Singing Through Change: Who We are Writing For

If menopause symptoms were due solely to hormonal changes then the menopausal experience would be more homogenous.

In “Singing Through Change: Women’s Voices in Midlife, Menopause and Beyond, Nancy Bos, Joanne Bozeman and I are writing for a wide variety of singers who:

–Have sung all their lives but don’t understand that singing through the lifespan is like being active in sports. You need to tend things along the way or you can’t play.

Don’t know much about their bodies or biological cycles other than what they hear in media or what their doctors tell them.

–Work with singers through midlife and aging: coaches, teachers, performers, choral conductors, music directors and medical personal.

–Are colleagues, students and medical professionals. We are writing the book we wish we’d had as we moved through our changes.

A very T-A-L-L order? Yes.

That’s why there are three of us writing in collaboration. We are really excited about the very unique way of co-authoring we’ve created! It takes longer than if we each write a chapter, but it’ll be worth it!

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Singing and Teaching From an Undivided Self

In a month or so I am launching a mentoring program for Teachers of Singing and Recovering Academics.

It’s called “The Alchemy of Teaching Singing.”

I put this together because there is a crying need for those who work with singers to understand that the best teaching and coaching comes from those who come from an Undivided Self.

They are teaching WHO they are far more than WHAT they know.

Learning to do this requires a sort of alchemical process to find personal and pedagogical truths amidst the deafening noise of information, data, and a cult of personality. These things don’t work well with singing. Because singing is about the silence of stillness, becoming a channel for bio-electric energy, all human expression and divine connection.

I think many teachers know this–but they don’t FEEL it. They know in their heads how it is supposed to be, but have not been able to embody it yet, even as they help their students considerably. They have degrees and workshop certifications coming out every available body hole but still are wondering where their magic is.

We have more educated voice teachers now than at any time in the history of academia and dare I say it? Very little teaching from an Undivided Self, which means very little true wisdom.

It is about staying centered in spite of (insert performance issue, equipment malfunction, audience reaction, your self-agonizing “oh I didn’t sing that passage well.”) The later is slap-in-the-face to the privilege of singing and having an education. All functional pedagogy must lead to these things, or it is simply mental masturbation

Your “undivided Self” is created, not only in health and wellness, but by exploring your own inner life and creativity. “The Alchemy of Teaching Singing” will introduce practical and useful steps towards integrating your Undivided Self as a teacher and a singer.

Every major thread of one’s life experience must be honored, which creates a state of being of such coherence and strength that it can hold students and subject as well as the Self.

Singing is the “Great Thing” that should exist at the center of our teaching. The ‘center of knowing’ is often placed with the teacher, and ignores the special place where the magic happens: in the space between singer and singing teacher.

Special thanks to Palmer Parker and his brilliant book “The Courage to Teach.”

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!

Creative Renewal: Five Responses to What Have You “Done” Lately?

I usually introduce students and clients to each other between lesson by way of cool tidbits. The other day I said, “Steven, meet Carolyn–she loves the American songbook and is a wonderful singer. Carolyn, meet Steven, he is also a voice teacher and is also a two-time Grammy award-winner!”

Carolyn was duly impressed, and as the brief conversation unfolded to include when those Grammies were won and for what, (2008 and 2012) Carolyn said “well, that WAS a while ago. What have you done recently?”

‘Scuze me, but WTFridge?

Lordy, I know we are perceived as only as “good” as our last major accomplishment–that college appointment, performance or tour, workshop taught, media article or pounds lost, but this comment really got under my skin. The monster that is the World Wide Web reenforces this mind-set every second of every day.

It is a mindset of judging others based on what they are churning out, as if that is the golden measure of skill, worthiness, integrity and tenacity. We live, not only in a violent, rape culture, but one that pays surface appreciation for the results of creativity and collaboration without valuing the time required for both.

That judgement from others is a massive reflection of the resounding and crippling judgement we have for ourselves. AND JUDGEMENT KILLS CREATIVITY and CREATES HEART WOUNDS.

As a life-long Creative, I live with this knowledge every day.

“She hasn’t done anything since she released that album 2 years ago.”

“He must be getting old because I haven’t seen anything about him in years.”

“He won a couple of Grammies but hasn’t done much since then.”

This attitude means “she/he isn’t relevant anymore/has lost steam/insert other moronic conclusion here.” As if the artist/teacher is a pampered cow, for others to milk and live off of.

This attitude reflects the hungry monster of consuming, consuming, consuming, and also the endless self-promotion and social media feed as part of the “cult of personality” we love. We have a presidential candidate that has risen in prominence solely because of his skills in all those areas.

We are good at that here in the United States. We are a nation of Pac-Men and Pac-Women, eating and consuming and demanding endless loops of SPLASH! to fill our empty, nervous spaces.

