My Approach to Voice Teaching

Note: My voice-teaching principles were inspired by those of my own teacher, the late Cornelius Reid, who developed them over 60+ years of teaching singing.

What is Correct Singing?

Correct singing — healthy singing — means singing that is free from unnecessary tension. It results from the efficient coordination of the vocal registers. Correct singing requires the precise integration of two opposing muscle systems — the cricothyroid and the arytenoid groups — whose primary purpose is to aid in swallowing and breathing. By studying with me, you can learn to teach these muscles to cooperate efficiently, allowing you to sing without unnecessary tension.

First, let me describe some kinds of vocal training that don’t work:

1. Vocal training that doesn’t train your vocal muscles.

A well-sung pitch is a combination of falsetto — produced by your cricothyroid muscles — and chest voice — produced by your arytenoid muscles. To sing notes easily on all pitches throughout your range, you need to teach these individual muscle systems to cooperate efficiently. Many voice teachers ignore this fact, and try to improve singing by having you perform some action or combination of actions — breathing a certain way, raising the soft palate, or keeping the larynx down, for example. In actuality, correct singing actually brings about the proper arrangement of tongue, palate, ribs, diaphragm, larynx, and other structures involved.

The difficulty in training your vocal muscles is that you cannot move them consciously. Faced with this dilemma, most voice teachers resort to instructing you to move other muscles you can control consciously. Unfortunately, these movements, however skillfully carried out, have little or no influence on the improved functioning of your vocal muscles. These conscious movements are more likely to create undesirable tensions in your singing and interfere with your artistic expression by diverting your energy away from the music. Among the many erroneous suggestions you might hear are smiling, “smelling a rose,” relaxing the face, putting the tongue in a certain position, raising the palate, lowering or raising the larynx, “placing” the tone in various ways, and breathing according to specific instructions.

Such movements are merely the expressions of a particular vocal coordination, not the causes of it.

The teaching of breathing, another largely involuntary bodily activity, also often suffers from misconceptions.  Proper breathing is an expression of your natural state of health and occurs reflexively in response to your body’s need for oxygen in a given moment (for a given musical phrase). Poor breathing is a sign of unnecessary tension in your system. Such tension can arise from detrimental postural habits or from attempts to consciously produce the movements that occur as symptoms of proper breathing, such as raising the ribs or expanding the abdomen. When singing or breathing faults are present, you need tounlearn the habits that are bringing about the constricting tension.

2. Vocal training that is based on beauty of sound.

Some voice teachers listen to you sing, then judge the beauty of your sound. These teachers may also encourage you to aim for a beautiful sound. But beauty of sound is a matter of opinion: Who determines what constitutes your beautiful sound?  It makes no sense to ask you to change your personal sound to conform to my taste, or to try to produce sounds like some other singer’s, when such sounds may go against your nature.

Even if you’re trying to match your own best sound, you’re unnecessarily limiting yourself. If you are taking lessons, it’s probably because you realize that you are not yet singing at your hightest potential. You have not yet made your most beautiful sound, so of course, you cannot emulate that sound. You can only emulate what you’ve already heard. You are better off with a teacher like me, who listens not for a beautiful sound, not for a particular kind of sound, but for freedom from tension in your technique. Freedom from tension results from the healthy functioning and integration of the falsetto and chest voice registers.

A rigid “sing-like-this” approach applied across the board to all students does not honor your individuality. My teaching, on the other hand, allows you to discover and develop your sound. I take an exploratory approach to analyze the current state of your register balance and determine how to improve it.

How is My Way of Teaching Different?

In your lessons, instead of encouraging you to consciously manipulate your muscles, I will assist you in eliminating one by one the tensions which impair your voice production. Usually, my solution is not “do this,” but “stop doing that.” Since you cannot hear your own voice accurately or feel the actions of your involuntary musculature, you must rely on a teacher to provide guidance. When you put your trust in me, I believe that I owe it to you not to damage your voice through harmful teaching methods. (It is possible through ignorance or carelessness to injure or destroy a singer’s voice.)

My approach to teaching comes from the research and experience of Cornelius Reid. This approach to teaching, which could be called “functional voice development,” is infinitely adaptable to voices of all sizes, types, and levels of experience. It is not a “method,” which implies a one-size-fits-all approach. In my voice lessons, I use customized exercises designed to bring your vocal faults to light and to indirectly stimulate correct singing. I listen attentively to identify imbalances of registration that cause constricting tensions in your body. Then I indirectly manipulate your register balance by designing exercises with appropriate combinations of pitch, loudness, and vowel sound.

(Here is an illustration of how these three variables affect register balance: If you (whether male or female) sing the word “rat” loudly on middle C, you will produce a tone with a preponderance of chest voice in the registration. Conversely, if you sing the word “root” quietly on the same pitch, you will produce a tone with relatively greater falsetto quality. Because of the highly individual nature of vocal make-up and condition, some singers will have an atypical response to these or any experiments. Such unpredictable variance makes functional voice development both fascinating and challenging.)

There is no standard sequence of exercises in a functionally oriented voice lesson. Upon hearing the sounds you produce in one exercise, I will analyze them for the presence of constricting tensions, then design the next exercise — again choosing appropriate combinations of pitch, loudness, and vowel sound — to spontaneously alter the registration. By means of this process, requiring no effort on your part in making conscious changes, you gain the experience of producing tones without your habitual tensions. Gradually, your singing becomes freer of tension, or closer to perfection.

(This process corresponds to that of the Alexander Technique, which also makes you aware of how you use your body, then frees you from your faulty habits through indirect procedures designed to help you release unnecessary tensions without actually trying to do so.  The similarity of these two learning processes is one of the reasons I advocate including Alexander instruction along with your voice lessons; the two types of learning enhance each other.)

My goal in your voice lessons is to free your voice to express fully and without excessive effort your personality, your artistry, and your intelligence. Learning according to the principles of functional voice development will allow you to attain your greatest potential as a singer.