My heart goes out to all who are struggling in multiple ways this summer. And to those of you whose lungs have been compromised by Covid, even months and months after the initial sickness.
Vocalizing through a straw can help work your lungs, body and mental focus and while this is not new knowledge, I’m reporting my personal experience of SOVTs and Covid.
I know, personally, how difficult it is to make yourself do a few of these. I had no lung or breathing issues during the two weeks I was sick with Covid. The lung issues did not crop up until two months afterwards. It can be exhausting and discouraging if you are a singer with normally healthy lung function BUT, start by doing only 10 seconds at a time throughout the day as you are able–you are doing yourself a favor. This is a real act of self-care. If you are a stranger to SOVT exercises, look up “lip trills” and “straw phonation.”
I can advise this because I am a singer who had Covid, who is also a singing voice specialist and voice teacher: I used myself as a guinea pig. I’ve worked my way up from a weak “pffft” to the following more advanced exercises used by Celine Dion and Michael Jackson. It took about 4 weeks. And was a pain in the patoot. Literally, the first time I tried a 1–5—1 pattern with a straw in water, I had to take a half hour nap afterwards.
You may be interested to know that semi-occluded vocal tract (SOVT’s) exercises have been used by voice teachers and pedagogues for a very long time, “…and were particularly popular in Scandinavia dating as far back as the 1800’s.” (Marci D. Rosenberg, clinical SLP/Singing Voice Specialist, ASHA Journal)
They are not new. However, voice science shows us how they work and why they are good tools for many singers. Straw phonation, a kind of SOVT exercise, became popular through the extensive work of Dr. Ingo Titze–look him up! But the early singing master teachers used other kinds of SOVT exercises hundreds of years ago. They are used more now than ever.
Most patterns start 1–3—1 or 1—5—1 and move to 1—8—-1
Celine Dion’s voice teacher was Joanne Raby, who had her regularly do a combination SOVT and Messa di Voce at the same time. While the term “messa di voice” means “placing the voice,” it has more to do with the coordination needed to sing soft to loud to soft again. This requires a delicate balance between changing sub-glottic aerodynamic pressures and fundamental frequency, while consistently producing a voice of optimal singing quality.
To hear Celine demonstrate these variations to Ellen Degeneres, check them out HERE. There are variations over two octaves but you can adapt them to whatever you can do now, and then systematically add pitches or new patterns as you feel stronger.
About 20 years ago, a recording of Michael Jackson taking a phone lesson with his teacher, Seth Riggs appeared and is now on Youtube. This short recording featured lip trills over the interval of a 10th. Phone lessons were common before the widespread use of the Internet. This pattern is commonly used but is also a measure of coordination of the above skills.
This can be done with “ung” closing to the “ng” or “lip trills” or using straw phonation. However, as always, it’s not the exercise itself that contains the magic! It is in how it is done, and should have the guidance of an exceptional teacher (or singing voice specialist if you have diagnosed vocal fold pathology) to make sure it is working for you as efficiently and easily as possible. Sometimes all you need is one session, with an occasional tweak. Remember, your body is always changing and adjusting in ways you might not be aware of.
My choice for straws are biodegradable and made from avocado pits, such as the ones from Avoplast . I can feel and hear a difference between these and the aluminum and plastic varieties because these are partially made from natural fibers, like the cane reeds of many reed instruments.
“SOVT exercises lengthen the vocal tract and narrow the opening, creating increased acoustic back pressure that helps the vocal folds vibrate more easily.” (Voice Science Works)
Cis-gender females ages 40 and up often experience hormonal changes to their singing voices that can result in pitch and stamina issues, excessive throat dryness and mental focus, through no fault of their own. It can happen with women who’ve kept in good physical and vocal shape, and to those who’ve had good training and singing experiences.
There aren’t many studies on female singers in mid-life and beyond when compared to all other studies of male and female singing voices in other life phases and stages.
Not all women will have unsolvable vocal issues but the manner in which the director works with them can have long-lasting and positive results.
Some church and community choir directors might not have time in rehearsals to do what I suggest. However, some of these things can be snuck into a few minutes or used to break up rehearsal time. They are tailor made for a group leader to lead on Zoom with the singers’ mics turned off.