So here are five examples of responses for when someone asks you “What Have You Done Since Then?” or perhaps, more if the person is more enlightened, “What Are You Working On Now?”

  1. I am researching ways to cope more efficiently and joyfully with a chronic health issue. It is taking a lot of time and money, but what I have found out is—and this relates to my field because—
  2. I have sustained a free lance performing and teaching career, where I actually supported myself financially for (x) many years,–have you ever done that?–and am looking for ways to streamline my operation so I can have more time for (x).
  3.  I am writing a series of articles on (x) to help people who are (x)
  4.  I’ve been teaching, performing and caring for a family for (x) years, and have been constantly treading this super-human balancing act. As in agriculture, sometimes fields have to be left fallow to renew, and I am letting some of my fields lie fallow to renew by x, y, z.
  5.  I am working with a consultant to combine my skills in music, teaching and yoga–which are now hot topics but I have the experience of combining them for 30 years–into a more modern brand that can compete with other, less experienced but technologically-savy generations, as long as I want to work.

How else can you verbalize your current status to reflect some of what is required to live life-long creativity and relevance in the marketplace while learning to truly love yourself?

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Psoas Release and Strengthening in a Tenor: Vocal Master Class #2

Nick is a musical and musically-literate 28-year old tenor with a Theater Degree and college voice lessons. He was on the roster of, and acted professionally with, an East Coast Shakespeare Company and sings in operetta, opera and golden age musical theater. He arrived full of enthusiasm…and with a voice transitioning from baritone to tenor.

About 15 years ago, through personal circumstance, I realized that the ‘Psoas Muscles’  are an important part of both the body’s Core Muscles and Respiratory System. Somatic Educators are talking about them now, but they remain rarely discussed in the voice teaching community. They are  primary muscles in stabilizing the trunk of the body and in movement.

The Psoas is deeply connected to the diaphragm through the fascia, and with the main ligaments of the diaphragm  which run alongside the psoas and wrap around the top of the psoas.

Nicks’ postural habits were to stand with his pelvis thrust forward and his thoracic and cervical vertebrae collapsed. He stood and walked with his knees turned out and feet splayed. Vocal pedagogue, Marybeth Dayme, (Dynamics of the Singing Voice and other vocal pedagogy books), advocates that singers stand with their feet pointing straight out, knees unlocked, to help biodynamic energy flow. I use this idea with most students and for most, it stabilizes the hips and pelvic structure so breath management and general grounding work more efficiently. But Nick could not stand this way comfortably, and it made his alignment even worse, so I knew he needed to tea to first release, then strengthen, his psoas muscles if we were going to free up his alignment in order to have his functional voice training really take root.

For the first two months of weekly lessons, we worked on psoas lengthening, releasing, and strengthening. This took about five to ten minutes of every lesson, and he did the exercises at home. His body alignment used to make him look like a “curmudgeon,” and now reads “leading man!” There was a gradual change in his perception of standing and moving.

Here are some good sources for learning about the Psoas Muscles and how to release and strengthen them for free and flexible alignment.

Liz Koch’s “The Psoas Book.”  Or Visit her Website.

How to Stretch and Strengthen the Psoas

articles from Align Integration and Movement

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Part III, Journal of a Richard Miller Week

(Photo of Bach Invention #13 by Deborah Hurd)

This is Part III of sharing personal journal notes from five days of intensive teacher training with the great vocal pedagogue and singer, Richard Miller, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1994.  For Parts I and II, go HERE and scroll down.

It is interesting to compare these notes to what is available in pedagogy graduate programs now days. This information seems basic now, but 20 years ago it was new information.

Tuesday, May 24, 1994.

Early this morning I spoke with (the two year old) on the phone–Ma said she was drinking her bottle and smiling.  She wanted me to keep talking and talking! I sang her “baa baa black sheep.”

There’s not enough coffee in me yet but here goes….Nose breath valuable at the end of long phrases, like Brahms, Strauss to help avoid a noisy release.  Miller says you don’t need to breath in the shape of the vowel.  This is just extraneous movement.

Use “breath of expectancy,” don’t over open the soft palate–straight back from the soft palate is a bony ridge.

He emphasizes practicing daily onset/agility/sostenuto

Miller is passionate about the function of the solo voice in a choral setting.  (right on!)  “Choral music is vocal music!”  He cites Robert Fountain and Robert Shaw (two choral directors who were household names in my home.) I am smiling as he quotes Shaw’s philosophy–“you don’t blend voices…you balance voices.”  This means you must have a working physiology of the voice to direct a choir. (oh, ivory tower thoughts….so true but not reality…)

Use of consonants for adjustments of the vocal tract:
Insert I

We then practice this on our own for a few minutes to feel how the vocal tract is shaped with by these consonants.  It sounds like a bee hive exploded in here right now.

