Young man singer singing on his guitar on the lake

WHAT TO LOOK FOR – AND WHAT TO AVOID – IN A VOCAL TECHNIQUE INSTRUCTOR

For so many people the road to finding a vocal instructor begins with a “Google” or Craigslist search.  From there singers are inundated with ads promising that working in their studio will make dreams of stardom come true.  Some of these instructors may actually have the skills to help you on your way – and many of them haven’t got a clue (though they are all well-intentioned).

Keep in mind as well that there is more than one type of vocal instructor out there: my own strength is as a Vocal Technician, meaning that my job is to bring the most balance and ease possible to a voice so that we can then apply that ease to whatever musical genre a singer wishes to sing.  My students are made up of singers of rock/pop, musical theater, jazz, classical, country….and everything in between.  I’m not the teacher with a musical library filled with every possible book and recording of the perfect musical theater audition pieces for a high tenor simply because I apply what I do to so many different styles.  You may want to work with a technician like me to get the most out of your instrument but keep your musical theater or opera expert on the side to assist you with song/audition choices and proper interpretation of their genre of expertise.

When looking for a vocal technique instructor you may have to “audition” several teachers to find one who can help you but here are a few tips to keep in mind:

Here’s my list of what to AVOID in a vocal technique instructor:

  • They insist that learning classical/operatic repertoire is the basis for every style of singing – even if all you want to do is sing pop (or any other style)
  • They use imagery to try to meet your vocal goals:
    • “place” the tone into your eyes
    • “sing into the mask”
    • sing “forward”
    • “cover” the tone
    • use more support
    • sing on the air
  • The may use “results” oriented teaching:  they describe to you how a sensation feels to them  and then let you flounder around trying to find it on your own.  If you knew how to find it, you wouldn’t be there in the first place!
  • They hear you sing and just keep telling you “That was great!” – unless you are perfect already (then why would you seek out a vocal instructor) there is always something that can be worked on.
  • They assign you song after song but are unable to help you improve vocally.  Often this is what you’ll experience with a “Vocal Coach” – again, a very valuable asset for their expertise in a specific genre but first things first.
  • You feel like you are losing the elements you used to like in your voice or you can do less vocally than you could before the lessons
  • Your vocal goals are not being met
  • You are told to only sing in “head” voice
  • They instruct children to only sing in “head” voice until they reach puberty
  • They teach children to “yell” or “belt” in their chest voice
  • They teach adults to “yell” or “belt” in their chest voice
  • Your understanding of your own voice hasn’t increased and/or they respond to your technical questions by giving you more songs to sing.
  • Singing doesn’t feel comfortable and/or feels strained or tense
  • They ask you to just sing like them – but don’t give you any clue how to accomplish that

Here’s what I would recommend you look for in a good vocal technique instructor:

  • They assess your voice at the first lesson and give you a plan of action
  • They are able to explain to you what your voice is doing and why
  • They are able to identify your vocal “defaults”:  recognizing what your voice tends to do and know how to fix it
  • They should be able to balance your voice through the bridges – no cracks, flips, breaks or strain  (depending how far a voice needs to go this could take from a handful of lessons to a year’s worth of consistent, hard work – but they should know how to get you there).
  • You should experience something new about your voice in the first lesson
  • They should help you become more “you” in regards to your voice
  • The vocal technique they teach should be relevant for whatever musical style you are singing
  • They don’t tell you what sensations to feel, rather they place your voice in exercises that cause you to experience what you need to feel – then ask how YOU would describe it
  • You find that singing feels easier, without strain – anywhere in your range

Don’t be afraid to leave an instructor who isn’t giving you the results you were looking for (within reason – we can’t turn you into Beyonce…there already is one).  Loyalty to an instructor whom you’ve been paying for years but haven’t seen any real results from will not help you meet the goals you sought them out for in the first place.  While I do understand that times are tough financially these days, understand that paying a “bargain” price for a teacher doesn’t always pay off.  Consider:

  • $30 for an hour/week over 2 years ($3120) with a teacher who is sweet and well-meaning but gets you nowhere
  • $100/hour weekly for 6 months ($2600) with a teacher who helps you understand your voice, overcome it’s tendencies and have you doing more than you could have imagined as a singer.