It’s relatively easy to get a pleasing choral sound from a select group of singers compared to obtaining a balanced and energetic choral sound from a group of non-auditioned, or marginally auditioned, volunteer midlife to older adult singers!
However, it is more than possible! You do have to add to your awareness, as these things are not taught in academia right now.
Every rehearsal starts with physical exercises involving releasing, then strengthening and activating large muscles used in singing. Many singers with good training have the knowledge stored in their heads, and don’t realize their bodies have changed enough that they need some reconditioning. Remind singers to only do what feels good to them. They can be modified to be done sitting, too.
Dr. Anat Baniel, author of Move Into Life, draws connections in her psychology practice among brain health, emotional stability and movement. Beginning rehearsal with mindful movement is the foundation for music-making.
Combing through a used book store many years ago, I came across a 1974 gem-of-a-book called “Dance of the Self: Movements for Body, Mind and Spirit,” by Blanche Howard. The illustrations alone are joyful! Here are three examples from that book that encourage Somatic Awareness and Reeducation:
1.) For the 7 cervical vertebrae and neck/shoulder muscles: Explain where these vertebrae are. Not only in the length of the spine, but in the center of the body like an apple around a core. Repeat often.
Work on it yourself and model standing with “body bright” so you can show them by your example. Count backwards moderately slowly, 7-6-5-4-3-2-1. and with each count slightly turn the neck to the left, imagining gently turning each vertebra to look behind you. Allow it to feel comfortable. Finish that side with very slightly twisting the torso to the left, and end with one more slight neck turn.
Repeat on the right, then repeat both sides again. Great stretch for the whole spine.
2.) Stretch right arm straight up & try to move upper arm to as close to your right ear as you can. Stretch through finger tips. While continuing this stretch, stretch left hand down and straight back. Count to 6 slowly, and continue to breathe. Lovely stretch through torso. Switch sides. Repeat.
3.) Punch the air, like you are punching a punching bag, 25-50 times, depending on fitness level. Good aerobic activity and fun.
Forget “Proper Breathing” for a minute and focus on Just Breathing
Breathing exercises–You are encouraging activation and relaxation at this point, not “teaching them to inhale a certain way and support.” All the breathing in the world won’t help weak laryngeal function, but these exercises address general health and awareness.
1.) Lift arms out to the sides and ask them to feel for their ribs. (Find them on yourself first and look up stuff if you need to do so–instrumentalists, this means you too!) Have them put their hands on their ‘bra lines,” as if you are cradling the ribs. (The men love this..) Invite them to breathe sideways into their ribs, more as a “release” after blowing their air out, not a “tanking up and lifting shoulders.”
Then ask them to exhale forcefully on BRRRRRRRRR (raspberries), pulling their abdominals in to push their chests up. Tell them that it is the pectoral wall moving, not the flesh that is the female anatomy. This is a breath/muscle activation exercise that can be adjusted, added to and adapted. Many of the senior singers I used to work with in choirs were people who had lost a lot of muscle tone and coordination. Remember–it is breath activation and not how to sing!
2.) Inhale fully into ribs to a count of 4, hold the breath for the count of 6, exhale for a count of 7. Repeat up 3-4 times. Tell people to rest if that many is too much at first. Helps the parasympathetic nervous system, and therefore, mental focus. This is really big, because they come in wanting to work, but chattering and visiting and bringing in all their issues right through the rehearsal room door. This exercise is like magic–afterwards stillness descends upon the room.
3) I work constantly and happily to help unfold a more flexible and free body throughout the whole rehearsal, which means I have to embody the work myself. With seniors, you have to gently insist on it all the time. Remind them with specifics, ALL THE TIME. See how many ways you can say the same thing and sprinkle those things throughout the lesson/rehearsal. CONSTANTLY and ALL THE TIME! DID I MENTION ALL THE TIME?
Their instrument is their body. Can you imagine the sound your piano would make if it was bent in the middle??
