New Practice Checklist

This week, I put out a practice checklist, which was distributed to all my students as part of a welcome/welcome back packet. I had had a new student’s mom ask me about a structure of practicing, and I went back to a previous blogpost about practicing I’d written for some guidance. And I decided that, while there were some really good gems in there about how to practice, the post was, in itself, 8 years old and based on a newsletter than I sent out 20 years ago, when I was a brand new teacher. So it needed some updating, and I felt that it would be more effective if it was a little less text-driven and more to-the-point.

I went to a site called Teachers Pay Teachers (TpT and purchased a vocal practice challenge sheet that someone created, thinking that might work. But I didn’t care for some of the language (I don’t use the term “placement” in my teaching, and if I did, it wouldn’t be in the way it was used here) and I thought it might be more confusing than helpful. And it was a sticker based system and I thought that meant I’d have to look at something and I really don’t want to do that. I decided to do a checklist instead. So I knocked one out on Apple Numbers, and broke it up into:

  1. The “Warm-up” (Preparing to Sing)
  2. Repertoire (The Songs). This was done in two parts – a list of things to do when you’re first learning the song and, once it’s learned, to polish it
  3. Things You Can Do to be a little “Extra” (i.e., the Next Level). I did take some ideas from the original document that I bought on TpT in this section.

The first two sections involved a suggested breakdown of time based on the elements being worked on, using exercises from my BRAAP™ vocalises that I distribute to my students and that may be found on my website under studio portal (only available to my students). The final section was not time-driven – how much time the student wants to spend on that is entirely up to them.

I also laminated them so that the student can keep them on their piano and check them off with a dry erase, if they are so inclined. (Plus I figure they’ll stay intact longer that way.)

I’m not posting the checklist here, because, well, I just might tweak it a bit to make it a little less my personal studio-oriented and put it on TpT for sale. If you’ve received one this week and would like to ask me about it, please feel free. If you’d like to know more, let me know!

 

“Breath is welcome here”

“Breath is welcome here”

A few months ago, I was talking to one of my students, Erin McManus, about allowing the abdominal muscles to release on inhalation to receive the breath, and I believe that I used the term “welcome the breath.” Erin then smiled beatifically, as she is wont to do, and indicated her abdominal area with a gentle motion and said, “Breath is welcome here.”

Of course, you don’t breathe into the belly. The diaphragm is the dividing line between the respiratory and the digestive system, or, as the late Jean Westerman Gregg said, “between the vitals and the vittles.” (I have used that line ever since I first heard it in 1997, at my very first NATS workshop.) You breathe into your lungs, and as a result of the descent of the diaphragm, your viscera (i.e., guts) are pushed down and your stomach expands outward somewhat. More importantly, your ribs expand. If you are freakishly long-waisted, as am I, you may not find that there’s a great deal of outward expansion. If you are short-waisted, you may find that there’s a LOT of outward expansion.

But you can’t just push out your belly and expect the air to come in. You have to allow the air to enter your body by inhaling quietly, through your nose or mouth, depending on the circumstances, by aligning yourself efficiently so that you aren’t compressing your innards, and by allowing your abdominal muscles, particularly the abdominal floor, to release. Whether it is a sip of air or a deep intake of air, the key element is that of release. A noisy inhalation is inherently high and tense and is distracting. It’s not efficient.

An exercise I do frequently with beginning students is to have them blow out all the air and wait until their bodies need air. And when that moment comes, inhale – but just allow it to happen voluntarily, rather than consciously suck in air. What happens? Is there sound? Where do you feel expansion? Where do you feel release? Is it weird? (Someone said it was weird once, so now I ask.)

Enjoy this video of Nathan Gunn and William Burden singing the famous duet from Pearlfishers and notice how they receive the breath. (It helps that they’re shirtless. In so many ways.)

“Welcome the breath.” Indeed.

“Tools, not Rules”

I follow a fashion blogger whose site is called une femme d’un certain âge and recently, she had her colors and style done and it turned out she was wearing all the wrong colors and styles for her “type.” (I have to admit that the company who did her analysis was right – her clothes are much more flattering than they were before, and I thought she looked good before.) Someone asked her if that means she’s thrown everything out, even some of her favorite things, and she said, in today’s blog: “No. I still believe in ‘tools, not rules.'”

That phrase resonated with me. There are so many rules that we think we have to follow as singers. We have to avoid certain foods, we have to stand a certain way, align ourselves just so, sing only one kind of repertoire or one kind of style, and never do anything that might be considered “wrong.”