What I notice the most is that these consonants help the (a) vowel resonate toward the front of the mouth more, rather than getting caught in the back. (Then there are a  bunch of gibberish notes that I can not make sense of, followed by the phrase “Refer to Miller’s “Structure of Singing.”)

We stand and are led in some stretching exercises by a teacher from the group.  We divide into SATB and sing the exercises he has used all week in choral voicing.   He doesn’t stop to “correct,” but lets us sing and makes general comments.

He lectures on fundamentals, harmonics, overtones and partials.  His lecture is almost verbatim from his book “Training Soprano Voices,” which I have and had him autograph. I made notes in the margins.

Nasality permeates American culture in speaking, therefore, in singing.  (I wondered about this when he first mentioned ‘Sing as you Speak.”)

Insert 2

It is a mistake to build voices entirely on (i) or (u) Interesting, as I spent 3 years with (shall remain nameless) vocalizing only on (i).

Miller’s slides were put on glossies to be used with an overhead–clearer than slides.

Robert Merrill and Sam Ramey studied with the same teacher as Paul Plishka, Thomas Hampson and Leonard Warren.  (note from 2016.  I just looked this up because when I reread this, I couldn’t believe one teacher influenced Warren to Hampson, but Horst Gunther, baritone and teacher, was born 1913 and died in 2013!)

Miller mentions that there are not enough elite power singers used as subjects for voice science.  Which was another question I had earlier this week.

Afternoon masterclass–students from Belmont University–

20-yr-old soprano sings Mozart “Deh vieni, non tardar”  Miller:  recitative should have an arioso quality, not “secco.”  Needs longer vowels more in rhythm.  Establish a legato line in 6/8, 12/8, etc by singing one pitch for an entire phrase.  He insists on a consistent vibrato but doesn’t address that in more detail.  “Don’t die on the the dot.”

21-yr-old soprano sings Bach “My Heart Ever Faithful”  Miller uses

Insert 3

He uses the phrase “Stay with the same vowel” instead of “don’t close into nose” or zygomatic terminology.

(Then my mind wanders to making lists of logistics I need to take care of for upcoming vocal workshops I am teaching with The Washington Vocal Consortium.  

21-yr-old soprano sings Rossini “La Promessa”

intervalic leaps need blah blah blah to be connection.  (really? I wrote blah, blah, blah? I am not proud of this.  It must have been something obvious.)

Ricci calls singing in Italain with open (E) and (e) the “Julliard/Italian” school. Ending with these vowels needs to have the voice in a higher place, closer to (i)    Optional ending: end with “no” then jump to the upper octave on (a)

Soprano teacher sings Charpentier “Depuis Le Jour”

Make sure endings are (oe);  Bring nasals in later in vowel, but this doesn’t mean a dipthong.  He reiterates: don’t pull belly in as this restricts breath.  He wants “toute fleur–higher places, used (niu, niu, niu) into “toute”

It is fascinating to hear all these sopranos in one afternoon.  No wonder people don’t know “what” I am.  Miller spends a long time vowel-tracking this soprano, making sure she knows exactly what vowel she is on on any given note.

Baritone Teacher sings Paladihle Psyche (in the International French Collection of Songs)

Miller works with the note-to-note legato phrase, staying with basics of vowel and legato.  I am reminded of how important it is to keep drilling basics.  He uses the “mmm” to keep this baritone from pressing into his low notes.  He spends the whole time working vowel to vowel.

Mezzo Teacher sings the third song from Persian Poems by Santoliquido

He works the “sing as you speak” to help her change the shape of her vocal tract, which seems to be pulled out of shape in a sort of over-dark, fake mezzo place.  She is having a tough time with this because it feels so wrong.  He has her feel her submandibular region to help keep is soft while singing–

Insert 4

I spent time today passing notes back and forth with a teacher by the name of Peggy Swanson from New Hampshire.  We figured out that we are 4th cousins and that our common ancestor was the Rev. James Robinson Frazier!

Miller ends today’s session with the phrase “There are great differences between being a great teacher of singing and being a great singer. One does not necessarily ensure the other.”

Part I, Journal of a Richard Miller Week

I recently came across a journal I kept during five days of intensive teacher training with the great vocal pedagogue and singer, Richard Miller, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1994 . It is a combination of notes, observations and feelings–but not a standard academic report.

It is also record of how far we’ve come as teachers, because now, much of this information is considered standard fare in masters and doctoral programs and continuing education workshops and webinars. But back then, it was not, and few people had access to the Internet regularly.

At this point in life, I had been teaching 14 years, established a credible performance career regionally in contemporary chamber music and opera and had two young children.