4.) Teaching seniors to hold music, by developing the relationship among the arms, Thoracic spine #12 and the shoulder blades is a developmental process that is very important because that is related directly to the rest of their system. And it helps them get their eyes up!
For aging singers, strengthening the muscles of the larynx (that darn wobble or severe registration issues,) can’t happen without simultaneously relaxing any muscles that don’t belong in the vocal process. The relaxation part can be aided by encouraging lots of silly noises, call and response style, along with silly faces to engage faces that are not expressive. Embody the work yourself, or it can not translate to your group! In addition, do not hesitate to refer a singer to a fellow-ship trained otolaryngologist to assess their vocal fold function. A Speech-Language Pathologist can help strengthen their speaking voices, and a singing voice specialist–either an SLP or an experienced voice teacher with vocology training–can help with the relaxing and strengthening process. (During the pandemic, most laryngologists are not seeing patients, but singing voice specialists are often able to work on-line.)
I used the spoken pattern “uh oh!” which encourages gentle vocal fold closure the ‘coup de glotte,’ sung on pitches on pitches 5-1, (encouraging a very slight glottal on the onset.) I divided the ensemble into groups of 4 to do the exercise so I could hear if someone was overdoing it or not engaging enough. This happened in sectionals as well as occasionally in full rehearsals so I could check in with everyone.
Traditional vocalize and choral warm-ups were added, but only after the initial 10 minute somatics and “activation” period. Two of their favorites “activators” were
YOU HOO HOO! (1-5-3) Head Voice, bouncy, easy staccato
HEE-HAW (5—slide to 1) Heady registration slide to mix, or whatever they can manage. If they crack going into chest registration, allow this for about a minute and tell them that this is a sign that their larynx is moving, which it needs to do. Cartilages and muscles can lose elasticity and get “stuck.” Then you back and do the same exercise and suggest that they get softer as they go lower This takes some awareness, developed over time. Encourage them to try it at home and literally no worry what it sounds like during the exercise.
Arpeggios can go up staccato, and come down legato, with arm movements to simulate direction and connection. Men didn’t like to do this much, so I asked them to move their hips in a gentle circle. They REALLY didn’t like that, so they eventually started moving their arms….I also asked men to sing in head (some call this falsetto.) This increases over all flexibility and range over time. I am not here to debate the difference between head and falsetto but work as simply as possible with the singers in front of you.
I am constantly surprised and delighted by what seniors are able to accomplish, but the manner of working with them is as important as what you do. Many of them are caring for adult children, grandchildren and/or their own aging spouses. Many are recovering from surgeries, still working and/or suffering from chronic conditions. Each moment needs to allow them to unfold their own possibilities.
If you understand Semi-Occluded Vocal Tract Exercises, teach and encourage them to do straw-in-water work at home, plus other SOVT’s throughout the week between rehearsals. It is usually not enough for most singers after a certain age to not sing between rehearsals.
The choirs that I worked with weekly followed a model of a one-half hour voices class followed by a one-hour rehearsal. The voice class was designed to also include choral warm ups and pitch patterns they would find in the music we were to rehearse that day. I know many of you do this already–but it does take planning. The results are more than worth it in tonal quality, perception and understanding of how their part fits into the whole.
I go over words and texts very slowly and more times than you can imagine. Articulation exercises are really important. Pull out any pattern that makes the tongue move. Tongue twisters are great fun to speak as a group. Singing in unfamiliar foreign languages means that I chose a fairly repetitive text and gave LOTS of lead time to learn it before a performance.
Quick, syllabic music will simply need more time to get words under the tongue. If you are older, give yourself a lot of encouragement to practice what you preach! This actually is part of your job and you can list it in your “duties.” Teach them how to work slowly and consistently and not get discouraged. Athletes at age 50 don’t expect to function exactly like they did in their mid-20’s, and neither should singers.
Church choirs have special needs because they have to have music ready every week. Most directors can’t take the time for a complete warm up, so singers have to be encouraged to do so BEFORE rehearsal begins. I used to teach workshops showing church choirs what singers can do before a rehearsal. One choir I worked with has a music teacher who sings with the group who is able lead the specific exercises for anyone who shows up 20 minutes early.
