Many people use the terms “vocal coach” and “voice teacher” interchangeably. But if they mean the same thing, why have two terms? Is there really a difference?
Well, the short answer is yes (particularly in the opera world!).
A voice teacher is…
…usually a singer who knows the voice from all perspectives but focuses on proper technique and how to apply that technique to the repertoire. They explain how the voice functions, which sounds are healthy, and how to achieve those sounds in a free and easy manner with proper support, proper registration, and proper resonance. They build the voice, correcting any technical deficiencies or imperfections and teach the students how to apply a good technique to all styles/genres of singing without damaging the voice.
I know many of you get call backs and are bitterly disappointed at not booking the show. Some of you, so upset that you wanted to stop singing.
So….please read this!
Ask yourself this:
“Was my audition ‘in the ball park?”
Do you know baseball? If a batter bats 350, he is considered a PHENOMENAL player. But 350 means he ONLY hit the ball 3 out of 10 times!!! So….if you have 10 auditions and get 3 call backs. you would be considered a success! Artists always strive to be better and better. That is a good thing. But, try not to judge yourself. If you achieved 70% of what you intended, you are “in the ball park” and did a good job! If you feel you could have done better, realize that it is good to feel that way and to keep working to get to the next level. But NEVER berate yourself or judge. Dispassionately discern what you can do to better. Discuss it with your teacher and figure out how to notch it up to the next level. But do it with JOY and with the consciousness of wanting to SHARE your gift the next time you get the opportunity!
Years ago, I had a fabulous student who booked leading roles out of town and always made it down to the final few on Broadway but never booked. I called her agent to ask if there was anything else I could do to help her book…was anything lacking. She replied, “It is a numbers game. She is terrific and there is nothing more you can do!”
First, ask yourself, “Why am I singing?”
Think about this….
At birth, every one of us is given a purpose and gifts to accomplish that purpose. Gifts are meant to share. If you were given talent and a voice, your job is to fine tune it and put in the effort to be the best artist you can be…in order to share it…..and in sharing, if you effect even one person, you change the world!
Enjoy the PROCESS! Think of the audition as an opportunity to PERFORM for the people hearing you, to share your gift with the people hearing you. They WANT to be thrilled. They want to say, “We found our guy!” Maybe they are tired or sick or just bored hearing the same song for the 50th time! And if YOU are in the moment and have the consciousness of “moving” and effecting them, you have accomplished your job. The rest is in G-d’s hands.
Learn what to look for when choosing a voice teacher. Learn what questions to ask!
- Does the teacher get you through several octaves on the first lesson easily with no tension in the larynx?
- Does the teacher explain how the voice works? What do the vocal cords look like? How are the high notes made in the vocal cord structure?
- Does the teacher demonstrate and explain the head voice, chest voice and the mix and get you to do it in the first lesson?
- Does the teacher explain what each vocal exercise is for and make sure that you do not feel any tension in any exercise?
- Does the teacher give you a game plan for developing your technique, your performance skills and your career?
- Does the teacher encourage a dialogue?
- Do you feel that you can communicate with the teacher?
- Does the teacher explain simply and clearly how to do each exercise?
- Does the teacher guide you to do the exercise correctly?
- If you cannot do the exercise, does the teacher make you feel bad about it or does the teacher try a different approach to solve the problem, keeping your confidence intact?
- Does the teacher treat you as an individual, giving personalized advice?
AND MOST IMPORTANTLY:
- Are you getting results?
- Do you notice immediate improvement?
- Does your voice feel better at the end of the lesson?
Don’t go for the cheapest! You will probably end up spending more money in the long run! When I first met Seth Riggs, he told me that he charged $300 per hour and I almost fainted! (He now charges $500!) I told him that I am not Michael Jackson or Natalie Cole and that he was out of my price range! He then asked me how much money I thought I had spent on lessons during my life. I couldn’t even begin to add it all up! He then said, “If I can put it together for you in a relatively short period of time, wouldn’t it be worth it?” I told him, “You’re on!” and went to LA to work with him. He delivered! And that’s why I teach this technique!!