There are a lot of good-hearted and well-meaning people out there who are looking to make a living teaching singers – just be sure you find one that will deliver the results you are looking for.  Happy singing!

portrait of pop female singer belting

BELT VS MIX

portrait of pop female singer belting

portrait of pop female singer belting

Whether you sing musical theater, rock, pop, jazz or country, you may have experienced a sensation in your voice where you felt you had to push your “chest” voice (the voice you use to speak) to it’s limits in order to reach higher pitches.  In many musical genres this ability is highly valued and a singer is given much praise for their capacity to do this.  They work for years with teachers who train them with techniques to take this type of vocal production to it’s furthest possible extreme.

And then there are those voices you hear who seem to be able to effortlessly take this powerful vocal quality up into the stratosphere without breaking a sweat – for example, Barbra Streisand, Josh Groban, Adam Lambert, Kelly Clarkson, Ariana Grande, Patty LaBelle, Beyonce, Pavorotti (OK so he was a little sweaty at times).

Most people believe that either you have this ability or you don’t.  Somehow these effortless voices have a God-given miraculous power to sing in a gifted way you’ll never possess.   In fact this ability is available to everyone if they have the right instruction.

DEFINITION:

There are varying definitions and disagreements among vocal instructors for the terms “Belt” and “Mix” but for simplicity’s sake I’ll make clear my own personal definition for this article:  

Those singers pushing their chest voices to it’s limit and experiencing a lot of strain and effort I put in the “Belt” category.

Those singers who can take a strong, connected sound up into higher pitches effortlessly I would put in the “Mix” category.

Let’s break it down some more.

BELT

When a voice is coordinating in a true “belt” the vocal cords are attempting to take the chest voice coordination up as high as it can go without allowing it to switch to a thinner cord (or thinner vibrating mass).  (see my “Chest Voice and Head Voice” blog for further explanation).  And when a singer takes it to that limit they will often find that, when they do make the switch, it flips into a falsetto or “heady” sound that is very different from the power of the chest voice.  If you’re a guitarist, imagine trying to play your higher notes all on the lowest string – it would only be possible to take the pitch up so high before you’d have to shift up to the next string….but now the shift to the next higher note will be more abrupt because you have to travel so far back down the neck of the instrument.  It makes much more sense to make the shift earlier when it’s easier and less abrupt.  Also, in order for the vocal folds to create higher pitches in chest voice coordination, the surrounding muscles must become involved to pull and stretch the vocal folds to make them thin enough to make higher pitched sounds.  This is about the time when I start taking bets on when a singer’s neck will explode as you can often visibly see the effort it is taking to hit those high notes!

MIX

When a voice is coordinating in “Mix”, the vocal folds are making this transition to a thinner cord (reduction in the vibrating mass) around those shifts known as “bridges” or “passagi” – like where your chest voice and head voice naturally separate – and it begins in your head voice range. In an ideal mix there will be no strain present as the singer vocalizes throughout their range: only the action of the vocal membranes vibrating together and resisting the air.  The larynx (the cartiledge that houses the vocal folds, also known as “adam’s apple” and “voice box”) should stay in “speech level” position, meaning that it should stay comfortably in the middle while vocalizing – not moving up or down with the pitch.  (Take a moment to find your larynx with your fingers – if you swallow you’ll feel it moving up, if you yawn you’ll feel it move down.  Now say the sound “ah” from a low pitch to a high pitch and back down again.  Does your larynx move up and down with the pitches?)  The transition from chest to mix means that the resonance, while starting in the mouth will begin to move behind the soft palate (where your uvula hangs) causing you to experience a phenomenon known as “split resonance” – where the resonance sensation is felt both in chest and head voices at the same time.

