Healthy Body, Healthy Voice

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything! I thought I’d write a little bit about what’s been on my mind a lot lately in my teaching as well as my own singing: the importance of good posture and body awareness for singers.

It’s easy for singers to focus on only what’s going on in the throat and mouth as we sing. After all, that’s where the sound is created and shaped. However, posture and tension in the rest of the body can also have a huge effect on our singing.

When I was in college, I was overweight and felt disconnected from my body. Over several years, I lost more than 50 pounds and began reconnecting with my body. (One of the things that started me on that journey to getting healthy was the two weeks I spent at the OperaWorks program, where we had an hour of yoga every day… and I could, and eventually will, write a whole post about how Ann Baltz and OperaWorks changed my life and my singing!) I’m not saying that simply losing weight made me a better singer. I’m not saying that being overweight is bad, or that anyone should be ashamed of their body. But as I got more comfortable in my own body, I was able to feel more connection and support while singing. And for me, personally, being healthier and stronger has made me a better singer. I also know singers who have had the opposite experience: after losing weight, it was harder to feel support from the abdominal muscles, and singing became more difficult. Everyone has their own unique experience, and mine has greatly influenced my growth as a singer and as a teacher.

Lately I’ve been amazed to discover how much the slightest tension in my body affects my singing!  If my shoulders are feeling particularly tight, that tightness will show up in my voice. Most of the time, if I am struggling with something vocally, I can fix it by finding and releasing tension in my body, and making sure the right muscles are working to support my sound. I’ve also recently been working on my core strength, which has had an amazing effect on my singing and helped me to discover a richer, fuller sound that I didn’t know I had.  As I continue to get healthier and stronger, so does my voice.

With my beginning piano students, I talk about using the larger muscles of the arm to play, instead of making the little finger muscles do all the work. With singing, I feel that it works the same way: really supporting your voice with good posture and active (but not rigid) muscles in the torso and abdomen reduces tension in the larynx. (Of course it’s important to experiment with these ideas under the careful guidance of a voice teacher, because using the abdominal muscles to push too much air through the vocal folds can cause vocal fatigue and lead to damage!) I’d really like to write more about the concept of support, and some of the varying opinions on it, but I will have to save that for my next post.

I’ve been finding ways to incorporate these concepts into voice lessons, but it seems especially difficult with young students who have not developed good body awareness yet. With young students, props like rubber balls or resistance bands are especially helpful because they keep the students’ hands busy and cut down on extraneous movement and wiggling, while encouraging more stable posture without becoming stiff and rigid.

Teachers and singers, what are some of your favorite ways to engage the body while singing? How do you develop body awareness and good posture in young singers? I’d love to hear what is working or not working for you!

Frequently Asked Questions: Voice Lessons

What do you do in voice lessons?

My approach varies slightly with the age of the students, but the basic outline is the same.  Each voice lesson includes vocal warm ups, music reading exercises, and singing songs.  Students learn how to sing with healthy technique, good posture, proper breathing, and expressive stage presence.

How old should my child be before beginning voice lessons?

There is no minimum age for learning to sing.  Even very young students can learn basic technique, which will lay the foundation for advanced study as they get older, and prevent vocal damage that could be caused by unhealthy singing.  Singing simple, fun songs is a great way to build confidence and have fun, while also learning to read music.

What should we expect at a trial voice lesson?

First we’ll spend a few minutes talking and getting to know each other.  I’ll ask what kind of songs you like to sing and if you’ve ever sung in a choir, been in a musical or play, or played an instrument.  You can also ask me any questions you might have.  Then we’ll start with some simple warm up exercises so that I can hear your voice.  If you like, you can bring a song that you know to sing for me, but that’s not required.  A trial lesson usually lasts about 20 to 30 minutes, and allows you to get to know me and my teaching style, and lets me learn about you and your voice.  It’s not a test or audition, so there’s no need to be nervous!

How many lessons will it take before I notice improvement?

Every student is different and moves at his or her own pace.  Some students notice instant improvement as they learn how to use their voices more efficiently.  It’s also normal to go several weeks without any obvious improvement, because singing well requires muscle coordination that takes time to develop.  The best way to encourage improvement is through consistent, careful practice at home.