Seniors often can not hear, and may speak loudly during rehearsals. If it is disruptive, I talk to them privately: Many do not actually know they are speaking out loud. They can ask whoever sits on either side of them to gently put a hand on their shoulder if they start to speak or hum and are not aware of it.
Since hearing is an issue, I have to repeat myself many, many times, and SLOW MY SPEECH WAY DOWN. Sometimes I will ask, privately, if their hearing aids are in and request they carry an extra set of batteries to rehearsal.
If they claim I did not tell them something, I resist the urge to scream. I make light of it and repeat it AGAIN. I ask the person who made the claim to repeat back what he/she heard several times, smile with a twinkle in my eye, and move on. Then have a glass of wine that night.
I hope some of these ideas help and inspire you to find your own ways of working with seniors. We are at a very important time in our culture’s history, where is it time to embrace the wisdom of the aging and recognize the love, intelligence and perseverance that they all hold. We are all made richer for these things!
Please click the “more” button to share this post with others! Let’s get the word out about cis-gender female hormonal transitions and our voices!
Recently I worked with three singers who experience excessive saliva while they sing. They need to constantly stop to swallow and regroup before resuming phonation. Getting to the bottom of the issue was different for each one! What a puzzle.
In this first of a 2-part “Saliva Series,” I’ll describe one possible reason and my solutions/recommendations solutions for one singer. The next post will be on another reason and possible solution.
“Steven” is a bass with a church job who also sings with an established men’s a cappella ensemble with the name “The Suspicious Cheese Lords.” This organization is paying for each singer to have a private lesson with either Elizabeth Daniels or myself, as we have been their ensemble’s vocal clinicians for the past 7 years. When Steven came in, I asked him to tell me what he wanted to work on and he mentioned the saliva issue, among…
This may be THE most important thing a singer and a voice teacher needs to understand!
And if you haven’t subscribed to Justin Peterson’s History Vocal Pedagogy blog, do it! It is for singers and teachers of Popular and Americana Music as well as Classical Music. Justin invited me to be a guest contributor to his blog and this is a repost. I’ve taken a look at a passage from the writings of Cornelius Reid, who has deeply influenced many functional voice trainers of all kinds of musical genres.
“The willingness with which a singer responds to the energy charge when the throat opens will determine his ultimate potential for mastering a vocal technique that is functionally free.
This means facing up to the fear and anxiety that are ever present throughout the formative stages of training. No other phase of the learning process is quite as important as this. How the singer meets this challenge will determine whether or not his artistic ambitions will be realized…Since anxiety is so intimately bound up with physical contraction and fear of movement, one of the major problems during training is to break down the student’s innate dread of inner expression…”
Cornelius Reid (1911-2008)
I first discovered Cornelius Reid’s trilogy (The Free Voice, Bel Canto in Principle and Practice and Voice: Psyche and Soma) in graduate school. I resonated deeply with each of these books. Reid’s work, and the work of those who’ve developed his concepts in registration and the role of the psyche in singing since then have formed a basis for the unusual variety and depth of my life’s work.
All teachers of singing need to viscerally understand that histories of vocal pedagogy and of oral musical traditions don’t just change with time. They both have an eternal quality of circling back to embrace roots and then burst forward again in new growth. One feeds the other and around they go, like a wagon wheel moving along the singing trail. They weed out, add to and hold fast – not so much by specific exercises – but by underlying principles, overarching concepts and use of language.
Recently, the above Reid paragraph struck me in a new way. He wrote: “The willingness with which the singer responds to the energy charge when the throat opens….”
What?? What does Reid mean by “willingness to respond to the energy charge when the throat opens?” First of all, he refers to the throat opening as a response to the energy charge. The energy charge comes first! Singing doesn’t even start with the breath or “inhalation.” The throat doesn’t initially open by “creating space,” “placement” or even by getting into character or poetic understanding. It isn’t shaped by “lifting the soft palate,” or “lowering,” “raising,” “tilting” (or whatever-ing) the larynx, or by supporting with the intercostals or transverse abdominals or skilled use of the articulators.
