The 5 stupidest things I ever heard from voice teachers

1. To hit high notes, pretend there’s a marble between your butt cheeks and squeeze it.  (From my high school chorus teacher.  After my 10th grade year, my family moved from Fairfax County, Virginia, which has one of the top school music programs in the US, to an Army Base in Germany, where one minimally talented woman struggled to run a marching band, a chorus, and an a cappella singing group.  I signed up for all of them, naively expecting something similar to what I’d left behind.  When I showed up on the first day of school, first period, for the chorus class, I discovered that I was the only boy to have enrolled.*  Luckily, I played the piano, so they made me accompanist.  Luckily, this saved me from singing with the “marble theory.”  Unluckily, the same woman led the a cappella group, where I learned to strain after high notes with the rest of them.)

*I didn’t yet know that in Army society, males don’t participate in the arts.  This ugly truth was driven home to me many years later when I was in the Army myself.  I had won a regional talent competition by singing a duet from West Side Story with Toni–hi, Toni!–and qualified for the All-Army Show, which toured Army bases all over the world.  My commander denied me the authorization to participate, letting me know that if it had been a sports championship, of course I would have been allowed to go.  Well, I got back at them by not Telling when they Asked.  Twice.

2. Just sing.  (From a teacher whom I met in Bremen, Germany, and worked with for maybe a year.  She gave me this supremely vague direction whenever something wasn’t working in my voice.  At least it spared us having to deal with difficult issues like registration, resonance, and vowels.)

3.  To achieve a properly lowered larynx, grab your adam’s apple between your fingers and pull it down while singing.  (Another teacher in Bremen had me doing this.  He, a tenor, assured me (falsely, as it turned out) that I was a tenor too.  I managed to scream up to high D’s while tugging on my larynx, so I guess he thought he was onto something.  I feel lucky to have any voice at all after submitting to his bizarre practices.)

4.  When you breathe in, your torso should contract.  (From a very well-known American soprano who had a long career at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin.  She was a marvelous, marvelous, marvelous singer, but a worse than worthless teacher, who had no idea how she did what she did.  I could see when she demonstrated her technique to me that she was not doing what she thought she was doing, but if I even dared to question this, she became furious and threatened to throw me out for not trusting her.  My breathing became so damaged by my attempts to carry out her nonsensical instructions that I completely lost my ability to sing.  In one audition, when I attempted the opening phrase from an aria from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, only a breathy sort of croaking noise came out of my mouth.  They told me that I could possibly join the chorus in a very, very small opera house.)

5.  To support the tone, your back muscles must engage so strongly as to become hard.  (From another well-known American singer at the Deutsche Oper, their leading Verdi baritone, in fact.  In my lessons, he had me put my hands on his back muscles while he demonstrated their strength.  I believe he enjoyed this very much, as I was in my twenties at the time, and probably pretty cute.)

Thank goodness I eventually found my way to Cornelius Reid, who showed me the way to vocal truth and sanity.

Does anyone out there know of any area of knowledge more fraught with misconceptions and bad advice than singing?

3 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    I certainly do recall all of these situations. I'm just happy I was never a singer! Question: I'm music-directing a show which requires good, "natural" male singers to sing in a "pop-rock" register in full voice contantly around high A's and B's. Some of this can be handled by use of falsetto, but some of it cannot. How can I keep them from ruining their voices, and at the same time sing the correct pitches without pushing as hard as they can?

  2. Michael Hanko says:

    Thanks for writing, Joel! (Readers, "Anonymous" is my dear friend and longtime accompanist, Joel Flowers, who was present at the piano for most of my singing experiences throughout the 80s and 90s.)

    I'm going to attempt to give you some helpful hints for getting your male cast members to sing in that high pop register without forcing:

    Step 1: Make sure they're tenors. This is only partly facetious; baritones and basses are not going to be able to sing in that range with the light, lyrical, yet not falsetto quality the music calls for.

    Pop tenors need to develop a bright, chesty falsetto. That's not a contradiction in terms; I am referring to a type of falsetto with a strong chest-voice component. (Alternatively, you could think of it as a very heady chest voice, but I think that thinking of this particular coordination as a form of falsetto will help your guys achieve it better.)

    Here's a step-by-step approach you might try. If the guys are not able to achieve a free production at any step, it's probably pointless to continue with the ensuing steps. (For my students, it can take weeks or longer to develop this sound from the ground up; if opening night is nigh, you may have to just let them push for now. You could always recommend the marble technique…..)

    1. Have them sing some descending 3-note major chords in falsetto on [oo], starting perhaps in B-flat major and going up by half steps to high C or so.

    2. If they can do that with relative ease, repeat the same exercise on a very bright [a] as in "cat" vowel, first in pp then seeing gradually how loud they can make this sound. The required vowel is an "obnoxious" sound, rather like the sound of a baby crying.

    3. If that works, have them develop the other vowels out of the [a], starting with [ah], then [oh] and [ee]. On the first note of the chord, have them sing [a] then modulate to the other vowel, keeping the [a] quality intact.

    4. Once the bright falsetto has been established, have them do descending octave arpeggios starting on high notes in the falsetto range on [ah] and bringing it down, allowing the chest voice to take over for the lower notes.

    I'm assuming a relatively good vocal coordination is in place for these exercises. They might be effective if this is the case. In actuality, this is a challenging proposition best worked out in voice lessons. I wish I were closer; I'd be happy to work with them. Does your budget cover trainfare to NYC for the tenors?

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thanks! I will definitely try some of these exercises. We actually have a "mixed bag" of tenors and baritones, and they have to sing these notes while dancing, and otherwise jumping around. For the most part, they're doing a really good job, too. It's a very poorly-written score, as the actual designated baritones have to sing high A's as well.

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