May 21, 1994  Been looking forward to this week in Nashville to study with Richard Miller for a long time.  This damn travel anxiety messed with me on the way to the airport and I am already missing the kids even though I am looking forward to a break.  Breathe into belly and exhale.  Breathe and exhale.  A thought flits across my consciousness: “your knowledge comes from your belly and heart, not from your head.”  2.5 hour layover in St. Louis from DC where I get to read a book for more than a few minutes before being interrupted by little Neely’s age 2 and 6.  Arriving in Nashville, there’s my sweet brother, Jim, smiling and waiting with a big hug to pick me up and take me to his house.  I get to see Benjamin. (my brother’s first child)

May 22, 1994

Systematic Vocal Technique, first session with Miller

There are 50 voice teachers from around the world here.  I met 4 teachers from the DC area already.

His comment that “The process of staying in the inspiratory position has no counterpart in speaking except for stage speech” really strikes me.  Miller uses a microphone to teach. There’s static on the amp. EEK! How can a room full of voice teachers stand this?

Breath Management is establishing the cycle of Inspiration with Onset/ Phonation and Renewal. Air seeks to fill its reservoir at its lowest point. Atmospheric pressure should lead to subglottic pressure.

Fast staccato on one pitch    mm  mm  mm  ha ha ha

Miller calls the ‘rectus abdominus’ the outer shell for all the muscles of singing–not as important as the external and internal obliques, etc.  I guess I have been focused on this sheet of muscle because of all the abdominal surgeries over the past 4 years.  Perhaps the rectus is the only muscle I can feel right now due to scar tissue and trauma??

Miller suggests starting warm-ups with “onset exercises”

Insert 1

He says “we’ve been brought up with too many vocal myths.  Cites a quote by Lamperti “do not crowd the lungs with breath, but satisfy them.”  He says that British oratorio circles advocate upper back breathing, which collapses the sternum.  I want to ask him more about this but he has requested that we note all our questions and ask them at the end of the week in a Question session.

Insert 2

The diaphragm expands sideways more than down.  Miller frequently cites faulty teaching he’s observed by artists and clinicians at NATS’ functions.

  1. The Voice is an Acoustical Instrument
  2. The Voice is a Physiological Instrument, therefore it must go by the laws of acoustics and basic physiology

Miller disagrees with the statement that “all voice teachers are after the same thing,”  No we are not–there are too many tonal ideals, he says.  I am glad to hear this because every time a colleague says that, I think “nope.” Just listening to all the voice teachers at the university (where I was adjunct at the time) and what’s going on in their studios and in juries… wow.

Lordy I miss my babies.  I am listening to Miller and taking notes, but my heart feels sad- mother-lonely-longing sighs.

He is discussing the German “grunt and hold” technique:  Take a breath and grunt to cut it off, then let go at the throat and begin to sing without losing thoracic pressure.  Says it is not necessary to prepare to breathe!

There is a relationship between onset and agility.

He REALLY nixes “squeezing the anal sphincter” because there are sphincters all over the body and they all respond at the same time.  Please, no “pinch a penny’ or ‘hold a coin in your bum.’  People really try to sing that way??????? People really teach it????? Why???????

The most efficient coordinated singing will also be the most appealing to the ear.

It is very easy in any “system” to go rigid.  Do agility exercises.

Insert 3

He suggests using the term “support” only with the body’s structural system, not with muscles.  You can not have the appoggio without starting with the structural system.  He is assuming we all know what appoggio is, at least intellectually.  I am feeling like a dum-dum.

The singing voice as a Tripartite Instrument:  1.  Motor Source (breath management) 2. The Vibrator (larynx) and 3.  The Resonator (supraglottal or vocal tract)

In a balanced and free structural support, you must be able to hop on one foot. (visual image of 50 of us all clattering to our feet to hop about like the Dufflepuds in the Narnia series)

Dufflepuds

Reminder-the front lower ribs are attached to each other–it is the back ribs that float.

When the sternum falls, the rib cage HAS to cave in and the diaphragm HAS to mount.

He talks about physical types of bodies and how that influences breathing.  I wish he’d talk more about this.  It seems crucial.

The ideal is a balance among all four of the following muscle groups:
pectoral, epigastral, umbilical, pubic (hypogastral)

He says most teachers emphasize one or two over others.  He is showing us pictures of muscles before resonators on purpose.  Slides show origins and insertions of thoracic and pelvic muscles.  These slides show me why the chiropractic and body work have been so integral to starting to reestablish health after all my surgeries.

I’m hungry and my focus has gone to the beach.  I may have met a distant cousin who is a voice teacher, too.  We know enough about Frazier family history that there seems to be a connection.

  • Coming Up Next: Part II, Journal of a Richard Miller week