Useful Qualities for a Teacher of Singing to Possess
The Shape and Structure of a Voice Lesson
The Nuts and Bolts of a Voice Lesson
Some Gender-Specific Issues
Notes and Aphorisms
The purpose of this article is to introduce the concept of registration as a powerful and useful means to enhance the teaching of singing. Without criticizing any other pedagogies, without expecting or hoping for full agreement with the ideas explored in this article, it is still to be hoped that what follows will offer ideas both conceptual and concrete, ideas which the writer hopes can be of some usefulness to all teachers. The intention is to enhance and enrich those ideas and concepts that already inform their teaching and teaching styles.
The teaching of voice today can be seen across a conceptual continuum. Towards one end are those teachers who follow a more mechanistic path. Grouped together here are teachers who probably would not agree that they agree on very much! This side of the spectrum looks for answers in conscious actions, manipulations of the body, very specific breathing techniques (of which there exist a great many), recommendations of precise alignments of the head, neck and torso, urgings of conscious positioning of the mouth, jaw and tongue, even of the larynx itself, not to mention the oropharynx or soft palate. Some teachers working this way encourage the change or modification of the vowel in certain pitch ranges, usually but not always at the higher end. Changing the vowel can also be seen as physical manipulations of activities in the vocal tract, frequently employed in order to encourage or extend the upper pitch range. In utilizing these procedures it is assumed that the involuntary musculature which comprises the greater part of the vocal tract can be brought under conscious control, obeying conscious willed commands and therefore disciplining and freeing the voice.
Towards the other end of the spectrum are the imagists, those who prefer not to call to the student's attention the physical and neurological side of singing, in favor of metaphors and pictures. Some forms of imagistic teaching guide sensation through the images themselves. This kind of teaching can find a rationale in directing the singer's attention away from, rather than towards the physical - aural and kinesthetic - manifestations of the singing act. This can free the voice from tensions brought about by supervising too closely and thus interfering with the ideally reflexive neuro-muscular actions in phonation.
Throughout the entire range of this spectrum successful teaching and vocal improvement occurs. If the teacher utilizes positive feedback concepts, creating an atmosphere of trustful risk-taking on the part of the student, many singers will improve. This may at least in part be due to those aspects of their own talent which form intuitive connections to healthy sound, and their ability to make fine distinctions among kinds of sound, and to remember and reproduce those sounds the teacher helps them identify as better. Most teachers find themselves calling upon teaching techniques both physical and imagistic, adjusting their teaching styles to the individual learning styles of the student, how the student processes information. It is not the purpose of this article to pass judgement on the merits of these various teaching styles. Rather, it is to define an approach to the act of teaching, to formulate and report as simply as possible some principles and techniques centered around the concept of registration in hopes that many voice teachers may find them to some degree adaptable to and useful in their own work.
How should the concept of technique be defined? At the beginning there are several objective criteria:
These aspects refer specifically and relatively objectively to the sound itself. Aspects of physical appearance could be included such as a relaxed and free yet upright and dynamic posture. However there are other qualities which are more subjective and not easily discerned:
How often is it said that a singer possesses an excellent technique as defined perhaps by this list, but such a pity that the voice is unattractive! Throughout this essay the attempt will be made to show how ears trained to listen functionally, rather than esthetically, through the principles of registration, can transcend subjective esthetic judgements. In doing so the teacher and singer can arrive at a perception of sound based on a conception of sound production in which the registers work together in a healthy and proper balance. Through the act of strengthening, clarifying, and balancing the registers, teachers can train their ears to perceive in a state of greater objectivity. They would be able to hear sounds as the result of physical processes in the vocal tract, thereby linking esthetics to functional judgements, function being defined as the most efficient balance of registration, efficiency being defined as the absence of any unnecessary activity in the vocal tract.
What follows is a strategy of voice teaching based to a great extent on the principles of registration espoused by Manuel Garcia and others in the 19th century and expanded and clarified by Cornelius Reid in the 20th. Beyond the scope of this article is a historical overview or an exegesis of Reid's fundamental and important discoveries derived, tested and applied over seven decades of successful teaching. An attempt will be made to define registration in a pragmatic and conceptual fashion, with the end in mind of immediate studio teaching application.
Reid in his "Dictionary of Vocal Terms" defines register as "a group of like sounds or tone qualities whose origin can be traced to a special kind of mechanical (muscular) action".
Rather than restate or paraphrase Reid let me propose some qualities that can be described and explained by the concept of registration. First, consider registration as a ratio of tension between muscle groups. Each setting of muscular activity produces a different sound.
