After teaching professional singers for over 30 years,
it seems very important to write about one subject which is rarely discussed: practice
techniques. One of the most challenging abilities for any singer
to develop is that of healthy self-supervision: vocalizing his or her
voice alone without the guidance of a teacher of coach. After observing
professionally oriented singers for many years, I decided to compile
ideas I have collected in an article about practice habits, using many
of the concepts that I have observed to be most effective.
We all know that vocal self-confidence stems from a series of successes. When a series of successes has been established in the practice room, then the singer begins to build confidence, creating a stronger vocal self-esteem. Usually the solutions to the questions above lie in the practice approach itself. In an art form where technical ability establishes consistency, how does a singer learn to practice correctly without the teacher's listening ear? In this article, we will investigate how a singer can build confidence and achieve the goal of moving forward from the practice experience. Virtually every professional singer strives to develop a series of exercises that work best for his or her voice. Obviously since this profession requires a great deal of travel, rigorous rehearsal schedules, and working with directors and conductors from stage, it is critical for a singer to develop vocal confidence through practice skills that enhance a strong vocal technique. Singing daily in many different acoustical environments can be confusing and developing and sustaining a strong sense of healthy vocal sensations can be the absolute anchor for a singer. If a singer can develop a high level of vocalism technically, then concentration can be focused on other critical areas of performing.
One excellent tool in self-monitoring is that of using a tape recorder or mini disc recorder. Achieving good auditory feedback that is clear is important in order for a singer to get a true concept of his/her sound. Learning to listen to one's own voice can be emotionally challenging because when played back, it never sounds as it does to the inner hearing. The inner hearing is always different than what plays back on tape or mini disc. I call this the acoustical deception or the false sound that we all receive inside our head. Listen with a critical neutral ear. After listening back look for vowel problems, registration issues, or breathe issues. Often a singer can develop the ability to "hear feelings". In other words the singer develops the ability to hear when the jaw is too forward or the soft palate is too dropped or the larynx too high. This ability will heighten the singer's self-awareness and develop important feedback that can assist in professional growth.
Neutralizing the Ear:
Learn to neutralize the ear by listening to several recordings of an aria or song before listening to your own voice. Make lists of what you liked and did not like. Then listen to the recording of your own voice. ALWAYS listen with a critical ear but NOT a judgmental one. After listening, list the positive aspects first. Then allow yourself to hear what needs to be altered or corrected and make a list. Beside this list write ideas of how to vocalize within the piece of music to achieve your goal. For example, if you hear that your 'a' vowel is too spread you could write: "Check mouth shape, larynx position, and vocalize the 'u' vowel into the 'a' vowel."
Consider Room Acoustics:
Remember that IF you are recording your voice in a small room, you will NOT get many of the higher overtones that will occur in a larger hall. The sound will be on the dry side. Realize that you then are listening for the fundamental sound, not the total sound. Every voice needs a hall or larger environment in order for overtones to expand the acoustical beauty of the instrument. When listening to your own vocalizing, be sure to begin by recording only about 5 minutes at a time. Then that time frame can be increased gradually. Learn the skill of developing a diagnostic ear. In other words, learn to hear problems and accompany that ability with a problem-solving exercise or concept.
Many singers do not like visual feedback, but it is one of the most critically important aspects of self-practice. In my instructional CD, "An Introductory Lesson with David Jones; A Resource for Teachers and Singers", there is a logical sequence which allows the singer to become more self-sufficient. Correct posture is near the top of the list in terms of priorities. It affects breath and breath management (whether the breath is low and the support can engage with the lower body muscles), whether a singer can achieve a lower larynx position, and whether the singer can achieve a perfect attack or onset. Posture is the critical skill of opening the body and for setting the environment for healthy vocalism. (David Jones' instructional CD may be purchased at www.onesoulrecords.com.) The following check list is quite useful in self-supervision of posture.
