When a singer comes into my studio for the first time, the first thing I have them do is a “diagnostic” exercise that is designed to expose all of their vocal “defaults”. Singing an “ah” vowel (as in “law”) on a 5-tone scale (in the key of C this would go from middle C4 to G4 and back down again, covering their existing range) is one of the most difficult combinations for a singer, therefore it allows me to immediately hear their most pressing vocal issue without giving them anywhere to hide. (insert evil cackle here). Once I hear where a singer’s voice defaults to I try and place the voice into a temporary category, based on what I’m hearing. This category will change as the student progresses. Following are the four different categories I listen for when evaluating a voice:
This category is for a singer who pushes their chest voice to its limit without allowing for head voice or falsetto. My first priority will be to use exercises designed to release and let go of the weight a singer like this tries to carry with them as the pitch ascends.
This singer’s tendency is to sing in chest voice in the bottom of their range, then flip into a much lighter head coordination at their first bridge (where chest voice ends). Often this singer, once in head voice, will carry head voice all the way back down with them, unable to make the transition back to chest. I will begin by strengthening the closure of the vocal cords in their head voice then applying exercises that will make the transition between chest and head voice more seamless.
This singer tends to sing only in their head voice. If a singer tells me they have studied classical singing or classical choral singing I generally assume this will be their main issue (though I always take them through the diagnostic rather than teach them based on an assumption). A singer trained in “Bel Canto” may be the exception. My plan of action would be to utilize exercises designed to place them in their chest voice so they can experience the sensation for themselves, then build on connecting their chest and head voices seamlessly.
This singer comes in singing comfortably in their chest voice, then transitioning comfortably, without any bumps or glitches, through their vocal transition areas. Their voice sounds like the same person from bottom to top, yet their words can be clearly understood and strain is absent from their body and their sound. There can be varying levels of mix, depending on what style of music a singer is performing: a Rock/R&B/Blues sound will require a much stronger closure of the vocal folds than the lighter, “legit” mix found in classical singing. This is the type of balance I aim to achieve with each of my students. Once there is consistent mix established in a voice we can move on to applying that same level of comfort to songs, style and performance.
Please note: I don’t have a need to produce technically “perfect” voices. If you like some of the quirky things your voice does, you will still have the ability to do them if you wish after we’ve achieved the balance we’re looking for. But I often ask my students: Did you use that quirky/raspy/breathy/you-name-it sound because it was the right color from your vocal palette for that particular moment in the song…. or because it was your only vocal option? Next time your voice does something “quirky” – ask yourself that question. Then call me.
Watch for my next blog, entitled “What To Look For – And What To Avoid – In A Vocal Technique Instructor”