Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Here's a new question about a common problem for young singers, especially women:

Hi, my name is courtney and I'm 17 years old.and I can't afford voice problem is that I am not breathing correctly while singing and my voice sounds weak and too breathy so could you give me some helpful tips or exercises I really need help.

Hi Courtney,
Most teachers will tell you that a breathy tone quality is usually caused by incorrect or lack of breath support. In my experience, this means that the singer is inadvertently using the upper chest muscles to sing and breathe instead of the diaphragm and lower abdomen. Check in the mirror when you sing and make sure your sternum stays comfortabley lifted as you lose air and that you have a gentle, bouyant connection to your voice below the rib cage. The breath should come from the lower belly and not the upper chest around the collar bones. Do not push, squeeze or force the sound as this will also result in excess air being expelled with the voice. Making sure your posture is lightly aligned is the best way to free the breath. Do not stand rigidly but rather, let your spine follow your head as you let it float naturally upward. Do not lift the chin.

Here's a great animation of how breathing works.

Keeping the voice focused in the "mask" area of the face rather than the throat will also help to clear up the tone. The mask usually refers to the area around the eyes, upper nose and forehead. You will want to encourage a buzzing or humming sensation known as resonance in those areas. Some people also feel it in the temples.

Hope that helps. Feel free to send a video of yourself singing if you still have problems.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Even MORE Questions and Advice

I was recently asked to evaluate a Youtube video of a young popish style singer. I often get asked this question and it's an interesting conundrum: to sing healthy or to sing like a pop singer. Sorry Adele fans: yes, she's amazing but no, she has terrible technique. Even worse for her, she wouldn't have the sound everyone loves if she had healthy vocal technique. And btw...vocal frying isn't exclusive to young women as you will soon see...

Hi Sarah,

I'm emailing you because I have a younger cousin that is passionate about singing. He loves singing and writing songs. And I'm always encouraging him to do so. I actually think he's a good song writer. For the past 2 years I've been telling him it takes hard work and to keep writing and collaborate with others. He's been doing all that and I'm proud of him for doing so. I think he needs some help to keep improving.

Please watch one of his original songs...

If we can talk after you've watched his video and give me an evaluation of where he is vocally. 


Hi Fred,
I finally got a chance to watch the video. Your young cousin is definitely talented and I was very impressed by his performance. From a musical standpoint he has very good intonation and is very moving and entertaining to watch. The difficulty as a voice teacher in trying to evaluate pop styles of singing is that usually most pop styles and healthy vocal technique are diametrically opposed. For example, look at Adele: a wonderful, soulful singer by pop standards, but in terms of voice technique she is a disaster and is a perfect example of how NOT to sing if you want to preserve the voice into your thirties and forties (indeed, she has already undergone laryngeal surgery before the age of 25!).

Your cousin, as appealing as his voice is, has a very throaty sound and a common pop characterization that we call a "vocal fry" that in the long run puts him at a very high risk of injury and impedes his ability to project. It will also seriously limit his range (meaning high and low notes). Longevity, projection and range may not be priorities for him as is the case with most singers of that style, which is perfectly fine and if that is the case he does not need voice lessons. However, if those are skills that he wishes to acquire he will not only need careful supervision of a qualified voice teacher but will also need to be prepared to significantly change his sound.

Hope that helps,

Monday, March 11, 2013

Questions and Advice

I received an interesting email from a fellow named Josh over the weekend about the changing male voice. Feel free to send me your questions either about your voice or performing here or at my email (I promise not to publish it if you don't want to) My reply is below:

 Hello Sarah!
I have a question that I would simply love if you would take the time to read and reply.

My name is Josh, and I am a young aspiring 15 year old male singer. I have been singing for many years now, knowing that my voice has had an "immature sound." But about a year ago my actual speaking voice dropped so low, that people think I'm in my 20's or 30's. The only problem:  my singing voice obviously hasn't followed. I am now singing as if I am a 10 year boy, and talking as if I am 30 year old man...

 So, this brings me to my big overall question. Is my singing voice going to mature with time, naturally, or do I just need to train it up more? Also, is it possible that I am just going to be stuck with this "less mature" singing voice? Currently my singing voice can reach to a low F2, all the way up to a falsetto C#5 cleanly.

Thank you so much in advance, and I would really love to get back from you!

Hi Josh,

That's a really interesting question. I think the key thing to remember is that you only have one voice. We talk of the speaking and singing voice as if they are two different things but they both originate from one set of vocal folds. It sounds to me like your singing is simply stuck in a habitual pattern of what I'm assuming is your "boy soprano" voice. You may not be singing repertoire that's low enough for you also. Without hearing you its hard for me to say but I'm also assuming you've become at least a baritone.

All that being said, there is no physical reason why you can't sing a musical tone in your current speaking voice. Your higher "boyish" sound is simply your established habit and is more psychological than any thing else- your old sound is more familiar to you. Of course, a good voice teacher can guide you through all this or you can join a choir and sing with other baritones to familiarize yourself with the sound a little more. But more than anything else, it sounds like you just need to get used to your new voice that changed so quickly and dramatically.

It also may be that you are a counter tenor ( which is a baritone with a large falsetto range, a rare voice indeed.

 Hope all that helps.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Friday Links - Fun Articles and Musical Things To Do Over The Weekend

Every week, I publish a small round-up of my favorite articles, books, photos and other goodies. Enjoy!

Classical music isn't just for blue-hairs anymore
10 Hip Places To Hear Music

This is the last weekend to see Legally Bonde at Starstruck Theatre!
Starstruck Theatre

It's The Lamplighter's anniversary. 60 years of Gilbert and Sullivan in the Bay Area!
Lamplighter's Music Theatre

RIP Marvin Hamlisch. My favorite nebish.
Marvin Hamlisch dies.

Friday, July 27, 2012

My Favorite Myths

As a teacher of singing as well as piano for theses many years, I've always been intrigued and fascinated with the preconceived ideas people have about learning to sing, ideas that interestingly enough are not held by the beginning instrumentalist. Singing, for some reason, seems to be swathed in a shroud of enigmatic mystery for the general public. Perhaps because it is the musical skill that we are most familiar with on radio and television. We see dozens of supposedly masterful singers on our favorite prime time show and everyone out there makes it look easy- yet we ourselves can barely hold a tune.

The beginning piano student, I have found, expects from the outset to put in long, hard hours of practice and dedication. The beginning singer, however, curiously expects a magical transformation within a few months or even weeks. They seem to think that all that is necessary are a few “tips” and they're ready for Broadway (or X Factor, American Idol- insert your favorite talent show here). Here, for your amusement, are three of my favorites myths about singing I still encounter on a weekly basis and hopefully an intelligent effort in dispelling these beliefs.

  1. A great singer should be able to sing anything.” While it may seem fun to think that if we worked hard enough, we would be able to cross genres from pop to jazz to opera, actually the exact opposite is true. 

    The truth is: A well-trained singer understands the limitations of his or her own voice. They confine their repertoire not only to a specific genre but to a specific fach as well. Wise singers understand the old adage, “Sing Your Voice.” A ballerina would not try to play in the NFL. Nor should a light soprano try to belt “Everything's Coming Up Roses.” Appropriate repertoire strengthens and informs vocal technique. Inappropriate repertoire merely damages it.

  2. Great singers are born, not made.” Unlike the beginning pianist or guitarist, many aspiring singers seem to believe they must be equipped with extraordinary talent to be able to study singing and that good singers don't require any training. 

    The truth is: Anyone can learn to sing well. Yes, some people are more gifted than others and some people need to work harder, but in general, learning to sing is no different than learning an instrument. Daily consistent practice over many years under the guidance of a competent teacher will yield positive results from even the most musically impaired singer.

  3. Sing from the diaphragm. This idea has probably originated from well meaning but misguided choir directors who were trained as instrumentalist rather than singers, regurgitating third hand advice watered down for large groups of people to absorb quickly. 

    The truth is: One cannot feel the diaphragm any more than one can feel the liver or kidneys. Richard Miller, a universally regarded scholar on the technique of singing says it all: “Telling a performer to sing from the diaphragm, to hold the diaphragm down, to push it up, or to control it directly invites confusion. When some established singers speak of 'singing from the diaphragm,' they can only mean exercising a learned command over the musculature surrounding it, because the diaphragm itself registers no sensation.” 

Perhaps much of the confusion and misunderstanding about singing arises from the mystery of the larynx. As singers we work with an instrument we can only hear and feel but cannot see. However, like other instruments, the larynx is vastly complex and refined, its movements subtle and delicate. Think of your voice as a Stradivarius, invaluable and irreplaceable, worthy of respect.

What are your favorite myths about singing? What are some ideas you held before you began lessons?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Summer Practicing

Summer is here and for students as well as professional singers alike, our shifting schedules and vacations can interfere with normal, consistent practice. For even the most dedicated and disciplined singer motivation is, at times, an issue. However, singing, like most performing arts, requires steady and consistent effort over a long period of time and unfortunately, a loss of even a few weeks of practice time can be detrimental to previous progress. This is especially true for the beginning singer. A loss of two or three months of adequate practicing can prove devastating for someone who has been singing for less than eighteen months. Here are some suggestions to keep you motivated and maintain vocal progress over the changing and sometimes chaotic summer months.

  1. Practice every day. It may seem counter-intuitive for the unmotivated student, but its actually easier to practice every day than it is to maintain a sporadic schedule. Daily practice, if even for only ten or fifteen minutes, becomes habitual and part of our daily lives. Just like brushing ones teeth, we find that something seems amiss if we have missed our daily vocalization. Learn to work your life around practicing rather than practicing when it is merely convenient.

  2. Don’t try to be perfect. If you have missed more than a couple days of practice it can be a daunting prospect to face a rusty larynx. Perfectionism and the desire to be brilliant can paralyze the most motivated student and can make practicing a drag if we turn out a less than amazing sound. It is a rare and unique singer that can sound fabulous everyday. The vast majority of us have good days and bad but daily practice over long periods of time has a very subtle but powerful cumulative effect. The singer who expects dramatic changes in a short period of time robs herself of that valuable accumulation and learning vocal technique becomes more of a struggle. Then practicing becomes a drag again. Approach your practice time objectively and try not to react emotionally to every flat tone or cracked note. Give yourself permission to sing badly sometimes.

  3. Stay involved. As previously stated, daily practicing time, especially over many months or even years is a major challenge for most musicians and singers alike. A great way to stay inspired as well as learning more about singing and performing is to see as many shows and performances as possible. If you're on vacation, try to see a show even if its a local night club act. The style or genre of the music is irrelevant as long as the singing is good and it inspires you. Sometimes even watching bad singing can makes us long to see how much better we can do it!

  4. Find a safe, welcoming place to practice. For younger school age children who have siblings home during the break, it can be disheartening to try and withstand teasing and ridicule when we are first learning the strengths and weaknesses of our talent. Even good-natured teasing that is not intentionally mean can have devastating effects on a child who is trying to gain confidence. Parents can be pro-active in creating a music-friendly home. If you can't find a place at home where you feel you can sing out freely in a strong voice without negative or sarcastic commentary, see if there is another place you can go like a church or the home of a tolerant relative. Honor your commitment to your progress and don't cave to a negative environment.

  5. Find supplemental training. Summer camps and training sessions abound for children and adults alike. Rather than being a lost opportunity, summer can be a time of gaining a competitive advantage as well as having fun and meeting new people with similar interests. Local chapters of music organizations like NATS, CMEA and ACDA have lots of ideas for summer training and involvement, and many offer scholarships and sliding scale fees.

  6. Be in a show. Professional singers are good be cause they have to be. If they turn out a less than stellar performance they won't be invited back and they lose income. There is no greater motivator than fear sometimes and knowing that you're going to sing before a live audience will guarantee focus on striving to get better. Sing at church, sing at a sporting event or audition at your local community theatre company but by all means, find a place to perform.

I hope this gives you some good ideas on how to maintain a practice schedule when you would rather be at the beach. If you have some ideas of your own, please share them or email me. I'd love to hear your thoughts. Remember that when all is said and done and you agonize over whether to practice or hang out with your BF at the mall, no one was ever sorry they learned to sing (or play piano, guitar, flute) so no practice session is ever wasted- unless we give up. Canta che ti passa!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The End Of An Era

Dear friends: why there's more to singing than being loud and bombastic...

RIP Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau