I was working with a bright student a while back and they didn’t seem to be technically conquering a song as quickly as I would have liked. They had taken the song apart as I had asked (read this blog post for more information) but hadn’t yet fully incorporated it into their technique. I said, “OK – here’s what we’re going to do: I’m going to be your rehearsal accompanist. You can ask me to play anything, but you’re going to walk yourself through these next ten minutes as if you were practicing without your voice teacher around.”
With fear and trembling, the student obliged. The next several minutes were very eye-opening for me. The great news was the student was very aware of what they needed to fix. The issue was they weren’t actually able to fix it.
It dawned on me (in a deeper way) that I must continue talking to my students about how to practice. Learning to take apart a song is one thing, but having the awareness and ability to fix one’s mistakes is another.
Here are some suggestions I often give my students to help them practice better:
Develop If/Then Strategies
I know I’m not the only teacher who drills their students on what to do when tension creeps into their singing.
“How’s it going?”
“My tongue feels tight.”
“OK, what should you do about that?”
“Check the breath.”
“Exactly. If the tongue is tensing, chances are you’re not really supporting.”
I try to help my students develop this level of critical thinking so they can take it into their practice time. Feeling tight in the throat? Check the placement. True, sometimes there are more “thens” than “ifs” with lots of different ways to get to the same result, but helping students develop a short list of possible issues and solutions gives them more power in the practice room.
I tell my students to ask themselves the following questions (in a non-judgmental way) as they sing:
What does it look like?
What does it feel like?
What does it sound like?
Asking these questions and being aware of a possible answer when listening back to a practice recording or watching oneself sing in a mirror can be very helpful in ferreting out what’s working and what’s not. The more we can get the brain and body to communicate the better.
Make it an Exercise
Inevitably a student will get to the end of a song with a high, dramatic ending and have trouble, even after practicing it. They promise me they took it apart, and I take them at their word. But often times I find they haven’t made the difficult passage an exercise. Actually, that suggestion usually produces a blank stare.
“What if you sing this passage on the vowel only down a fourth and keep transposing up past the actual key? Do you notice certain vowels fall out your resonance? Which vowels? How can you fix them?”
If a student is running out of breath at the end of the passage, I ask them to work backward, adding a couple notes at a time until they’re able to sustain the entire phrase. Not accessing the head voice? Sing on “ni” to find forward placement, then alternate with the words until you’re able to keep them in the same place.
God bless our body, it’s not very smart. We have to train it to do what we want it to, whether it’s working on form lifting weights at the gym or working a particular phrase into our voice so we can sing it with consistent ease.
Just Do It
The other week I was working with my trainer, Sereco. She’s a beast and nearly breaks me every time I work with her (which is exactly why I work with her). Anytime I learn a new exercise, she tells me I’m thinking too much. “Just do it! The form will come.” “But I want to do it right,” I often say. “You’ll do it right by being in your body, not in your head. NOW DO IT!”
Like I said, she’s a beast. And I adore her.
Oh, and she’s also right. I’m a nerd – I’ll gladly admit it. But there comes a time when I have to know when to help my students get out of their heads and into their body. Worrying about form will inevitably lead to tension. We can be aware of what we’re doing without breathing down our own necks.
If the above exercises seem to be tying my student up, I remind them of the acronym, BOP:
If I needed to describe what was involved in singing to a layperson, that’s what I’d tell them. Because singing often feels abstract, it can be helpful to break it down into simpler steps. It often seems less distance to travel from there to talking about resonance, etc… I’m all about teaching my students the physiology of their instrument, but there comes a time when it’s helpful to take a “where the rubber hits the road” approach. In my experience, BOP does that by helping a student find an uncluttered way of thinking about singing.
Also, I get my students to MOVE! Standing cross-eyed, trying to hear if you’re singing in head voice is not conducive to a free sound. But doing a plié, gentle wall push-ups or another free-flowing movement can encourage freedom in the voice. I will sometimes have my students alternate between movement and stationary when they inhale for the next phrase. I’m always amazed what this does to open up the sound. Are there still technical adjustments to be made after they get out of their heads? Of course, but the student is often more receptive to these adjustments once they’re using their whole body to express a thought.
My goal is to create a studio of smart singing artists, who will always be welcome to work with me but aren’t dependent on me. This kind of balance comes when I help them learn how to listen to themselves and fix their own problems through practice.
Want a real eye-opener? Ask your students to warm themselves up in your presence. But that’s a subject for another blog…
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