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!

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.

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.

Why I teach music.

I’ve wanted to be a music teacher since I was old enough to appreciate how amazing my own music teachers were.  Freshman year of high school, to be more precise.  But I got distracted by what people thought I should do, and by my own ego and ambition.  I went to the San Francisco Conservatory because I was so excited to have been accepted, but I really had no idea what I was getting into.  Then I got caught up in the beauty of opera and the wonderful hard work of classical singing, and for a while I thought I wanted to be a professional opera singer.  Soon after I finished my Bachelor’s Degree, however, I realized I was on the wrong path.

Don’t get me wrong– I love opera, and I love singing.  Being on stage is fun and exciting, and I enjoy the intense, focused work that goes into preparing for an excellent performance.   But I’ve learned that I just don’t have the personality of a professional opera singer.  A professional singer needs to be tough, driven, outgoing, extremely confident, and able to tolerate rejection.   It’s not an easy career, and you have to want it badly enough to push through all of the challenges you’ll face before you start succeeding.

My amazing voice teacher in college used to ask me this question at least once a year: “What do you need in order to be happy?”  Do you need to be famous?  Do you need to be popular?  Do you need a family?  My answer was always the same:  I need to sing.  I don’t need to sing on big, fancy opera house stages.  I just need to sing.  I don’t need to always be the center of attention, and I don’t need fame to make me feel validated.  Not that I have anything against my colleagues who are pursuing a professional opera career–  I really admire their dedication and strength.  I often feel a slight twinge of jealousy when I hear about the success of my former classmates, and part of me still wishes I had kept going down that path.

But then I started teaching, and I can’t imagine devoting my life to anything else.  My students are amazing, and I learn as much from them as they learn from me.  Teaching voice is like solving the most beautiful, intricate puzzle you can imagine, and I love puzzles.  Teaching piano and music theory is equally rewarding, and watching my students learn and grow makes me so proud.  This is not some kind of marketing scheme or insincere exaggeration, I am lucky to have found a career that I genuinely love this much.

I will use this blog to express my thoughts on music, education, creativity, life, adventure, and other things that bring me joy, and to connect with others who share those interests.  Most of all, I want to share with young musicians the vital pieces of knowledge that I did not learn until later.