Sunday, March 30, 2014

What is Singing with an "Open Throat"?

We hear this expression from voice teachers all the time. What does it really mean, and how does a singer "open" their throat? First of all it's true that when the vocal tract is free from constriction and therefore open the singer creates a resonant sound. I liken this variation in resonance of the closed versus open throat to taking a guitar and stuffing its body with rags. If you strum the guitar it loses its sound and the strumming becomes muffled. If you remove the rags you hear the beautiful sound of the guitar strings resonating.  We function in the same way. When our throat is "closed" or constricted our sound is muffled. When our throat is open we hear the splendor of our voices. No pushing or forcing of our voice is needed to sound good. In fact, pushing only closes the singer's throat more.

I think of the throat in 3 dimensions and this helps the student understand what an open throat really is. Like any physical structure the throat (which is basically the vocal tract and larynx) has three dimensions. It opens in a vertical, horizontal and front to back space.

The vertical space, also known as the "low larynx",  happens in two ways. When we breathe in a relaxed abdomen (think belly) and pelvic floor (think bathroom muscles) the larynx gently goes down. This doesn't happen with a clavicular breath. This is also known as a tracheal pull. The other way to effect the vertical laryngeal position is tonal concept. If we think of making a deep sound (such as Yogi bear, Julia Child, or an opera type of sound) the larynx positions itself lower. This happens on an unconscious level depending on what type of music we are singing. If we think of a pop or broadway belty type of song we will sing with a higher larynx, typically at the height we use for normal speech. A low larynx opens the throat more in a vertical sence than a low one, but both types are legitimate ways of using the voice and are used for different styles. A larynx that is too high due to constriction will result in a tight and strained sound. Low breathing will set a good laryngeal position no matter what the style.

The horizontal space (which is the space around the vocal cords themselves) is not as often thought about but is of vital importance. Called by Estill teachers as "retraction" it is needed for all styles of singing. It is the space in your throat created by the silent inhale and exhale. Try breathing through your mouth silently and exhaling silently as well. Now try a noisy inhale-exhale and you can feel the difference.

The third dimension is the one of depth. This rarely taught concept has personally transformed my voice as well as the voices of my students. Breathe through your mouth and feel cool air going down the back of your tongue and down into your throat as if there was a space you could sense between the back of your tongue and your cervical spine. This is a channel for your sound. Perhaps one you never thought of.

If you can feel the spaciousness created by a silent breath in the last two dimensions (horizontal and front to back), as well as keep your breath going into a relaxed low body space for the low larynx dimension, you will be singing with an open throat. We set up the conditions of the open throat with each breath we take as singers. Talk about "inspiring"!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Vocal Hygiene for Singers and Speakers

You've heard of hygiene. Oral hygiene that your dental hygienist teaches you, kitchen cleanliness for safe food preparation, and other types of hygiene. No one ever talks about or even is aware about  hygiene for the voice. We barely realise that our voices exist inside our bodies and that it needs certain conditions to function optimally! We don't realize that the voice needs to be cared for, the way we realize we need to floss our teeth. It should be a daily habit just like that. But it rarely is. For example many consider getting hoarse a normal part of life. Hoarseness means that you have abused your voice and caused swelling in your voice box, or larynx.

Vocal injuries and problems are rampant in our culture due to the lack of awareness we have about our voices. According to ASHA:

"Voice disorders are characterized by the abnormal production and/or absence of vocal quality, pitch, loudness, resonance, and/or duration, given an individual's age and/or sex.

Epidemiologic studies of the prevalence and risk factors of voice disorders in the general adult population are rare. According to conservative estimates, approximately 28 million workers in the U.S. experience daily voice problems ; a second study estimates that 5% to 10% of the U.S. workforce would be classified as heavy occupational voice users.

According to one study, the lifetime prevalence of a voice disorder is almost 30%. Disorders also adversely impact job performance and attendance ."

Here are some guidelines for vocal hygiene that I explain to each new voice student at their first lesson:

1. Drink 8-10 glasses of pure water a day. Filtered tap water is preferred. Juice and soft drinks are not a substitute. Little sips all day is the preferred method. You know you're not dehydrated if your "pee" is pale.

2. Avoid or limit caffeine and alcohol as these are very drying to the voice and contribute to acid reflux.

3. This one is difficult but extremely important. Do not compete with background noise. That means for example, do not try to be heard when conversing in noisy restaurants, large parties, on a noisy bus or in a crowded bar. If you sing in a choir do not try to hear your own voice, but rather be more aware of the voices around you. Most of my sopranos in particular get hoarse from choral singing.

In a noisy environment I can teach easy ways to cut through noise (think of making your voice sound like the easy noisy sound of a "meow").  This one really works, but it's not a voice you'd ever normally use in a quiet environment. What's even better is to bring a writing pad with you and write notes, or go out into the hallway or where ever it's less noisy to speak.

4. Never scream. Learn to "call out" instead to get loud if you really have to. Think of the unemotional voice of authority calling out with a wide feeling in the throat calling to someone a block or two away "Hey you!"

I hope this was helpful to you. Little changes like these pay big dividends. Your voice will function better and you will protect yourself from voice injury. After all you use that same voice you sing with all day long. For more helpful free vocal tips visit my website!  Here's to healthy voices!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

What to Look for (and Avoid) in a Voice Teacher

When looking for a voice teacher, especially if you are living near a major city, there are so many choices. With many singing teachers to choose from how can a singer make an intellegent decision? Lessons can be pricey and so we want to be able to make a quick but smart decision. It's not a good idea to work with a teacher for 6 months only to realise you've made no progress. It happens all too often!

I personally have studied or "tried out" over 30 teachers. Some of them were amazing and helped me beyond my expectations. Many however, did not. I am not alone in this experience, and I am not overly picky. My aim with voice lessons was to improve my singing voice and the specific vocal issues I had and to learn to express the music I loved with a free and healthy voice.

The problem with finding a good voice teacher is that anyone who simply wants to can call themselves a voice teacher. There is no licensing or criteria for teaching voice. It's really "buyer beware"!  Insane, isn't it?

Here is a quick list of what to look for and another quick list of what to avoid, that in my opinion will help you know what to look for and which questions to ask of your prospective teacher. Who you choose to work with is important. Great voice lessons are life-changing!

What to look for:

  • She/he understands the anatomy and physiology of the vocal tract.
  • He/she has studied vocal pedagogy (or how to teach voice -which would also include the above). This includes studying how to teach various vocal styles if they are taught.
  • He/she teaches breath support and body alignment and understands that singing includes the entire body.
  • Teacher helps free tensions in the body/throat which may affect vocal skill.
  • She/he is supportive, positive and patient
  • Teacher is available on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.
  • Teacher has sung professionally and taken voice lessons.
  • You are encouraged to record your lessons.
  • You feel comfortable with the teacher's personality.

Things to avoid:

  • Terribly over-priced teachers. No one is worth $250.00+ an hour.
  • Inappropriate behavior which demonstrates a lack of personal boundaries. Sexually exploitative behavior (yes, this actually happens) is very unprofessional!
  • An overly critical and uncaring teacher.
  • On the other hand, a teacher that flatters you and offers no corrections is a red-flag.
  • A good pianist that doesn't work on how you use your voice.
  • If you feel hoarse/tired after lessons instead of warmed-up.
  • After 8 lessons you and/or others don't think your voice has improved.
  • Use of meaningless phrases such as "open your throat" (how? what does that mean?), or "sing from your diaphragm".  (how?)
  • Charismatic, self-serving and manipulative personalities.
  • If anything physically hurts or seems abusive during lessons. 

Both lists come directly from my own personal experience. I've experienced it all. I strive to be a good teacher and to earn the respect of each student. Ultimately I have learned from all these experiences.  I hope this list is helpful to you, and feel free to post comments! Good luck in your search.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Around the World in 80 Days, and Staying in Character

Courtesy of
Last week I had a thoroughly enjoyable time seeing a re-make of the Jules Verne Classic "Around the World in 80 Days" in a wonderful off-broadway production. Directed by Rachel Klein,  the play involves 39 characters comedically and convincingly portrayed by 5 actors. The cast includes Shirine Babb, Jimmy Ray Bennett, John Gregorio, Stephen Guarino , and Bryce Ryness 

Set in victorian England, the story is about a wager that the aristocratic and virtuous Phileas Fogg and his unconditionally devoted servant Passepartout enter into for a very large sum. The bet that challenges them is to circle the globe by whatever means possible and return back to London in 80 days. Unknowingly pursued by a detective who is convinced that Fogg is a bank robber on the run, the adaptible, quick-witted twosome travel 4 continents and 3 oceans in a fast paced romp to achieve their goal. There is never a dull moment!

