Some Essential Steps in Learning Vocal Music

Here is an article that I have prepared for my students at Westminster Choir College of Rider University. It is my attempt to offer specific steps for learning a new piece of music–including the choral repertoire that they sing in the one, two, or more choirs that they manage simultaneously, with a variety of conductors and tonal ideals.

I want my students to be able to sing in each situation with as free and consistent a vocal technique as possible, even though specific goals and demands are different. You will read elsewhere here in Kavbar’s Blog that ideal vocal technique allows a singer to make appropriate and different choices at any moment; it is therefore necessary to avoid any sense of locking, be it physical or otherwise. Commitment and consistency in approach, yes. Same-ness, no.

Although I contemplated creating an article or Studio Class activity to teach my students how to prepare their choral music, it struck me that “singing is singing.” This article is therefore applicable to solo repertoire, but it may be applied to the initial study of choral music (to be suitably prepared for the rehearsal), with some modification or omission. In this way, the student has a chance to begin to get the music “in his/her voice,” in a way that sectional rehearsals would not allow.

This approach may seem to some like overkill for an initial music-learning session, but “music is music” and we take very seriously the privilege of interpretation!

  1. BEFORE GOING TO THE PRACTICE ROOM: Look at the score. Who is the composer? Who is the poet or what is the text source? What musical and/or interpretive indications have the composer or editor placed on the page? What is the musical form: strophic, through-composed, da capo (ABA), modification or hybrid of these forms? In what key(s) does the piece begin and end? Are there modulations? Is the piece transposed, or the text translated? How long is the piece? Where does musical and/or textual repetition occur?
  2. If you have no sense of the musical style or characteristics of the composer or repertoire from the historical period, do some reading–just enough to get a start. Ditto for the poet, libretto, etc. Is musical ornamentation allowed or expected?
  3. Listen to a recording or two, if available, score in hand. Make note of pitches, rhythms, or pronunciations that seem unexpected or very different than you anticipated. This listening is to lay the groundwork for your own exploration and learning; never learn your music by rote from any recording–not even the MIDI file that a modern composer may provide.
  4. Find or create a literal, word-by-word translation of the text into your native language. For example, www.ipasource.com, may help with your text work. Take time to consider and paraphrase that translation, then reduce it further into a sentence or two. In the case of a dramatic text from a larger work (opera, oratorio, possibly a song cycle), determine the context of this particular text. Who is your character, etc.? Remember the actor’s question, “Why am I saying what I’m saying the way I’m saying it?” Begin to personalize the text and determine how you may serve it well with your own expressive gifts.
  5. Find or create a transcription into the International Phonetic Alphabet, to the degree that you need it, for accuracy of pronunciation.
  6. IN THE PRACTICE ROOM: Referencing any IPA symbols that you have penciled into your score (careful not to needlessly clutter the page), begin to speak the text with meaningful and fluid “stage” diction. It may be helpful to read the text from its literary source, so that you’re not overly influenced yet by the musical shapes. Even now, some meaning (images, feelings, attitudes, memories) should begin to partner the text in its printed language.
  7. With your eyes on the score, practice intoning the text with the general shapes and the rhythmic values of the music (merely approximate pitches). Remember that the “right” note at the wrong time is the “wrong” note. Even at this stage, developing a feel for rhythmic relationships and pace of the musical line will help to make pitches and melody clear to you.
  8. Review your earlier observations of keys, tempi, form, etc.
  9. Sitting at the piano, play your pitches in rhythm (slowly, if helpful), simply to find tonal relationships and begin to hear the melody more clearly. If your piano skills are not strong enough–you should practice piano six days a week, too!–find a friend to help. If you are learning choral music, perhaps a member of your section could do the keyboard work, and you could do the text work. You need to hear the harmonies that support or take place along with your line, and the piano is an excellent help. Always know the “pitch center” of the section or phrase. If you have strong Solfege skills, it may be good to omit this step, and go immediately to Step 10.
  10. Stand. If it is helpful, practice your vocal line on Solfege syllables, with correct rhythms. Gradually begin to sing in the indicated tempo. Next, practice singing with the “neutral” tone–essentially [oe], or a sustained schwa–not overly rounded, certainly not pulled back or down. Using an initial, voiced consonant like [l] or [d] may help, especially if pitches change quickly. [NB: Throughout Steps 9 and 10, vibrato should be free but slender, not manipulated. Do not forbid vibrato or insist on it, but avoid unnecessary weight. Different levels or qualities of vibrato may ultimately be found.]
  11. Finally, begin to practice with correct pitches, rhythms and text, based on your initial understanding of pronunciations. It is important to have guidance from your teacher, coach, or conductor for specific choices of vowel, how to articulate certain consonants, length of vowels, consonant emphasis, etc. In the voice studio, vowel articulation is an important part of learning technique, and you must be skilled enough to vary those articulations according to style, range, intensity, interpretive idea, etc. I teach that one does not merely “sing a vowel,” one sings tone. Vowel is that part of the tone that intersects with language. In choral singing, the conductor must often and of necessity be very specific with vowels–due to musical style, the timbre and “tonal personality” of that specific ensemble, certain exaggerations that are sometimes needed for clarity in a choral sound, personal preference, perhaps other factors. Each singer (with the help of the voice teacher/Senior Advisor) must build a vocal technique that is characterized by integrity, flexibility, power, and freedom. In this way, individuals can begin to find their full potential as singing artists. Not only this, but each singer can be a valued contributor to choirs, on- and off-campus.

Advice for Students Facing Voice Juries

Hello, dear students (and honored guests). You notice that I have not written a post here in a long time, but today I am inspired to give some guidance. Since you are here now, I urge you to look around after you read this post, as there are others that you will find helpful.

Many of you face voice juries, recitals, auditions, or other imminent performances. In the days leading up to such opportunities, here are a few not-quite-random thoughts to consider.

1. Worry or extreme anxiety may be a clue that you are not well-prepared. Yet, it is never too late to increase your chances for a stronger performance, although it is surely true that inadequate preparation does not allow your very best work.

2. With humans (that would include most of us!), the mindset of “all or nothing” is generally not a helpful approach to performance. You will never achieve the dream, “ultimate” level that you strive for, but you must move towards it. If you are ever convinced you’ve hit a perfect 10 on your personal scale, then re-calibrate that 10 to 8 or 9, and keep progressing. Don’t worry, this will happen very rarely (or never) if you are honest. As with good body management, we are not after place or position, but direction.

3. Obsession with perfection is an inhibiting, negative, destructive, damaging, limiting, damnable energy-drain for performers.

4. Obsession with perfection is an inhibiting, negative, destructive, damaging, limiting, damnable energy-drain for performers.

5. Obsession with perfection is an inhibiting, negative, destructive, damaging, limiting, damnable energy-drain for performers. It is never a good thing. Don’t try to be perfect; be truthful, open, communicative, skilled, confident and grateful for the opportunity to perform.

6. Here is a short list of some fundamentals in vocal technique:

a. balanced, deep, and accessible breath support (appoggio),

b. easy availability of energy to articulate tone and language, avoiding “support” from the upper body,

c. freedom to inspire physical processes with mental/emotional “performer energy,”

d. Etc. [Add your favorite fundamental here.]

7. As the word implies, a “fundamental” rests securely deep within you, at your core, your foundation. It is not at the top of your thought process, a mental effort to make things happen. Fundamentals allow/empower things to happen, they don’t exist for their own glorification. Every desirable action is allowed or inspired by the imagination, not by “manual override.”

8. Fundamental technique is a result of both learning/understanding and training. It happens over time. One of my wisest teachers told me that a talented singer should be able to learn and embody a solid vocal technique in two years of study. I think she was right, given consistent and dedicated work by that student. Once the essence of technique is incorporated, your continuing study is towards refinement, making specific application and choices, improving your abilities, etc. This work is done with your voice teacher, with trusted coaches, and sometimes independently–above all, through consistent practice.

9. All of the choral/ensemble/non-classical singing that you do is potentially limiting to your own progress. This is why your own personal practice must be sufficient to keep your goals clear. As I have said many times, you must be the Chair of your own Vocal Board, and your voice teacher is your Senior Advisor. No conductor, coach, director, parent or friend, has the right/responsibility to either of those positions (Chair, Senior Advisor).

