3 Common Myths About Singing

There is a lot of misinformation out there about singing and voice technique.  A lot of these problematic ideas are leftover from the days before technology enabled us to understand how the voice actually works. I especially don’t like seeing ill-informed “voice teachers” profit from teaching incorrect and potentially dangerous techniques to unsuspecting singers. I acknowledge that there are many different styles and approaches to singing, but some things are objectively true no matter the genre.  I believe in empowering singers with accurate knowledge about how to train and care for their voice.  

 

Myth #1 – Singing from the Diaphragm is Helpful

I hear singers talking about this all the time.  Yes, the diaphragm is important for breathing, but most of the time when it’s talked about in regards to singing, it is not accurately described.  

So first, let’s talk about the diaphragm:  It’s a layer of muscle located at the bottom of your rib cage and is shaped like an upside-down bowl.  When you breathe in, it flattens downward, which pulls air into your lungs. This happens automatically, whether or not you are aware of it.  We can’t really feel the diaphragm, because it is deep inside the body where we don’t have nerve endings.  

When the diaphragm moves downward, it pushes on the internal organs in the abdomen.  In order to get a good, deep breath, it’s helpful to relax the abdominal muscles– this allows the external organs to move out of the way so that the diaphragm has maximum range of motion. If the abdominal muscles are tense, it’s hard to get a complete breath.  This is where thinking about the diaphragm is useful: for inhaling deeply.  

Once you’ve started singing, the diaphragm isn’t active.  There are other muscles involved in breathing, all around the ribs and torso.  In order to have good breath control and to sing longer notes and phrases, singers train those muscles to release the air slowly.  Keeping some of the inhaling muscles active during exhaling (or singing) is part of healthy breath support, but trying to focus on the diaphragm often does more harm than good.  

Here are some videos that show more about the diaphragm:

3D View of Diaphragm – https://youtu.be/hp-gCvW8PRY

More about breathing – https://youtu.be/TQ24-WCsYN4

What’s so bad about “singing from the diaphragm?”  

Most of the time if I ask students what kinds of things they’ve heard before about the diaphragm, most of it is wildly inaccurate.  There are a couple of common ways it gets misunderstood:

Many singers think that this means they should squeeze the sound out forcefully, using the abdominal muscles.  This is problematic because singing with too much air pressure can lead to vocal fatigue or even vocal damage. Too much air pressure means the vocal folds have to open and close more forcefully, increasing the chances of injury.  

Many singers confuse the diaphragm with the abdominal muscles, and think that they move at the same time.  The diaphragm is actually deeper inside the body and higher up than the abdominals, although squeezing the abdominals can indirectly press on the diaphragm.  I have found it much more helpful to focus on strengthening my core muscles, and many of my students have benefited from core exercise as well.  

I’d also like to mention that there are different schools of breathing, and I’m not here to recommend one over another, especially to singers who are not my students.  Diverse bodies and genres benefit from different methods and I think that everyone should do what works best for them. Abdominal breathing can be really helpful for some singers, but thoracic breathing works better for others.  A knowledgeable voice teacher can help you develop a technique that works for you and is stylistically appropriate.  

Myth #2 – Singing From the Throat is Bad

There’s a particular sound that is often described (even by voice teachers), as “throaty.”  Or, “stuck in the throat,” etc. You probably know what I mean. This sound is caused by muscle tension, and an experienced teacher can hear which muscle is likely the issue based on the specific sound (if it’s not clearly visible by watching the singer).  Sometimes teaching with imagery is helpful for this, and I might encourage a student to “send the sound forward” or something like that. Often a student with this issue is trying to control the sound, so focusing too much on individual muscles can make them tense up more.  

If the “throatiness” is happening more on a particular vowel, where is the tension?  Lip trills and rolled R’s can relax the tongue and jaw. Switching to a brighter vowel like “ee” might also help by moving the tongue forward. 

 

Myth #3 – You Can “Place” Your Voice

A lot of teachers talk about placement of the voice.  This is an idea that’s leftover from before we understood physics and how sound waves work.  In short, the sound waves produced by your vocal folds are shaped into the sound that we hear by the way that they bounce around through the vocal tract and out the singer’s mouth.  Adjusting the shape of the vocal tract (aka the mouth and throat) changes the sound— vowels are a simple example of this, but there are more subtle adjustments happening as well. 

So, what is placement all about?  Basically, if the vocal tract is amplifying the sound waves just right, singers might feel a vibration or other sensation in the nose or cheekbones.  With a modern understanding of acoustics, we can see that this sensation is the RESULT of good technique, not the technique itself.  

I will sometimes tell students to “send” or “aim the sound” toward the front teeth or cheekbones if I’m noticing tension, but don’t ever talk about “placing” the sound or singing from anywhere other than the vocal folds.  Sometimes this kind of imagery might help, but other times it might just lead to more confusion. Where should I place this note? What about that one? What if I place it wrong? This is much less productive than just addressing the underlying tension.  

 

Voice and Piano Lessons in Vallejo!

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

I teach 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.

 

 

 

 

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.  

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!

Changes

The past few months have been an absolute whirlwind.  The beginning of a new school year brought me several new students who are turning out to be quite delightful.  I now have such a perfect assortment of students:  younger and older, classical and pop singers, beginning and intermediate pianists, highly motivated and a bit challenging.  I love watching their progress as well as my own growth as a teacher, since I learn just as much from them as they learn from me.

