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.

Recommended Materials for Voice Students

There are many different music anthologies and songbooks out there, so I thought I’d put together a list of the ones that I recommend for my students.  I’m always looking for more music for my students, so I’ll keep adding to this list as my music library grows.  If you have any favorite books, I’d love to hear your suggestions as well!

MUSICAL THEATER ANTHOLOGIES

The Teen’s Musical Theater Collection – Young Women’s edition or Young Men’s edition, with available piano accompaniment CD.  Great collection of standard repertoire in a variety of styles and ranges.  Recommended for beginners.

Broadway Presents: Teens’ Musical Theatre Anthology – Female Edition or Male Edition, with piano accompaniment CD.   Slightly more advanced songs that venture outside of the standard repertoire, with some mature themes.  Contains songs in a variety of vocal ranges, so not all of the songs will work for each singer.  Recommended for older teens who may not have settled into a specific voice type yet.

Singer’s Musical Theatre Anthology Series – Several volumes available for each voice type: Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano/Belter, Tenor, and Baritone/Bass.  Piano accompaniment CDs available.  Volume 1 generally contains standard songs from classic musicals, while the later volumes have songs from newer musicals.   Highly recommended for serious musical theater singers.

FOR CLASSICAL SINGERS

Easy Solos for Beginning Singers series – For Soprano, Mezzo-soprano/Alto, Tenor, and Baritone, with available CD of piano accompaniment.  Edited and compiled by Joan Frey Boytim.   A great starting point for students interested in classical singing.

First Book of Solos series – for Soprano, Mezzo-soprano/Alto, Tenor, Baritone, with available CD of piano accompaniment.  Several volumes of songs for each voice type.  Most songs are in English, with some in other languages as well.  There is also a Second Book of Solos series with even more challenging songs.  Edited and compiled by Joan Frey Boytim.   This series is highly recommended for all high school age students interested in classical singing, but many of the pieces will be too difficult for absolute beginners (see Easy Solos for Beginning Singers series above).

26 Italian Songs and Arias – available for Medium High or Medium Low voice, with available accompaniment CD.   Great collection of Italian songs for beginning to intermediate singers, and an essential part of the repertoire for young classical singers.

The Lieder Anthology – from the Singer’s Library series, available for High Voice or Low Voice, with accompaniment CD.  Collection of German art songs for intermediate to advanced singers.

French Song Anthology – from the Singer’s Library series, available for High Voice or Low Voice, with accompaniment CD.  Collection of French art songs for intermediate to advanced singers.

FOR YOUNGER STUDENTS

36 Solos for Young Singers – compiled by Joan Frey Boytim.  Accompaniment CD available.  Classical-type songs chosen to be accessible to younger singers, but may be too challenging for my youngest students or absolute beginners.

Contemporary Disney – collection of 50 songs from a variety of Disney movies.  Great for young singers but some songs have vocal ranges that are too large for many young students.

Kids’ Musical Theatre Collection – 29 songs with CD of piano accompaniments.  Good selection of songs from popular musicals that are appropriate for younger singers.  There is also a second volume available with even more songs.

Broadway Presents: Kids’ Musical Theatre Anthology – with CD of piano accompaniments.  Contains some of the same songs as the Kids’ Musical Theatre Collection above, but also has some more challenging pieces from a wide variety of shows and movies.