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!

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“Higher Education” Without a Terminal Academic Degree

A former student who just completed her graduate degree in Vocal Pedagogy returned to resume our work together.

She asked how I developed the combination of vocal pedagogy and somatic education she experiences in her lessons. Her words: “nobody teaches singing like this.” So her prompt gave me the idea for this post.


What did the founders of Alexander Technique, The Feldenkrais Method and other somatic education, and vocal pedagogy innovators, have in common?

They used themselves  as primary subjects.

Alexander was an actor who lost his voice. Feldenkrais was an engineer with a black belt in judo and chronic knee pain due to an injury. Ida Rolf,  founder of Rolfing Integrative Technique, was a biochemist who needed solutions to her own health problems and the health issues of her two sons.

Many of the current popular CCM/popular singing pedagogies were developed by people who couldn’t get what they needed as singers from classical teachers, so they set out to build credible research and formulate methods which have ended up serving countless others.

Each of these people had the ability to draw connections among many observations and intuitions. They discoursed with open-minded colleagues and scientists.  They studied the human body and psyche with unusual depth.


… are partnering for freer and stronger performance and life styles.

Finding a voice teacher who combines them both well, and regularly, in their teaching is still rare.  However, this has been done for at least two generations now, and is getting more traction.


So this is my ‘shtick’: I learned how to do this, not through any degreed program, not through certifications or teacher training, not through modeling other pedagogues, but, like those listed above, using myself as the primary subject.

Believe me, it was only out of sheer desperation and necessity.


Yoga was not really a “thing” in the US in 1980, when I was 24 and had just finished a 2- year grad program in Vocal Performance and Pedagogy.

Yoga, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais and other methods were not yet in the awareness of  voice teachers, international performers or performing arts’ education systems in the US.

Graduate programs in vocal pedagogy programs were still rare. My program required singers to do both–about 1/3 pedagogy and 2/3 performance. I had to do a graduate recital, pass a 6 hour exam on general music, IPA and vocal anatomy and write a paper on an historical vocal pedagogue of our choice. I chose Cornelius Reid.

And remember-no Internet. If you wanted information you had to get dressed and go somewhere to dig deep. Using technology meant having an electric typewriter and hand-held calculator, although the first computers, which took up a small room, were being used in colleges.

About age 23, I began experiencing the symptoms of IBS, and anxiety disorder roared through my body. The American Psychiatric Society did not recognize Anxiety Disorder until 1980!

The many doctors I consulted over the next 5 years were condescending and dismissive, and gave me high doses of valium with instructions to “stop being hysterical.” My uber-sensitive system could take one-half of a dose of valium, which enabled me to sit in a corner and drool, and still have the symptoms without being able to move.

I also had many invasive tests administered by sadists that did not bring up anything definitive other than health bills because I didn’t have insurance right then.

There were few alternative health care clinics and no naturopaths. Information about alternative solutions was difficult to find. However, I continued to perform and study singing privately a great deal, and made a name for myself in my 20’s and early 30’s in the niche market of contemporary classical music and chamber opera. I also was teaching over 20 hours a week privately & at the college level, as well as developing courses. Remember, pre Instant Information via Internet.

But then I began missing work due to my symptoms and pain..

I asked for Divine guidance and, while I don’t remember how, was led to a beginning yoga glass taught by a woman in my neighborhood. I took her class in yoga and meditation every week for two years. It gave me practical and grounding tools to manage whatever this awful “thing” was.  I started drawing connections between yoga and singing and adapting poses to teach singing without realizing what I was doing.

I read biographies of famous singers and was influenced by Robert Merrill’s struggle with allergies, diet and singing. (American operatic baritone, 1917-2004.) He ended up living on fish and vegetables in order to be able to sing. So I experimented with diet to see what seemed to trigger symptoms. I constantly drew connections between yoga, diet and the physical act of singing. Back then, no voice teacher talked about diet and life style changes. I offered suggestions to students who usually then searched for their own solutions and made rapid  improvements in their own health.

I was on “tour” in my late 20’s, off and on for two years: Out on the road for 3-5 days then back home again for a few weeks, out and back. I added light weights to my routine and bought a book by Jane Fonda to learn how to use them. She also had an exercise book that included relaxation techniques. Once again, I adapted for teaching.

At the time, nobody in vocal pedagogy and voice science organizations discussed the interconnectedness of all things and how one will affect the other.  This is still true to a large degree.

Over the years, my health took a sinister turn and chronic patterns of surgery and illness became intrenched. I tenaciously looked for and found help for physical and emotional recovery in many out-of-the-mainstream ways.

My husband and I committed financially to my working yearly with 2-4 body workers, somatic educators, chiropractors and alternative medicine practitioners.  One extraordinary medical doctor saved my life and the lives of our children.

But honestly, most of the rest of my experience with western medicine has been quite awful. Botched surgeries, even with “the best surgeons,” resulted in complications that almost killed me, both almost taking me from our children. I refused to be taken from them.

Before the Internet developed advanced search engines, I combed magazines, libraries and bookstores for resources. My favorite early resource was “Maggie’s Women’s Book,” which you can still find on Amazon. She had exercises for post C-sections and pelvic/abdomen health which were revolutionary at the time.

I worked with a yogini privately for five years, an Andover Educator (“Body Mapping”) who was a colleague, and received Therapeutic Massage, Chiropractic, Acupuncture and Rolfing. Certainly not all at once but spread out over the years. All before the year 2000.

At a party I talked with a hip surgeon and asked him if scar tissue created its own kind of problems. He did a rare thing, perhaps because we were at a  reunion and he was into cocktail hour. He admitted that scar tissue often created more problems than the reason for the surgery. BINGO! So I began researching and tried to find someone who could somehow break up the scar tissue in my abdomen. I worked with several massage therapists and an alternative osteopath who used infrared light and facial release. (I avoided bee venom injections because that sounded crazy.)

All this was necessary to allow me to function passionately and with purpose as a parent, partner, teacher, singer and instrumentalist.

I studied detailed anatomy of the body, not just the larynx or how the vocal folds work. Over a 30 year period I kept studying singing with 3 fantastic functional voice teachers while I attended, as well as taught, master classes, workshops and events.

With each thing I attended and observed, I became more convinced of the connections between truly effective vocal pedagogy and somatic education principles.

I became certified in Somatic VoiceWork tm: The Lovetri Method, because Lovetri’s manner and functional methodology closely follows the principles of somatic reeducation–the connection of the body, mind and psyche– at its best.

There was a 6 year period in my late-30’s/early 40’s where I received talk therapy and was on anti-depressent, anti-anxiety and ADD medications all at once. They enabled me to function in the day-to-day, but absolutely killed my passion and creativity. They caused massive weight gain and just masked endocrine and emotional issues caused by endocrine dysfunction that needed to be healed. The 4 endocrinologists I saw were useless.

I relearned how effective visualizing is a gift of the neuroplasticity of the brain.  Of course, as a singer and instrumentalist, I had been doing this unconsciously my whole life, but with Tai Chi, Tribal Belly Dance, Alexander Technique and pilates classes over a 20 year period, I became a beginner again. It was astonishing! With each surgery and surgical complication, with an immune system disorder due to the MTHFR double gene, I had to find ways to “come back.”

I worked with Suzan Postel, who is a most brilliant somatic educator. She was a dancer and singer on Broadway, playing Tuptim in “The King and I,” opposite Rudolf Nureyev as The King. She got into this type of education due to her own injuries and is a master of explaining what we do and why.


No reasonable vocal pedagogue would admit this, but hey, clearly my path has not been “reasonable.” I have visions…always have.

One day I was writing down what I had learned about pelvic stability & respiration, and suddenly I had a ‘vision’ of an elephant waving its trunk at me, balancing easily on a tiny ball with all four huge feet.

I sat quietly for a moment. Then I reread an article sitting on my desk on the psoas muscles being the emotional core of the body.  BAM! The “psoas” are the STABILIZERS OF THE TRUNK–hahahah! Repeated emotional and physical trauma will cause them to freeze and shorten.

And there I went, down the rabbit hole of psoas muscle research (found Liz Koch’s work) and finding body workers who could work on this with me and explain what they were doing and why. One tell-tale sign that the psoas is dysfunctional is walking with the feet splayed outward, which, at the time, I did. And the relationship to the function of the diaphragm is amazing.

I also honed those intuitive skills by working with disciplined spiritual practices to make sure I was truly reading a student’s energy clearly. I have three posts on “Clairsentience as a Teaching Tool” on this blog.


Over the past 5 years I’ve delved into neurological health after being diagnosed with bi-lateral vocal fold paralysis from “unknown neurological dysfunction.” (the vocal folds are pristine.)

Only 5 years ago, most otolaryngologists and speech language pathologists new very little about singing voice dysfunction. The field has exploded in the past five years, and there are more skilled people who can help. But five years ago, 2 otolaryngologists and 2 speech-language pathologists that I saw were 2 thumbs down.

There I went again, searching for my own solutions out of desperation. This time I added salt baths and cranial sacral techniques, herbs, veganism, created a reduced work load at a higher pay rate, committed to psycho-spiritual counseling, and read up on vagus nerve stimulation. This lead to Poly-Vagal Theory.

I worked with Jeanie Lovetri in her role as singing voice rehabilitation specialist. After 5 years I am singing functionally again, but certainly not optimally. This means that getting through a simple song is difficult, and if I don’t do my exercises and meditations, the voice goes again.

I never gave up. Sometimes your weakness becomes your greatest strength.

I’m finished living like this though. I am going to learn through wellness now.

None of this learning resulted in an extra couple of academic degrees because you can’t earn degrees in this kind of stuff.

Sometimes the Highest Education comes out of how you’ve lived your life.


Check out my case studies on Functional Training, Somatic Education and Singing Voice Rehab HERE.

Performing Bio

Teaching Bio

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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.