Getting the Most from Your Voice Lessons
The Fall is almost here and it is a great time to think about maximizing the progress you can make in your voice lessons. So let’s take this from the very beginning.
Commit to establishing a good line of communication with your teacher by demonstrating mutual respect.
Listen carefully to instruction and demonstration.
Give yourself wholeheartedly and with complete trust to try new technical coordinations and be open to reframing how you have previously thought of any aspect of singing.
Ask questions about anything you don’t understand. No question is too “dumb” or too “complex” to answer.
Bring your music in the format requested by your teacher. In my case, paper copies for in-person lessons, and PDF’s for online work.
Commit to practicing regularly as directed for warm-ups and technical exercises. This may not be the most enjoyable part of learning, but it is much more effective than just singing through your songs!
Commit to learning your music. Know your own ability to memorize, and apportion your time to completing that process. Until music is fully memorized, a stylistic and communicative performance is NOT possible.
Commit learning the meaning of your text---otherwise you are singing non-sense.
Commit to listening to professional artists singing your repertoire, or repertoire of the genre to develop your sense of style. The idea is not to imitate but to analyze the stylistic character and apply to your own performance.
Commit to developing a partnership with your pianist. This process is must be based on mutual respect, in which each person is making a commitment to each other and to the music. Providing legible copies of the music (paper or online pdf) is basic.
Cultivating Colors and Articulations to Heighten Communication
in Classical Singing
Let me begin by saying that I believe every good sound in singing is based on effective, constant and consistent support. See my article on support in singing. Further, the most efficient and best sound is enabled by well-produced legato singing. If you are reading this, it is assumed that if you are exploring colors and articulation to heighten the communication of your singing, and that you have already achieved a reliably even scale that runs smoothly throughout the expected range for your vocal type.
The centuries old concept of chiaroscuro (light-dark) in singing, as in art, suggests an artistic expression encompassing both of these directions while maintaining elements of the opposites for balance and beauty. Thus, in this article, we addressing beautiful and expressive singing. Character voices often strive for distinctive sounds and qualities which may or may not be beautiful, but should be well-produced for vocal health and longevity. Thus, they may benefit from employing some of the same adjustments described in this article. At the disposal of the singer are many adjustments that can be used to color the sound and enhance emotional content, portray the mood or sentiment, and can simply vary articulation to provide audience engagement and to enhance communication.
First, we will consider the larynx. We can adjust the placement of the larynx. It is wise not to greatly exaggerate this adjustment, but positioning the larynx slightly higher or slightly lower can effectively change the color of a sound. The more extreme the adjustment, the shorter duration you will want to use.
Second, there is the mouth opening itself. The size and shape of the aperture can also be used to good effect. Further, it is possible to open the mouth in two distinct ways or in a third hybrid way: by independently dropping the lower jaw, by independently raising the upper jaw, or by using them together in equal or differing proportions.
Third, there are the lips. They may be held tight to the teeth, or relaxed with little formation, or protruded in either a relaxed or tensed state. They can form different shapes. For example, pairing a vowel like [o] with a lip shape like [i] will give the [o] a distinctly different color. Sometimes, simply providing a little separation between your upper teeth and your upper lip may result in a new resonance.
Fourth, the tongue position may be slightly altered. The tongue can ride higher or lower, can be higher in back, can be more relaxed, or can tense against the lower teeth to provide subtle differences in sound. To be discouraged is a retracted tongue, because of the propensity to press down on the larynx---which doesn’t necessarily lead to a depressed larynx, but seems to limit dynamic control and tires the voice more quickly. A surprising number of singers sing with a high larynx, which they simultaneously depress. This approach sometimes adds the possibility of an array of extreme high notes, but such notes may be short on beauty and lacking in coloristic possibilities.
Fifth, there is the soft palate, which, while most generally should be raised, may be selectively be slightly lowered or slightly raised for effect and coloristic alteration over a wide range. Such adjustments may have acoustic value to enhance resonance, fullness, or volume in specific tessituras.
Sixth, there is flow of air through the vocal folds. A myriad of sounds can be achieved through manipulation of this coordination. By exciting the breath (as sometimes seen in a Halloween utterance) the intensity and buoyancy of the tone may be governed. Further, by accessing slightly greater adduction of the folds a brighter sound may be found (and may help facilitate a better legato. It should be noted that if the voice tires from using this coordination, there is too much compression and a vocal fault has been created.
Seventh, there is the vocal tract, it self, which may be tuned/shaped to maintain a particular vowel while articulating another vowel or syllabic text with the tip of the tongue and with the lips, thereby changing the color of the sound. An easy example of this may be experienced by humming. Try doing so with your tongue forward and shaping the tract to different vowels. You will find that you can shape for beauty, projection, or a more character-like sound.
Eighth, there is vibrato. While pedagogues may argue that only the “natural” vibrato of a voice is valid or healthy, I would suggest that the “natural” vibrato is only the jumping off point. The speed of vibrato can be intensified if the breath is excited before it reaches the larynx. Further, the balance of breath flow and sub-glottal pressure can influence the proportion of open vs. closed in a single cycle of vibration of the folds. As that coordination is sustained, more breath flow or more adduction may be cultivated.
Ninth, is support. Support, or “breath support” in singing seems fundamental to expressive singing---indeed, for all singing! For those who believe that cultivating a consistent, constant support is unnecessary, you need not continue reading. Coloring or articulation demands constant and consistent support---which means…
Support before the onset of the first note of a phrase is advisable.
Support for every note with the intensity required for the most difficult note of the phrase (high, low, prolonged, loud, or soft) is valuable.
Support for every consonant with the same intensity accrued to the vowels on either side of the consonant facilitates and strengthens legato.
Tenth, is diction. Meaningful diction which clearly communicates the text is much more the pronouncing consonants and producing clear vowels. Diction is a coordination that promotes clarity of consonants, but much more importantly, word stress! If singing is an extension of speech/communication, we should take a moment to analyze speech. Do we understand speech and the emotion behind the words because of exaggerated consonants, or do we understand speech because of the inflection, word stress, tone and range? Clearly, it is not primarily because of exaggerated consonants.
Further, exaggerating a consonant to begin a phrase or to initiate a note is simply a technical compromise. Rather, by supporting the resonance of a vowel sound in the vocal tract while articulating a consonant attached to that vowel sound through the prepared resonance ensures the successful sounding of the syllable and the clarity and beauty of the phrase that follows. This process is basic and adaptable to all the elements of coloration and articulation heretofore discussed.