Everything about this production was excellent including some very creative set design. What impressed me the most was the high caliber of the acting and how each character stayed in character with unfliching commitment. Even with the portrayal of many multiple personalities, each character was 100% convincing, with a clear motivation, emotions that were easy to identify with and an embodiment of that  character physically so that each character, even though played by the same actor in multiple roles was a distinct entity. Wow! 
I have always told my students that not all actors are singers, but ALL singers are actors. This is a concept that is the same no matter what genre of singing you're performing. The commitment to your song or role must be real to you and unflinching. It struck me while watching this performance that good acting does not come from our heads or through our deliberate thinking but by being committed to our character, and that this committment is a physical, sensory one, so that each phrase we sing comes out with an authenticity that is undeniable to the audience. I've noticed in some of my beginning students that when they "try" to sing in character it often comes across as just that, "effort". Whatever you are actually feeling is what comes across when you sing, no matter what you tell yourself.
According to Thomas de Mallet Burgess here are some points for the singer to consider--
How can the text and subtext of a work be truthful in every part of the body and voice?
How can the singer maintain focus and emotional intensity during fixed silences (musical rests) of varying lengths, or instrumental sections where there is no singing?
A starting point is to speak the words of your song slowly and  thoughtfully as a monologue. Each breath you take as you speak can be thought of as an emotion that you feel physically in your body. Now see how that emotion can color your voice automatically as you speak your text. It's as if the words you speak are carried in the breath by the emotion you are feeling. This should be done in the most spontaneous, unselfconscious way as possible incorporating posture and movement. Give life to the words that you speak. If you can also do this with a body that is flexible and free of excess tensions you may find that the body is more receptive to taking on the emotions, thoughts and motivations of your character. It takes honesty with yourself. It's a skill to be developed like any other.
In closing I would like to say that going to see excellent live theatre, even if there is no singing in it, can be an inspiration to singers, as after all we are also actors. There is so much to learn and so much talent out there! 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Can't Carry a Tune? Think Again---Anyone Can Sing!

Most people believe that you must possess a special talent to sing. I have found to my delight in over 15 years of teaching experience that this really isn't true. So with that in mind, I would like to share with my readers what I have found to be the cause of being "tone-challenged" and what I've been able to come up with to help those who dream of singing well and in tune but find they simply "can't". Actually they "can"! 

Singing in tune is not some mysterious ability. When we sing a group of different pitches the larynx, or voice box, must adjust or rock to stretch the vocal cords. According to "The cricothyroid muscle lengthens and stretches the vocal arises from the cricoid cartilage and attaches to the inferior horn and lower margin of the thyroid cartilage. When it contracts, it pulls the thyroid cartilage ...increasing the distance between the thyroid and arytenoid cartilages and stretching and tensing the vocal fold. The action of the cricothyroid tilts the thyroid cartilage down, increasing the front-to-back distance of the larynx, and thus placing the vocal folds under increased tension. This action is often referred to as the 'laryngeal tilt' or ‘rocking/pivoting the larynx’, and is important in being able to sing higher pitches." The inability to perform this anatomical function accurately is not due to an inability to hear the notes correctly, but a lack of coordination between the ear and the movements of the larynx. All children learn how to do this as long as they have plenty of opportunity to sing so that this natural coordination develops.

What has happened to most adults who struggle to sing in tune is that they heard/felt a message as a child (often by a careless adult) that they had a "bad" voice and could not sing. This makes most kids feel devastated/embarrassed and as a result they simply stop singing. When a child doesn't sing, unfortunately this coordination is not learned or practised and the inability to sing in tune stays with them through adulthood. 