What if I am tone deaf, can I still learn how to sing?

Very few people are truly tone deaf, meaning they are unable to recognize changes in pitch.  Many inexperienced singers simply have trouble singing in tune.  This can be because their ears have not been trained to recognize subtle differences in pitch, which would be corrected through vocal exercises designed to help them hear when they are on the right note and when they are not.  Out of tune singing is most commonly caused by poor technique or excess tension, which improves as the student learns how to sing more efficiently.

What should voice students practice at home?

Beginning voice students should start with short practice sessions (15-20 minutes per day) and gradually increase the length as the voice gets stronger.  Singing for too long before healthy technique has been learned can be tiring and even damaging to the voice.  It’s important to begin every practice session with some warm up exercises before working on more difficult music.  It’s better to focus on specific skills that were worked on in the last lesson than to just sing through a song several times.  Some of my students like to bring a notebook with them so that they can write down what we worked on in the lesson and what to focus on while practicing.

Is it ok to sing when you are sick?

The vocal cords are delicate, and it’s important to take good care of them and prevent damage.  Singing with allergies or a stuffy nose can sometimes be fine, as long as the vocal cords are not inflamed.  However, cold medicines and decongestants should be avoided before singing because they dry out the vocal cords.  A singer who is feeling hoarse or having trouble making sound should not sing!  Hoarseness, or feeling like it’s difficult to make sound, can be a sign of swelling in the vocal cords, and continuing to speak or sing can cause serious (and even permanent) damage.  Singing should never hurt or feel uncomfortable.

Dos and Don’ts of Vocal Health

  1. DON’T overuse your voice.  Most damage to the speaking and singing voice is caused by overuse.  NEVER push your voice to the point of hoarseness.
  2. DON’T dry out your mucous membranes.  Dry membranes are more susceptible to injury as well as infections.
  3. DO drink at least 8 glasses of water per day to stay hydrated.
  4. DON’T smoke.
  5. DO get plenty of rest to keep your voice and body healthy.
  6. DON’T sing if you are sick.  If a cold or flu is having any negative effect on your voice, don’t sing!  Singing with inflamed or irritated vocal cords can delay recovery and even cause serious vocal injury.
  7. DON’T speak or sing in the wrong tessitura (range).  Know which pitches are comfortable for your voice, and don’t push the extremes of your range.
  8. DON’T speak too loudly.  Screaming, laughing too loudly, or talking over loud noises are hard on the voice.  Whispering is also problematic, as it can cause tightening in the throat.
  9. DON’T take certain drugs before singing.
    1. Aspirin – makes capillaries more fragile and can increase the chances of hemorrhaging in the vocal folds.  Ibuprofen (Advil) can have the same effect, but acetaminophen (Tylenol) is safe for singers.
    2. Antihistamines and Decongestants – dry out the mucous membranes.  If antihistamines are absolutely necessary, counteract the drying effect by drinking lots of liquids and inhaling steam.
    3. Hormones – including some oral contraceptives, can have side effects including the thickening of the vocal folds.  This can result in a deepening of the voice, hoarseness, or difficulty singing higher pitches.
  10. DO find a good laryngologist or ENT who specializes in working with singers.  It’s a good idea to schedule an appointment while you are healthy to establish a baseline.  This makes it easier to detect and diagnose changes and problems when they occur.
  11. DO see a doctor if you experience any prolonged vocal difficulty or unexplained changes in your voice.  Continuing hoarseness, loss of range, difficulty producing sound, and persistent breathiness are some of the warning signs that should be investigated by a doctor.
  12. DO be honest with your voice teacher and doctor about how you are using your voice, and follow their recommendations carefully.
  13. DO pay attention to your voice and how it feels.  Some singers can’t have dairy or chocolate before singing because it increases phlegm production.  Some singers feel better after drinking certain herbal teas.  Pay attention to what works and doesn’t work for you.
  14. DO always remember: If it feels bad, don’t do it!

Classical Music is Not Dead

I recently read this article on Slate.com, proclaiming Classical Music dead and irrelevant, as well as these two excellent responses, a line-by-line rebuttal from Proper Discord, and Occupy Classical Music from Head/Voice.

The misconception that classical music is dead/dying makes me angry.  This art form is something that I am passionate about, and I hate to hear ignorant people describe it as irrelevant and powerless.  I don’t have data and numbers to prove my points, all I have are my observations and opinions.  As a student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, I was surrounded by incredibly talented and passionate musicians who inspired me with their dedication to their craft.  As an aspiring opera singer in my early twenties, I had to explain my chosen career to countless confused individuals who didn’t even know that opera singers really still existed.  And now, as a voice and piano teacher, I want to help my students discover the same passion for music that has inspired me.

It’s true that classical music is not as popular as many other forms of entertainment, but it still has an audience.  Just because something falls outside of mainstream tastes does not mean that nobody likes it– just look at the thriving indie music scene.  I believe that in our electronic and impersonal world, live music of all genres can bring us back together, make us feel things together, and connect us with each other.

And let’s not forget the growth of new opera companies and performing ensembles started by young performers with the goal of making opera/classical music accessible to everyone.  Is this a sign of a dying art form?  No.  Opera on Tap and Classical Revolution both organize performances in informal settings like bars and cafes, to bring music to the people.  This eliminates the obstacles that sometimes stand between the average citizen and an opera performance, like expensive tickets, fancy clothes, and proper audience decorum.  Instead, audience members can sit with friends, have a drink, and enjoy the music the way it was meant to be enjoyed.

Many, many of my classmates from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music are building their own careers in new music ensembles and other exciting projects, and doing so quite successfully.  There are also new opera companies being formed by young singers who just want to make music, like San Francisco’s Waffle Opera.  These singers are hungry for opportunities to perform, so they are creating their own, and finding an eager audience.  These organizations prove that classical music and opera are, in fact, very much alive.

It all comes down to the fact that a live performance by an excellent musician is a moving and powerful thing.   This concept easily gets lost in modern pop music, with all the special effects and auto-tune and pyrotechnics.  But being in the same room as a truly great performer (in any genre of music) and really feeling the energy and passion of the performance is an amazing experience.  There is nothing else like it.

This is especially true in classical music, which generally uses no microphones or other amplification, so the wall of sound that is washing over you is PURE ACOUSTIC AWESOMENESS.  If you’ve never been to a live performance by a great orchestra or opera singer, DO IT.  Trust me.  Even if maybe you get bored after an hour or two or don’t absolutely love the whole thing, I guarantee there will be at least a few moments when you are hit by a huge wave of sound that leaves you with goosebumps and a smile on your face.

Classical music is far from dying.  It’s growing and evolving.  Some people are just to narrow-minded and lazy to look for it outside the traditional big opera houses and symphony halls.  Some people don’t realize that you can head over to an intimate cafe for a drink and watch some chamber music or opera scenes.  Some people just don’t understand the power of music and the dedication of those who have been inspired by it.  We are not giving up, and classical music is not dying.

What are Nodes?

Vocal fold nodules, commonly called nodes or singer’s nodes, are basically small blisters or calluses on the vocal cords.  They can be caused by vocal abuse, such as excessive screaming, or by singing or speaking with poor technique.

To better understand vocal fold nodules, it’s important to have basic knowledge of how the voice works.  The vocal folds (commonly called vocal cords) are a small pair of muscles inside the larynx, which are covered by a delicate membrane.  As air passes through the larynx, the vocal folds vibrate together, which produces sound.  To make a higher pitch, the vocal folds stretch to become thinner and longer.  For more information on this process, see my previous post, “How the Voice Works: An Overview.”

Nodules are generally caused by prolonged unhealthy use or overuse of the voice.  Vocal abuse can cause hemorrhaging (bleeding) in the vocal folds.  Over time, the vocal folds can develop callus-like lesions, which we call nodules.  Nodules come in many shapes and sizes, and their effect on the voice varies accordingly.

The singing voice of someone with nodules often sounds breathy or raspy.  It may be hard to hit higher pitches or feel like extra effort is needed to make sound.  In severe cases, the voice can be extremely raspy and rough sounding.  Nodules are usually not painful, since there are no nerve endings on the vocal folds.