This is not a comprehensive list of values or processes, but I must at least mention that it is never too late to review texts, translations, dramatic subtext, poetic thought, etc. Musical score study is never inappropriate. It is a good idea to refresh your memory. Additionally, the more you live with a song or aria, the more likely you are to find new connections on the printed page that will enhance your performance. This may relate to musical or textual phrasing, new insights into why the composer made some of his/her choices, etc.

Bottom line, do not panic. Do not give up. Make the time to be as well-prepared as possible, building on what you have already done. Choose to present yourself confidently and give a valid performance that represents your most truthful and committed work on that day. Choose to be on the up-escalator, progressing even through the performance itself.

How to Learn to Sing (Better)

One of the greatest joys in my life is to teach gifted singers on a regular basis (in my studio at Westminster Choir College), several other wonderful artists periodically, and quite a few students in various master classes. Regardless of the frequency of these encounters, whatever learning and growth take place is dependent on what both teacher and student do.

To a very large degree, the effectiveness of a voice teacher is due to how well he/she motivates students. A good teacher is never too easily satisfied, and the focus of a lesson is seldom limited to resonance and support (though vitally important). One teaches artistry, musicianship, organized thinking, discipline…and responsibility. Various teachers have varying styles to help students work well and accomplish much; my own manner is to be respectful and considerate of the student, to be authoritative (after all, I do believe in what I teach!), but seldom to demand.

Having said the above, the one thing that is uniquely the responsibility of the voice teacher is to guide a student in the formation of his/her vocal technique. This is not the privilege or the job of the choral conductor or vocal coach, I hasten to add. In actuality, each singer must be the chair of his/her “vocal board” and the voice teacher is “senior advisor” and guide. Many students fail to assume their own privilege, due to the time and energy they spend with conductors and coaches, who give them specific input into musical performance. It is too easy for these students to mindlessly do as they are told—certainly not the intention of my colleagues.

As magical as vocalization in the studio may seem to be (it is thrilling for me to see eyes light up with new successes in vocalization!), and as enlightening as repertoire and text work may be, the real engine that determines a student’s progress is the student him/herself. Not only does a good teacher bring new instruction, information and advice to the student in a lesson, that teacher must affirm what the student discovers in practice and performance. Sometimes, that affirmation is quickly followed by introduction of alternative techniques that will be more beneficial in the long run. This kind of teaching moment does not happen unless the student has been working diligently and consistently.

Westminster (where I have been privileged to teach for quite a few years) boasts a large and highly-capable voice faculty. I have excellent colleagues; we share many basic values, preferences and techniques that characterize our teaching.

I am convinced that the determining factor of a student’s success is usually less about technical approach, and more about how that student responds and works between lessons—what he/she brings into the teaching studio. Even with benign or inappropriate technical emphases from voice teachers, smart and gifted students will largely find a way to “put things together.” I certainly enjoy teaching more when students come to their lessons with an agenda, questions and suggestions—balanced by their trust and willingness to accept my instruction. We all benefit.

Link to “The Focus Vowel”

My friend, Daniel Shigo, writes/compiles an extensive, inspirational and helpful blog called VoiceTalk.

I recently read Daniel’s article on “The Focus Vowel,” which relates to methods of my own teacher, Margaret Harshaw. He is quite accurate in his comments about her teaching. We would usually vocalize in the order of [i,u,a] to find both core and focus (most often, with florid vocalises). We find brilliance and power in [i]. We find warmth and roundness in [u], and they combine in [a]. Each needs the other.

In the comments, Daniel makes the excellent point, to “think” about a vowel is the best way to positively impact your tone. As you know from my own writing, it is the imagination that brings about coordination and maintains the freedom to access flexible strength. Don’t “set” your primary articulators (tongue, jaw, lips) into a given vowel position. Rather, allow the thought of vowel to bring about subtle changes throughout the vocal tract. This is one place that support/appoggio and articulation intersect.

Bravo, Daniel, for this excellent post, and for your very interesting site!

Recital Retrieval

An informative article in The New York Times (January 20, 2011) caught my eye. The title is “To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test,” reporting on a study that is detailed online at the journal, Science.

The gist of the study was this: Three groups of students were asked to read a passage of scientific information. One group re-read the material several times. Another group engaged in “concept mapping,” (a method I often use) in which diagrams, lines, notes, color-coding, etc., are created to help organize one’s thoughts. The final group took a test on the reading material, to discover how much recall they had with what they had just read.

