Evidence-Based Vocal Pedagogy and Other Mystifications Part I

I’m developing a 5-month digestible program for singing teachers who haven’t had the opportunity to develop a hands-on understanding of what “evidence-based” teaching of singing means in the 21st century.

Dr. Kari Ragan has written her thoughts on this topic in a Journal of Singing article. You do have to be a NATS member to access it on line. However, you can always contact Kari, tell her you are interested in her work, and ask if she will forward you her article.

I’ve been able to work privately with many masters-in-pedagogy and performance graduates, in classical, jazz and contemporary genres, after they graduate with their degrees. I’m seeing a strange trend that has developed over the past 10-15 years, of voice teachers not understanding what to do with the information they have learned. They aren’t sure how to make it useful or fit it in with their world of experience. So the next summer, they go to another pedagogy intensive, hoping to learn what they still do not understand.

There are many fine voice pedagogues who teach in useful ways, and are able to distinguish between voice science, vocal pedagogy, what is true and what is useful. But if you want to be the best teacher you can be, and are not in their programs, how to you begin to make the same distinctions?

That’s what my program is for. I am collaborating with Dr. Patrick L’Espoir Decosta (Australian National University School of Business) to lay the infrastructure for the course.

In Part II I give you a little quiz on what you might think “evidence-based” means in the field of Adult Learning. Especially interesting if you teach adults!

Vocal Warm Ups to Enchant Your Singing

I was inspired to write this blog post by Nikki Loney, a Canadian vocal music educator who runs a popular vocal music education podcast called The Full Voice. She has a three-part series called “Warm Ups from Around the World.”

The warm-ups Nikki includes are suitable for many ages and stages of singers. Part of her mission is to help singers & teachers understand the reasons for the vocal exercises they use, and sing them in a spirit of fun and exploration. While the exercises may be familiar to more experienced teachers, I was thrilled to hear the guest artist/teachers’ explanations for WHY you are using them and HOW to do them.

This matters much more than the actual exercises themselves! So consider heading over to her series and listen.

In the meantime, here’s three vocal warm-ups from CateFNStudios that I use.

I.  Pick a short musical phrase from the music that your student or group is singing. Choose one that can be moved up and down the chromatic scale easily. Limit them one or two measures at the most.

Here’s an example for developing voices of any age or stage: a passage from the end of Linda Ronstadt’s recording of Ray Orbison’s “Blue Bayou.”

Use “Blue—Bay—-Ou—-“

Works for women and men. Roy Orbison recorded it first, but he ends on the upper tonic, not the displaced third. If you aren’t sure what that means, listen to them both. You’ll hear the difference without needing to know the theory.

This helps coordinate chest to head registration smoothly in all styles of music, perhaps after registration work has taken root. It easily syncs with most functional vocal pedagogy models out there that use other names for those registrations/qualities.

It can also help with teaching relationships between intervals and with coordinating sustained singing. You can also use it as a “Messa di Voce” exercise.

Plus you get to introduce young people to Ronstadt and Orbison if they look at you with a blank stare….

For choristers, any pattern that has slow, sustained passages has the benefit of the kind of choral tuning that American choral conductor Robert Shaw used. Church choir directors can’t usually take the time needed for this way of working, but it can be incorporated into 2 minutes with one short passage as part of your choir’s warm-up. Over time this will develop stamina, mental focus, and group bonding.

II. For vocal flexibility and ear training for world music, Indie artists or jazz singers–have them warm up on arpeggiated patterns that are not the traditional major scale 1-3-5-8-5-3-1 pattern.

Eventually move to other arpeggiated blues or harmonic patterns using syllables they choose. Try to guide them to “ahs and ays” on the lower notes and “ees, oos or ohs” on the higher pitches. Scat singers will use their patterns or you can suggest something like “doo-bway-doo,” etc.

PS. I make classical singers do this, too, to wake up their ears.

I recognize that not all singers and teachers can play this warm up in different keys on a keyboard. You can adapt this idea for you and your students in any way that serves them.

III. This general idea is for singers who know their music well and are far enough along that it makes sense to them:

I coached privately many years ago with the late Randolph Maulden, of The Washington Opera. Obviously I warmed up before coachings, but then he often had me sing phrases from whatever I was working on, starting 4 1/2 steps down from its key, and going up two more 1/2 steps beyond the highest note and back down. I experienced this as a real work out. This gave me a chance to move through all the registration minutia, and solidified where high notes in the right key actually existed in my throat, body and psyche (as a whole singer.) This idea also can be adapted, so open to your creativity!

Once you know the HOW and the WHY for a warm-up or exercise, you can always adapt it to be the most useful!

Please like, comment or share to let me know this post was helpful to you!

Elizabeth Daniels, Teacher of Singing

Elizabeth Daniels is a popular and highly-respected teacher of singing in the Washington, DC area, working with classical singers in opera, oratorio, chamber music and art song. I am including here a few short paragraphs about her teaching because she does not have much of a web presence.

Her singing students have won, or placed in, many prestigious vocal competitions including the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, the National Association of Teachers of Singing Artist Awards, Operalia, the Liederkranz Competition, Das Lied International Song Competition, the Jenny Lind Competition and the Seoul International Music Competition. Many of her students have been accepted into coveted opera apprentice programs including those of Des Moines Opera, Sarasota Opera, Opera North, the Washington National Opera Domingo-Cafritz and the Tanglewood, Ravinia and Aspen Summer Music Festivals.

She was a long-time voice student of the late, great Todd Duncan, George Gershwin’s hand-picked ‘Porgy’ for his opera. Porgy and Bess. Duncan was a well-beloved voice teacher himself.  Liz is the preferred private voice teacher for the Washington National Opera Domingo-Cafritz program, and was a 2011 Master Voice Teacher for the National Association of Teachers of Singing Intern Program. She has been named a Rosa Ponselle Teacher of the Year and was an adjunct faculty member at Curtis Institue of Music, The University of Maryland/College Park, MD and the Catholic University of America.