Call the action of those muscles which bring the vocal cords into position to approximate, the action of the chest register mechanism.
Call the action of those muscles which lengthen the folds and change the pitch, the action of the head register mechanism.
Every sung tone can be perceived as possessing a range of qualities such as bright, ringing or edgy, dark, round or covered, heavy and stiff, or light and flexible. The nature of the register balance is revealed by the predominance of some of these qualities. Is a tone "heady", "chesty", is it bright (edgy or with ring), is it dark (warm and rich or covered and hooty), is it falsetto or legitimate? The two register mechanisms, head and chest, can be defined aurally by dividing these qualities, each of which is brought to prominence in a given sound by counterpoised neuromuscular actions, into two groups. Those groups of sounds produced by a ratio of muscle tension favoring one set of 'pulls' we call the aural evidence of the dominant action of those muscles grouped under the heading of the chest register mechanism, and the reverse dominance we'll call the head register mechanism. Among those actions described as chest register are the pulls exerted by the crico-arytenoids and the vocalis musicles. Against these is the pull of the crico-thyroids. The former approximate the folds and situate the larynx, the latter change the pitch. To finish this for our purposes somewhat schematic and oversimplified conception, the proper relationship between registers would be the bracing and placing responsibility of the chest register against the pulling and flexing action of the head register mechanism.
Describe the aural evidence of the chest register mechanism's activity as sound which is bright and/or heavy, characterized by the [a]. Describe the aural evidence of the head register mechanism's activity as sound which is sweet, warm, light and/or hooty, characterized most clearly by the vowel [u]. Since these muscle systems are essentially involuntary, any effort to activate them directly could interfere with their most efficient and correct functioning. The vocal mechanism is best stimulated by a choice of exercise patterns defined by choices of vowel, pitch and intensity that encourage reflexive, rather than willed, movements. The more these patterns are executed with a rhythmical shape and swing, the more spontaneously the muscles will respond, transcending previously conditioned responses and producing precise, tireless and 'natural' results. Through the teacher's requesting of sounds containing these characteristics, one or the other mechanism can be to some extent isolated, strengthened, and then recombined. I hope that this quick and superficial description of registration will serve as an overview to what appears below.
It certainly does not go without saying that a teacher of singing should be compassionate, patient, fascinated by the act of singing, willing to accept as reward, improvement in very small increments! In addition to these qualities of personality a teacher much possess an ear greatly sensitive to gradations of pitch and variations of tonal quality, and an eye attuned to physical symptoms of tension in the head, mouth, jaw, neck and body. Perhaps the most mysterious ingredient for both teacher and pupil is vocal intuition. For the teacher intuition could be defined as the ability to form a judgement in response to what is seen and heard in the moment. Daily teaching experience, guided not merely by concepts, but by careful observation of the result of applying these concepts, the willingness to learn something new in every lesson, will nourish and guide intuition. Very important is to know what you don't know. A teacher must be willing to shape the lesson through offering the voice stimuli in the form of a series of patterns of pitches, vowels and intensity. Observing the voice's response to these will direct the teacher's course in helping the singing to evolve to a higher technical state. Every concept can be tested over and over, in listening and watching carefully at every moment. Every response of the vocal mechanism can aid the teacher in the evolution and refinements of these concepts. What works and what doesn't work?
The following is a list of teaching aspects that could prove useful to every teacher.
There are actually many ways of shaping the too brief period of time a student spends with the teacher. Most importantly, a teacher must be both strategist and tactician. The strategist has made contingency plans while the tactician responds to the information in and of the moment. Previous teaching experience will help shape strategies, informed by the teacher's knowledge of psychology and vocal mechanics. Tactics are defined by the teacher's reaction to the voice's response to stimuli by suggesting sung patterns that consist of vowels, pitches, intensities and tempos, i.e. vocalises. Working a voice can be compared to a game of chess. The teacher should be ready to suggest an appropriate exercise pattern based on the functional evidence of the previous pattern. Every sung tone displays a spectrum of qualities: brightness, ring or edginess contrasted with warmth, roundness or hollowness: weight versus lightness, inertia versus quickness, as well as a lively vibrato pulse. By forming judgements based on what can be discerned through listening functionally to the balance of these qualities, the teacher can proceed to eliminate those tonal aspects which are the result of improper or unnecessary activity and encourage better sound qualities. This procedure works best when the teacher's ear is trained to listen functionally; linking sounds to mechanical and neurophysical behaviors in the vocal tract, rather than listening only esthetically to sounds categorized as attractive or not. The teacher's goal must be to move the act of listening towards a more objective appraisal and as much as possible away from the realm of the subjectively esthetic. In the experience of teaching the teacher's ear must develop to hear ever-finer distinctions between more and less efficient functioning. And we make the assumption that the most efficient and elegant functioning of the mechanism will result in a sound with the most desirable esthetic properties.
