Voice and Piano Lessons in Vallejo coming soon!

I am excited to announce that this fall I will have a new home studio in Vallejo, CA!

I will be offering private voice and piano lessons for all ages and experience levels.

Beginning Voice: ages 6 and up; 30-45 minute weekly lessons for beginners (depending on age and level)

Intermediate/Advanced Voice: all ages; 45-60 minute weekly lessons, in classical or popular vocal technique.

Beginning Piano: ages 4 and up; 30 minute weekly lessons (or 15 minutes for very young beginners) for beginners.  I usually recommend increasing to 45 minute lessons once a student starts learning more challenging music (around level two of a method series).

Intermediate Piano: all ages; 45-60 minute weekly lessons.

Beginning Voice/Piano Combination: all ages; 45-min for beginners, increasing lesson length when needed.  This is a good way to get started reading music and singing, and is often a good choice for younger beginners.

A brief note about materials and repertoire: I will recommend specific books for use in lessons.  I generally use the Piano Adventures series for my piano students.  Voice students will be asked to purchase music as well, usually at least one songbook and one book of vocal exercises to build technique, which I will recommend based on skill level.

 

 

 

 

Memorization Tips

Hello, everyone!  I wanted to share a few of my favorite tricks and tips for memorization.  Memorizing songs is something that comes very easily to some, and not at all to others, but it is a skill that can be strengthened and developed.

Here are some of the things I do when I am working on memorizing something:

  1. Write out the lyrics.
  2. With a partner, speak through the lyrics together.  The way this works is your partner holds the music/lyrics and says the first word.  Then, you say the second word, your partner says the third, and so on.  It’s surprisingly tricky, and really helpful!
  3. Look at your music one phrase or section at a time, really look at it, then close your eyes and keep visualizing the music on the page, and sing it.  Work through the song this way, spending more time on the phrases that you have trouble remembering.
  4. Imagine yourself singing the song.  Really hear it in your head, in YOUR voice, the way you want to sing it.  This is great for when you want to practice without making noise, or if you want to keep working on a song without tiring out your voice.
  5. Working on the scene or story of a song can also help with memorization.  Spend some time creating the world of the song inside your head, and connect the lyrics to the emotions that your character is feeling.
  6. For more advanced musicians, harmonic analysis of the song can also be helpful.  This works especially well for more modern or challenging pieces.  Understanding where the points of harmonic tension and release occur, and how that relates to the vocal line, helps me remember the structure of the piece and what comes next.

That’s all I could think of so far.  I’d love to hear any other favorite memorization tips or tricks that work for you, so please share them in the comments!

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.

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 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.  

Practice Tips for Beginning Singers

How to Practice Singing

Step 1: Always Warm Up!

Loosen up your body with some stretches, shoulder rolls, and deep breaths

Start singing gently, with some of the warm up exercises you’ve learned in your lessons

It’s usually best to start each exercise in the middle of your range, and then move by half steps up or down to stretch your range.  Don’t push your voice to extreme high or low notes, instead you should stay within the range that is comfortable for you.

Once your voice has had a chance to warm up with simple exercises, it’s a good idea to spend a few minutes singing some of the more challenging scales that we have worked on in your lessons.  This is the most effective way to build technique and strengthen your voice.

Step 2: Practicing Songs

When learning a new song, it’s best to practice the words and the melody separately at first:

  1. Speak the words as if they were lines in a play, so that you can feel connected to the meaning of the song.
  2. Speak the words in rhythm.  Do this slowly at first to make sure your rhythms are accurate.
  3. Learn the melody without the words, on a neutral syllable like “ah” or “oo”
  4. When you are ready, put the words and melody together.

Try not to rely on listening to recordings to learn new songs.  It’s important to come up with your own interpretation, rather than imitating another singer’s performance.

Rather than singing through the whole song over and over, try focusing on the sections that are most difficult first.  You can try singing these passages on an open vowel “ah” or “oh,” or on a lip trill to help relax the tone.  Pay attention to which sounds are most comfortable, and use those to help relax your voice when you have trouble.

