Vocal Master Class #1: “Bicep Blues”

Laura is a 33-year old folk-rock/Americana professional singer/song-writer and multi-instrumentalist. She’s won an impressive number of awards and grants as a recording artist, educator and performer. She found me after her singing had become weak and strained, and understandably she was worried. She had never received any formal voice training but had sung her whole life.

A challenge of working with musicians who are making part of their living singing is that they want to continue gigging while they learn and readjust. It’s been my experience that I may lose a singer who fits this description if I don’t move from exercises to practical application right away. No science. Working professional singers who are not voice teachers often don’t want the science until they are feeling fluid again.

Laura’s initial consultation/lesson included a full intake where I found out about her lifestyle, medications and supplements she regularly takes. I immediately looked up vocal side effects of several of her medications at The National Center for Voice and Speech. Fortunately, none of her medications had known vocal side effects.

Laura took a lesson once a week for several months, then went to a more sporadic lesson schedule. For the past two years, she has come in for “tune-ups” at the rate of 2 a year. Every time she comes in there is a reassessment of her speaking, singing and general health, which determines what we work in that lesson. The following sample is a compilation of her lessons in this year.

Somatic Work:

We invite a shoulder girdle release and stretch through a repeated exercise using a yoga strap and mindful exhale of breath. Afterwards she says her ribs feel “rotated”–her word–which feels more free to her. She also notices that her head is not sitting as far forward on her neck as it was when she came in. We practice a breath that involves an inhale sustained over a  count of 4, followed by holding the breath for a 2 count, then exhale for 4 count, hold for 2 count, etc.–NOT in order to practice “breathing  for singing,” but to calm her  parasympathetic nervous system. She has come into this lesson both tired and wired. Caffeine consumption is way up today.

Once she calms down a bit, she asks to do  a Trigger Point Chest Release exercise that I showed her last year when her father passed away. She feels that this exercise helps free an area in her chest where she has identified  restriction (in her case, from  grief.) She feels that the exercise helps her experience breathing as a release, not a ‘tanking up.’

Reassessment and moving though these body exercises takes about 15 minutes. But now she is ready and focused to move into her work.

Functional Work

There is no one way of voice training that is called “functional voice training,” but all functional voice teachers can agree on the basic idea that if laryngeal muscles are trained in an appropriate and systematic fashion, they will go through muscle fibre changes as well as neurological changes. This, in turn, starts to influence the vocal tract and breath management, both of which then can be worked on from a functional perspective.

The semi-occluded straw exercises are all the rage in the voice teaching community now, but I feel they are not the answer to everything. Laura shows me how she has been doing them and I tweak them to become more efficient. She was pressing her lips together very hard and adding a thrust of her tongue.

We then move into “register isolation exercises” from the Cornelius Reid vocal pedagogy tradition.  Because Laura’s central nervous system has calmed and her mind refocused on inner process,  we  are able to work slowly and systematically, with stops along the way for her to process what she is sensing. She has been practicing some of the exercises by shoving way to much air through the glottis, so it takes a few minutes for her to get the hang of a more efficient manner of doing them. I reiterate that she can have half hour tune-ups by the web between sessions to catch these kinds of habits so that she is not working against herself.

“Register blending” exercises follow. These are an array of specific tonal patterns, vowels and loud/soft, but can be mixed up depending on what the singer needs. Laura catches herself folding her shoulders in and recognizes for the first time that this is what happens as she sits at her computer in this hunched manner.  (Even though I have asked her to observe this a million times before, today a lightbulb has gone off!)  But I also need to determine if all that is needed is a ‘quick yoga strap postural fix’ or if she is actually being pulled forward because of registration imbalance, which can cause poor posture!

I determine the latter through the way she moves through the tonal patterns with various vowel combinations, tongue movements and noises. I stay in a lower-middle range until she can feel her larynx start to move freely between registers. I have her place her finger sideways across the front of her throat so she can feel movement through the registration pivotal points. She stops pulling forward after about 10 minutes of very slow work, eventually returning to freer alignment.

In order to work this way, I must be willing to trust the process and not tell her “what to do.” I use simple directives and keep myself in a neutral emotional  state, which, I believe, helps her get to the freedom of movement we seek.  And honestly? It has been a lifetime of my own spiritual practice  to learn how to “be” in a neutral emotional state! Congrats to you teachers who know how to do this!! Brava and Bravo!

Vital Singing

I ask her to sing part of a song and she chooses something that she wrote that she performs frequently. As she starts to sing, her face lights up and she alternates between singing and giving me verbal feedback. “It feels so free!” There was no break!” I ask her to just sing and stay in the delight of what she is feeling. She pulls out her guitar, straps it on, quickly tunes it up, and begins to sing again.

Lord, the whole thing falls apart. Her face is crestfallen and I know that I can not let her leave her lesson until she is back in her happy place.

The instant she begins to play her guitar, I notice a  tensing in her left bicep. I ask her to keep singing as I gently press and pulse on the bicep–her whole body alignment flies into a freer place and she is closer to her happy singing spot. This is not something that could have happened in one or two lessons, but is due to our process over time. We have worked with her playing her guitar before, but this “bicep business” is a new habit that has cropped up.

We spend a few minutes working on rephrasing some texts, and discover that there are many words which start with the letters “SH.” But then I notice that every time she goes through an “SH” she clenches her jaw shut and the bicep starts to engage!  This sort of freaks both of us out. I show her how “SH” belongs to the family of consonants that are called “spring jaw consonants.” They are pronounced as if one has an upper jaw (which you obviously don’t!) and quickly and gently spring the upper jaw down to meet the lower jaw. The vowels stay more connected and articulation through those passages stays precise but freed up. (Thank you,  master voice teacher Elizabeth Daniels, for Consonants’ School!) We practice this action separately, then with singing, and then with singing and playing  and the bicep eventually releases again. I am in utter awe of this process.

This lesson was heavy on the functional work, but we kept connecting the dots with somatics and vital singing. The ratios change from lesson to lesson. And yes, this lesson took more than an hour but my fee allows for this necessary time, at my discretion.

Later that week, I watch Laura perform, live-streamed, on the Kennedy Center’s Millenium Stage, and am thrilled to see and hear that she has embraced and embodied much of our work. She sounds great, and looks at ease, happy and engaged.

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