Using the mirror as a tool: One of the great advantages of visual feedback is that the singer can begin to spot problems in body alignment almost immediately. Since head and neck posture can effect laryngeal position, therefore effecting tonal quality dramatically, this is a critically important skill for any singer to develop. The study of the Alexander Technique heightens a singer's body awareness, especially when it comes to the alignment of the spine. On the other hand, it is also critical to develop the Italian 'appogio' or leaning of the sternum forward. (Not upward) Visual feedback is the only way a singer can be aware of how he or she is practicing or if the practice is correct. Few of us enjoy looking in the mirror, but this is a necessary part of self- monitoring. The most beneficial environment in a practice room is to have two mirrors in a corner at about a 90-degree angle. This allows for the singer to look directly at full front view and at the profile while practicing. This kind of practice approach will answer most of the following questions:
In 1938 and 1939, my former teacher Alan Lindquest befriended Jussi Bjoerling. It was during this time that they were both studying with Joseph Hislop. Because the two colleagues became quite friendly, they often had conversations regarding posture and use of the mirror to find the balance in posture. Bjoerling was about 10 years younger than Lindquest. However, they became quite good colleagues and lived in the same apartment residence during that time period in Stockholm. Visual feedback was a topic of discussion and both singers knew the importance of it. Flagstad was sent to the Dalcroze School of Dance in order to learn slow and controlled movement of her body. As in many dance studios she was forced to look in the mirror. She attributed much of her vocal control to the control of the body. Vocal concentration and body awareness worked together to help her achieve what might be called the perfect onset. When she first went to Dr. Gillis Bratt he told her that she had the voice of a child it was so small and breathy. However through the use of his vocal exercises to achieve a healthy adduction of the folds and her learned body connection, Flagstad was able to achieve what translates as "body hook-up" or complete connection between the body and the voice. When Flagstad achieved this she once said, "I feel my body and my voice are one entity. No longer does my voice feel separate from my body, but they are one feeling." Lindquest learned this concept in the voice studio of Mme. Ingebjard Isene, teacher of Flagstad from 1929 to 1939. The Kirsten Flagstad Museum has a video of Flagstad's life story. On this video it is easy to see how she uses her body to guide her voice.
Notice that most all of the questions in the list above are directly related to finding healthy body, head, and laryngeal posture when singing correctly. Use of the mirror in visual feedback can be a great tool for any singer and will help develop body awareness. Alexander studied his body in the mirror for years to see what issues came to the surface. The study of the Alexander Technique along with use of the mirror makes for an in depth partnership for learning.
Video Camera as a Tool:
One of the most useful tools in a practice session is that of the video camera. Not only can a singer see all angles and movements of the body during the act of singing, but the opportunity of playback is offered as well. Captured on tape, a singer can review body behavior over and over. Again it can be emotionally more difficult than looking in the mirror. However when used consistently, it opens the opportunity of an extremely important study. Use of the video camera can offer the advantage of the study of the profile and the jaw and head posture, plus the advantage of the study of stage presence and personality.
What Kind of Vocal Exercises?
One important consideration for the singer is "What kind of exercises should be employed?" Any group of vocal exercises should include the following:
Over-singing: It is quite a well-known fact that larger voiced singers tend to over sing. I had a friend named Elizabeth Howell who sang with Kirsten Flagstad in 1939 at the Cincinnati May Festival. While rehearsing for the performances of "Flying Dutchman", Flagstad took the opportunity to advise Elizabeth by leaning over in a rehearsal and saying, "Remember Dear, we large-voiced singers tend to sing loud all the time and we are the ones that do NOT have to". This is a powerful statement; one that many singers need to consider if their nature is to over sing or push the voice with too much breath pressure.
There are tools to avoid over singing. One major tool that I offer my singers is to go for only about 60% of the sound they get in the voice studio. This will discourage over singing and begin the very necessary process of becoming a self-sufficient singer. Every professional singer needs a certain amount of independence by learning to vocalize his/her own voice independent of a teacher's ear. The best scenario is to have a good set of ears, but this is not possible all the time. When a singer needs to work independently, he/she needs to demand that their primary guide be sensations and feelings, NOT listening too much. As I say to most singers, "What is beautiful to the singer in his or her inside hearing is usually unattractive to the audience. What sounds unattractive to the singer sounds beautiful to the audience or listener. True resonance can often sound somewhat like a noise in the head or, as Sandra Warfield once said, "A rattle in front of the face." Avoid trying to make a pretty sound inside the head. When a singer is really on the perfect breath flow and using a resonant sound, the inside tonal quality can sound truly ugly to the singer inside the head. Feeling the sound instead of listening was a philosophy that Alan Lindquest used consistently in his teaching. Two of my later teachers, Dixie Neill and Evelyn Reynolds, both teachers of the Old Italian School, are also examples of fine teachers who are still teaching this approach.
Over-singing and Repertoire Choices: Remember that one of the major causes of over-singing is bad or inappropriate repertoire choice. Many younger singers who possess larger voices want to study heavier repertoire too young. Remember than many larger voices do not mature until age 35 to 40. The singer is caught in a vicious cycle with the music business and its attitude toward hiring younger singers. This practice is obviously an outgrowth of the classical video industry. Look at what this promotional attitude did to a young singer like Charlotte Church who now sings with no vocal protection on her voice and can barely hang on to ends of phrases. Voices need time to mature along with good guidance technically. The ideology that "the younger the more hirable" is a ridiculous misunderstanding by those in a position to hire. Obviously their understanding of the voice is limited at most. If those in a position to hire could understand that it is much more advantageous to hire someone with maturity of voice and experience, then possibly this trend would reverse.