Additionally, a Mix Voice should sound like a belted Chest Voice, though it will always feel different than Chest Voice.

*You will need to find this sensation with a vocal instructor who has the skills to take your own unique voice to this coordination.  Please note: a singer needs to experience this sensation before they can reach that “aha!” moment and describe it that way. Don’t put the cart before the horse: experience the sensation first, then describe it.  Never try and make your voice fit a description. (more about this here)

I will describe some of the steps to finding mix in an upcoming blog but can’t recommend enough that you find an instructor who has the tools to get you there in balance.  Everyone comes with their own set of vocal issues and there may be some work to do before your voice is ready for this step.

Singing in your head voice

Chest Voice and Head Voice

Two of the most commonly used term in singing circles are “Chest Voice” and “Head Voice”. If you’ve always wondered what this actually means, read on….

In the “chest voice” – the voice most people use to speak with – people generally feel the resonance of pitches in that area vibrating in their chest. Put your hand on your chest and say the vowel “a” as in “cat” nice and strong – feel how that seems to resonate between your throat and chest? That’s your chest voice. Then cheer saying, “Woo-hoo!” – feel how the sound seems to have moved into your head? That’s your head voice.

 

Now for a more technical explanation: How do the vocal folds work? If you’ve ever seen a picture of the vocal folds in action you’ll see that they are attached at one end in a “V” shape and vibrate together – while resisting the air coming from the lungs – along their length to create pitch. (See link below to view video of vocal cords in action). At the pitch “A 440” (the pitch orchestras tune to) the vocal folds are coming together 440 times/second to create that pitch (the note you hear). Lower pitches have a lower number and pitches up in a singer’s “whistle-tone” register (think Mariah Carey) are vibrating in the 3000’s. When a singer is vocalizing in their chest voice the vocal cords are using their thickest width to create the pitches in that register.

Then, at a certain point, the vocal cords have to make a physical shift to reducing the vibrating mass and thickness to create higher pitches. What that means is that the vibrating portion of the vocal folds that is involved in creating the pitch must thin out as the pitches get higher.  Think about how you change pitch with a rubber band.  The lower the desired note, the thicker the vibrating mass of the band will be; the higher the desire pitch, the more you will stretch the band.  Similarly, the voice needs to make a shift to a thinner coordination in the vocal folds as the pitch ascends.  When it comes to bridging from chest to head voice think of the same rubber band experiment:  except that you can only stretch the rubber band so far before you hit a ceiling or break the band (top of your chest voice).  Now stretch the rubber band, but this time, place one finger in the middle of the stretched portion and play the pitch.  Now you’ve “bridged” the band and suddenly have many more higher pitches available without over-straining the vibrating mass.  Do this earlier and you eliminate the chances of breaking the rubber band – or straining your voice.

 

The first transition or bridge (also known as passagio), between chest and head voice, generally happens around an E-F# above middle C4 for men and around an Aflat-Bflat above middle C for women. Every singer I’ve ever encountered in my studio struggles at the beginning with either their first or their second bridge, though the first bridge transition is the most common struggle. (Every 4th or augmented 4th interval contains another of these transition points.)

 

Classical and choral singers tend to sing mostly in their Head Voice. Rock/pop and Musical Theater singers tend to sing in their chest voice without transitioning to a thinner cord, though some can sing in “Mix”, sounding like they are effortlessly taking their chest voice higher in their range. When a singer connects seamlessly between chest voice and head voice, maintaining a consistent tonal quality throughout this transition, this is referred to as “Mix” – which is just that: a comfortable mix of the elements of chest voice and head voice. To learn more about Mix Voice, check my blog entitled, “BELT vs MIX”.

 

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYpDwhpILkQ

 

Here is a link to see the vocal folds in action if you’re curious: Keep in mind that the physician is using a strobe light so that we can see the action of the vocal folds “slowed down” in a sense – otherwise they are moving too fast for our eye to see.