A student who had worked with me during high school, had to leave my studio when her dad took a huge pay cut. She returned 2 years later, having lost her mix and 8 notes off her top register from a “cheaper teacher.” I had to completely re-educate muscles to mix. Her mother said, “I wish we had stayed with you, even taking just one lesson a month! At least she would have maintained her vocal skills and probably would have made more progress! Now I have to pay you just to get her back to where she was!”
AND…Study ONLY with a teacher who is POSITIVE, and INSPIRES you and ENCOURAGES you!!! As one of my students said, “A teacher who discourages you will do more damage than just cheat you of singing better. They steal your courage to fly!”
Click “Read More” to see a diagram of the Larynx depicting every detail.
“Before we can sing from the soul, we should have a basic knowledge of how the voice works and a solid technique with which we can express anything we desire, in any way we desire.”
Role of the Larynx
What is the larynx, you ask? Feel the front of your neck. Swallow! That’s it! The lump that you feel rising and falling in the front of your neck is your larynx. Within the larynx reside the vocal cords, or vocal folds, tiny soft membranes that are connected towards the front of the larynx and continue back.
When air ascends up the trachea from the lungs, the cords are set into vibration. When they approximate, or close, the back ends of the vocal folds come together. Sound is created when the vibrations from airflow hit the cavities of the mouth, sinus, head and chest. The resulting resonance gives us the TONE.
In singing, the larynx should remain relatively inactive. It will rise and fall ever so slightly when adjusting to pitch, but should stay out of the way! You may have heard singers with a “twangy” sound or a “shallow” sound. This is a result of the larynx rising too high. You may hear singers with a “hollow” sound, or a sound like they have a mouth full of food or a hot potato in the back of the throat! This means that the larynx is pushed down. When singing properly, the larynx will feel like it is at “Speech Level.” There is no sensation of strain – no sensation of muscles being used by the throat to produce the sound. When the larynx remains inactive – stays out of the way – the vocal folds themselves can do their part to produce a proper tone.
If the vocal cords, or vocal folds, are sitting horizontally in your larynx, how is pitch made?
Have you ever seen someone play the guitar? How is the pitch made?
Have you noticed that as the pitches ascend, or get higher and higher, the guitarist places the fingers of his left hand on the string and “shortens” the length of that string as he strums with his right hand? The same with the violin! The violinist does the same as he bows with his other hand!
Have you ever looked at the strings of the piano? The lower notes have longer, thicker strings. The higher notes have shorter, thinner strings.
With the voice, the higher the pitch, the more the vocal (membrane) cord stretches and thins. When the cord thins to its maximum, something amazing happens! It “shortens.” Only the front end of the cord is used to produce the tone! The cords can then vibrate at a faster rate. BUT, for this to happen, there must not be any strain in the muscles around the cords and the muscles of the neck.
Vocal cord approximation: Closure of the cords
If your tone is breathy, your vocal cords aren’t closing properly. It’s as simple as that!
There are many reasons why this may be the case, so it is advisable to seek a doctor’s advice. Have a laryngoscopy and see exactly what the cords are doing, and why. You many have abused your voice by screaming, or by singing when sick and your cords were swollen. You many have abused them by singing improperly. You may have abused them so badly that you have polyps or nodules and have damage so traumatic that you need surgery.
When I was a young performer singing in Germany, I came down with a terrible flu, affecting my entire upper respiratory system. The doctors told the theater that I should be in bed! Unfortunately, we had a premiere that night of an operetta called “The Merry Widow” and they had let my understudy go to perform in another city. They were stuck! The doctors told the theater management that if they made me sing, I would not be able to emit a sound for at least 3 weeks. I wouldn’t be able to rehearse the new production opening in a month, nor would I be able to perform any other operas! Well, they were in a bind and made me perform. I tried to be as careful as I could, but I ended up on vocal rest for 3 months afterwards! I was not even allowed to speak! (Boy, was that hard!) I was young and didn’t realize that could have damaged my voice permanently. I was so grateful that my voice was restored and vowed never to take that chance again, even if it meant breaking my contract!
