To rephrase a line from Sondheim's Into the Woods, "Careful the things you say, [singers] will listen." This also reminds me of the first agreement from Don Miguel Ruiz's book The Four Agreements, which is "Be impeccable with your word." I try to keep both of these things in mind at all times when I teach. Because of this, believe it is extremely important to stay continually educate myself and refine my knowledge, as well as the language I use with singers.
While I believe that nearly all voice teachers and choral directors have good intentions, I am not sure they are always sharing actual facts about the voice. The desired sound might be great, but the language used to encourage a certain sound can create misconceptions and technical problems. For example, the idea of tall choral vowels is something I deal with on a regular basis. I believe choral directors want a vowel that has a balance of brightness and darkness (chiaroscuro), and they probably want the singers to have a relaxed jaw and a low laryngeal position. What often results from just asking for tall vowels or darker vowels is a jaw position that is too open, an overly darkened sound, lack of resonance, a tongue that is pulled back, and overly rounded lips. If we take a little time to educate ourselves and use some knowledge of good vocal function, then we can use real language that benefits the individual singers and the overall choral sound.
"Breathe from the diaphragm" is another phrase I avoid. I beg my students to never tell anyone that I told them to breathe from their diaphragm. While it is true that you can not breathe without your diaphragm, a basic knowledge of anatomy tells us that we breathe from the LUNGS. The widely accepted inhalation for singers allows for expansion of the abdominal area, which is caused by the contraction of the diaphragm, along with release of the abdominal muscles. A better phrase might be "allow your belly to expand when you inhale." I do admit that's not as catchy as "breathe from the diaphragm," but it is certainly more accurate!
I recently heard some tenors talking about their high notes and how they can or can not sing in their chest voice up to a certain note. If they were actually using full chest voice as high as they said, they would be belting in a pretty unhealthy way. If you only know about chest voice and falsetto, then you might think that you only have those two options. I didn't fully understand this until I attended Jeanie LoVetri's Somatic Voicework Institute. The other option is mixed voice, and I believe that the homogeneous scale (simply put, all notes sound the same throughout a singer's range) that bel canto singing calls for requires mixed voice throughout the range. On low notes, the singer uses more chest voice and maybe a tiny bit of falsetto/head voice (thyroarytenoid & cricothyroid function for pedagogy people), and on high notes, the balance shifts in the opposite direction. In Pavarotti's famous recording of "Nessun Dorma," he uses a full range of mix, from mostly chest voice to mostly falsetto. The aria begins quite low, so there is a lot of chest voice. At 1:25, he begins nearly in falsetto and crescendos beautifully into a more chest dominant mix. Beginning at 2:08, the climax of the aria begins, and although it is strong, loud, and thrilling, he is still using a mixed production that varies from more chest dominant (modal or TA) on the lowest notes to more head dominant (falsetto or CT) on the highest notes.
I mention all of this because without this knowledge, if full chest voice and full falsetto are the only options, then Pavarotti's high notes would be described as "full chest." That would be much more difficult (and perhaps dangerous) to learn than the idea of mixed voice. Learning mixed voice is a priority in all of my teaching, and it enables students the freedom to sing whatever they need to sing (within reason). Regardless of age, students are able to grasp the concrete concepts of chest voice, falsetto, and mixed voice. Although I used an opera aria as an example, I fully believe that command of mixed voice serves all genres of music.
While my language may not always be perfect, and while some teachers might disagree with my ideas or prefer to use imagery, I strive for impeccable words in my teaching. Reading, listening, and discussing bring me closer to this goal, and I hope to pass that on to my students, as well as choirs and other groups of singers I have the honor to teach. As a result, progress is quicker, and everyone is happier!
As a child, I remember hearing adults talk about things, and they would say things like, "I'm trying to lose weight," "We're going to work on taking a trip in the summer," or "I really should stop smoking." Then, I would see that these things rarely happened, and I really got tired of inaction from adults, which I think has really shaped my life and has made me a person of action. This is not meant to be a self-congratulatory blog post; however, all of the things I mentioned hearing people talk about were attainable goals. They just require setting goals and priorities, along with some discipline.
I also understand that "life gets in the way," as people say, and other things take precedence, such as children. People use their time and resources to provide for their children. Although it was unintentional, all of the things I previously mentioned would also benefit the children, such as losing weight, quitting smoking, and taking a trip!
Alan Alda hosts a podcast called "Clear + Vivid," and at the end, he asks the guest a series of questions. In his interview with Tina Fey (August 21, 2018), when he asks, "What do you wish you really understood," her answer was "The first thing that came to my mind was music. I wish I could read music, and play an instrument, and sing." His response was, "That's how I feel." My response is, "You are smart people! I can teach you to read music in 5 minutes. Singing will take a little more time, but you can learn!!" I don't know how much time Tina Fey and Alan Alda have (probably a free hour each week), but I'm sure they can afford to take voice lessons!! I KNOW FOR A FACT that I (or another good teacher) could teach them to sing!! If that is the first thing that comes to Tina Fey's mind, it must be quite important to fulfilling her life, so all she needs to do is do it!
Much of this was covered in my original blog post (here), and I feel that the idea of not being able to sing is so pervasive that it is worthy of repeating over and over again. A few lucky people developed in such a way that their voice is free, expressive, and beautiful. I am NOT one of those people. For the rest of us, we need some help, patience, and time to unlock something physical, mental, or emotional that is preventing free and beautiful vocal expression. It is true that not everyone should be recorded and paid to sing, but everyone can match pitch, have a pretty pleasant voice, and enjoy singing with some level of confidence.
If you can speak, you can sing, and I would like the opportunity to prove that! My contact information is below, so feel free to contact me to take action and learn how to be a better singer! Just do it.
This is actually a follow-up to my last blog post about how yoga can benefit your singing. Since intention is sort of a big topic, I think it warrants its own post. The basis for this idea is simple: music affects the listener (and the performer). I suppose this is something I have always known, but it began to become more clear to me in high school with both choral and solo music. One distinct memory I have is listening to Verdi’s Requiem in high school and feeling like I had been physically changed. I also remember hearing Henry Purcell’s song “Music for a While” for the first time. The first line of the song says it all: “Music for a while, shall all your cares beguile.” Once I became aware of this phenomenon, I continued to seek it in musical experiences.
I took some acting classes at HB Studios in New York. At HB, they teach "the method" and speak of intentions (this is where Uta Hagen taught). I'm sure this is very common in acting, but I only know my experience. If you are studying a scene, you consider your intention in each line you give. The question might be, "What is my intention in delivering this line" or "what do I want from the other character?" This is useful in singing, for dramatic purposes, but it can go deeper.
I began practicing yoga while in graduate school, but I didn’t start going to classes regularly until around 2011, when I started going to A Garden for Wellness in Clarkesville, GA. There I learned the idea of setting an intention for a yoga practice. I’ve never actually discussed this idea with a yoga teacher or other people in (or out of) a yoga class, so I don’t know what people use as their intention. I am sure that intentions vary wildly from “to relax” or “to get exercise” to things like “heal my cancer” or “become one with the earth.” I can’t claim that anything miraculous has happened to me yet after setting an intention for yoga, but maybe it is like praying--there aren't always immediate results. I like the idea of setting an intention and found that it could be applied to singing.
Even before I knew about setting intentions, I would hope to change the audience in some way when giving a recital or other performance. This affects everything from my repertoire selections and order, to the lighting in the performance space. After learning about the idea of setting an intention, I began to keep the intention of “changing lives.” While this sounds like a lot of pressure, I believe you can change lives through singing, even in small ways. If you make someone’s day better by helping them to focus on something other than their problems for an hour, then you have changed their life. Adding an element of beauty to someone’s day changes their life. Bigger changes can happen too, of course!
This idea will be continued in my next post about inspiration!
Why do yoga and singing go together?
I think a lot of people assume that it is because of the breathing. Breathing for yoga and breathing for singing are similar, since both require expanding in the abdominal area, rather than clavicular breathing. However, slowly breathing through the nose doesn’t work very well for singing. Mouth breathing, which is usually not known as something that intelligent people do, works best for singing, in my opinion. You prepare the space in the mouth and throat for the word/vowel and the pitch that you are about to sing. Also, the mouth is a larger space than the nostrils, so you can inhale more breath more quickly.
People would probably go next to relaxation as a reason to do yoga if you are a singing. This is certainly a good idea. Within the varieties of yoga, there are elements of cardiovascular workout, stretching, strength training, meditation, and relaxation. All of these things can benefit a singer since they help to improve the body, which is the instrument. If you have some experience from yoga classes, or if you can learn from a YouTube video, you can do yoga at home, and sessions can last anywhere from 10 minutes (or less) to an hour (or more). It is an easy thing to do if you are traveling, your schedule is busy, or you can’t afford a gym membership. The relaxation that comes from a good yoga practice can be great for singing. You feel relaxed and energized, rather than relaxed and ready for bed.