Step 3: Learning to Read Music

I encourage all of my students to develop their music reading skills and learn the basics of music theory.  This will improve your overall performance, improve pitch and tuning, and make learning new songs much easier.  I use several sets of exercises that focus on developing basic music reading skills using Solfege (or Solfeggio) Syllables: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do.  I will try to work through at least one of these exercises during each lesson, but it is very beneficial to practice them regularly at home.

When learning a song, try to get as much information as you can from the printed music, rather than learning by ear.  Which direction are the notes moving?  Are the pitches close together or far apart?  How many beats does each note get?  Are they loud or soft?  Asking yourself these types of questions about the music will help you become more skilled at interpreting the symbols of music notation.

Step 4: Follow Up

I recommend keeping track of your practice sessions, and writing down any questions or concerns that come up so that they can be addressed in your next lesson.  I’d like to hear about improvements you notice as well as difficulties you might have during the week.  If something is not working for you, we can try another approach.

If you are not sure what to practice, please ask!  Remember that the goal of practice is to reinforce the new skills introduced in your lesson, so that is usually a good place to start.  Also remember that consistent practice at home will help you learn songs faster, which allows us to focus on more advanced (and more fun!) concepts in lessons, instead of spending our time learning the notes and rhythms.  Also keep in mind that taking time to learn new music carefully and accurately will save the time you’d spend re-learning music learned incorrectly or undoing bad habits.

Additional Tips

I’d recommend using some kind of system to keep track of your progress.  You could try keeping a singing journal, where you write thoughts and reactions to lessons, practice sessions, and performances.  A journal is also a great way to keep track of goals and your progress toward them.  Or you can track of your practice time in a calendar or planner.  I use my Google Calendar to schedule practice time, because it helps me make sure I stay on track and practice as often as I’d like to.

Set a timer while you’re practicing so that you can stay focused.  I’m much less distracted if I know I need to keep going until the timer goes off, rather than constantly checking the clock.

Even if you’re busy and it seems like you have no time to practice, 15 minutes of practice is better than nothing.  It’s better to practice a little every day than for an hour at a time only once or twice a week.

If you are struggling with something and can’t seem to make progress, take a break and work on something else for a while.  Doing the same thing over and over unsuccessfully is not productive and will only make you frustrated.

Practicing in front of a mirror can help in two ways: first, it will let you keep track of your facial expressions and help develop your acting skills.  Secondly, it lets you see when you are doing something that will get in the way of your singing, like tightening your jaw or lifting your shoulders.

When you do listen to recordings of other singers, try to analyze what they are doing and find things that you specifically like or don’t like about their performance.  For example, is the tone breathy or bright?  Is the singer using head voice, chest voice, or a mix of both?  Where does the singer change the tone, and why do you think he/she does that?  Asking these questions will improve your listening skills and make you a more analytical singer.

Happy Practicing!

What to Expect from Voice Lessons

As a voice teacher, I frequently find myself explaining what I do to non-singers.  Many people have no idea how much careful work goes into training a voice, and what kind of knowledge a good voice teacher needs.  “So, voice lessons is just teaching people songs, right?”  No.

First of all, learning any instrument involves extreme attention to detail and persistence.  Giving a good performance requires many hours of work, and not just practicing the song over and over.  Scales and exercises build technique by focusing on particular skills.  Repertoire must be carefully chosen so that it is challenging enough but not beyond the abilities of the student.  The student must also learn how to incorporate emotion and musicality into their performance as well, otherwise the audience won’t care how technically proficient they are.

The thing about singers is our instrument is our bodies.  Sounds are produced by the vocal folds and amplified by resonating through our throat and mouth.  Breathing technique is important, and the muscles involved in breathing must be trained to be active enough without working harder than necessary.  Tension anywhere in the body can create tension in the throat, which makes the singer work harder and not sound as good.  Some of these tensions are visible, like when singers raise their shoulders when inhaling or have a quivering jaw while singing, so they are easier to diagnose and correct.  However, much of what goes on while singing is invisible to the naked eye.