Nodules are usually treated with speech therapy, which corrects the behavior that caused the nodes and develops healthy vocal habits.  In some cases, surgery may be necessary.  Rehabilitating the voice must be done carefully and under the guidance of a speech therapist and laryngologist.  Singers suffering from nodules should be sure to carefully follow their doctors’ instructions to ensure a full recovery.

The best way to prevent nodules is to sing and speak in a healthy way.  Many people don’t realize that speaking is just as tiring for the vocal cords as singing.  Vocal fry (speaking at the lowest part of your range, with a creaking or rattling quality) is a particularly unhealthy speaking trend, which leads to tension and fatigue in the vocal folds.  Hoarseness or a scratchy-feeling throat can indicate that your vocal folds are fatigued and maybe even slightly swollen.  When this happens it’s important to let your voice rest.

Another important (and easy!) way to keep your vocal folds healthy is to drink plenty of water.  Staying hydrated protects your vocal folds by keeping the mucous membranes moist.  Dry vocal folds are more prone to damage and fatigue.

How to Choose Songs for Auditions

Choosing the right song for an audition is important, because it shows that you know your voice and what you can do.  This article from Opera News has great tips for opera singers who are competing or auditioning at the professional level.  Here are a few more tips that I share with my students.

1.  Always sing something that you are comfortable with!  An audition is not a good time to try out a new song that you’ve never performed.

2.  Sing something that fits your voice well.  If it’s a little too high or a little too low for you, pick another song.  It’s important to show that you know your voice type and how to show off your strengths.

3.  If they ask for two songs, use this opportunity to show the full range of what you are capable of, but don’t pick songs that are so drastically different that they are not right for your voice.  Choose contrasting styles, but both pieces should still fit your voice comfortably.

4.  Know the character and subtext.  Acting is just as important as singing, and getting into character will also help settle your nerves and keep you focused.  Try practicing in front of a mirror so that you can make sure your facial expressions and gestures look the way you want them to.

5.  If you are auditioning for a specific role, sing something similar in voice type and character.  You want them to be able to see you in the role.

And a few more audition tips…

6.  Dress nicely and professionally.  Avoid revealing outfits, flashy patterns, or bright colors that will distract from your performance.  Dressing nicely shows respect for the judges and yourself.

7.  Be nice to the pianist!  This means making sure all your music is readable, with any cuts clearly marked.  The pianist wants to help you sing well, but will be unable to do this if your music is hard to read or missing important markings.  Also, knowing how to indicate your tempo to the pianist is important.

8.  If you are given specific instructions for the auditions (bring a resume and/or photo, sing something from the show, don’t sing something from the show, wear comfortable clothes for dancing), follow those instructions!  If you have questions, don’t be afraid to ask.

9.  Be professional and polite while in the audition.  Clearly and confidently state your name and what you will be singing, and don’t forget to say “Thank you” at the end of your audition.  Even if they cut you off mid-song (which is not necessarily a bad thing), just smile and thank them for their time.  Manners are important.

How the Voice Works: An Overview

As a voice teacher, I often find myself explaining to students how the voice works and why it’s important to take good care of it.  While it’s not necessary for all singers to know all the tedious details (muscle names, etc), a basic knowledge of how the voice works is important because it helps singers understand their instrument.  

Sound is produced by the vocal folds (commonly called vocal cords), which are tiny muscles inside the larynx (aka “Adam’s apple”).  They are about the size of a dime in women and the size of a nickel in men.  They form a “V” shape, which can open or close, and when they are fully closed they block the airway to the lungs.  (To experience this, try to lift something very heavy while inhaling or exhaling.  It should be difficult if not impossible.)  To produce sound (for speaking or singing), the vocal folds gently come together and vibrate as air is passing through.  This process is called phonation.  

The vocal folds stretch to become longer and thinner for high pitches, and thicken and shorten for low pitches.  When the muscles of the larynx are trained to work together efficiently, the singer will be able to smoothly and evenly move throughout his or her range.  Voice breaks and cracks are signs that these muscles are not working together effectively.  