The good news is adults can learn this skill, and with some practice and patience they can still develop this coordination and go on to develop a pleasing and in-tune singing voice. They have to learn it through the same process as kids do. Most children learn to sing by approximating pitch by speak-singing (chanting) songs rythmically without trying to be completely pitch accurate.  Quite often they get rhythm mastered before they get pitch. Then they sing in a limited speaking range of pitches and chant the rest. Children learn to be able to make sounds that are higher and lower than a starting pitch at will and experiment with inflecting up their speaking voices. We often think of sound making rather than singing by imitating animals such as hoot owls, monkeys, cats, dogs, gorillas and so on, with the sound feeling free easy and spontaneous. The other way that probably all children learn to sing accurately is the taunt, which I believe is something kids do universally. "na na na na na!" on a melody 5-3-6-5-3, which in the key of C is G-E-A-G-E.  Notice that it's all done without strain and in play.

  • Here are some examples of what you can do no matter what your age: Have someone play a pitch near middle C on the piano. Then try to sing it. Then see if you can determine whether what you sang was higher, lower or matching. Often the less you try to sing in tune the easier it will be to be accurate. 
  • Play a pitch on the piano in an easy range and then sing a tone within the same octave that is higher on purpose. Then sing something lower than the tone again on purpose. Then try to sing the pitch accurately. 
  • Have someone play a pitch. Try to hear the pitch in your imagination. If you can really hear it  in your mind then try to reproduce it with your voice. This usually takes a bit of slowing yourself down, which is so important for this type of learning. 
  • Practice chanting a favorite song, or a simple child's song in rhythm before adding pitch. 
  • Practice singing the "universal taunt". Add your own words to it but keep the melody. 

I have worked with many non-singing, tone-challenged adults on pitch accuracy with 100% results (unless there is a physical problem). No one who wants to sing in tune is unable to if they are motivated to do so. Singing is a joy that is part of being human and an innate part of our self-expression!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Breath Control for Singers

Picture courtesy of Yoga and Mudra for Health         
I'd like to discuss breath and breath control for singers today as breath flow is the foundation for good use of the voice. We don't have direct control over the diaphragm, the major muscle of inhalation, but relaxation of the abdominal muscles enables it to naturally do it's job. When the abdomnal muscles relax the breath feels low and the body expands as you inhale.

For this reason when students come to my vocal studio the first thing we do are exercises that free up the abdominal muscle group. Often I have students do a cross-legged spinal twist as seen here. In this position the abdominals initially lock up. The student is then prompted to notice the tightness of the stomach area and let it release and soften while maintaining this position.  Once a student is able to master this abdominal relaxation we practice slow panting to feel free movement and buoyancy in this area. When the abs release in this way the inhale begins to feel like an inflatable "donut" cushion around the core abdominal area. This is how the "low" breath of singing is achieved.

The next challenge is to hiss slowly on a sustained "s" sound while keeping the "donut" inflated. We often switch sides and twist the other way. These exercises are designed to relax the oblique abdominals. The next abdominal release exercise is done for the central group of abs. The student kneels and senses how the  abdominal muscles have tightened in this position. Then the student relaxes and softens that area and repeats the sequence above. Once my students have mastered the abdominal releases we do what I call a "circular breath". We relax the abs and they come out for the inhale. We hiss on an "s" sound, buzz on a "z" sound, sustain the vowel "ee" go back to a buzz and then a hiss. These sounds should last 3 seconds each and most importantly be performed with a steady breath flow on one normal sized breath. One sound needs to flow into the next with the sense that the flow of breath is connecting all these sounds. 

The purpose of keeping the abdominals out and relaxed is to hold back exessive breath pressure from the vocal cords. Our exhalers are the abdominals, but when we sustain sound as in the above exercise or in singing we want to delay the exhale and make it very gradual. For many of you this will take a bit of practice. During this exercise the abdominals should stay out, down and feel relaxed. Often the singer has problems with the body locking up by tight abs. This exercise is a good antidote for that problem.

Key Things to Remember:

  • The low breath of good singing is easily achieved by relaxing tight abdominal muscles. 
  • The twisted cross-legged position is one way of finding the tight abdominals and releasing them. There are several other positions to try for this purpose which is the material of future posts.
  • While making sustained sounds the abdominals need not tense up.
  • The low breath achieved by relaxed abdominals helps the diaphragm do it's job more efficiently.
  • Relaxed abdominals help the body to regulte a steady small breath flow.
I welcome comments from my readers. Please leave your comments/questions below. For private questions and/or lesson inquries please contact me here.