One week later, each of the three groups was tested on the initial passage. To everyone’s surprise, the final group (those who had been given a written test after the reading) did much better on the test–about 50% better. In other words, the relatively passive exercise of simply reading was not as effective, nor was the more active approach of creating a visual “map” to identify the conceptual relationships.

The study actually was a bit more involved than what I describe. The Times article includes comments from several scientists (some of whom were not involved in this study), on how the mind seems to reorganize material through testing, making it easier to access in the future. “I think that learning is all about retrieving, all about reconstructing our knowledge,” said the lead author, Jeffrey Karpicke, a psychologist from Purdue. “I think that we’re tapping into something fundamental about how the mind works when we talk about retrieval.” I highly recommend that you find the newspaper article to learn more; some of you may want to study the entire article in Science. If you do that, please leave comments here for all of us.

For performers, I see several implications in this study. Actually, many of us already know some things to be true that are validated or explained by this study. (Yes, that’s a subtle way of saying, “I told you so.”)

First and foremost, the activity of performing is itself a major piece of the learning/growing process. Who among us does not recognize the value of rehearsal, dress rehearsal, “studio class,” preview performances, “taking it on the road” before the reviewed performances are given, etc.? In the practice room and in the studio, it is vital for the performer to gather his/her “performer energy” and make a performance–often at the end of a session, perhaps at the beginning of the session. Many of us who teach like to occasionally bring colleagues or other students into the lesson to hear what a student is doing, e.g. In reality, this is a sort of test for the student that gives him a chance to put some things together. Very often, one may find that she is actually more together than previously realized!

Every public performance–particularly those that we call Junior Recital or Senior Recital–is a means of learning and moving ahead. Those tests must not be mere “Look at me!” photo-op attempts to validate what has already been achieved. The artist must actively engage in each performance, so that retrieval can support the moving ahead/growing process.

Far too often, the immature student (even a chronologically-advanced artist!) seems to think that public performance is merely a vehicle to display accomplishment–an occasion to gain the approval of family, fellow students, the public, even God–eagerly depositing a dead mouse on the back doorstep to establish “top cat” status.

A primary benefit of performance is the strengthening of the performer’s relationship with the repertoire. That success empowers the next performance to be even more textured, more effective!

True Imagination

I remember reading a comment by golfing great Severiano Ballesteros. In his playing days, Seve was known for an unmatched ability to get out of trouble on the golf course–hitting shots from unusual lies, parking lots, trees, etc. (Of course, one must first get into trouble to be able to get out of it…That could be another post, another day.)

As I recall, the quote was something like this: “People say that imagination is looking at somebody else, wondering what that person looks like naked. I say imagination is looking at somebody, and knowing what he/she looks like naked.”

Seve is telling us about creativity on the golf course, but also in the arts, in any kind of activity, like singing.

Curiosity and dreams can awaken imagination, but they’re not the same as true imagination. Neither are positive thinking and confidence the same. (See the Trevino quote in “The Confident(?) Performer.”) Distinctions are to be made between wild, untried choices, and those possibilities born in reality, discovered in practice.

A similar difference exists in the art of musical improvisation. Whether in jazz, 17th/18th Century, or other music, the performer must know tonality, rhythm, essential rules. In this way, improvisation won’t lead the performer (the listener, too!) down a dead-end road, with no way to get back home.

Through lessons, practice, observation, research, conversation, and/or earlier performances, the serious performing artist discovers effective choices, ideas, possibilities. Wishing, hoping, and wildly dreaming are not enough. Performing “without a net” is best done by seasoned veterans with a lot of data in their imaginative computers. Amateurs tend to perform without a net rarely, if more than once.

In the long run, foolhardy carelessness and insufficient preparation steal the performer’s confidence. True confidence fuels true and productive imagination. Ask Seve.

More on warming up…

The previous post on warming up has to do primarily with creating physical readiness. Know that the “warming up of the brain” is more important.

The initial approach to the singing voice must be characterized by thought and attitude that emphasize coordination and integration, fluidity of motion and stability of body, devoid of unnecessary tension. Anything that feels like tension or pressure is too much.