So, how do you improve your singing?  Study with a teacher who knows how the voice works.  Not just one who can sing well, but one who really understands different approaches to vocal technique and how they apply to different singers in different musical styles.  Be patient when your teacher asks you to sing scales and exercises, because these are more than just “warm ups.”

This is what a typical trial voice lesson with me looks like:

1.  First things first, I introduce myself.  I talk to the student and/or parent and ask questions like: How long have you been singing, do you have any performance experience, do you play any instruments, and what styles of music do you like best?  Then I’ll ask if you have any questions for me before we start singing.

2.  Next we’ll start with some simple warm up exercises.  Many students are shy about singing in front of a new teacher, and that’s totally normal!  I may sing the first few exercises with you to help you feel more comfortable.  Remember that the point of this is for me to learn about your voice, not to judge you in any way.  I use these exercises to assess a new student’s range, pitch accuracy, and how the voice is being used.  I just want to know what I can do to help you sing better.

3.  Once I’ve had a chance to hear your voice, we may spend a few minutes working on a song.  If you’ve brought a song to sing, that’s great.  If not, I’ll pick a simple song to work on.  This won’t necessarily be a song we’ll continue working on in subsequent lessons, but starting to learn a song gives me more information that helps me develop a plan for our future lessons.

4.  Before we finish, I’ll ask if you have any more questions for me.  I’ll talk to you a little about what I noticed about your voice and what I’d like to work on.  (For example, “I think your voice has a pretty tone and a lot of potential.  I’d like to help you feel more comfortable with your upper range.”)

A few things to keep in mind:

Vocal training takes time.  You probably won’t notice results right away.  It takes time to develop the muscle coordination required for consistent singing, so don’t get discouraged if you feel like you’re not making as much progress as you hoped.   Also remember that your voice sounds different to you than it does to other people, and what you think you sound like is not necessarily accurate.

There’s always a reason for the exercises.  Sometimes voice lessons involve making silly sounds.  I may ask you to sing “nya nya nya” or do a lip trill, and you may think that’s silly and pointless.  But trust me– there is always a point.  Different sounds have different effects on the vocal cords.   I’m not asking you to sing “blah blah blah” because I think it’s funny, but because that particular combination of vowels and consonants will help you find a better sound.

Sometimes showing is easier than telling.  Especially when working on breath support, it may be helpful for a student to put his or her hand on a teacher’s torso or back to feel how the muscles are working.  Then the teacher may place a hand on the same place on the student to compare.  I always ask permission first (i.e. “Is it ok if I put my hand on your back?  I want to see if I can feel any expansion there when you breathe in.”) and make sure to use touch in a neutral, non-threatening way.   Don’t be afraid to speak up if you feel uncomfortable or have any questions!

Practice is important!  What you do between lessons is just as important as the work we do together.  We can have a really productive lesson and make lots of progress, but if you don’t do the work to reinforce that progress at home, we’ll just be doing the same thing again in your next lesson.  If you’re not sure how to practice, I can help you put together a strategy that will help you practice efficiently.  Generally, it’s best to begin a practice session with a few of the warm up exercises we’ve been working on in your lessons.  It also helps to bring a notebook with you to lessons so you can write down what we did and what I’d like you to practice before the next lesson.  For more on practice, see my post “Practice Makes Perfect.”

If you have questions, please ask!  I value feedback from my students.  Ultimately, you are the only one who knows how your voice is feeling, so if something doesn’t feel right, it’s important to speak up.  If your voice gets hoarse after a short practice session, something is not right and we need to address it.  If you don’t like the songs we are working on, tell me!  I want you to love singing as much as I do, and I will do my best to help you find songs that are fun as well as appropriate.  If you are feeling frustrated, confused, or thrilled with your singing, I want to know.  Customizing my approach for each student is an important part of my teaching philosophy, and I try to regularly check in and ask how things are going, but I also want my students to feel comfortable bringing up any questions or concerns that arise.