot you can do without having to open your mouth. You can practice on a bus, on the treadmill, in the car, during lunch – silent study is often the best way to cement a piece into your brain. Perhaps you are studying your text, that you have written down onto an index card (along with the word-for-word translation directly under it); perhaps you are listening to another singer singing the piece on your iPod or watching YouTube for a different interpretation; perhaps you’re listening to your last lesson on your iPod (for those of you who don’t record your lessons – hint, hint!).

Another effective method, frequently used in language study, is to work on something right before you go to bed so that your subconscious mind will continue to work on it while you sleep (“Oh, great, so I can dream about ‘Ici bas.’ Just what I always wanted.”) I am a big believer in index cards, and have been known to tape them to my bathroom mirror so that I can work on memorizing something while I blow-dry my hair. [Obviously written before I took up air-drying.]

Experts agree that isolating the text and its rhythm from the music is the best way to approach learning music. You should be able to speak your words in rhythm at a tempo a little faster than you need to go (kind of like warming up higher than you’ll actually be singing). This is especially helpful when you are singing in a foreign language.

After you have learned the text and its rhythm, add the melody. This is one of the reasons that we frequently sing the melody through on a nonsense syllable – so that you won’t be thrown by the words. Get the melody “into your voice” and the words solid, and the union of the two should be much easier to accomplish.

The last thing to add is the accompaniment. Know what your pianist is doing underneath your vocal line and between your entrances. This eliminated the tendency to stand there looking vacant and unsure as to your next entrance. (Frequent singer joke: How do you know that there’s a singer at your door? You don’t – she can’t find the key and doesn’t know when to come in!)

In Shirlee Emmons’ and Alma Thomas’ book Power Performance for Singers: Transcending Performance Barriers, it states, “Rehearse the meaning of the information regularly. Don’t just read or sing; do it with understanding and meaning. This way you will remember it better, while, at the same time, you are working on other skills as well.” (I really, really recommend this book, especially if you are contemplating any kind of performance as part of your life, whether as a professional or just for fun.)

Those of you have been with me for awhile have improved your performance skills tremendously. There is still work to be done and I look forward to developing a deeper understanding of the elements involved in a truly communicative performance!

Keeping you (and consequently, your instrument) healthy

[This is an article from my Nov/Dec 1999 newsletter.]

One of the disadvantages of being a singer as opposed to an instrumentalist is that if you get sick, you can’t perform. If a pianist has a really bad cold, she might not feel up to playing, but if she really had to, she could pull it off. If you, as a singer, have a really bad cold, you have to deal with your vocal folds possibly being swollen and not coming together, causing you to sound breathy or hoarse or not even being able to phonate at all. In November 1998, I had to cancel several weeks of lessons and gigs because I was completely voice-free. And if you do sing on these swollen folds, you risk causing long-term vocal damage.

And some medicines, while making you feel better, don’t really help you sing better. Decongestants and antihistamines don’t just dry up your nose – they dry up ALL you mucous membranes, including your folds. And aspirin and ibuprofen are great anti-inflammatories, but according to Dr. Anthony Jahn, otolaryngologist at Columbia University:

Aspirin should be avoided if you are prone to gastroesophageal reflux (GERD) … acid reflux can irritate the pharynx and vocal folds, causing sore throat and hoarseness. What about vocal fold hemorrhage? Aspirin can cause this in singers who are predisposed.

[Since writing this, aspirin has been listed as a medication that can put singers at serious risk of vocal fold hemorrhage, due to its anti-coagulant properties. When in doubt, don’t take it.)

In addition, if you take codeine for a cough, Dr. Jahn says:

[t]he three significant side effects of codeine are drowsiness, constipation, and habituation. Of these, constipation may be harmful, as straining on the toilet forces the vocal folds together, and may result in trauma, even hemorrhage.

The New York Opera Newsletter, May 1998 


Best not to get sick at all! A book that has some great ideas for staying healthy is 77 Ways to Beat Colds and Flu by Charles B. Inlander & Cynthia K. Moran (Bantam Books, 1996). This book goes over understanding colds and flu, gives you tips on prevention, and if you get it anyway, tips on treating it so that you can minimize your discomfort level.

Important tips:

  • HUMIDIFY YOUR SURROUNDINGS. “Adequate moisture is essential for the proper functioning of mucous membranes, which are the front doors of your upper respiratory system.” Which, in turn, in an essential part of what we use to sing. This means that you need to keep the room outside you moist as well as the room inside you – humidifiers externally, drink water and use nasal saline/Neti Pot internally.
  • FLU SHOT. Some people never get them and never get sick; some people get them and still get sick. According to the book, they enjoy a 75% success rate. [UPDATE: This is a subject of some controversy these days; some sources say 70-90%, others question its overall effectiveness. Your decision.]
  • EAT HEALTHY AND GET ENOUGH SLEEP. When I am stretched too thin, that’s when I’m bound to get sick. It used to be that I could hold out until the end of the season, but as I get older, I haven’t been as lucky. 

There is so much more. I find this book a very positive approach to avoiding illness and just improving your life in general.

And another great quote that I’ve been meaning to pass on to you – and this involves habit.

Regarding throat clearing:

When you have a cold, mucus increases and gets thicker, settling on the vocal cords. This causes a reflex action of coughing or clearing the throat. For the short duration of a cold, no real harm can be done. But if the “ahem” routine becomes a habit, you can damage your voice.

Vocal cords are muscles. Each time you clear your throat, you literally bang those muscles together – and they can become inflamed or develop small calluses that can cause temporary, or sometimes even permanent, hoarseness. [Bolding added.]

It’s important for any chronic throat-clearer to make a concerted effort to break the habit. The best way is to drink lots of water, which will thin the secretions. Then, each time you feel the need to clear your throat, swallow instead. That way, you’ll stop straining the cords – and save your voice.

Dr. Nancy Snyderman,
Good Housekeeping, June 1999 



Before there were blogs…

Before there were blogs (and LiveJournal and MySpace and Facebook), people actually wrote things to be printed on paper. No, not to be read on e-readers, but actually paper to be held in your hands and read. These were called books, and in smaller forms, newsletters. Archaic, right?

I found a bunch of newsletters that I used to distribute on a regular basis to my students and their parents back in 1999, 2000 and 2001. There are some things that have held up pretty well, so I’m going to be adding them here – with some minor updates, I’m sure. I will have to re-type them, since they were written 4 computers ago and probably saved on 5-1/4″ floppy disks. (Don’t ask.)

Stay tuned!