Yeah. Right.

What we work in lessons is collecting a series of tools that you can use for learning and performing your music. For example, we work on having a silent inhalation and a balanced onset, and releasing into the breath, rather than gasping for air or sighing at the end of a phrase. And for the most part, those tools are the rules.

Except when they’re not.

What if your character is upset? Would they have a clean onset? Would they have a balanced release? Would they be standing with their head balanced upon their spine and thinking of their feet as tripods with their weight evenly distributed between the big and little toes and the heel?

What if breathy was better, just for a particular phrase? What if a hard release was better, just to convey an emotion? What if the head was thrown back to the sky, just for that one line?

You can’t do it all the time, but sometimes, you have to break the rules.

Cross-training – physically and vocally

Club Pilates recently opened a place near my house and man, they’ve been courting me! I’ve taken 3 free classes so far – one 30 minute introductory class, one 60 minute regular Pilates class, and one 60 minute Cardio Sculpt class (which was a birthday offer – the birthday isn’t over till the coupons are gone!). As I left today, this sign spoke to me:gyR9YKpQR6WsifROtXUipQ.jpgThese are the Pilates principles – but what other discipline does this apply to? (If you haven’t figured out that I mean singing, you don’t know me at all.)

  • Centering – this could apply to alignment or it could apply to resonance
  • Precision – learning your music thoroughly
  • Concentration – practicing!
  • Control – working through registration/range exercises
  • Flow – legato
  • Breathwork – do we really have to spell this one out?

I’m not sure if I’m going to become a member yet – we’ll see how many free classes they offer me after I come back from vacation! 😉

Mind the Gap


This morning’s meditation again asked me to draw attention to the momentary gap between inhalation and exhalation (and vice versa). Although I reject the concept of suspension when it comes to teaching breath management, as I have discussed before, I do understand the value of taking a moment to reflect.

In England, there is an announcement at the underground (subway) for travelers to “mind the gap.” This pertains to the space between the edge of the platform and the train.

In the phrase shown above, the late composer Truman Fisher says that “the pause is as important as the note.” This goes along with the concept that I teach – the high note is only as good as the note before it. You have to be grounded on that note in order for the one after it to be successful – and if there is no note, you have to be grounded in the rest. A musical rest can be significant for expression’s sake (much can be said when nothing is said), for grammatical purposes, or for preparation.

Sometimes I am so busy, particularly at the end of the semester (which always seems to involve academic, musical and personal commitments), that I don’t take any time to breathe. I’m hoping that my newfound commitment to daily meditation will help me identify when I can find those moments, no matter how insignificant an amount of time they may be, and use them accordingly to find the time to reflect, to refresh, and to re-engage.

This semester, I’m going to try to

Suspending the breath – why I don’t teach it

This morning, the subject of my meditation app involved a lot of focus on the suspension/stillness between inhalation and exhalation. The momentary pause that exists both before the initiation of each. It’s infinitesimal and you really have to be aware to notice it even exists.

I don’t really feel it and I don’t find it all that valuable. When I first started studying voice, I was giving vocalises that encouraged finding that suspension. Exercises that consisted of:

Inhale – 2 – 3 – 4
Suspend 2 – 3 – 4
Exhale 2 – 3 – 4

The exercise gradually increased the numbers, cautioning the singer to be aware of maintaining an open glottis rather than shutting down or being rigid during the suspension. I dutifully did this exercise, and then I taught it, when I first started teaching voice. Because that’s what you did. It was a basic vocal exercise that was included in all the pedagogy books.

But I feel as though breath is a continuous process and that to focus on what is a nearly imperceptible stopping of time creates unnecessary tension. In fact, I think that the act of extending the suspension beyond that split second reinforces the idea of “setting the breath,” as opposed to just moving through it.

I have written in the past that my approach to the breath is that of:

Release – Receive
Release – Resist

Rather than suspend time, I prefer to think of releasing it and welcoming the next moment. 
(The point of the meditation was to be aware of stillness and use it in your life to avoid unnecessary conflict. In that case, it’s a useful concept. But I’m writing a singing blog here….)
When I’m singing, I don’t want to suspend animation, to enter into some kind of momentary vocal hibernation, but to continue to be animated, which is defined as being “full of life.” 
So I’ll suspend disbelief (or judgment), I’ll keep people in suspense, I’ll do TRW suspension work at the gym, and I’ll milk a good harmonic suspension for all it’s worth. But when it comes to singing, I’m just going to keep the air flowing.