Who takes voice lessons?

My mother never understood how I had so many students. She would say, “So many people want to be professional singers?” and I’d say, “No, mom, some want to be professional performers, but some just want to get into the musical at school, or into a special ensemble in choir, or some just want to be better.” That blew her mind. She couldn’t understand why anyone would spend money on something if they weren’t planning to make money at it. (And why they’d give it to ME, of all people.)

But my mother issues are a whole ‘nother story. And ones only hinted at in this blog.

This summer, I read Seth Godin’s This is Marketing: You Can’t Be Seen Until You Learn to See.  In the chapter, “In search of ‘better,'” he creates an X-Y graph showing elements that people care about. From a business perspective, one element might be convenience, and another one price. What kind of clients fall within these parameters? Who is willing to pay for both? Who wants one but doesn’t care so much about the other?

I decided that, from a voice teacher’s perspective, my parameters would be technique and performance. What kind of client/student wants to be a better singer, but doesn’t really want to perform? What kind doesn’t really care about developing strong technique, but just wants to be able to perform with a band or at open mic? Who wants to understand technique better so they can help their classroom students, but doesn’t really want to perform themselves? Who wants to perform at the highest possible level of ability? This is what I came up with, based on the students I’ve worked with over 20 years:

Types of Voice Students (click here for bigger version)Image 9-19-19 at 9.44 AM

By “professional performer,” I mean opera/musical theater, because that’s what I do. CCM performer means contemporary commercial music such as rock, pop, jazz. And please don’t feel that I’m judging any kind of singing here – except maybe “shower.”

This doesn’t mean that students are forever relegated to these arbitrary quadrants. The “always wanted to sing” dabbler might start out not wanting to perform (and, in fact, be terrified of doing so), but then dip their toe into karaoke, and maybe later, community theater. Or start out in the church choir, and then decide to try auditioning for a symphonic chorus. A community theater ensemble singer might go for a lead role – and get it!

As a teacher, who do you want to work with? I have to be honest – I prefer working with people who want to perform and who want to develop their technique to the highest extent possible. That’s my “ideal client.” I have friends who enjoy working with adults who have no intention of performing and who do not want to work with high-strung high school students with tons of rehearsal conflicts (in other words, my people). Knowing who you click with might mean that you don’t market yourself as “all ages, all styles,” because that might not be the best way you can serve yourself and your client. It’s not for me. But some people are happy to serve all markets, and good for them!

As a student, where do you fall? Does your teacher recognize what’s important to you? Are they helping you get to where you want to be? Are they pushing you hard enough or too hard? Are you their ideal client? Are they your ideal teacher?

What If You Were Your Own Teacher….

I just read the phrase, “as if they were their own teacher” on a FB page of independent teachers, in regards to how a student would do self-evaluation, including:

  • Finding three things they did well
  • Finding a couple of things they’d like to fix
  • Figuring out how to fix them
This was based on the idea of submitting a video to a teacher in the event that you were unable to make your lesson that week. The teacher would then review the practice video and give his/her own observations and suggestions. I thought this was a really great option. I’m thinking of making this an option in the fall.
So here’s a challenge for you this summer:

  • Video your practice session (you can use your phone) as if it were a lesson. Include:
    • Vocalises
    • Repertoire
      • Do each song all the way through without stopping
      • Stop and address the issues you need to address
  • Watch the session – either afterwards, or stop after vocalises
  • Evaluate it
    • Were your vocalises varied enough? 
    • Did you vocalize long enough?
    • Were the things you stopped and addressed the things you should have stopped and addressed? Did you leave anything out?
    • What did you do well? (There must have been something.)
    • What do you need to address the next time you practice? How are you going to address this? When?
    • Is there anything you noticed that you need to ask me about?
I’m going to try to do this too. Let’s see what happens.

Golden age musicals – why you should bother

I hear this way too often from people:

“Why should I sing golden age music? It’s so old-fashioned! I don’t know any of it.”
  • Technique. Today’s musicals tend to be very text-driven, and aren’t necessarily vehicles for mastering things like legato and breath management. (And that doesn’t make them less than, just different.)
  • Revivals are big nowadays. Two revivals were nominated this season – Kiss Me, Kate and Oklahoma (see below). 
  • Sometimes it’s right for the audience where you’ll be performing. A retirement community will appreciate a Rodgers & Hammerstein song more than they will something from Pasek & Paul. Usually.
  • Because choosing repertoire is one of my superpowers. If I’m picking it for you, it’ll be right for you. Trust my judgment.
    AND
  • History. Most of all, history.
Oklahoma won the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical. It’s supposed to be fantastic, and I want to see it. And I don’t even like the show. However, the way they’re looking at it is more contemporary – the accompaniment is a band, rather than a full orchestra, the casting is diverse, and the direction takes it to a darker place than most traditional productions.

In undergrad, I wrote a paper about the characters of Curly in Oklahoma and Figaro in Le Nozze di Figaro and how groundbreaking both of them were for their times. Frank Rich pretty much wrote the same thing in this article:

“At its birth, the show was to its America what Hamilton has been to ours: both an unexpected record-smashing box-office phenomenon and a reassuring portrait of our past that lifted up theatergoers at a time of great anxiety about the country’s future. Its Broadway opening took place less than 16 months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when America was shipping its sons off to war and still digging out of the Great Depression. Like Hamilton, too, Oklahoma! was deemed artistically revolutionary for its time. A self-styled “musical drama” rather than a musical comedy, it dispensed with the usual leggy chorus line and leveraged its songs to advance character and plot.”
There is a vast history of American musical theater, going back before Oklahoma! Knowing about it makes you a more well-rounded singer. 
And again – trust my judgment.

If you’re going to make a mistake, make a BIG one

I read a blogpost the other day by a musician and psychologist named Noa Kageyama (aka “The Bulletproof Musician”) about the idea that making deliberate mistakes can teach you a lot. Kageyama’s focus, generally, is on being very deliberate and mindful in your practice. So I was doing some thinking when I posted this on my studio FB page:

What would happen if…

You did that wrong again, but make it really wrong, on purpose?
You gave yourself permission to do it wrong? Would you do it wrong?

While “practice makes perfect” is less true than “practice makes permanent,” being mindful and making deliberate choices is much better than being on autopilot.

****

What would happen if you:

  1. Sang a note deliberately flat?
  2. Sang a note deliberately sharp?
  3. Sang the wrong rhythm – on purpose?
  4. Sang the wrong interval – on purpose?
How would it feel in your body to sing flat/sharp/just plain wrong? And how does it feel when you do it right?
You have to know what WRONG is so you can find RIGHT. If you’re going to make a mistake, make it big and make it deliberate so you can figure out just what wrong is and what is wrong.

Experiment with this – if you have a phrase where you are always flat, sing it REALLY flat on purpose. What’s going on? Is your tongue in a weird place? Is the registration off? Your balance breath pressure less than optimal (or if sharp, more than optimal)? How can you adjust these things in your own body? 

What would happen – if?

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. 

My Favorite "Sings"

I wrote this nearly 17 years ago (!!!) when I was in the infancy of my teaching career, and it still pretty much describes my approach to vocal technique. I may have published this before but I can’t find it, and it showed up in my FB memories this morning, so here goes:

My Favorite Sings
To the tune of (oh, you know!)

Lip trills and buzzes and breath exercises –
Whimper like a puppy to find where your sighs* is –
Expand your bottom ribs as though they were wings,
These are a few of my favorite sings!

Sing thru the “stick shift” to free the passaggio**,
Blow on your finger to feel the appoggio,
Locate your resonance with lots of “ming-mings”,
These are a few of my favorite sings!

Don’t lift your chin up, it pulls on your larynx!
A noisy breath means you’re tightening your pharynx!
Relax your shoulders and all other things,
Get ready to work on your favorite sings!

Don’t gasp or wheeze!
An incipient sneeze
Will give space to you
And don’t forget if you look
weird when you sing,
You’ll probably sound weird too!

*sighs – balanced onset exercise
**a chromatic exercise for registration