Reid suggests that the initiation of things ‘happening’ is dependent upon how much a person is willing to respond to “The Charge.”
One of my primary voice teachers, Elizabeth Daniels, spoke about “the thing” that happens before you even breathe to sing, and how, if anyone identifies “the thing” they’ll win a Nobel Prize. Daniels’ teacher was Todd Duncan, George Gershwin’s hand-picked Porgy for the premier of Porgy and Bess. Duncan evidently used to say that the way the throat is responding before the breath is taken will determine the freedom of the singing afterwards. And my father, a brilliant and loving full-time church musician, used to say “Cultivate a belly of fire, an open heart and a mind of ice.” And maybe one of the most unique things a teacher can do in our current day and age is help clear a singer’s charge and free it from static so that functional training can take root.
The “energy charge,” to which Reid refers has not been measured by science, but is the result of the urge to sound, or express, as part of our natural makeup up as bioelectric beings. There are many kinds of energy, or electrical phenomena produced within living organisms and within the earth itself.
The late Dr. Meribeth Dayme wrote in the third edition of her book Dynamics of the Singing Voice:
J. Diamond (1983) has defined “life energy” as being a vital force that is physical, mental and spiritual in nature: the physical being reflected in the muscular activity and the functioning of the skeletal system: the mental including thoughts and the ability to be centered; and the spiritual that begins as spirit which is signified by the love and humanity within each person. He has also noted that everything in the environment, both physical and psychic–thoughts, feelings, desires affects life energy.
(Diamond’s trilogy examines this life energy in The Life Energy in Music, vol. I, II, and III. New York: Archaeus Press)
I believe that this is all part of the unencumbered charge to which Reid refers. Or to put it another way, what is The Charge free of? Reid gives us an answer: it is free of anxiety.
Voice and acting teachers, actors, dancers, singers, and healers have been weaving together somatic re-education, movement, mindfulness, nutrition and wellness, bodywork, rehabilitative tools, and intention for over forty-five years now. These ways of uniting the mind-body split in our culture help to heal and repair our willingness and ability to respond to The Charge. It’s that initial thing that has to be allowed before we release and engage our body’s pressure systems to breathe. Yes, the “charge” is our response to life, music, our mission, our joy, our motivation. But it also must be free enough to allow all the ‘things’ that we observe in voice science (including whatever latest research has been reported!) and continually define and redefine in vocal pedagogy to work.
The emotions we feel aren’t the same thing as the energy charge that Reid mentions. It seems to me that many singers are vocally reflecting the angst of the times, rather than establishing how to deliver expression of angst without having the throat shaped by anxiety. Teachers, mentors, coaches, producers, conductors and directors should help to create an environment that supports The Charge. But since that is not always the case, part of a singer’s training must develop a willingness to respond with their own charge, within themselves. Each singer, as they mature throughout their lives, carries the responsibility of protecting their own Charge so that functional training can take root over time and release a naturally musical and expressive soul.
Reid’s next sentence is,
“This means facing up to the fear and anxiety that are ever present throughout the formative stages of training. No other phase of the learning process is quite as important as this. How the singer meets this challenge will determine whether or not his artistic ambitions will be realized.“
This is where we do get a bit of historical pedagogy root rot, because it’s not only in the formative stages of training that this may occur, but can occur at regular intervals throughout our artistic adult lives as we grow, change and navigate life. We can become disconnected from our spirits and learning to listen to our bodies as the Ultimate Wisdom. Sometimes what our bodies are telling us is in direct conflict with what we’ve built in our careers and private lives, and in direct conflict with our motivations. This conflict, by itself, will warp “the charge.”
His final words of the paragraph are:
“Since anxiety is so intimately bound up with physical contraction and fear of movement, one of the major problems during training is to break down the student’s innate dread of inner expression…”
We’re brought back to the rise of somatic tools, dance, all kinds of advances in healing, to aid release of physical contraction and fear of movement. We cannot solve the student’s anxiety—that is their journey.
We can only journey through our own limitations, freeing ourselves in huge and tiny ways as we go. And that is how we free the charge in the students and groups with which we work.
I sing the body electric, The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them, They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them, And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul….