As I have related, I was accepted into a performance MM program with a substantial scholarship on the basis of demonstrated potential, having previously had little formal instruction. Throughout my time in graduate school, the opera department cast me in leading roles and I earned excellent grades. Then, prior to my final year as a master’s student, I spent a summer at Music Academy of the West and discovered how woefully far I was from professional viability.
My first lesson with Edward Zambara at MAW was simultaneously one of the best and worst things ever to happen to me. I sang a Schubert song for him that I was scheduled to perform on a public master class later that week. At first Mr. Zambara looked pensive and said nothing, then asked me what I had sung for my audition. He asked to hear it all. Then he rendered his assessment: “You clearly have an excellent voice, with a beautiful, dramatic color to it. You’re a good musician and a fine actress. But you have no technique. You’re just…” he paused and reached for the right word, then gave an exasperated gesture and finished, “… Singing.”
It was true. After all the enthusiasm I had received for my singing in my graduate program I was shocked to hear him say it, but when he demonstrated what he meant in greater detail it became clear that my singing was in fact tense and limited and that I was working much too hard to produce my sound. Had he not brought me to this realization and begun to help me turn things around, I probably would have completed my MM without grasping what it means to have a solid technique and understanding how far I was from acquiring one.
The Case for Vocal Technique
My previous post lays out the reasons I advocate for the inclusion of fitness assessment and support in voice performance curricula. Our community is only beginning to have some awareness of the benefits fitness can confer for vocal mastery, and I will continue to make impassioned arguments in favor of fitness instruction as long as necessary.
It would seem unnecessary to make similar arguments for the role of vocal technique in our curricula, but I'm afraid that it is quite necessary. Voice departments strive to ensure good technical instruction by entrusting their singers to studio teachers with decent track records, successful performance careers, and/or doctorates. However, a successful performance career does not provide evidence that a singer has any skill whatsoever at teaching technique to others. Not all doctoral students receive support for thier own practical teaching skills – I myself received none. And a teacher who manages to set some of their students on the course to stardom does not necessarily have what it takes to provide all, or even most, of their students with a foundational technique. There assuredly exist teachers with one or more of these qualifications who are highly competent technicians, and those who are not likely still have invaluable gifts to confer upon their students. However, I believe that we are not doing nearly enough to guarantee that all of our voice students have access to the quality of vocal technical instruction that they need to achieve mastery.
Adopting/Adapting an Instrumental Paradigm
When you begin learning to play a musical instrument, some instruction is usually necessary. You must be shown how to hold it or engage with it, how to produce a sound, how to vary the pitch, and so on. If you wish to teach yourself, you will probably consult manuals, videos, and fingering charts. Learning how to play classical music, jazz, or any other genre requiring a high degree of virtuosity requires regular instruction on your instrument supported by good practice habits.
Singers all begin as self-taught. As a child, you learn to sing in much the same way you learn most other things – through exploration and imitation. Children who enjoy singing and demonstrate a natural talent for it will be encouraged to perform with school or church groups; they may receive some instruction in musicianship, but they are unlikely to pursue voice lessons until after they reach puberty and their voices are more mature and settled. Up until then, they have had to rely on their instincts in order to match pitch, navigate their range, manage their breath, and modulate registration. Where all of these activities are concerned, what seems instinctive will almost never yield a free, highly functional singing technique; however, if they are able to produce a pleasing sound, many things that are lacking in their technique may escape notice. Reluctant to interfere with their natural talent, their teacher may apply an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to their training, simply tweaking those few things that do not seem to be well-aligned and encouraging them to continue following their instincts in all other areas.
This is why, unlike budding instrumentalists, young singers seldom understand how their instruments work, learn a comprehensive technique, or develop an effective, structured practice regimen. But if they wish to walk the path that leads to mastery, they need such instruction every bit as much as their instrumentalist peers do. Given that the singer’s instrument is subject to a wide variety of activities that have nothing to do with making music, they probably need technical instruction even more:
- Breathing habits evolve in response to all ones’ life experiences, including athletic pursuits and emotional regulation strategies;
- Conversational speech accustoms one to voice use within a narrow pitch range, often with heavy registration and shallow resonance;
- Vernacular speech instills habits of articulation that are far from optimal for singing.
We must introduce singers to their instruments in more or less the same way we would place a clarinet in the hands of a novice, show them how to prepare and attach the reed to the mouthpiece, and instruct them how to form a good embouchure. Teach them how it’s constructed and how the different parts work, provide a breakdown of the essential components of technique, instill methods for building skill in individual components as well as integrating them together, and take nothing for granted.
What Vocal Technique Is, and Is Not
I find it useful to make a distinction between instrument quality, coordination, and artistry. I’m defining vocal technique as the means to developing coordination, as opposed to cultivating qualities like good alignment (a component of instrument quality) or expression (the provenance of artistry). While we cannot entirely separate technique from instrument and artistry, we can apply principles of movement and motor learning to build skill in the areas of:
- Breath management
These are the essential elements of a comprehensive vocal technique. While approaches to technique may differ and teachers vary the ways they prioritize, emphasize and integrate these elements, an effective technique must serve to develop them all.
Breath management includes the ability to inhale, exhale, and regulate subglottic breath pressure in ways that are optimal for singing. Singers must be able to inhale fully, swiftly and silently without extraneous head, neck, or shoulder movement; release the breath completely and continuously while maintaining good alignment; and regulate subglottic breath pressure through smooth, continuous coordination of the structures governing inspiration and expiration. For more detailed descriptions, please see my Classical Singer articles “Let Your Breathing Be an Inspiration!” and “The Pressures of Breathing.”
