“In helping a person increase functionality, it is important to follow the logic of human development. You can not expect someone to run who can not walk.”
–from “Singing With Your Whole Self–The Feldenkrais Method and Voice,” by Samuel Nelson and Elizabeth Blades-Zeller.
In these “Vocal Master Class” posts, I am suggesting specific ways to combine somatic education, functional voice training and vital singing into teaching singing privately. Future posts will show how I’ve used these three approaches in group settings. Each post in this series has information which relates to the others, so go HERE to find the other posts.
Linda is a 64-year old retired business woman who has sung her whole life and studied singing privately off and on. She is in good health. After her husband passed away, she decided to renew herself by studying singing and exploring jazz standards in several languages. She sang for two years in a chorus I conducted at as a member of the Voice and Choral Faculties of Levine Music before she approached me for private lessons.
I had noticed that Linda routinely “held” herself very carefully and there was a veiled sound to her singing, although it also had a lovely timbre and was tuneful. She sang in a swallowed chest registration. She shared with me when she auditioned for the chorus that her mother always told her she couldn’t sing and frequently made fun of her attempts to take lessons as a young adult. She had no parental support for her singing and obviously felt she did not deserve to be heard….
…..and I could see by the way she carried herself that she had no kinesthetic sense of her spine as supportive and flexible. She said she often had lower back pain, but as far as she knew, there was no medical issue. So I chose to start with exercises I learned from Andover Educator, Dr. Sarah Adams Hoover. Dr. Hoover introduced me to the study of Body Mapping, a phrase coined by the founder of Andover Education, William Conable.
I asked Linda to drape herself, stomach first, over a 55 mm Pilates ball and gently roll back and forth until she became comfortable and relaxed. After asking her permission to touch her back, I placed one hand on the center of the back of her head and the other on her tail bone. (essentially the length of the spine.)
Through slow awareness exercises, such mindful breathing and mental images stimulated by spinal animation videos on the web, she became aware of differences in sensation between 1.) holding herself in her habitual rigid pattern and 2) being able to feel her spine contracting when she inhales, and lengthening on the exhale. The reason this is important is that if the spine is not freely moving on inhaling and exhaling, there will be no movement anywhere else, including the larynx and vocal folds!
With time, this awareness was transferred to sitting and standing, allowing for the change in gravity with each. Her new awareness needs to be reenforced as she sings.
Dr. June Wieder, author of Song of the Spine calls this natural movement “…a standing wave between these curves in order to maintain the structural and neural integrity of the nervous system.” The freedom of our singing is dependent on the function of our central nervous system.
Functional Voice Training
Thanks to the baby boomers and those who came of age in the 1950’s, there are more senior singers than ever working to stay vital and sing longer. When working with older singers you must understand what happens to a body and voice as it ages. Also know that it is possible for new neural pathways from brain to body to be forged with the right kind of physical and mental exercises in voices that have functional problems.
If I was to work with Linda according to how she sounded, I would have started with breathing and brighter vowels,”getting the sound forward,” relaxing the tongue, relearning vowel formations, activating the soft palate, etc. She would have improved for a time, maybe 3 months, then tapered off, because the issues did not stem from how she sounded.
They were the result of what her vocal folds were not doing.
“They way she sounded” were symptoms of weak vocal fold closure as well as atrophied thyroarytenoid and cricothyroid muscles. Ossification (cartilage turning into bone) actually starts in a fetus, but the process continues and amplifies as we age.
In spite of Linda’s singing entirely in chest voice, it was a weak chest voice function which was a surprise to her. Our process, once a week for 3 months, focused on functional exercises to coax response from those weakened muscles, then strengthen them in balance with pure head voice.
In the second 3 months, we added a few traditional vocalize after the functional work. I had to remember that I could not move faster than Linda was ready to go functionally AND emotionally. She began personal therapy which has enabled her to move through her study with more purpose and happiness.
From the start, I made a deal with Linda that if she would trust me and not work on any songs during her lessons for 6 months, she could use the following resources to play with her singing at home. I promised we would begin working on songs after she had been regularly studying and practicing what I wanted her to practice for 6 months. She trusted me from the years she sang under my choral direction.
2. Pages from Bob Staloff’s book Scat! Comes with a CD. (This is actually an advanced book, so unless you are working with a true jazz artist, I strongly recommend that the teacher be able to sing the exercises before introducing the exercises to students. It is not my standard recommended “go to” for singers interested in real jazz–not just singing standards out of a collection– but individual pages were excellent for Linda.)
3. I built some exercises around some of the Spanish and French songs she wanted to sing, focusing on singing the phrases without consonants. (snuck some traditional pedagogy in there!)
This approach enabled her to have fun until she caught on to what the functional work could help her do and why we were doing it.
After working with her consistently for about 11 months, I partnered her with a former student who is a professional guitarist interested in the same kinds of music, and they prepared a one half hour Christmas set for a holiday gathering. That is a huge deal for someone who has never done such a thing before!
She is now singing at local open mikes, and has developed the confidence to sign up for summer music camps. Her voice is losing the veiled, “stuck” quality, is brighter and more present, and has a usable 2 octave range with easy transitions from bottom to top. She now has an instrument that she can begin to “play.”
This is a real “voice building” process. I know that many voice teachers don’t bother with students like Linda. The reason I feel it is important is that it is one way to build community. We live in a world sorely in need of transformation. By transforming ourselves and helping students who are willing to do the work, we become part of an alchemical process. Sadness, frustration and anger start to roll over into joy and purpose.
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