One of my favorite things about yoga is awareness, which is also very important for singing. In yoga, you are often asked to “notice” or “be aware” of how something feels, and you do this in a non-judgmental way. This is very important as a singer and as a voice teacher. I will often say to a student something like, “are you aware that your jaw is going forward when you sing that word?” Being aware of what is happening in your body, whether it is your breathing, alignment, or your mouth, is very important. If you are aware that you are doing something that hinders your singing, you can then correct it. Once you have this awareness, it can apply to your overall health and well-being!
For any musical endeavor, students are told to practice, and yoga is considered a practice. I believe that a good yoga practice can really inform your singing practice. In yoga, you are instructed to observe and notice what is going on in your body. You learn the best form for the asana, or pose, and you do the best your body can do on that particular day. If you are supposed to bend over and touch your toes, that is the goal, but if you can only reach your knees today, it is ok. With each breath, you try to reach a bit further. Then you come back the next day and try to get closer to touching your toes. The same is true with singing. You can’t force yourself to sing a high C. You work on the G, then the A-flat, then the A, and so on, until you can sing each note with freedom and comfort.
Dr. Gregory Broughton, my voice teacher while getting my doctorate at UGA, said, “The key to vocal artistry is legato.” He had many different exercises for achieving legato, such as moving from one vowel to another while allowing all of the possible shades of each vowel from one vowel to the next. The idea is that just as there are infinite shades of blue, there are also infinite shades of each vowel. When you allow more shades to happen, you allow for more artistry and beauty. Cooper Seay, my yoga teacher at A Garden for Wellness in Clarkesville, GA, would instruct us to make the movement from one asana to the next as beautiful and as slowly as possibly within a breath. To me, these ideas complement each other, and the idea of allowing for all of the beautiful possibilities within a breath, whether in singing or in moving, is a revelation. One final idea that sums this up is a quote, as I remember it, from Rachelle Jonck, a coach in NYC: “Each phrase of singing is one expression of breath.”
I would highly recommend yoga for anyone. It is such a healthy thing to add to your lifestyle and possibly change your lifestyle. Although there are many YouTube videos available for free, I thought I’d mention the first DVD I used, which is Rodney Yee’s AM & PM Yoga . I also recommend Linda Lister’s Yoga For Singers and a classic yoga book, Yoga the Iyengar Way. Happy practicing. Visit me at www.jonathanpilkington.net or www.atlantavoiceteacher.com!. By the way, I had reservations about being “Atlanta Voice Teacher,” but I want to show up on Google when people search for that or for “voice lessons in Atlanta”!
Blog Post #1: March 13, 2019
I have a feeling that if you survey voice teachers and ask what the most common comment is after telling people that they teach voice, most would say things like "Oh, I can't sing," "I wish I could sing," or "I'm beyond help." I try not to be frustrated by this, but it's nearly impossible. People are so certain that they can't sing, and they are so afraid to try, that they hardly entertain the idea that as a voice teacher, I might know what I'm talking about when I tell them that I could teach them to sing. That's like telling a doctor that your bone is so broken that they can't fix it.
I listened to a podcast just yesterday on finances. The guest was saying that any topic in which people lack experience or training is like rocket science or brain surgery. To a rocket scientist, rocket science isn't difficult. To a brain surgeon, brain surgery isn't particularly difficult, but to a brain surgeon, rocket science would be quite difficult. It is true that some people are born with a voice that functions beautifully, they somehow discover they can sing at some point, and somehow they continue to sing beautifully with little training. A voice teacher should be able to improve anyone's ability to sing.
The people who are born with a beautifully functioning voice are rare, and some voice teachers become famous by teaching those people. When you have a student like that, you just become a guide and a coach. You ensure that they sing appropriate repertoire (and sing it well), you talk them through mental and emotional challenges, and you send them on to the next step of their career or training. It's a different kind of experience to teach this type of singer. While it is exciting to see how far they might go and satisfying to hear their beautiful singing, it is so very rewarding to teach a student who really wants to sing but doesn't have immediate access to the beauty of their voice.
I believe that every human who can speak has a singing voice that should be used and can be developed. Some voices are readily available to the singer and simply need guidance, while some voices have to be uncovered, discovered, or untangled. Facilitating this progress is my focus and responsibility as a teacher, regardless of the student’s singing goals or aspirations.
What does it take to be able to overcome the idea that you can't sing?
-A bit of courage/vulnerability
-Willingness to learn
-Patience with yourself
-A kind, patient teacher who has a thorough knowledge of the voice and how to overcome issues
I have a lot of experience in this and have found beautiful voices in people who initially have trouble matching pitch. I am available for lessons in person or online, or if you are looking or a teacher in a different city, I can help there too.