Breathing for singing

(and other things that are overstressed by singing teachers)

Many of my new students look at me in surprise when I tell them “ I am not going to teach you how to breathe..you already know how!”.  These students are under the misconception that vocal study must include hours and hours of ‘breathing study’ and learning how to ‘sing from their diaphragm’.

First of all, let’s look at the diaphragm and why you can’t actually sing from it.

It’s an involuntary muscle.  You can’t control it.  Since there are no nerve endings in the diaphragm, you cannot feel it, and therefore, you cannot control it.

When you breathe ( which you MUST do to stay alive!) your diaphragm does it’s job on it’s own by moving downward and laterally (outward) which causes the rib cage to expand to accommodate the lungs as they expand.

This happens every time we breathe

Yes, we do need as singers at times, to take a breath that is not centered in the chest, and be conscious of the ribs expanding and centering the breath in more of an abdominal area,

To become aware of the rib expansion, I give my students a very simple exercise where they hold their hands around their midsection, and expand their ribs by taking a breath.  I then have them release the breath on a hissing sound “ssss”.

Doing this exercise will make the singer more conscious of rib expansion, but it will not help them breathe.  They do that all on their own!

If you can speak long sentences without thinking about breathing, you can sing without thinking about breathing.  And frankly, the more a singer things about breathing while they are singing, the more that process interferes with the singing itself!

The best ‘breathing’ exercise is the act of singing itself!

When you are phonate  (make sound) your vocal folds will open and close, which in turn, is a breathing exercise.

Vocal production happens at the vocal fold level.   Vocal training is all about negotiation and coordination at the vocal fold level.   With good technique at the vocal fold level, the breathing will take care of itself.

A vocal instructor such as myself will design vocal exercises to address the issues that singers have.  With repetitive vocalizing and regular study with a good teacher, the technique will solidify and stay in muscle memory.

So keep singing and let the breathing take care of itself!

Breathing for singing2019-08-15T17:29:07-08:00

Belting and Mixed Belting Singing Techniques

Singing Techniques – To belt or not to belt, that is the question!

At least it’s the question that I hear often from students working on songs. “Should I do a straight belt or a mixed belt?”

Belting sometimes has a bad rap from the classical singing crowd,  and much controversy surrounding the technique.  Let’s take a look at what belting is in singing, what it isn’t, and how best to approach it when in doubt

What is belting?

Vocal belting is a singing technique where a singer brings their chest voice or register above its natural break (or passaggio) at a loud volume with intensity.  Singers such as Adele and Christina Aguilera are examples of pop singers who consistently ‘belt it out’.  Both of these singers have had vocal damage, possibly due to the intense pressure on their vocal folds from this type of singing, which is not uncommon in pop and rock singing.

Belting is a necessary tool to have in Musical Theater, but not all belting is ‘straight belting’.

Singers who have to endure 8 shows a week need strong technique and tools to belt without damaging their voices.  This is where the ‘mixed belt’ comes into play.

What is a mixed belt?

Mixed voice, mixes elements of chest voice and head mix.  The stronger you get in your mixed voice, the more power you can add to that mix.  The more power you add to your mix, the more that mix can sound like a belt!

Mix belt is a combination of registers used at the same time, with a good amount of forward resonance, to amplify the sound. Vowel modification, vocal tract shaping, good breath support and moderate cord closure are the keys to achieving a  belt and a mixed belt.

Ariana Grande is a good example of a pop singer who can mix-belt in her upper range:

So, back to the question of ‘to belt or not to belt’.  The answer to that question depends on the song, the key, the note and the vowel.  In singing lessons, I work with students on ‘mapping resonance’ within a song. Mapping resonance requires deconstructing a song, and making specific resonance decisions on particular notes and trying out different resonances and approaches before committing them to muscle memory.

For example, on working on the song “On My Own” from the musical “Les Miserables”, there are certain notes where a belt is unavoidable (the note on ‘blind’), and other high-impact notes where a mixed-belt might be better ( I have never KNOWN). Mixed belts can be ‘chest dominant’ or ‘head dominant’ or meet somewhere in the middle.  

Sound confusing?

With a good voice teacher, repetitive exercises and resonance mapping, the answer to ‘belt or not to belt’ will be easy to achieve.

Belting and Mixed Belting Singing Techniques2017-12-25T04:39:12-08:00

Singing and Performing at Retirement Homes

A few years ago, I formed a singing and performing group with a few of my voice students. I wanted to give them an opportunity to rehearse and perform a show, and I wanted to give myself the opportunity to give back to the community while sharing the experience with other like-minded singers.

The group was formed for the sole purpose of performing at retirement homes, nursing and rehab facilities and assisted living facilities.

These venues are a far cry from my days of singing at weddings, corporate events, large concerts, and clubs. Instead of the sound of clinking glassware in the background, I would hear the sound of respiratory machines and walkers scraping on the floor.

Instead of the big paychecks at the end of the night, there were envelopes with $60-$200 waiting for us at the end of each gig. Split 4 ways.

But I soon realized that the joy our performances brought to the residents of these facilities, far outweighed the monetary losses we incurred. The looks in their eyes and the moving words of thank you’s that we received from them, brought a satisfaction that much of my past performing experience had lacked.

I have since performed frequently at these facilities, as a group, as a duo, and as a solo performer.

I now encourage my voice students to go out on their own and create a 1-hour act to bring to this population. With my assistance, several of my students are now performing regularly at these facilities and bringing music and joy to a group of people that are hungry for musical entertainment.
How to perform at retirement and nursing homes:

  1. Put together a 1-hour set. Whether you are accompanying yourself or singing to backing tracks, make sure that your set lasts anywhere from 45 minutes to 1 hour. Be prepared to change it up if you return to the same facility on a regular basis.
  2. Material: Remember the ages of your audience. Stay away from current, trendy music. Songs from the 50’s and 60’s are ideal.
  3. Invest in a good compact PA system. You may be carrying your equipment on your own, and don’t want to be burdened with heavy equipment. It’s also usually overkilled. Quite often you will be setting up in a lobby or in a small area of a dining room.
  4. Record a few samples of songs for a demo. No need to record the entire song, just a verse, and chorus of 3-4 songs with di?ering styles
  5. Build a free website and upload your song list and your demo
  6. When you are ready to perform, contact the activities directors at local assisted living facilities, retirement homes and rehab facilities. Let them know that you are looking to provide entertainment for their residents. Be persistent, it may take a few calls and emails before you receive a reply. You can also stop by and drop o? promo material
  7. Be flexible with pricing. Activities directors typically have very strict budgets set for entertainment. Most directors pay $50-$150 per performance.
  8. If you are just starting out, you may want to o?er to perform for free for the first time. This will give you a chance to work on your act, get reviews and video footage.

In Portland, Oregon there is a wonderful website called Elder Audience (www.elderaudience.com) that will list your act. All activity directors in the Portland area have access to this site and use it often.

Singing and Performing at Retirement Homes2019-08-15T17:46:50-08:00

Vocal Health for Singers

The voice is the only instrument that lives inside our bodies.

Vocal HealthAs singers, we can’t just take our instrument out of its case when we want to play it, put it back when we’re done, and expect it to be in perfect condition each time. If we want to use our instrument to make a living, or even if we are just hobby singers, we have to be dedicated to our vocal health and taking care of our voices 24/7.

When I was gigging regularly, I lived somewhat of a monkish existence on gig days: minimal talking, extra sleep, no dairy, no alcohol, plenty of steam treatments, and calculated warm ups. Calculated warmups mean that after many years of trial and error, I had specific times of day and specific vocal exercises that I would do based on the nature and time of day of the performance. I advise my students to experiment themselves with different warm-up strategies to find which routines work best for them.

I also had a special gargle concoction that I would use throughout the day to soothe my throat when it was tired.

Here is a great gargle recipe:

2 tsp. of salt, 1 tsp. of baking soda, 1 tsp. of clear corn syrup, 6-8 drops of lemon or lime concentrate and 1 qt. of warm water. Gargle quietly and gently for two minutes. Do not rinse and use throughout the day

There are many vocal health techniques singers can do regularly to care for their voices:

  • Stay hydrated!!  The vocal folds need to be lubricated to function properly. Drink water all day.
  • Stay away from coffee and alcohol. They are diuretics and pull water from your system. Alcohol can also impair your judgment about how loud you’re singing which can lead to unnecessary strain.
  • Don’t smoke! ANY kind of smoke irritates your vocal folds. Second-hand smoke can irritate them as well, so stay clear of smoky areas, particularly at a performance.
  • Avoid yelling
  • Avoid throat clearing. Many times throat clearing is a nervous habit that one can learn to control. Oftentimes the cause for throat clearing is mucus that hangs out on or below the vocal folds. When you clear your throat, you not only remove the mucus, you also irritate the edges of the vocal cords which just produces more mucus! The safest way to clear mucus is by using a gentle, breathy cough where there is high airflow with little sound. This can be achieved by using the following strategy: take in as deep a breath as possible, momentarily hold your breath, and produce a sharp, silent “H” sound while you expel the air.
  • Exercise regularly. The physical body informs and exists alongside vocal production. Singing involves your whole body and mind- Exercise enhances both.
  • Eat well-balanced meals and eat lightly before performances.

Taking care of your vocal health will make singing teachers like me very happy, and will ensure longevity in your vocal career.

Vocal Health for Singers2019-08-15T17:56:55-08:00

Vocal Coach, Voice Teacher, Singing Teacher, Singing Coach??

Voice TeacherThe profession of teaching singing is a profession that anyone can step into, without certification or licensing. Unfortunately, that allows many unqualified ‘teachers’ to hang the proverbial sign on their door and proclaim themselves ‘experts’.  Therefore, the titles vocal coach or voice teacher can sometimes be misleading or confusing, since the bearer of these titles appointed them onto themselves!

I am guilty of calling myself a ‘vocal coach’, even titling my website domain as a vocal coach, but in reality, I am primarily, a voice teacher who focuses on technique and the instrument of the voice. However, once a student betters their technique and becomes a stronger singer, I put the ‘vocal coach’ hat on and help them with their song repertoire and interpretation, while still always keeping their focus on technique. It is always a great joy to see the expressions on my student’s faces when they are able to sing a song with an ease they never had before!

I was a singer who started working professionally at a very young age without any training. I was getting hired on talent only, which was great for a while until my voice completely gave up and I developed nodules. I then had to go back and get the training I should have had in the first place. My wonderful singing teacher, the late Roland Wyatt, was not a vocal coach. He never asked me what songs I wanted to sing. We worked on exercises and technique only. It was Roland who suggested to me that I would make a good teacher, which brings me to where I am today.

Let’s take a look at the different designations of this profession:

Singing Teacher: Primarily a teacher who concentrates on technique and application, understands the anatomy and physiology of the voice, and troubleshoots vocal issues.

Vocal Coach: Primarily a coach who assists a student choosing repertoire and helps the student to interpret material and optimize their performance, both musically and physically.

Repertoire Coach: Same as above, typically an accompanist who works with vocalists on songs while not necessarily focusing on technique.

I consider myself to be a little bit of all these categories, with the emphasis on technique.  I believe in substance first, style second.

Now that I am teaching exclusively online, I can concentrate more and more on my students’ technique. I can see them up close, hear them well through my headphones, and by concentrating more on the ‘technique’ part of my role, and less on the ‘performance’ part, I can truly say that I am a ‘singing teacher’ who can coach as well.

Vocal Coach, Voice Teacher, Singing Teacher, Singing Coach??2017-12-25T04:39:14-08:00

Switching to Online Voice Lessons

Online Voice LessonsI’m writing this blog entry from the comfort of my home vocal studio. I’m wearing sweats and slippers because all of my voice students now study via online voice lessons with me on Skype, FaceTime or Zoom.

I live in a city (Portland, Oregon) where inclement weather can often make commuting difficult. I also may need to move to another city in the near future, but don’t want to lose the dedicated students from Portland who have studied with me for years. Those are a few of the reasons why I closed my physical studio in downtown Portland and went to an online only teaching format. I also don’t have to worry about catching every cold that would come into my small studio space, nor do I have to insist that my students stay home if they are contagious. They can take their online voice lessons from home, even from bed if they need to!

I have always been unconventional, and an out-of-the-box thinker, so leaving the traditional studio for the remote one was not a difficult transition for me.

The students who are with me are happy to have the same top quality instructor they had before, and their lessons have continued on without issue. I thank them for taking the chance on this less than the traditional method. Every vocal coach I know has a high percentage of their student roster taking their lessons online. It’s great to be able to offer my services to students globally as well as locally.

Online voice lessons aren’t for everyone, but for the serious singing student who wants to hone in on their vocal technique, they work great. Skype and FaceTime are better than ever, and it can almost feel like we are in the same room. I have a better view of the students face and mouth shape, I can hear them well with my headphones, and they have the exact same lesson they would have had in my downtown studio, with the same experienced and dedicated pro teaching them. I have taught thousands of lessons over the years, and believe 100% that I am the same teacher you get on the screen as you would get in the studio.