Moving now to a consideration of the actual events in a voice lesson the following questions might be asked. What physical/neurological, what mechanical processes are active and important in tonal production? How can inefficiencies of energy, excessive or superfluous reactions be done away with? One procedure consists of a process we term the balancing of the registers. The physical manifestation of extra work, for example a misaligned or tight jaw, can be treated symptomatically. Urging a singer to relax or release the jaw, in all probability does not address the cause of the jaw tension. Visible jaw tension is frequently the visual manifestation of an improperly suspended larynx. That activity which is physically expressed by a raised or lowered larynx is traced to the lack of a correct registral balance.
The following sections will not address aspects of posture, breathing and alignment. There can be no doubt that well-balanced posture and efficient breathing are absolutely essential to good singing. As far as breathing is concerned there are many differing yet complementary ideas about the mechanics, involving varied involvements and relationships of the diaphragm, the ribs and abdominal muscles, as well as the back. For the scope of the present article, it is sufficient to say that if a good relaxed yet upright posture in maintained there are three important aspects of breathing that could be mentioned:
The balance of this article will be divided into three parts. First, a free outline of the technical portion of a lesson utilizing registral concepts will be described, followed by some tips for men teaching women and vice versa, and finally, some aphorisms in admiring homage to Lamperti's collection of vocal wisdom.
The technical portion of a voice lesson consists of a series of vocalises suggested by the teacher. A pattern is composed of a sequence of pitches on given vowels at a specified intensity level. The voice's response to a vocalised pattern dictates the next pattern.
The next pattern could be higher or lower repetition of that pattern, or a switch to another pattern capitalizing on the good results revealed in that pattern, or a change to another strategy, usually in another part of the voice. Any singing in one part of the voice will have an effect on what follows, in any other part of the voice. Sometimes these effects are not noticeable, because a voice is stuck in its response patterns.
Every pattern, even a single pitch (with its preceding breath as upbeat) must have a rhythmic swing, to promote spontaneous, reflexive rather than willed and controlled responses. The teacher must observe the singing of each pattern for its rhythmic spontaneity, its register balance, its resonance adjustment, and its consistency of vowel color, loudness, and legato. Remember that the voice is capable of absorbing any pattern into its present level of technique, "learning to do it wrong."
In order to expand the voice's technical capabilities, no single exercise should be over-used. Vary the patterns. Avoid allowing the singer to crescendo on the way up in a pattern, because a crescendo permits the carrying up of too much weight or chest register activity of the wrong kind.
Some patterns are:
All these patterns can be infinitely varied. It is to be remembered that those patterns that work well in the teacher's voice may not do as well for the student, and vice versa!
In constructing and shaping a lesson, with most voices it can be assumed that the chest register is active, if the student has done any talking.
The initial step is to "get the throat open" with some full voiced sound, for men in the bottom, for women in the middle.
Awaken the head register mechanism's activity.
Expand the envelope of vocal possibilities: range, fullness, evenness not only of sound from pitch range to pitch range, but also of transitions from vowel to vowel, purity of vowels, rhythmic swing. If one vowel is going well, juxtapose another vowel to it, e.g. 1-3-5--8-on [a], change to [I], 8-5-3-1.
At this point it is relatively easy (only relatively) to help the singer choose the functionally healthiest sounds the voice is capable of making.. But these patterns are also designed to "stretch the envelope", to move the voice into the unknown, to evoke vocal responses of which the singer has not yet either the experience of the conception!
The basic issue for both is to develop each register and get them working together in a balanced relationship.
That being said, men tend to sing mostly in chest register range (except for tenors whose tessitura and range are higher) and women in a range that begins in the falsetto or head register pitch range but stays higher in the combined register pitch range (except for mezzos whose tessitura is lower and who therefore, like tenors, must handle well the passagio area).
Generally speaking, more true for beginners, a man's voice should be worked from the bottom up, with interpolated falsetto excercises, and a woman's voice from the top down, with interpolated chest excercises.
For beginning men, start with sustained single tones around d below middle c, descending, one tone per breath, then start up from the bottom on 1 3 5 3 1. Listen for a clear 'singy' tone, rather than vocal fry, that sort of weak growly sound. Take them up only as far as d above middle c, perhaps less if the larynx is rising, resulting audibly in a thinning out of sound.
Then some falsettos, either a below middle c to e above, or e above up only to c above middle c on u vowel. Hooty falsetto on single pitches or others patterns.
