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!

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!

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.

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!!)