The vocal folds are covered  by a delicate mucous membrane, which is an important part of the vibration that creates sound.  This membrane moves in a wave-like rippling motion.  It is very important for singers to drink plenty of water so that this membrane stays moist and does not dry out.  A dry mucous membrane is much more susceptible to damage, including hemorrhages and nodules.  

The sound produced by the vocal folds is different from the sound we hear outside of the singer’s body.  At the source, it is a soft buzzing sound.  As this sound passes through the throat and mouth, or resonators, it is filtered and amplified into the sound that we recognize as singing.  This process is why things like jaw and tongue position and mouth shape are so important for singers: these things shape our sound, and a small adjustment can make a big difference.  

There are some really cool videos on YouTube that show the vocal folds in action.  Just search for “vocal fold stroboscopy” (this process uses a tiny camera and a strobe light to show the vibrations in slow motion).   

If you are interested in a more detailed and scientific description of the vocal folds, watch this video from Anatomy Zone.  

Everyone else is doing it…

I feel bad for Katy Perry today, as embarrassing footage of her lip sync fail has gone viral.  (If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s all over the internet, here’s one post on Gawker)   And then there’s this clip of a terrible performance on X Factor UK.  Everyone wants to talk about how awful she is, how disappointing, etc.  How her “real voice” is so much worse than what we hear in her recordings.

The thing is, most pop stars’ actual singing voices do not sound the same as the processed final product that we hear on the radio.  Autotune seems to be a requirement these days, even if the singer doesn’t really need it.  Most pop singers are so heavily processed in their recordings that the voice sounds like a machine to me, not like a real singer.  REAL VOICES DON’T SOUND LIKE THAT.  I have to explain this to my pop-singing students all the time: you can’t make your voice sound like that recording, because the voice in that recording has had all kinds of digital effects and processing done.  That’s not a real person’s voice, it’s an effect.  There are only a handful of pop singers whose real voices sound like their recordings (Beyoncé and Emeli Sandé are the first to come to mind), because, unfortunately, the majority of consumers don’t care about the singing.  They care about the image.

And the other thing is, almost every pop star lip syncs for at least some performances.  That’s just the way it is.  When you’re singing with in-ear monitors to hear yourself and your band, it’s hard to hear anything clearly.  If the mix isn’t right, you may not be able to find your pitch.  If it’s a particularly large venue where getting the right sound balance will be tricky, if the focus is on elaborate choreography and putting on a spectacular show, live singing is not the point.  It’s by no means impossible to pull off a good live performance under these circumstances, and there are singers that can do it, but many can’t.  And it unfortunately comes down to the fact that sometimes live singing is too hard and would take away from the “performance.”  It’s about the spectacle.  It’s about the image, about putting on an amazing show, about special effects and costumes and lights and dancers.  It’s rarely about the singing.

People get all worked up when a malfunction like this draws are attention to the fact that our beloved pop stars are not the greatest singers.  The truth is, talent doesn’t sell the way that a carefully crafted image does.  There are some really great singers out there who are truly talented and whose finished recordings sound like their natural voice, but those great musicians rarely become mega-stars.  In fact, I think that valuing your music and your voice is not very compatible with having a career as a pop star.  You either choose to be a great musician or you let yourself be made into a celebrity.

And another thing: pop singers are often on rigorous and very demanding tour schedules.  Heavy pop belting can be really tiring on the voice, especially if it’s not done carefully.  Yet the singer is rarely in a position to say, “wait a second, I need a day off in between shows so that I can rest,” because the singer is rarely the one making the decisions.  So, do you sing even though maybe your voice is thrashed and you know it won’t be your best performance, or do you take a night off and lip sync?

I’m not saying that I agree with the way things are, I’m just saying that it’s a complex situation and I’m more surprised when I discover a pop star who can actually sing well then when I find out that one is not as great as they appear.  If you look at other Katy Perry performances where she is clearly singing live (the minor pitch problems are the giveaway), they are not nearly as bad as the ones that have surfaced in the past few days.  She’s not a terrible singer, she’s just clearly had a bad couple of shows.  She obviously doesn’t sound the same live as she does in her recordings, but very few mainstream pop singers do.

