I have a degree in Vocal Music Education. I wanted to be a high school choir director, a voice teacher, a church choir director, and a professional opera singer. I can’t afford to be a public school teacher and I really didn’t get enough training to be a successful opera singer…nor did I want to be on the road and away from Oklahoma. But I am a church choir director and a private voice teacher, and that’s good enough for me.
I’ve taught voice sporadically since my college days in the 90s, but I’ve never really given a real go at it. So last year I decided to start a studio out of my house to teach on Saturdays. My capacity is 7 students, and I’ve had as many as 5 at a time. Right now I have just 3. What I’ve found is that taking voice lessons is a short time prospect for most. I’ve taught a total of 9 students since I began last year. I don’t take this lack of retention as a reflection on my abilities. I believe that people come to a teacher to work through a problem or two and once they’ve gotten what they want (ie. an audition, higher range, bigger sound, etc.), then they leave.
If you’re an advanced student and are on the brink of a professional career in opera then I would refer you to someone with more training. There are things I can teach an advanced singer, but I lack the training and experience to bring someone to a professional level.
But here’s what I’ve been successful at. A singer comes to me with a specific goal or perhaps with a general goal of getting better. I diagnose, I prescribe, and then we work at it every week until the goals are reached. And my students seem to be really happy about it, and so am I.
Building a voice studio
A good friend of mine is a full-time private piano teacher. Most of her students are children and teens. Children and teens can take piano lessons for years. With a PHD piano teacher like her, she can teach them all the way up to the college level. I asked her how she built her studio and she said that it just happened one student a time. For a long time (several years even), she maintained a studio of only 5 or so students. Now she has 55 students, but it took time. And the primary strategy was word of mouth.
My first student came immediately after I decided to teach. I hadn’t even told anyone that I wanted to teach, yet. It was just one of those deals where I put the desire out there and the Universe returned it to me. I literally had not been approach for lessons in 5 years. I posted a few posters at church and a high school and spoke about it casually at work. One by one they came. Not exactly a flood, but enough to keep my Saturdays busy.
Problems I’ve successfully helped a student work through
I titled the article Finding a Voice, because I believe that this is my central goal with each student. I do not encourage my students to find someone else’s voice. We all have a 100% unique voice inside, and sometimes we need some help getting it out. It’s kind of like what a sculptor does. He sees the figure inside the rock and then just chips away the bits that are in the way. It’s my job to begin imagining through careful listening what this voice truly sounds like. Sometimes, the voice is so obscured that it’s impossible to truly imagine it, so I just focus on the fundamentals and working through the faults until it emerges.
The problems that I’ve successfully helped students work through are breathiness, limited high range, lack of volume, all around rough edges, nasality, and lack of legato.
This is very common. Breathiness happens when the vocal chords are not fully adducted ( To bring together. Humans adduct the paired vocal folds upon expiration to produce voiced sound – source). This is when the vocal chords are letting too much air through. The chords must become compressed together in order for the breath to be fully converted into phonation ( A production of sound from the vocal folds, implying that the sound has not yet been shaped into words by the vocal tract and articulators – source).. In the case of girls going through puberty, this is almost unavoidable. It’s just part of the process for many. The goal in this situation is to not let it carry over into post-pubescence.
My most successful technique for fixing this issue has been speech-level singing. This is a method by which natural speech becomes the foundation for natural singing. It has its merits especially when the natural speech of a student is healthy and the singing is unhealthy as in the case of breathiness. So I begin with having them speak. Then I have them stretch out there words. Then I have them speak on certain pitches and so on until they can sing musical phrases with the same level of health as their speaking voice.
Limited High Range
There are several possible contributing factors that may limit high range. Lack of head tone, tension, lack of support, breathiness, and under-developed singing apparatus.
- Head tone is a registration as is chest tone. Many may think of these registrations as being somehow mutually exclusive as in, “I switch to head tone at D.” But what we’re really talking about is resonance and a change in muscular coordination. Head tone resonates in the nasopharynx, the sinus, and to a small extent the nose. It requires certain changes in the coordination of the muscles that control the vocal chords so that they stretch and thin out (as opposed to chest tone which thickens and shortens). When a student thickens his/her vocal folds beyond the natural range of chest voice then they are belting (very good article on belting), and subsequently limiting their range. There are appropriate uses for belting, and some singers can belt pretty high (those who know how to mix in some head voice), but it is generally limiting. So the goal is a gradual shift from thickening to thinning a stretching. In some cases, this can be done by just thinking about the sound. I know what head voice feels like and sounds like and the physical action follows. Teaching head voice can be difficult, especially in men. It starts with developing a model. I play good examples of head voice so that they know what it sounds like. Then we talk about vocal weight and how head voice has less vocal weight. It’s not that head voice is less powerful, but it cannot carry the thicker sounds up. I hate to say thinner sound, but that’s really where we start: a lighter, thinner sound. As the muscles develop and as the singer learns how to build the resonance into the right cavities, the sound will become brilliant and powerful. Head tone training starts in the middle of the voice. When we bring head voice resonance into the middle of the voice, the voice will not break in the passaggio. I also believe in top down building as well, for men and women. Building the falsetto in men builds the muscles that support head voice….a controversial assertion.