Switching to Online Voice Lessons2017-12-25T04:39:15-08:00

Connect with the Lyrics of the Song – or Fake It!

vocal students PortlandI often chuckle to myself when vocal students tell me that they don’t want to sing a particular song because they can’t ‘connect’ to the lyrics. At the same time, I also see many of my vocal students rip through the lyrics of the songs they are singing without having any knowledge of what they are singing about.

How important ARE lyrics when performing a song?

Do I really have to know what the songwriter is writing about?

Do I have to have gone through similar experiences to really ‘connect’ with the song?

These are questions that come through my Portland vocal studio on a regular basis. My answer is YES, the lyrics are important and you better have a clear understanding of what the song is about! You don’t want to sing a song with sad lyrics with a big goofy smile on your face while tap dancing, nor do you want to sing a song with goofy lyrics and and upbeat message and tempo sitting pensively on a stool with a sad face!

So yes, KNOW what you are singing about! I strongly believe that a vocalists physicality informs their vocal performance and vice versa. But, having said that, I strongly believe that you do not have to actually summon up the exact feeling that each song is trying to convey, nor must have you actually experienced it. It’s called ACTING!

In my professional career as a vocalist, I have had to sing many, many songs that I could not relate to, and many that I flat out just didn’t like! But I was paid to sing them with feeling, so I made sure that the audience always believed me. I have not ‘connected’ with the lyrics of many of the songs I have had to sing over the years. I have not LOVED the lyrics to every song I have had to sing. I simply didn’t have that luxury when I was paid to sing 30-40 songs a night!

I have also performed in musicals, playing parts that were completely different from myself as a person. Again, that’s called ACTING or FAKING IT! If you’re lucky enough to sing a song that you wrote, or lucky enough to sing a song with amazing lyrics that you can connect to, you are in a great position to make the listener believe you. If not-fake it, and keep practicing it until you start believing it yourself!

Connect with the Lyrics of the Song – or Fake It!2017-12-25T04:39:15-08:00

The Different ‘Lanes’ of Vocal Exercises

Vocal ExercisesIn my Portland vocal studio, I always tell my students that there are 2 lanes they can go down with vocal exercises.

The first lane is mainly for technique, but also helps to warm up your vocal instrument. The 2nd lane is strictly for warming up the voice, and may not have as much actual ‘technique’ in it. Let’s take a look at these 2 lanes and find out why they are different, and how they can help you.

First off, let’s be clear. Your voice is an instrument. You must always treat it as such. This means stay away from the obvious voice killers such as smoke, yelling, excessive talking, alcohol and sometimes dairy if it affects you. It also means that you can’t just leave your instrument in its case so to speak and only take it out on special occasions. The voice needs to be well hydrated and well exercised on a regular basis. This is why warm-up exercises are essential for singing. Everyone has their favorite warm-up exercises and I encourage my students to find the ones that they love and are comfortable doing on a regular basis. I have my own warm up routine, but sometimes that routine differs based on the type of material I’m singing. I may do more head- vocal exercises for a certain situation or more belting exercises for another situation. I always start with my base warmups such as the lip-bubble, sirens, some humming and ‘ng’ exercises, some yawn-sighs and then check in to see how I feel before choosing the next set of warm ups.

The 2nd lane of vocal exercises are ‘strictly technique’ exercises’ that are designed to trick your neuromuscular system to respond to notes in a specific way. These exercises help open doors to ‘rooms’ that your voice may not naturally get to on a regular basis . For instance, many singers may need exercises to help them feel what it’s like to sing in their head voice. Or to sing in their chest voice, or to sing in their mix and blend. In the beginning of vocal training, it is essential to do these exercises (with a good vocal teachers assistance) on a regular basis to develop muscle memory. It’s like going to the gym. Sure, maybe you can lift those 15-pound weights with some effort one or two times, but if you keep lifting them on a regular basis, it will start to feel easier and more natural. Vocal exercises do the same thing basically, but instead of building actual muscle, we’re building muscle memory. Regular vocal exercises and repetition is the key. Although repetitive vocal exercises can be tedious, it’s important to keep our eyes on the prize and remember that this repetition of exercises is building muscle memory. Once our neuromuscular system accepts the new sounds and sensations that happen during the exercises, we can then go on to singing songs and applying this new muscle memory within the artistry of a song. However, old muscle memory and bad habits can creep back in once we start singing songs, which is why returning to repetitive exercises on a regular basis is necessary for building and maintaining proper vocal technique.