Maybe someday the focus will be on the music instead of the spectacle, and singers will be able to concentrate on giving awesome live performances without all the dancing and special effects and nonsense.  But until then, mainstream audiences will continue to expect unrealistic levels of showmanship and excitement (and then turn vicious when their pop idols reveal that they are, in fact, only humans), and singers will continue having to compromise in one way or another to deliver what’s expected of them.

Teacher vs. Friend

As teachers, we learn that it’s important to have boundaries.  Don’t get too attached to your students, you can’t save everyone, you’re their teacher and not their friend, etc.  I knew from the start that this would be a bit of a challenge for me.  I am a person who cares too much.  Getting attached is what I do, and even though I understand rationally that I can’t save everyone, I still wish that I could.

I also know that I would not be where I am today if my college voice teacher had not gone far beyond what was required of her as my teacher, because she knew I was struggling and wanted to make sure I was ok.  I had a particularly rough patch during my first year of college.  My boyfriend at the time talked to his teacher about it, who shared his concern with my teacher, who summoned me into her office for a serious talk.  She was there for me when I desperately needed some level-headed guidance, and she continued to be there for me during the next four years.

I can’t even count the number of times I went to her office, crying, distraught over some boy who wasn’t treating me well, or friends who weren’t treating me well either.  When I was having relationship problems, she’d shake her head and tell me, “I’m sure glad I’m not young anymore,” and try to help me understand that the boy who kept hurting me was not worth my time.  When I had a falling out with a group of friends, she reminded me that the actions of other people should not determine my self worth.  I was an emotional mess, and she was a rock that kept me grounded and pulled me back when I’d start to get lost again.  She was so much more than just my teacher.  And she is one of several amazing music teachers I had who inspired me to become a teacher myself.

I know that I can’t get that involved with all of my students.  It wouldn’t be appropriate, and it would be emotionally exhausting.  It’s important to maintain that boundary of professionalism, because after all, I am the teacher.  It’s not my place to get involved.  With my younger students, it’s easy to stay in the role of teacher, because they see me as an adult.  It’s a little harder to maintain a professional distance with my older teenagers, because they see me as closer to their age (even though I’m older than I look), and a few of them want to treat me more like a friend than a teacher.  So I build up walls and boundaries and call it professionalism, I try not to care about them too much, because that’s how it has to be.  I am the teacher.

But if there’s one student that just really seems to need someone to talk to, if I can be there for her, then maybe I should.  When this student comes along who is so talented but doesn’t seem to believe it, all I want to do is make her believe in herself a little.  If I might be able to help her become a little less shy and a little more confident before she goes off to college next year, then why shouldn’t I?  I know what it’s like to be that student who just needs a little extra encouragement, and I can only imagine where I’d be if I hadn’t gotten that help when I needed it.  

On the dumbing down of art

I watched The Sound of Music Live on NBC last night.  Well, part of it.  At 10 I had lost interest so I switched over to Scandal…

Every time I see a “mainstream” TV or movie production of a musical, I’m disappointed.  Every time a celebrity is cast in a leading role that they lack the skills to perform, and “real musicians” of the world can’t stop talking about how awful the performance was, I’m disappointed.  

I’m disappointed that musical productions that try to reach a mainstream audience feel that they need to resort to these kind of stunts.  Why can’t a production be exciting because it is filled with talented performers who do an excellent job of bringing the show to life?  Why is it so inconceivable that an American audience might appreciate art without it being dumbed down and celebrity-filled?  Why is a mediocre performance by a superstar more marketable than an exceptional performance by a skilled musical theater singer/actor?  

This is why people think musical theater sucks.  This is why opera is considered a dying art form.  Because the general assumption is that the public is too stupid to appreciate truly great art.

It’s also disappointing how many of my singer friends have felt the need to jump on the “Carrie was awful” bandwagon.  Now I’m not saying that she did a great job as Maria.  Her acting was lackluster, but honestly she did better than I thought she would.  Her singing, in spite of the tendency to inappropriately slip into heavy pop-style belting, wasn’t terrible.  Considering that she totally lacked the skills to succeed at what she was attempting, she did just fine.  Those of us who have worked hard to hone our skills as singers/actors/dancers/performers should be supportive of others who are trying to do the same.  We shouldn’t have to destroy each other to feel better about ourselves.