I first met Liz 29 years ago (!) at the final auditions for a professional vocal octet sponsored by Wolftrap Foundation for the Arts to be conducted by the late choral conductor, Paul Traver.

Over the three hour audition, Dr. Traver grouped the 12 finalists into various combinations until he found the sound he wanted, and whittled the 12 down to 8. Liz made it. I did not.

But in a classic example of why you “never know what will come out of an audition,” Liz remembered me and called several months later to say how disappointed she was that I was not hired to sing with her. What followed has been 29 years of working together as singing and teaching colleagues, including founding The Washington Vocal Consortium. (1987-2012.) Sixteen of those years she has also been my principle voice teacher and mentor. Since we first met, I have admired her service and work ethic, her musicianship, her technical knowledge and success as a teacher of singing, and success in combining family with a music career.

I chose her as the first singer/singing teacher for my Guest Blog Post Series and caught up with her recently for an interview. Liz doesn’t have a large web presence, but her “marketing strategy” for an over-flowing private studio and workshop schedule, is, as she says, “the singer standing at the other end of the piano.”

Liz goes on to say, “Nothing succeeds like success. If your student is singing well and out working, your name as their teacher gets around. But what many people who want to study with me don’t realize is that every singer is different with a different set of needs. Every singer is a different instrument. I can not guarantee them success, but I CAN guarantee that if we work well together, they will be singing better in three months than when they started.

I am not afraid to give it to students straight. When someone comes in and says they want to sing at the Met, I say that there are so many steps between where they are now and that goal that they need to learn to be satisfied with small success and take one step at a time. It takes years and years to build a voice, no matter what people think. Our culture wants everything “yesterday,” instant this and that.

Your own singing career included opera, oratorio and recital. What genres did you enjoy the most?

I obviously LOVE opera, but the kinds of opera characters that my light lyric soprano voice were best suited for sometimes bored me, unless they were comedic. Oratorio was very lucrative, but my favorite art form is the art song and the art of the concert recital. I am in love with the nuance, color, and drama of art song, all distilled into a few minutes per song.

As you know, I am a board member of Vocal Arts DC. and Chair of their Education Program. I also run their Discovery Series Vocal Competition, which brings young professional singers into the community to introduce students of all ages to art song.

Assuming a singer has talent, what do you consider the most important attributes that contribute to their success as an artist?

1) Directed and Focused Energy

2) A natural confidence–some are born with it. It is not conceit, but the understanding that you absolutely deserve to be heard. Some people have to work awfully heard to feel they deserve to be heard.

3) The ability to realistically identify and capitalize on your strengths, and the humility to strengthen your weaknesses.

4) The ability to come up with a concrete plan for not repeating large mistakes. You know the proverbial wisdom–anger turned inward is depression. Well, if a singer makes a mistake–sure, get angry, but that needs to lead you to practice to correct it.   The teacher must help redirect a defeatest or scattered mindset to positive action. This is as important as the technical and artistic training.

5) Willingness to work on health and appearance. Like it or not, we live in a media age and people pay attention to grooming and health.

I think that one of your strengths is that when you take a student on, you commit to helping them to the best of your ability. Even when you were performing and raising children, you were present for your students.

Frankly, it always astonished me–and this happens often–when a singer says ‘thank you for always believing in me.’ Well, if someone is listening to me, working and improving, why wouldn’t you believe in them? We’re not talking about chasing perfection here–that is always a moving target.

And here’s the magic of the singers’ art–when you are able to sing something very well, the line between technique and expression becomes very blurred–you begin to enjoy the sensations of technique which enable you to sing something that elicits emotion–and you get to the point where you cannot separate that technical, physical sensation from the sensation of the emotion–in a way, the technical becomes the emotional…It’s never a question of giving up one to have the other.

Setting Intentions When You Teach

I have begun setting intentions out loud at the beginning of teaching vocal workshops, conducting rehearsals, and sometimes at the beginning of teaching private lessons. This is a little different from having a systematic “method” or rehearsal plan, because it sets the tone (no pun intended) for what will happen in the session.

It allows room for other ways, other than the information I am relaying or my manner of working, to help in Realizing–or manifesting– what is intended. It means that anything and everything that happens will contribute in some way to the realizing of that stated intention.

(If you would like to more know of how this works, begin by checking out Good Vibe University or read The Amazing Power of Deliberate Intent, 

Here is a recent example: I was hired to teach a course for a professional in-service day for Washington, DC public school vocal music educators. I had about two hours to inspire, inform and encourage teachers while covering elementary through high school basics of developmental vocal technique and performance practice in all styles of music…..

…in other words, I had a taste of the impossible task they perform every day, except without student behavioral issues and the red tape, paper work and crushing load of bureaucratic bullshit they deal with hour by hour, day by day.

I started by asking the teachers what they were responsible for, and, after picking up my jaw off the floor, I set this intention out loud:

It is my intention to give you something in this time together that inspires you, feeds your love of teaching which often feels buried, and to give you information and tools which you can really use to help your students develop personally and in group music-making.

And it worked. Even though the session sometimes veered and careened from the syllabus now and then, much was covered, more or less, and each teacher felt heard and that he/she had some solutions for issues they often faced.

I felt useful and happy.  And received a 20 out of possible 20 evaluation points from the teachers themselves.  Which surprised me, as I did not know I was being evaluated.  (But this is public education, after all–the evaluation shouldn’t have been a surprise.)


Here is a story of what one public elementary school educator can do given the support of the school’s principal, administration, parents and larger community.

It takes a village to care for a teacher.