- Tension is the cause of many vocal problems, especially in limiting the high range. There are multiple factors than can cause tension in the voice. For one, lack of breath support. Singers who don’t use breath as the primary muscular action for phonation, may substitute it with neck, shoulder, and jaw tension. Sometimes, just teaching proper breath support is enough to relieve tension. Another problem is in pushing the voice to achieve the illusion of more powerful resonance, when in fact is limiting resonance. This is too much breath support. It should be firmly relaxed (seems like an oxymoron, but that’s the balance that must be achieved). And finally, tension is caused by bringing chest resonance beyond the chest register.
- Breathiness will limit range. The only way to access high notes with breathiness is with a light falsetto as is done it popular music. No full phonation can occur with breathiness. In order for the high notes to occur, the vocal chords must be firmly adducted.
- When a voice is underdeveloped, the vocal mechanism just can’t support high notes. These muscles have to be built gradually with daily exercise (scales, long tones, portamenti, etc.)
Lack of volume
Some students just sing so quietly. There a multiple possibilities.
- Not enough breath energy
- Not enough space in the mouth, throat, and nasopharyx to resonate. Sometimes just telling them to open their mouth more does the trick!
- Timid attitude. Not all singers are naturally divas. Some come from a choral setting where blending in is necessary. But when developing the voice, you must find your inner diva! I start by asking the singer to imitate an opera singer. They often immediately open up and sing with resonance and vibrato. It can transform a voice very rapidly. Help that timid singer think like a star.
- Underdeveloped vocal mechanism
A little rough around the edges
I had a singer with a good instrument, but his singing was rough, unwieldy, and inconsistent. Solution: fundamentals and practice. I start with steady breath control. No lurching about. Then it’s pure vowels…and so on… the fundamentals. Exposure to recordings of singers with refined techniques. Eventually, it just falls into place.
Sometimes this habit can be broken very quickly. There are hundreds of articles dealing with this issue, but I’ll just tell you what has worked so far. First, I simply model the difference. Then I explain that the sound needs to be more in the mouth than the nose. I talk about raising the soft palate and we do the surprise breath and the yawn to get a feel for it. I’ve never had to do more than that. If it creeps in, I just model it again and they usually figure it out. I also go back to pure Italian vowels until it’s worked out.
In singing, legato (notes connected together smoothly), is not just a stylist marking, it is a vocal technique that comes from the Italian method of singing. I start with ee-eh-ah-oh-oo and then a descending 5-4-3-2-1. I demonstrate without ever breaking vibrato through each changing vowel and note. If the singer has a natural vibrato, they generally pick it up pretty quickly. If the singer is straight-tone, then best they can do is keep the tone consistent and to allow very little glottal action as the vowels and notes change. From there we work on portamento…connected notes together with a glissando…while still never breaking the vibrato. Portamento doesn’t work well with a straight-tone singer. Lack of vibrato limits the voice terribly. You will be limited to early classical music, country, and pop. Which leads me to problems I haven’t solved.
Problems I have yet to solve
Vibrato is necessary because it relieves tension in the voice…not unlike a bridge which is designed to bend and vibrate during an earthquake or handling a heavy load of cars and trucks so that it doesn’t crack. Not all styles of music heavily use vibrato, but it is a sign of vocal health. The traditional thought on developing vibrato is that it will naturally develop as breath is mastered. This is not how I developed vibrato. I began but pulsating and imitating. At first it was an unnatural or “manufactured” vibrato but that was temporary. Eventually, the natural oscillation of the larynx took over. However, this is not always the case. Sometimes natural vibrato doesn’t develop from this method. This is why this is a controversial method, and it’s frankly not one I’m willing to use. I’d rather hear a straight tone than a manufactured vibrato. I have a student who has no vibrato in his voice. He has a lovely tenor voice. I explained to him the method if he should choose to try it out on his own, but I didn’t want to be liable for a vocal fault. But it turns out that he’s perfectly comfortable singing straight tone despite it’s limitations. He wants to sing glee, barbershop, early music, etc…all genres where straight-tone is acceptable. But still…no good solution!
Tenor high notes
Tenor high notes are not an easy thing to teach, especially if you have not mastered it yourself. I can sing up to a high-c pretty comfortably. But my method is questionable. AND I have great difficulty bridging my passaggio . My F#-A-flat range is either too heady or too chesty…very difficult to mix registers in this range for me. I developed my high notes with falsetto training. I strengthened my falsetto into coordinated falsetto then into head voice. It’s a similar quality to Jussi Bjorling which is very heady, unlike Italian tenors like Pavarotti or Corelli who have much more chest resonance in their upper ranges. They clearly built their voices from the middle out. Because I never could pull of the full tenor range, I feel very insecure teaching it…especially since my method is controversial. So I focus on breath, head resonance, vowel modification, and freedom from tension…building one half-step at a time. I have men slightly modify their ah’s to uh’s in the passaggio to shift into head resonance. This could also be called covering. EE becomes more like IH. EH closes. Oo opens a little. This all seems to add a few notes on the top, but I’ve never had a student enter full head-tone range which starts above the 2nd passaggio point.
So, I haven’t reached the point where I’m turning away students, but I suspect it will happen within the next two years. Until then, I’ll be happy as long as I have at least one student. Future steps will be studio recitals and for my more advanced young students, competitions. It’s so gratifying to see a student grow and reach their goals. I’m rarely happier than when I’m teaching. And it’s something I anticipate doing for the rest of my life, perhaps even when my voice goes.