Spend a few minutes gently (not tentatively or guardedly) waking up the voice while placing operative concepts of balance and freedom into the conciousness. The ultimate goal is to be “thoughtless,” but directed and helpful thoughts will allow the warm-up to be effective.

Warming Up

Aside from “warming up” the brain (rediscovering that deeply energetic coordination that enables good singing), the vocal warm-up is about activating phonatory, articulatory and support-related muscles.

Know that as muscle fibers get warm, they become more fluid, so that they stretch and contract more rapidly. Both florid and sustained singing (florid singing on fewer and longer notes…more on that topic later) become easier. The rapidity factor is important, since the vocal cycle happens on average 100-500 times per second for men and approximately 300-900 times for women. Related muscles must be very responsive, indeed, for such a trick!

The core, supporting muscles of the torso and lower body must also be able to vary the intensity of their engagement nimbly and sympathetically, in order for the vocal apparatus to work at peak efficiency and freedom. For this reason, simple breath-related exercises (even non-vocal) can be helpful in warming up the body. What we call “support” or “appoggio” in Classical singing has to do not only with breath management, but with providing stability for the body, thus allowing easier engagement of the articulators, and enhancing the ease of performance on every level. In addition to these low support muscles, the vocal folds themselves and related muscles of the upper body need some warm-up time to reach optimum function.

Athletes in various sports require warm-ups of varying character, intensity and length; some athletes seem to reach peak (or at least functional) level more quickly than others. I think of the pinch-runner in baseball, who jogs out to first base on very short notice and does a few stretches on the spot. To be sure, that runner has executed a more complete and generous warm-up a few minutes or hours earlier.

Some singers warm up very quickly — so much so, that it may seem no warm-up exercises are required. Depending on the repertoire, it may be true that a well-functioning speaking voice will sufficiently enable the desired result. I have heard singers say that they don’t need to warm up; in my experience, Classical singers who make such a claim are usually basses. Other singers more nearly “grind down” their voice, instead of warming it up, by vocalizing too much, too aggressively, and/or with inappropriate thought.

Though some of us can reach a functional level of singing almost immediately (often depending on time of day and energy level), a singer typically finds that after a few minutes of singing, he/she will reach a higher level of comfort, flexibility and power. Each of us must determine how much warm-up is enough, and must never expect technical mastery, intelligence or extra effort to compensate for an ineffective warm-up.

Parenting Skills for the Singer

Wait…this post is intended for every singer, not just those who have (or will have) children.  The relationship that each of us has with our singer-self (and with “the voice” itself) is a lot like that of a parent and child.  Just as the role of a parent changes according to the seasons of life, so change our responsibilities towards the creative self.  At various times, we must encourage, demand, challenge, affirm, and enable the singer-self to find its potential.  Yet, at all times, the care that we offer must be based on love and acceptance, even when it is “tough.”

One must take an honest view of the talents with which he/she is gifted.  When a singer receives the compliment, “You have a beautiful voice!” or other such accolades (music to our ears), the appropriate response is, “Thank you.”  That same expression of gratitude is more rightly addressed to the One who created our minds, bodies, souls and spirits in the first place.  Truly, the singer did absolutely nothing to acquire those talents.

To recognize, believe in, train and develop one’s gifts, though — here is where the opportunity for good parenting presents itself.  The mother or father who senses talent (potential excellence) in a child should make it possible for the child to explore the medium (sports, music, acting, visual art, writing, etc.).  Those parents make available performances, recordings, trips to museums, etc., for the gifted child, in order to spark his/her interest and stir the young imagination.

Those parents make it possible for the child to pursue training and development as he/she matures, often at great sacrifice.  (Lang Lang and his parents come to mind.)  Throughout the entire process of growth and exploration, a number of parental traits can be identified.  Though certain parents find certain attributes easy to display, necessary parenting skills often require deliberate strategizing and practice.  Among the characteristics of good parenting are love, patience, vision, calm, honesty, optimism, and encouragement in the face of fatigue and/or disappointment.  The parent helps the child to joy in discovery and growth, but never fosters complacency.

Do other traits of good parenting come to mind?  How faithfully do you — the creative artist — nourish your own gifted self, from the viewpoint of a wise and committed parent?  More to follow in future posts.