Why do I teach singing?
I teach singing because I consider singing to be a tremendously BIG DEAL. There is an ancient tradition that sound is spirit in action. If so, then making sound is an act of expressing the spirit in us. I believe this. Our voices express our very nature and creative power.
Also in both concrete and subtle terms, we express our thoughts and feelings with our voices. So, if we can utilize our voices freely, perhaps we can free up our personal expression, something of enormous importance. When you add to that the fact that singing can be stunningly beautiful and wonderful to listen to, you have the reasons I want to teach and enjoy teaching so very much.
Why study singing?
Good question. If you’re not presently a trained singer, you’ll just have to take my word for it that singing with freedom and power is as self-fulfilling as anything I can think of or have ever experienced. So do not struggle on in your choir or chorus, wherever you sing with a voice that does not please you and will not do what you want it to do. Really, truly, learn to sing freely, learn bel canto (beautiful singing) and find out what singing is supposed to be about.
It is way too complicated to explain in a few words what I do. You have to know how the voice is meant to work to figure out how to make it work that way. Visit my vocal studio and I will explain it to you.
Where Am I?
My private studio is in Raleigh, North Carolina. I can be easily reached from all over the Triangle. I am also an experienced on-line teacher using Skype, so my teaching is available all over the globe. I teach by appointment Monday and Wednesday through Sunday. If you have questions, write me at: email@example.com or call me at 919-977-9767. I only teach adults. Advanced, intermediate and beginning singers above 16 years of age are welcome. There is no upper age limit. If you are a “mature” singer, well, so am I. You can learn to sing just as well as younger people. I know this from experience. I have taught singers in their 70’s and they have improved more than they ever dreamed.
How long does it take to learn to sing?
I can’t give you an exact answer to that. It depends on your commitment and a lot of other factors. I can say this: in 3 months you should feel that at least small changes are taking place. In 6 months, you will be impressed with your progress. In a year you will not believe how far you have come. That’s about the way it is for most people.
I teach vocal lessons Monday through Saturday – let’s schedule a time to train!
What is Bel Canto?
I teach Bel Canto. Bel canto translates as “beautiful song.” Actually, it is several things. Among these, it is a school of operatic composition and a style of florid singing used in bel canto operas. In the context of learning to sing, bel canto is an approach to acquiring a freely used vocal mechanism and a beautiful singing voice. The teaching of bel canto combines 400 years of experience in singing practice with modern insights into physiology and psychology.
A famous singing teacher defined the free voice or free singing as “a condition of natural, unforced and unrestricted operation of the vocal organs in which the singer enjoys complete and perfect command of his vocal resources at all times.” This is certainly accurate and a goal of performance to which all can aspire. But, in more concrete terms, can we characterize the free voice? I believe we can, as follows:
- The free voice has a wide range, usually more than two octaves, up to three or more in some women.
- It exhibits a command of dynamics, that is, the ability to sing both softly and loudly.
- It can sing fast or intricate passages of music with relative ease.
- There is enough breath for singing phrases comfortably.
- The singer possesses good diction and can generally be understood.
- The singer does not tire quickly and does not show discomfort when singing.
If you can do these things, or even do them to some degree, you are singing at least fairly well and maybe very well. It seems to me that even if you couldn’t define the free voice, you would undoubtedly know it when you heard it, as it would be a pleasure to listen to.
How do we achieve a free voice?
Most people have some “inadequacy” (for lack of a better term) in the way they sing. You can’t reach the notes you want, high or low, or you sing a while and start to get tired, or the choir director complains you sing flat or sharp. Even if none of these things is true, perhaps you just don’t like how you sound. It isn’t pretty or exciting.
Are you just stuck with what you have? Can you improve? The answers are: no, you are not stuck, and yes, you can improve your singing. Although not everyone can be a Pavarotti, there are very few individuals who cannot learn to make a fairly pleasing sound and enjoy making music.
How do you begin to make the change in your voice that you want? I call the process of improving the voice “functional singing”. Functional singing involves learning how the voice works and using this knowledge to create an approach to correcting vocal faults. I believe that it is vitally important to have a basic understanding of the vocal mechanism. This way we can plan measures to improve the way we are currently using the voice.
Please note there are no capital letters in functional singing. This is not a METHOD, in the sense of a repeatable series of exercises for use by all singers. No series of exercises will work for every person. Each student singer must have an individualized approach, depending on what his or her problems with singing are. The main thing to keep our focus on is that we are looking for correct function. What does this mean?
The Basic Idea
To focus our attention on correct function is to apply a simple principle, that what works right meets our needs. We know this is true of mechanical things, cars and toasters and ATM machines. It is also true, in my view, of the voice. If it works right, it meets our needs, which is to say, if it works right, it sounds good! In other words, we can arrive at the free voice by concerning ourselves and focusing our attention on the process of singing, or making the voice work correctly.
This is about the most useless directive you can get, as a singer. Yet this about sums up the way some teachers approach students. It’s not what they actually say. What they say is:
- “You need to focus the sound.” (Usually ordered with information as to where to focus it, in the front of the face, over the top of the head, behind your teeth, etc.)
- “Sing in tune.”
- “Raise that pitch.”
- “Your vowel isn’t pure.”
- “Your vowel is muddy.”
- “Your vowel is whiny.”
- “Make that vowel clearer.”
- “Relax your tongue.”
- “Support the tone.”
- “Take a low breath and push down while you sing.”
- “Breath low and tighten your buttocks.”
- “Release the air more slowly, like letting air out of a balloon.”
- “I can’t understand the words. You must pronounce more clearly.”
If the singer could obey these commands, if they could respond effectively to these criticisms, they undoubtedly would!
You remember the old story of the tortoise and the hare. I think of that kind of teaching, which gratefully is happening less than it used to, as the “hare approach”. It is an attempt to dash to the finish line without consideration for the race itself. I, personally, prefer to be the tortoise. As the moral to that story goes, “Slow and steady wins the race.” To the singer, this means a step-by-step approach.
- How does the vocal mechanism work in ideal conditions?
- What tools do I have to bring about these ideal conditions in my voice?
- How do I use these tools to change the way I use my voice?
- How do I eliminate bad habits and tensions that make singing uncomfortable?
This kind of careful approach to learning to sing, under guidance of a teacher who understands vocal function should produce an improvement in virtually every student of singing. When you place your attention on making the voice work well, the result will be good singing! The result will also be reliability, to be able to sing well (barring illness) whenever we want.
What causes singing problems? (Or, where did I go wrong?)
Why is it so hard for us. Why can’t we all just do it? Essentially, the reason is that whatever created us as “noisemakers”, i.e., gave us voices, gave us something else: families. Say again? Seriously, what I mean is that we have a number of factors going against us.
Our heredity is a factor in singing, but I don’t think it is a major one. I am not a strong believer in separating the so-called talented from the un-talented. I have seen too many people start their endeavors (of all kinds) with seemingly limited “gifts” and work hard to produce amazing results. We all have. What we call “talent” is a good thing to have and a definite advantage, but no one should abandon all hope if they can’t show talent right off.
If it’s not a question of “drowning in the gene pool”, then what is it? It’s everything about the way we were taught and the examples we had to follow and the sounds we heard and the movement we witnessed. I am not talking about moral behavior; I am talking about how your family talks and moves, the degree of muscular tension used in speech that you heard as a baby, the way the vocal mechanism was used, the way the tongue and lips were used to pronounce.
If your parents had a Deep South way of talking, odds are overwhelming that you do too! Accents of whatever kind represent a way of positioning the vocal mechanism to make sound. And there appears to be a virtually unlimited variety of sounds of which the human vocal mechanism is capable. Accents and regionalisms are neither good nor bad qualitatively, but they can be accompanied by muscular tensions which run opposite to good vocal function for singing. Keep in mind that when we talk about accents and regionalisms, we are talking about patterns of speech as compared to what used to be called “Standard American English”. No longer do we hold up a single standard as the only one acceptable for speech, but in singing we still must approach pronunciation with a set of assigned “sound values” for the sake of clarity, best use of the mechanism during the learning process, as well as listener understanding. When you learn to sing with more freedom, you will be able to sing with many “accents”, such as in traditional American or world folk music.
Another factor from your family upbringing is that some people move with a lot of physical tension, some more relaxed. Some people tense their shoulders or breathe in a shallow way (clavicular breathing), or habitually jut their jaws forward. These ways of moving can be passed on through our imitation of our parents and other family members. There can also be emotional or psychological tensions from many sources to be dealt with in learning to sing well.
Still another factor in vocal problems is insufficient or inadequate training. Although most, if not all, persons who engage in teaching singing are sincere and mean well, there are cases in which teachers do not have the experience or knowledge to deal with a student’s problems and can unintentionally do more harm than good and create more problems than they solve.
And lastly, singers can get themselves into difficulty by trying to imitate another singer they admire. Each person is unique. No two people make the same sound, just as no two people – even twins – look exactly alike. Any attempt to imitate another singer WILL cause a problem with your own voice. In learning to sing, all of the above must be addressed in whatever proportion they are present. A teacher must discern the problems a student has by a combination of listening, experimentation, and interviewing, and then set about systematically to solve them.