I am a huge fan of using YouTube for learning; I have taught myself to play the musical saw and the spoons and can usefully turn napkins into credible terra dactyls. For anyone interested in singing, there is an Alladin’s Cave’s worth of imaginative, researched and properly useful information that is truly worth plundering. My students have been inspired to ‘have a fiddle’ (my favourite pedagogical term), after watching this video by US singer Tyley Ross, who sings in an MRI scanner, thereby enabling us to see exactly what’s going on inside his throat. By singing the same short section of Nessun Dorma in 4-different styles, we get to see the adjustments he is making, particularly with his tongue and soft palate. He admits that, due to the noise generated by the MRI scanner, he had to re-record the sound at a later point, but he is clearly a very accomplished singer and what you hear is certainly what you would have done in the ‘live’ situation. Thanks Tyley.
Singing; it’s just not natural
There is a prevailing myth, infuriatingly re-enforced recently by a BBC TV talent show judge, that the act of singing is the most ‘natural thing’ in the world and consequently, an apparent lack of ‘natural’ ability is clearly the result of unfavourable genes or a general deficit of god-given talent. Singing induces a level of self-criticism and self-consciousness like no other past-time (with the possible exception of dancing) and lots of people give up at the first hurdle, somehow neatly luxuriating in the certain knowledge that Mother Nature was having a joke at their expense. As a singing teacher, I find myself coaxing my students back into their saddles when they’ve had a go at Becher’s Brook at the Grand National on their first foray out of the starting gate. Singing is not the most natural thing in the world, it requires breath control to sustain long phrases, you need to access a range of notes beyond those used in spoken word, and be able to create a ‘tone of voice' to convey meaning and emotion and different styles of music have specific vocal requirements. The ingredients may all be natural and certified organic, but they need to be blended in exactly the right measure.
PS Check out the microphone* in the picture; made of plastic tubing, party popper, polystyrene ball, pop sock and black paint. Don’t believe everything you hear and see. Just saying.
(*made by Marie Atkins)
Stop listening to yourself singing & start ‘feeling’ what it’s like to sing
Is this you? Standing in the kitchen, radio blaring, singing joyfully and unabashedly along with Aretha, Jessie or Frank. Singing so brilliantly. So effortlessly. Then, you switch the radio off and carry on singing. Those high notes that you hit with such ease now possess an uncannily feline quality and there’s a definite hint of braying on the lower ones. What was left of the melody of I Say A Little Prayer has morphed, rather poetically, into the tune of Old MacDonald Had A Farm. You could be starring in a one-man/woman production of Shrek.
I am obviously exaggerating (any similarities with my family members, is entirely coincidental), but the fact of the matter is that singing is a physical act and exactly like riding a bike, swimming or playing football, requires learning. Singing along to the radio, relies almost completely on auditory feedback, in other words, you are using your ears exclusively to match the pitch and rhythm of the song being played. If there is no learned technique or physical ability to sustain the sound and you attempt to sing without the radio singer, your voice is likely to become untethered and set uncontrollably adrift. To sing confidently, tunefully and independently, you have to engage a host of muscles, which is what gives you the ‘feeling’ of singing.
This isn’t to say that using your ears isn’t vitally important in singing, it is, but much less so than you might think. Controlling the pressure and flow of air (using your ‘breathing muscles’) as it passes through your vocal folds (aka cords), is important for tuning and for producing good tone. Muscle tension in your jaw, tongue and neck can adversely affect the quality of the sound and put a strain on your throat and did you know that if you don’t lift your soft palate while singing, the sound will travel out through your nose rather than your mouth (4 muscles are involved with lifting the soft palate). I am simplifying, but you get the picture. For the geeks among you, there is a lot of easily-accessible, on-line research exploring the bio-mechanics of the vocal process,
All singers need to find these muscles, work out what they do and learn to isolate them and that way you will have complete control over the quality and type of sound produced. Like any new discipline, it takes a lot of practice to coordinate all these muscles, but be assured that what feels unnatural to begin with, will soon become habitual. You’ll know that you’re on the right track when your singing has started to feel effortless and enjoyable.
I want to encourage all you singalong-a-radio singers; there is hope, a lot of it, so don’t be so harsh on yourselves, just acquire a bit of knowledge, practice a lot and you’ll be well on your way to feeling yourself sing.
I have been asked several times which teaching method I ascribe to and my answer is normally a rather convoluted ramble about how there is no ‘one-size fits all’ approach to singing teaching as each voice is unique to the individual who owns it and subject to an infinite number of variants. As singing teaching is unregulated in the UK, I can’t just reach for my shiny certificate that shows that my teaching has been assessed and deemed as acceptable. I have to admit to a bit of internal eye-rolling and a desperate need to sigh, when I get asked this, but accept that it is a perfectly natural line of enquiry, after all, there are prescribed methods of teaching for all other instruments. The big difference between the two is that musical instruments have a resonating space that can’t change shape, but the vocal tract can change shape radically, and small changes make big differences to the sound. You can take an instrument out of the box, follow the instructions and get playing straight away, if it doesn’t work it is very likely due to the short-comings of the player and not of the instrument itself.
Life would definitely be so much easier if we had an officially recognised system that confirmed that we know our stuff and that our students will learn to sing safely and well, but I can’t begin to imagine how many modules would need to be included in a ‘singing teaching’ qualification to be able to cover everything you need to know; effects of age, gender, biology, physiology, state of health (physical and mental), vocal set-ups (huge, huge, huge subject), musical genre (enormous influencer on how you might teach someone), lexicon (as everyone processes information differently the choice of language has to be personalised to suit the individual) & not least, how to teach. By the time you had completed the course, which may be a life’s work, it would be time to review the science and start all over again.
I asked other teachers how they respond to being asked about their ‘teaching method’ through the Vocal Process Facebook Group set up by Dr Gillyanne Kayes. I was reassured to see that the universal response was as I described in the first paragraph; one-size-cannot-possibly-fit-all. In this group, we are all committed to CPD learning and keep up with the latest science and developments in teaching and take from that whatever is appropriate and manageable for the individual singer. We are drawing from research coming from all over the world (there is still so much that is unknown about voice function) and our lucky students are benefitting from that. But there is no compact, convenient or certificated way of describing this commitment to our trade, to potential employers.
The downside of not having a system of validation, is that employers don’t really know the right questions to ask and often accept applicants with music degrees from recognised conservatoires who are fantastic musicians and instrumental teachers, but who don’t necessarily have the appropriate skills and knowledge to be effective singing teachers. I understand why they use this criteria to make their employment decisions, what else could they do?