Singing by Ear, or Manipulation

Photo: Roberto Araujo

When I started taking piano lessons from Carol McGowan in first grade, I wanted to spend most of our half-hour each week playing by ear. I had a knack for picking up jingles and television show theme songs. Thankfully, Carol insisted I play the notes on the page first, leaving a few minutes at the end of each lesson for me to improvise. That’s the mark of a great teacher, and I am forever grateful to her for giving me such a strong musical foundation.

Now I’m the teacher. And more than not, I see my students singing by ear. The only problem is: they don’t know it.

I’m not talking about reading a musical score – I’m referring to the manipulation that comes with using ones ear as the sole barometer of what’s good and what’s not. This causes singers of every age and level of experience to manipulate their sound to match what they think they should be hearing.

I spend much of my time in the studio ironing out these issues, which I found have different root causes.

A Lack of Experience or Proper Training

Here’s the most annoying piece of information I impart to my clients: what you hear in your head is not what’s going on out in the world. Many times, I’m the first one to tell them this. Either they haven’t studied before, their previous teacher didn’t explain this, or the student didn’t fully understand it.

In short, singing is not for us. The sound must pass through us, but not end with us. If we hang onto the sound, it’s most likely that we’ll negatively engage the muscles in the pharynx (or throat), among others. Sure, it may sound nice and big to the singer’s ears, but out in the world it will probably sound “woofy” or strident.

When the tone is free and resonant, however, the singer may experience the sound as thin, breathy, or small. This makes sense, as most of the sound is now leaving their body.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with a young woman in preparation for her college auditions. We met last summer at a musical theatre institute I work at and I’m thankful she’s continued on with me. We are currently working on developing a solid technique that allows her to bridge her registers while also preparing appropriate college audition material. More than any other high school student I’ve worked with, she in marvelously self-aware.

This has served her well, specifically as we discuss negotiating her chest and head registers, which is a new challenge for her. She has started to realize the extent to which her ear has dominated her vocal choices and how difficult this makes these transitions. This has also brought up how she personally judges the sound. It’s given us some wonderfully complex things to discuss.

Moving beyond singing by ear can be difficult. I talk to my clients about using all their senses as a means of having an awareness (not judgment) of the sound: what’s it look like (in the mirror), what’s it feel like (in the body), and what’s it sound like? When discussed in tandem with these other two, what the singer thinks of the sound they’re making is often put in better context. It also gives them a chance to get out of their head (a blog for another time).

There’s some great research being done these days about kinesthetic awareness and the singer. I saw a particularly interesting presentation by Dr. Diane Hughes and Dr. Daniel Robinson at the International Congress of Voice Teachers Conference in Stockholm this summer, which could have some great applications for the voice studio. I look forward to learning more.


It’s equally disheartening when singers have to figure out how to sing when sick. The biggest challenge comes when they realize the phlegm they hear rattling around on their vocal cords isn’t heard by anyone else (at least not to the extent they hear it). The temptation is to push through the phlegm by singing in a more adducted way (with the vocal cords more tightly closed).

This is often exacerbated by the ears, which can be clogged, not giving the singer a good sense of their tone. If the ears aren’t trustworthy when we’re healthy, they’re definitely not when we’re sick.

Add to all this the mental and emotional noise that comes with not sounding as we’re used to, and singing while sick becomes a seemingly impossible feat.

Part of the challenge is figuring out when it’s OK to sing sick. I never allow clients to come for a lesson if they have a fever or if they can sense the swelling of their vocal cords. If congestion is a huge issue, it may also be time to hang it up until the illness runs its course.

What I find, however, is that clients are sometimes overly cautious about singing sick. Of course, a healthy sense of one’s body is incredibly important, but there will be time when they’ll have to sing a performance, regardless of whether or not they’re healthy. Figuring out how to do that in the studio with the help of a teacher is a much kinder experience.

Singing sick affords clients the ability to make discoveries about breath support and proper placement. Given that their old tricks of manipulation often desert them with the illness, clients learn they must rely on a healthier approach to singing.

Breath support is almost always the first thing to go. Singers seem to equate not supporting their tone to “going easy” on their voice. The opposite is true. The more the breath support is positively engaged, the easier it will be to sing sick. Similarly, finding a healthy placement can be easier with the help of congestion. The singer feels the placement more acutely and is often surprised at the tone quality when listening back to themselves.

This can be a perfect time for the teacher to help their student rethink how they create and relate to their sound.

Contemporary Styles

God love Noah Galvin for taking over Ben Platt’s leading role in Dear Evan Hanson. Platt’s performance was so specific that I can only imagine there might be pressure on Galvin to recreate Platt’s performance for continuing sold-out audiences. This, of course, is nothing new for understudies and replacement casts on Broadway. There has always been an expectation of consistency on the Great White Way. And while that’s admirable, it can be unrealistic, especially where individual’s voice quality and capabilities are concerned.

And then there are the young artists who are dying to play those roles. Who are daily influenced by the sounds of these musical scores and, without knowing it, are mimicking their cast album heroes. Many times, I’ve told the story of one of my former students singing “I’m Alive” exactly like Aaron Tveit in his voice lesson. That was several years ago, and this issue has only expanded since then.

I’ve also previously blogged about the many different styles in which performers are asked to sing today (you can read it here). Rather than understanding the style markers and incorporating them into a healthy technique, I see artists manipulate their voices to create the sound. It’s disconcerting how similar released and manipulated sounds can be, especially in pop/rock styles. But the more the singer trains their entire body to be their instrument, the more they can tell which is born out of tension and what comes freely.

As I see it, the only way to understand the difference between these two is to start with a healthy foundation. Hopefully, that begins in high school or college. I wish I could say that’s usually the case. I am often troubled by the number of young singers I hear, who don’t have a solid technical background on which these choices of style can rest: an understanding of how to use the breath, manage their registers with ease, and access their resonance.

Classical singers, by the way, are not immune to this, though singing in a more contemporary way in this idiom is very distinct from musical theatre. Their are plenty of “legit” singers trying to over color their voice or make it sound bigger than it actually is. I was never able to get away with that kind of manipulation in undergraduate or graduate school. My voice was is light to sustain it. And I’ve never been more grateful because, now that I’m in my 40’s, the “leanness” with which I’ve had to sing has served me very well.


All this has brought me to a deeper understanding of my work as a teacher. I’m now interested of moving beyond the technical issue (manipulation in its many forms) to the “why” of those choices. I want my clients to understand how to fix the manipulation by becoming aware of the root belief behind the sound they’re making: “I need this to sound bigger, more rock n’ roll,” etc… This gives them the power to move beyond bad habits and creating a more sustainable and consistent way of singing.


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5 thoughts on “Singing by Ear, or Manipulation

  1. Thank you for this article. This is a struggle i have had most of my life. What is my “voice”?
    As I’m not a professional but a responsible amateur, there have been few lessons.
    I was fortunate to have choral directors who were also pedagogues and that was a big boost- especially when the chorus i was in did symphonic work.
    A chorus of Individuals acting in concert forced the issue of voice.
    Your point that our voice does not stop with us is so spot on. I’ve known that the voice comes from “inside” to “outside” not the other way around. And how hard it is to embrace with so many great examples frozen as recordings.

  2. Well done. I appreciate everything you have said in this article. My favorite line is “the more the singer trains their entire body to be their instrument, the more they can tell which is born out of tension and what comes freely.” This is one of the things I try to emphasize to myself and my students. Singing is not just your throat and lungs, it is your whole body. And the issue of wanting to imitate favorite pop stars is a challenge, too.

    Great article. Thank you!

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