Crossing the Bridges (or passagi) seamlessly
In Italian, a vocal bridge is called a passagio, a passage. From what and to what, you ask? From one vocal register to another. From chest voice to head voice, from head voice to super head voice and from super head voice to whistle tone! The amount of head voice and chest voice you blend on any given tone is referred to as the registration of the vocal cords.
If you speak emphatically or scream, chances are that you’re using your chest voice. If you sing a scale VERY loudly and continue singing up the scale, at some point your voice will break into a yodel. This is your chest voice breaking into head voice without any transition. In proper singing, the bridge or transition or passagio must be seamless, smooth and imperceptible.
To cross from one bridge to another, you must mix head voice into the sound. You “lighten” the registration as you ascend.
VOCAL CORDS make their adjustments horizontally. Resonance is vertical.
The tongue and lips are not only good for kissing, but also for articulating words! In singing, we must articulate without constriction, no squeezing or straining the neck muscles or raising or lowering the larynx! Again, the larynx should remain in neutral position, relaxed, neither too high or too low.
To increase breath capacity and regulate the rate of exhalation
1. Stand with your legs a bit wider than shoulder with apart.
2. Bend your knees to protect the back.
3. Bend over and exhale completely.
4. Ask a friend or colleague to put his or her hands on your lower back at your waist.
5. Now, inhale very slowly with a narrow air stream, as if you were sucking through a straw.
6. Feel the air pushing your friend’s hands apart, and your waist getting very wide.
7. Once you achieve this feeling of the expansion in the lower back (the stomach will also protrude a bit as you expand), begin to inhale slowly to the count of 5.
8. Hold the breath for 5 seconds, and then exhale for a count of 10.
9. Gradually increase the count until you inhale for 10 beats and exhale for 25 beats!
You can do it! There are reports of divers who have held the breath for over two minutes!
In singing, we want to delay the inward movement of the ribs as long as possible. Feel your ribs and waist staying “down and out.”
Commonly asked questions:
What should I do if my larynx rides up and constricts my tone?
A quick way of releasing the larynx so it can gently return to speech level or neutral position is to imitate Sylvester Stallone’s speech and say, “Yo! I’m Rocky!” Stallone has a naturally low larynx in his speech production. If you sound like a Munchkin from “The Wizard of Oz,” your larynx is too high!
Commonly overlooked obstacles to vocal health:
Have you ever woken up in the morning and have a scratchy voice? Or woken up with lots of mucus? You may be allergic to the world! The culprits may be:
Food Allergies: You may have negative responses or allergies to various foods including dairy or wheat products, producing excessive mucus in the body. If you wake up with reflux or swollen vocal chords, try eliminating suspected foods from your diet one at a time and see if your symptoms are alleviated.
Environmental Chemicals and Pollutants: Hidden chemicals and out-gassing from chemicals used to manufacture many products may be negatively impacting your ability to phonate easily. Did you know that many household cleansers contain ammonia? Did you know that many products such as new carpeting, paint, antiperspirant, new clothes, shampoos, air fresheners, mouthwash, disinfectants, glues, mail polish, plywood and many more contain formaldehyde? Check labels and be vigilant about your exposure to toxic chemicals.
Drinking: “How can I party without drinking?” you ask! Consider this! Alcohol dilates your blood vessels. This means that your vocal membranes are thickened or swollen. To your vocal cords, it’s as if you are sick. For vocal health, minimize alcohol consumption. If you must drink, try not to talk!!! Also make sure that you drink lots of water.
Smoking: I know, I know! You want to continue smoking! Know that you’ll pay a heavy vocal price!
Eat Right for Your Type, Dr. Peter D’Adamo
The Total Health Handbook, Dr. Allan Magaziner
Learn the best way to get the most out of your practice sessions!
Less is more! Many people “over-practice”
thinking that it is helping them.