In my article "The Dangers of Singing Heavy Repertoire with a Lyric Instrument" I outline why is it so dangerous to sing heavy repertoire before the voice is mature. Often singers are invited into this trap when an instructor becomes excited about their mature vocal sound. However it is not the singer's job to satisfy or entertain the ears of an overly exuberant instructor or audience at too early an age. If a singer is encouraged to sing inappropriate music by family, friends, and/or teacher, where is the sane voice in all of this? More than likely there is NOT one. Every singer has to take responsibility for his or her vocal health and realizing that over-singing is a major problem in young singers is the first step.
Concepts for Correcting Over-singing:
Under-singing: If your nature is to pull off the body or disconnect the voice from the lower body muscle support, then you need to learn how to vocalize soft AND connected. Under-singing can be just as damaging as over-singing. Under-singing leads to high larynxed vocal production, a major cause of vocal fatigue, vibrato problems, breath issues, and intonation problems, which distort proper tuning. High-larynxed singing can be directly connected to a major cause of vocal cord nodules. Many 'under-singers' or 'crooners' suffer from high-larynxed singing.
Examples of this kind of singing can be heard when listening to singers who consider themselves 'authentic' Baroque or Early Music singers. Over time their voices become wooden and non-resonant. The beauty of the voice is sacrificed for an ego-centered attitude connected with being 'authentic'. This kind of arrogance is not only non-productive, but also extremely dangerous over the long term. Teachers who teach this kind of sound need to take the responsibility to check the larynx position. If it is too high, it is the teacher's responsibility to alter instruction so that the larynx can be released. (without depressing it with the root of the tongue) Freedom in singing can then be achieved much more readily.
Under-singing is often found in pop or music theater singers because they have now been relegated exclusively to using sound systems and microphones. The process of supporting a softer approach in singing is rarely taught these singers, therefore they loose access to healthy singing technique. How does one correct this problem? Why is this issue rarely addressed? The way to correct this kind of problem is to develop and work with exercises that demand that the body support, even as the singer is singing a softer sound. In actuality, most singers need more support to sing soft than loud. The instinct for the body to get under the voice is more present when singing louder than softer. On my instructional CD, "An Introductory Lesson with David Jones: A Resource for Teachers and Singers", I cover the subject of breath and breath management on the first CD. It is critical for EVERY singer to learn to support soft sound.
Exercises to Correct Under-singing:
Creating a Public Performance Setting as Practice:
One very effective practice tool is that of singing for friends and/or family in a performance setting. Many singers do not have frequent audition opportunities; therefore it is important to create similar circumstances by singing for friends, colleagues, or family or any mixture of those populations. This will assist in finding what specific technical or emotional issues come to the surface in a performance setting. After some self-evaluation (recording the event would be advised), then the singer can list what factors worked well in the setting and what did not work well. LISTS are important in order to set goals.
Most often singers will experience some degree of nervousness in front of others. It is a good tool to find at what level you are singing under pressure. Use of a tape recorder, mini disc recorder, or video camera to recapture the experience is of great importance. Public singing is an extremely important tool in order for the singer to evaluate whether he or she has the professionalism to pursue a career. If you use a video camera, evaluate your stage presence. Compare it to videos of career singers. Remember that there are thousands of singers out there competing and it is critical that you find what specifically YOU have to offer that most others do not.
Acting Class as a Tool: Many singers do not find the importance in the study of acting and its role in career development. Years ago I remember a colleague of mine named Elizabeth Howell once said, "Take an real acting class, NOT acting for singers!" As I said before, she had sung with Kirsten Flagstad in 1939 at the Cincinatti May Festival when she was only 23 years of age. After having quite a career at Chicago Lyric Opera, she moved to New York in 1950 where she continued her career in musical theater. Ms. Howell played the role of Mother Abbess in "The Sound of Music". After first arriving on the New York audition scene in 1950, she soon learned that she needed an acting class in order to compete with all the excellent actors against whom she was auditioning. In the Operatic World today, acting as a skill is a requirement, not an extra ability one might offer or not offer. Every singer must learn the skill of acting in order to audition and get singing employment. When a singer begins to develop these skills then again the mirror is a great tool to use for character development. It is critical to see if the character is mirrored while singing. Maria Callas was certainly hailed as a great actor and this ability was the core of her stage presence: a presence that drew audiences to her performances and established her as a favorite singing actor.
Final Note: Remember that you must try to be as objective as possible about your own talent. Many singers are not realistic enough about their singing and spend years focusing in the wrong areas. Remember denial is a tremendous force in the human psyche and it is difficult for anyone to be realistic about his or her own abilities. Evaluate your talent without becoming emotionally involved and use the eyes and ears of someone who is not emotionally invested in your success, but rather your truth.
*This article was first published in Classical Singer Magazine/Oct./2004
All concepts of this article are included in "An Introductory Lesson with David Jones, A Resource for Teachers and Singers", available on the home page of this site
(c) 2004 by David L. Jones
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