But the most exciting new development has been starting a master’s degree program in Vocal Pedagogy at Holy Names University!  (I’ve also discovered that most people are not familiar with the term pedagogy, which basically means the study of teaching.  Vocal pedagogy includes physiology and anatomy of the voice as well as different strategies for teaching vocal technique.)  HNU is a wonderful, small school, and I am so looking forward to these next two years of intense learning.  It’s only been a couple of weeks, and I absolutely love it!

However, I’ve had to make some tough decisions recently about how to manage my time and where my priorities are.  I had hoped to keep working part-time at my office job to supplement my teaching income.  I’ve been broke for long periods of time before, and have no desire whatsoever to put myself in that situation again.  But I’ve also pushed myself too hard before, to the point where I fall apart and can’t function because I am so overwhelmed.  Last week my body  reminded me that I need more than 6 hours of sleep per night if I want to stay healthy and productive, and I realized that it was time to rethink my plan.

Yesterday I gave two-weeks notice at my office job.  I am taking the plunge, giving up the security blanket, and becoming a fully self-employed music teacher.  Yikes! This is both exciting and terrifying!  As scary as it is, I know it was the right decision.  The crazy schedule I’d been attempting to manage just wasn’t going to work.  I need to be able to finish my school work AND keep up with chores at home AND get enough sleep.  It’s time to fully devote myself to the career I love, because I know that I can do this.  More importantly, I was meant to do this.

So hopefully this also means I will have time to write more!  I certainly have lots to say.  (I didn’t even mention that my graduate program includes taking voice lessons, and my new teacher is amazing, and I’ll write more about that later!!)

Big Decisions – Part 2

Part 2: My Story

I grew up in a small town.  I was stubborn, and all I knew was that I wanted to be a singer.  I only applied to a few schools, all in my home state of California, and I figured that if I was good enough to get in to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, then I’d go there.  My parents weren’t crazy about the idea, and they thought I’d be better off getting a more well-rounded education at a regular university.  But I was stubborn and determined to pursue music no matter what.

Once I got to the conservatory, I was immersed in a whole new world of music.  I’d played piano and sung for my whole life, but I knew very little about music history, literature, or theory.  I was fascinated.  My grades hadn’t been that great in high school, but once I was studying the things that interested me, I excelled academically.  Emotionally, however, I struggled, and I was often lonely and insecure.  I also struggled financially, and worked hard to support myself.  I missed many opportunities for additional education and training (summer programs, etc.) because they were simply too expensive.  There were many ups and downs, and I was incredibly fortunate to have a wonderful, supportive voice teacher who taught me how to sing as well as how to survive.

The main problem was, I was not quite mature enough to handle the pressure.  To be perfectly honest, I was kind of an emotional wreck for most of those  4 years.  I spent too much time in unhealthy relationships and friendships.  And I took rejection too personally, so every time I didn’t get the part I auditioned for (or any part, for that matter), I was absolutely devastated.   I knew I was making progress, but I still wasn’t being cast in anything.  I realize now that there are lots of reasons for this, but mostly I was awkward on stage (since I had no real acting training, and very limited experience) and not confident enough.

When I finished my Bachelor’s Degree, I wasn’t sure what to do next.  I wanted to apply to other schools, but I didn’t have the money for application fees, let alone plane tickets across the country if I got an audition.  I thought that continuing at SFCM was the best choice, since I was happy with my teacher, and I was already there.  However, that turned out to be a mistake, and I was especially miserable that year.  My financial struggles increased as well, and I finally reached a point where I realized that the education I was paying dearly for was not the education I wanted or needed.  I needed stage experience and acting training, and I was not getting that at all.  I also doubted whether I was on the right path, and did not think I wanted to be a professional opera singer.  I decided to leave SFCM and move back to my hometown while I figured out my next move.

That summer I was also fortunate enough to attend the OperaWorks program in Southern California.  I’m not exaggerating at all when I say that those two weeks changed my life.   The program included classes in improv, performance techniques, and movement: everything that had been missing from my previous education.  I began learning how to move on stage, and realized how disconnected from my body I was.  We also took yoga classes every day, which made my constant back pain go away and started me on the path to a healthier lifestyle– over the next year I lost almost 60 pounds.

I was fortunate that my tiny hometown has an active music community, and I was able to sing lead roles in several productions with Mendocino Chamber Opera.  Working with just one or two other singers and the director gave me the training and confidence I needed to become a better actor.  I also started teaching voice lessons, and began finally figuring out what I wanted to do with my life.

The thing is, I love to sing, and performing in operas is so much fun.  But I am also sensitive, a perfectionist, and an over-thinker, and those qualities hold me back as a singer.  However, those are the same qualities that make me a great teacher.  I realized that, rather than trying to change so many things about myself so I could thrive as a singer, why not find a career that actually fits me?

But, enough about me.  The bottom line is, even though it was tough and maybe not the best choice for me, I wouldn’t change any of it because I learned so much and I am happy with where I am now.  But would I recommend that path to my young students?  That depends on several factors, which I will discuss in the next (and final) post in this series.