Then back to full voice. Avoid too much singing with raised larynx. Vary speeds of patterns, length (1 3 5,1 3 5 8), staccato, legato, etc.
For beginning women, start easily in the middle of the voice around and above f above middle c. One possibility would consist of five note patterns on [u]. Avoid starting in a chest register dominated sound lower in the voice. Without attempting to connect the chest register with the head, strive for a head register dominated sound from onset.
Another way to begin is descending patterns beginning on d to f an ninth or twelfth above middle c. Sirens. Always spontaneous swoop up freely and spontaneously. Then swoop up to an undefined sustained pitch. Then descend. Single tones descending, one per breath in chest, starting around middle c. Do not take the chest above e flat. ALWAYS distinguish between chest and head dominated sounds.
Tell the student what to do, not how to do it.
The variation in air particles we call voice is the product of laryngeal muscular activity. The vibratory impulses are set in motion by the vocal cords. The shaping of the laryngeal and pharyngeal cavities filter out the frequencies not essential for vocal sound, and energize those frequencies that define and resonate each vowel.
Since these these muscle systems are essentially involuntary, any effort to activate them directly will interfere with their most efficient and correct functioning. The vocal mechanism is best stimulated by a choice of excercise patterns defined by vowel, pitch, and intensity that encourage reflexive movements. The more rhythmically these patterns are executed the more spontaneously the muscles will respond, transcending previously conditioned responses and producing precise, tireless and "natural" results.
All voices are composed of two register mechanisms. (Garcia defined register as a consistent body of sound produced over a pitch range) It is through the development of the proper relationship between these two mechanisms that voices can become freer.
Learning how to sing is the acquisition of technical skill; the art and act of singing is the manner in which these skills are used.
Understand the difference between image/metaphor/sensation (how it feels and how it sounds) and physical reality.
Understand the differences between symptoms & causes, and internal & external factors.
Don't lie, and only exaggerate a little.
Say "better" more often than "good."
With new pupils and especially with beginners:
Play with patterns
What to listen for in a voice:
Don't "try" - that implies that you know how to do it.
You cannot tell someone how to sing. You can diagnose what's wrong and have some sense of how to get rid of it.
Scientists test normal singing - we must have a concept of the ideal.
There is no voice "organ."
Tell them what to do, not how to do it.
Vocal cords are vibratile - like setting a rubber band to twanging
When doing trills, larger intervals need to be done slower
Energize that which produces vibrations.
Register: a preponderance of tension in one muscle system.
Register: a muscle system that uses the vocal folds; but there must always be a balance of tension between registers, either proportionate or disproportionate. For Garcia a register is a group of homogenous sounds.
Approaches to the voice
Teaching as inspiration - a singer singing better becomes a better person, through the straightening out of emotional inhibitions. Spiritual empowerment. Joy of singing and communication. Confidence.
Contrast aggressiveness and assertiveness. Is singing an expressive release of anger?
Pushing supports pre-existing wrong tensions, but increasing subglottal pressure does not mean tensing peripheral areas of the body.
Equate/associate with, assign to certain sounds certain neuromuscular actions/activities.
Voice is a complex interweaving of neuromuscular activities and air.
How much of bad singing is an attempt to influence mysterious (involuntary) vocal processes externally, with little guidance from sensory feedback.
The teacher's job is to identify (hear) the register combinations and suggest a series of exercise patterns to effect change in these combinations.
The lateral crico-thyroids are responsible for positioning the mechanism in falsetto. Registration is NOT a function of the vocal folds - which is why in the past it was thought that men had two, women had three registers. There are two major nerves from the brain, one controlling swallowing and the other breathing. These functions can be overlaid by not violated or contradicted.
Vibrate on the vowels!
Artistry: Can it be taught?
Components: language, musical intention, communicative gift, voice, musicianship, face, emotional intention.
Vocal components: color, rubato, articulation, crescendo/diminuendo, portamento
The problem with so much vocal training, especially of the psychological touchy-feely kind, or even that which concentrates on breathing and postural alignment is that the central challenge in improving a singing technique is training and/or retraining specific muscle groups to perform/react/respond to the stimulus of vowel, pitch and intensity in very specific and reflexive ways. Neither touchy-feely nor breath management addresses this directly enough.
By allowing it to happen you permit it to happen. But by making it happen you don't allow/permit it to happen.
The problem with notation is that it looks discrete - a collection of separate notes. Singing is a flow of sound.
A voice teacher must be both strategist and tactician.
A vibrato trill is like a fan moved by the wind, or does the fan move the wind?