The Different ‘Lanes’ of Vocal Exercises2017-12-25T04:39:15-08:00

Let Your Favorite Singers Inspire You, Not Mold You

Vocal Coach PortlandEvery day in my Portland vocal studio, a student will want to sing a song by one of their favorite artists. They may have chosen to sing this song for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the message in the lyrics moved them or perhaps the melody caught their ears. As a vocal coach, I strongly believe that as a vocalist, you should try to find a connection with the material you are singing if you wish to present an authentic emotional rendering of the song. However, many singers get caught up in trying to sound like the singer of the song they have chosen to sing. I tell my students that this can be a slippery slope. When Adele first hit the charts, I had a lot of young girls who idolized her and wanted to sing her songs. I couldn’t believe how all of a sudden these girls were sounding like they were from across the pond with their British accents! I appreciate that they were inspired by Adele and her music, but as their vocal coach, I had to step in and tell them to sing in their own accents and voices.

I am a huge fan of Adele as well as Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey and have enjoyed singing their songs over the years. But the enjoyment only happened after I first released the idea of trying to sound like these world famous singers, and then when I tailored the songs to my own unique voice by changing the keys, perhaps changing the arrangements, and firmly making the song an interpretation rather than an exact copy. I’ve sung in cover bands where it was important to sound similar to the singer, but unless one is being paid to be in a tribute band, each singer should try to make the song fit their own voice, not the other way around.

When I first began singing jazz, I immersed myself in the music of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn and other great jazz singers to really ‘feel’ the style. At the same time, I listened to as much instrumental jazz as possible to really hear the horn lines and other improvised instrumentals to get the feel of where I could go within a jazz song. Although I have never copied any of these singers or instrumentalists, I have used their original work as inspiration and as a template for finding my own original style. This is what I do for my students as their vocal coach at my vocal studio.

Let Your Favorite Singers Inspire You, Not Mold You2017-12-25T04:39:16-08:00

Singing Lessons for Kids-How Young is ‘Too Young’

Singing Lessons for KidsAs the owner of a busy vocal studio in Portland, I see singing students of all ages and levels on a regular basis.   I am often asked by prospective clients who are looking for singing lessons for kids, how young a student will I take.

Good question!

I’d love to say I have a tried and true age restriction on studying singing, but in all honesty, I don’t.

The short answer is that if the child has the desire to sing and can be focused and engaged for a 30 minute lesson, they are ready.

The real key for me is the DESIRE to want to sing and to learn how to sing better. I can teach any student at any age, if they truly want to be there. In other words “ I can’t teach them, if I can’t reach them”! This holds true for students of all ages.

I truly believe that good singing technique can be taught at an early age. Healthy singing habits, development of the head voice and chest voice and learning how to bridge the two together by creating a mixed register, are invaluable techniques that can only enhance the young singers voice.

Too many young singers (like myself, back in the day) only know two ways of singing “LOUD” or “BARELY AUDIBLE”. In other words, they are encouraged to “BELT IT OUT” and sing “LOUDER” in their chest voices, which can cause damage to sensitive vocal cords, or they attempt to sing high notes without a healthy development of their head voice, and only end up whispering notes, which also can cause damage.

In my vocal studio, I start with the basic techniques, encourage the students to practice the exercises at home (even for 10 minutes a day), and I choose songs for my younger students that are in their correct keys.   I also encourage each student to find songs on their own that they want to sing. I encourage a feeling of ownership when learning a song. Of course, I also make sure they are picking songs with age appropriate lyrics, and I always check in with the parents to make sure they sign off on the song choices.

I have successfully trained many young singers of contemporary voice, from age 6 upwards.

I have also had to release a few students of various ages because they did not have the desire to be there.

When making the decision to start singing lessons for a child answer these questions:

  • Does my child have the desire for singing lessons?
  • Can the child stay focused for a 30 minute lesson?

If your answers are yes, then you should give singing lessons for kids a try.

Find a teacher who regularly works with young children such as myself, and ask them for a trial lesson.

Singing Lessons for Kids-How Young is ‘Too Young’2017-12-25T04:39:17-08:00
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