Remember: Use your mind!! If it’s in your mind, it will come out your mouth! I learned from famed dramatic soprano Birgit Nilsson to “practice in my mind.” This saves your voice. Go over your lesson CD in your mind several times. Write down the corrections on your sheet music or on small cards and look at them frequently. Make a mental note of the corrections. Remember mentally what the larynx felt like when you made the correction in your lesson. Keep feeling that sensation in your mind before ever practicing out loud. Train you kinesthetic sensory memory. A short but focused practice session is better that a long session on autopilot. As you continue to make progress and to free your voice, longer sessions will be possible.
If the voice gets tired, the external muscles will take over and cause you a myriad of problems. Stop practicing before you get tired. Less is more! Only practice as long as you can stay mentally alert and physically fresh. Singing on automatic when practicing is extremely detrimental. It not only reinforces your old, bad habits, but also tires you out vocally before you can work on re-patterning the correct muscular coordination. Obviously, different singers with different voices can sustain varying lengths of practice. Bottom line: Do not allow yourself to sing when mentally fatigued and do not allow yourself to get vocally tired!
What signs should you watch for that indicate you are headed for vocal fatigue? The larynx may start to feel consistently raised or tight. Stop singing! The swallow muscles may begin to get involved, causing extra tension. Stop singing! You may realize that you cannot think clearly or focus your mind. Stop singing! The voice may start to sound raspy or husky. If that happens, you have really worked too long and in most cases, improperly. Stop singing immediately!
For students of my technique, try using the lip or tongue trills instead of words for the melody line to remind the larynx how to behave. Then add more complex functions in difficult areas, like the muh-muhs or the gee-gees or the nay-nays. Continue to work on the neurological retraining by returning to the trills. When the larynx feels completely free, try using the vowels from the actual words. When this feels free, try the words. Do not try this all in one practice session!!! Use just the trills for a few days. Then, try the nay-nays, etc. This resetting allows the voice to extend the practice time and enforces the new behaviors more extensively. Remember to rest your voice during your practice sessions as well as rehearsals.
Refer to my “How to Learn a Song” and apply the principles to your practice.
Never push yourself to vocal fatigue.
Whether Opera, Broadway or POP/R&B, learning to save your voice is paramount. Learn to “mark.” Marking means either singing an octave down or simply singing softer, but with support. Do not sing full voice for every rehearsal, especially staging rehearsals. Find what works best for you so that you do not develop damaging vocal habits. Sing out when you feel you need to and mark if you are tired. Make sure to warm up before rehearsals incase you do want to sing out!
I found it useful to mark staging rehearsals and sing after the staging is in place. I also found it helpful NOT to sing full out on the first “Stizprobe.” In “OperaLand,” the Sitzprobe is the first seated orchestra rehearsal without staging. While the orchestra is finding its way and repeating phrases over and over again, singing full out can get tiring.
During recording sessions:
Stay well hydrated.
Give yourself sufficient vocal rest.
If tired, stop for a few minutes and resume after vocal rest.
Never push yourself to vocal fatigue.
Identify which cities may be more advantageous to your career. If you want to be on Broadway, NYC is the place to start. For country music, think about Nashville. For opera, go where you find the best voice teacher and repertoire coach.
If you are planning to attend college, identify which colleges will be more helpful in propelling your career. Make sure you find a voice teacher who meets your needs. (See my article “Tips for Auditioning for College.)
Identify when your agent or manager has lost enthusiasm for you. If you are not being sent out for auditions, gently ask if anything appropriate is coming up. If you are still getting no response, find another manager before moving on. However, be careful not to “agent hop!” Try to make the agent work for YOU!
Find an ENT who is experienced with singers and make him your friend! You may need him last minute if you are sick and have to sing!
Make a great first impression. There are no “do-overs” in this area so make the first meeting pleasant, courteous, interesting and be yourself! Dress appropriately.
NETWORK, NETWORK, NETWORK!
Use ALL aspects of the internet to research all facets of your career. Market yourself through your web site, Twitter and Facebook accounts. Use Youtube and the internet to find interesting repertoire. Find a proper team of teachers, coaches, agents, record producers, songwriters, stylists, etc. Do your own extensive research.