Priority: what is the most important, the first thing? REGISTRATION, then the resonance adjustment.
3 Choices: choose what the voice can already do, get it to do something new, (find (choose) a pattern that allows the voice to do something you would or could not choose.
Does the teacher bear the psychological burden of the student's talent - ambition - improvement?
If repeated too frequently, any exercise no matter how beneficial will be incorporated into the present envelope of vocal possibility, and thus halt the stretching/expanding the envelope.
The voice is addicted to its muscular mistakes.
If you hammer yourself on the head enough you don't notice it or feel it until/unless you stop. Then would you miss it? When the sensations felt in singing depart or change, the singer feels threatened.
Exercises which have tremendous efficacy for more talented or advanced students may not work for less advanced students, but the opportunity to teach slower/stiffer/less imaginative students makes/forces the teacher to refine and redefine exercise patterns until they become more effective and bring about the desired evolution.
Each step in a lesson, each pattern, should represent the successful fulfillment of an immediate task, an assignment.
Some exercises represent a direction or path of development, e.g. trills. Get them to move faster and more vigorously, louder or with more energy, softer with less. But the rapidity and clarity and energy of a trill can be conceived as separate from the amount of breath pressure, and it is significant to do so.
An evolution or change in the state of the chest register's lack of proper participation, whether too little or too much, often can be discerned by a tickle in the throat or a scratch in the sound, as the head register grows towards open-throated dominance. And, in reverse, the presence of a scratch or tickle is explained by an alteration of the chest register's action.
We live in a time with plenitude of good singing, and a dearth of great singing, especially in the heavier more dramatic repertoire. All the scientific exploration, the utilization of electronic analyses to "aid" the teaching process - what good have they accomplished?
Offer constant positive reinforcement.
Only tell the singer what it is necessary to say.
Create a climate where risks may be freely taken.
One alternative is to treat posture, alignment, breathing issues as symptoms that will correct themselves as the singer improves through attention directed to registrational issues.
Positive engagement with the singer through smiling, eye contact, a physical posture of encouragement.
A lesson should have a rhythm of repetition of patterns, choice of patterns, and in singing the patterns.
Do all teachers and singers agree that events in the vocal tract are the most important? But the influencing or controlling of these events should be to treat muscular systems as involuntary, since patterns of stimulus and response produce more precise muscular actions.
At the end of lessons summarize the points covered or the progress made - technical and interpretative, e.g. sing the voiced consonants, vibrate on every note.
Often the performers in student recitals and master classes are like drivers trying to drive cars that are not fully built or assembled. How ARE voices assembled - in what order? Different for every singer.
The rhythmic precision of a matador - doing only that which needs doing and at exactly the right time.
Influence events in the vocal tract through patterns of pitch, vowel and intensity.
Assume that the chest register is active - in women as well as men, and begin work on the head register. The register balance is usually more significant than the resonance adjustment.
Pushing or forcing the voice at higher levels of development occurs often when excessive energy has been used in getting the throat "open" at earlier levels. This can be extremely prevalent in the 'support' school of vocal pedagogy.
Evolutionary, not revolutionary procedures.
Singing descending falsetto patterns may not join with the chest because the lower pitch range is not yet healthy enough to couple with the better formed (falsetto) tone.
Divide the activities that produce voice into two parts: mass/weight versus length of vocal folds. The former determines the ration of time of the folds spent together and apart, the latter the pitch.
The aim of this article has been to look at the act of teaching voice from a perspective that places registration in the pedagogical center. It is devoutly hoped that the panorama of concepts, information, philosophy and tips offered will supply beginning as well as more experienced teachers with an approach to the voice which is open-ended and pragmatically verifiable at every moment in lessons. Every voice training technique and concept will of course be filtered through and conditioned by the intelligence, intuition and experience of each teacher. The physical and aural evidence of a voice's response to each suggested pattern will test each teacher's assumptions about the state of the mechanism. The ear of the teacher who listens functionally can help guide the student's voice to more sophisticated and precise vocalism.
This article would not have been possible without the much-appreciated help of my dear friend and fellow teacher-explorer, Christine Armistead, in proofreading and clarifying. And without the ongoing support and love of my dear wife, Jolly Stewart, nothing wold be possible. Finally, in (mis)quoting Sir Isaac: "If I have seen and heard further, it is by standing on the shoulders of a giant" - this article is dedicated to Cornelius Reid.
Copyright John Stewart 2001
Cornelius Reid, "A Dictionary of Vocal Terms", Recital Publications, P.O.Box 1697, Hunstville, TX 77342. Pp. 296 ff. The complete article makes for stimulating and challenging reading.