What are the most important ingredients in having a career?
Many things contribute to having a career that spans several decades. Some artists have their fifteen minutes of fame and others have a lifetime. So what essentials are needed for that lasting career?
- Work Ethic
- Vocal Quality
- Acting Ability
- Raw Talent
- Stage Presence
Boris Goldovsky, a great educator, conductor, stage director and lecturer, used to tell us that at least a bit of each is central to having a career.
He said that, if you assign each indispensable element a number on a scale of one to ten, you do not add them to determine the total, you multiply them. Therefore, if any one is zero, the total is zero.
So what does that mean?
If any of the indispensable elements is absent, all the rest are canceled out after multiplying by zero. One zero destroys the whole thing! Conversely, an artist who is perhaps not the most attractive physically, but who has great vocal ability, great stage presence and tremendous desire, may construct a wonderful career for himself! As Mr. Goldovsky said it’s not important to be the best in every department, but it is crucial to have to have at least a little of everything!!
Perhaps, the single most important factor in beginning the journey to achieving your goals is Desire.
How big is your desire? How badly do you want “it,” whatever “it” is? What are you willing to sacrifice to achieve “it?”
Some talent is a given, but talent alone is not enough. What are you willing to do to accomplish your goals? Are you willing not to go to the movies with friends because you WANT to practice? Are you willing to get a day job to support yourself while you’re developing? I baby-sat to help pay the various costs of lessons, demos, coachings, travel to auditions and meetings, etc.?
And are you determined, whatever some people might say, to keep going toward your goal?
Birgit Nilsson, one of the most famous operatic sopranos of the 20th century, was told by a well-known conductor that she would never have a career. He advised her to go home and learn to sew! She was determined and she proved him wrong! What are you willing to sacrifice to achieve your goals?
Some perspectives leading to deeper reasons for performing!
Ask your self this question. It seems simple enough but is really much more complex than it seems. Why do you want to sing? Answering this question for yourself honestly will help you understand a great deal about yourself, your desire to practice, your desire to forge ahead in developing your career and in overcoming stage-fright and other obstacles.
Many students answer,” Because if makes me feel good.” Or, “Everyone applauds me and it gives me confidence.” Or, “I just like it.” Or, “It’s what I do best.”
Most answers involve the Ego, “I.”
Do you have something to say, something that you HAVE to express? Do you have something that just HAS to come forth from your soul, you deepest being?
Think about this:
“I was given my voice and my talent as a special gift. Gifts really don’t belong just to me. They are meant to be shared. The more I am given, the more responsibility I have to share with others.”
Music does so many things. Music makes people happy. Music moves us emotionally. Many cultures such as the Ancient Greeks, believe that music has the power to heal. Music is the universal language, uniting all peoples. During WWII, many concentration camp inmates, including a friend of mine, David Arben who was the Associate Concert Master of the Philadelphia Orchestra, were spared death because they were asked to play their instruments for the Nazi Gestapo.
So ask yourself, “Why do I want to sing?” See if you can get to a place of purely wanting to share the gift that the Universe gave you, sharing it to make the world a better place. If you can do that, you will never have stage fright because you will never be afraid of being judged!
Explore more profound aspects to singing!
There are so many answers to this deep question. Ponder the following:
Spiritual aspects of singing:
- All energy is a form of vibration.
- Singing is vibration.
- Singing with the right intent can be a form of prayer and a powerful connection to the Creator energy of the Universe.
Healing aspects of singing:
- Singing moves energy in the body, unlocking blockages and allowing the energies of the body to flow.
- Singing changes and elevates our moods.
- Singing changes the energy in those hearing us, helping them to change and elevate their moods.
There is tremendous power in singing. The power of song can help us remove the barriers of physicality and open us to higher worlds of perception.
Music has the power to unite everything. Song is the expression of the soul.
With the proper intention, a singer can elevate all hearing him to a higher levels!