Phonation is the actual sound production of singing – the vibration of the vocal folds. Coordination in this area means cultivating the ability to allow the vocal folds to come together completely with each vibratory cycle without generating excessive resistance or tension at the glottis; maximizing freedom and full range of motion of the laryngeal cartilages in order to access the fullest possible range; developing seamless registration and dynamic control; producing an organic vibrato or creating a straight tone as desired.
Singers generate resonance by shaping the vocal tract, allowing it to morph and expand as necessary in order to optimize vocal quality and projection throughout the range and on all vowels. Skill at resonance requires cultivating strength, flexibility and full range of motion in all of the structures that shape the vocal tract: the pharyngeal constrictors, soft palate, jaw, tongue, lips, buccinators, larynx, as well as the balance of the head. See Melissa Malde’s Journal of Singing article, “Mapping the Structures of Resonance,” for more information about the anatomy involved.
Skill at articulation means the ability to produce any phoneme in any order throughout the range in all languages, in a way that facilitates rather than interferes with free phonation. While the jaw, tongue, lips and soft palate are all capable of moving fairly independently from one another, the requirements of vernacular speech, ingesting food, and other activities create habits resulting in entanglement and imbalance in the articulators. Singers must retrain and optimize coordination in this area.
Integrating the Elements of Technique
There is a hierarchy of importance where the individual elements of technique are concerned, with free, well-coordinated phonation receiving top priority. Breath management, resonance and articulation all must promote free phonation; therefore, these aspects of technique must be accomplished without generating effort or tension in or around the larynx. All singers begin as self-taught, but the instinctive way to do things usually does generate effort and tension in and around the larynx. It has been my observation that:
- The most expedient, instinctive way to increase subglottic breath pressure is to generate resistance at the glottis and then override the resistance by forcing the breath out with the abdominal and/or intercostal muscles. This creates extreme interference for free phonation.
- The instinctive way to access the extremes of the range is to elevate and depress the larynx, creating a variety of unnecessary tensions in and around the vocal folds and greatly limiting resonance.
- Young singers unwittingly complicate their vocal production and resonance as the result of trying to emulate the sounds produced by the artists whose recordings they admire.
- Speech habits limit phonation and resonance in a wide variety of ways. Singers commonly retract and depress the tongue while articulating crucial vowels and unnecessarily engage the jaw, which is needed for a mere handful of consonants. “Natural” use of the articulators is nearly always far from optimal for singing.
No singer naturally or instinctively develops skill in all of these elements plus the ability to coordinate them all together. But you can’t necessarily tell where they are well-coordinated and where they require improvement just by listening to and observing them while they sing. They need a thorough assessment, followed by a plan.
Music schools must make sure that singers have access to a means of assessing their coordination in all areas and the tools that can lead them to mastery. As things now stand, the responsibility for each student’s technical proficiency rests almost entirely in the hands of their studio teacher. This scenario is not conducive to ensuring that singers develop technical mastery; it also places an unrealistic burden on their teachers.
It Takes a Village
Even at the finest music schools, not every teacher on the voice faculty possesses mad pedagogical skills. But even for a singer whose teacher does, our current paradigm may not be adequate to ensure their technical mastery.
Most of the elements of technique that I enumerated above involve replacing old habits with new movements and then coordinating them seamlessly together. This means not only learning new concepts and strategies for applying them but also engaging in processes to facilitate and reinforce the motor learning necessary for installing these crucial new habits. A highly skilled technician may be able to introduce these concepts and procedures for integrating them into a student’s technique, but a weekly one-hour lesson cannot provide anything approaching the kind of repetition and reinforcement necessary for mastery.
I would argue that the successful acquisition of a comprehensive technique requires substantial support beyond weekly lessons. This support could be built into the performance curriculum in a variety of ways, including:
- Emphasizing the importance of a disciplined, well-structured deep practice regimen;
- Offering a vocal pedagogy course stressing the practical application of all concepts covered;
- Adapting the fitness curriculum developed in accordance with my previous post to include breath management skills;
- Incorporating articulation motor skills and kinesthetic awareness into the diction curriculum;
- Providing online support in the form of video tutorials and other media targeting specific technical issues.
I will explore such ideas in greater depth in my post on curriculum design.
I understand why bel canto enthusiasts express such nostalgia for that bygone era when singers would simply apprentice themselves to a master teacher – living in their home, engaging in daily lessons, and enjoying quasi-supervised practice sessions. We cannot provide this level of support to modern singers enrolled in performance degree programs, but we must provide them with more substantial technical support than is possible for them to receive via a weekly one-hour lesson.
The Elephant in the Room
I would love to see it become the norm that voice students are able to receive expert support for their vocal technical development not only from their studio teacher but also from pedagogy professors, diction coaches, fitness specialists, and even other voice teachers on the faculty…
Unfortunately, not ever voice department characterized by such synergy… it is not terribly unusual to encounter a scenario like this:
Are there any among us who have never encountered a voice teacher who prioritizes the needs of their own ego over those of their students? I have been astonished at how common it is to encounter such creatures in our business as well as by the fact that their behavior is not only tolerated but often expected. What I am now beginning to realize, though, is that our culture places such unrealistic expectations on our voice teachers that it is inevitable that some would develop the kind of deep insecurities that could motivate them to become territorial.
No single voice teacher can provide all of the knowledge and resources that a classical singer needs to take them all the way from demonstrated potential to mastery. We demand that our voice teachers be superb pedagogues, experienced world-class performers, networking gurus, psychotherapists, and drama teachers, with side orders of expertise in diction, performance practice, career counseling and repertoire selection. By so doing, we provide ideal conditions for the development of imposter syndrome. When a teacher is expected to be one-stop shopping in this way and possess no weaknesses, it should not be so surprising should they turn a blind eye when a student fails to make progress, attributing that failure to an inherent vocal deficit rather than something outside the scope of their particular expertise.
A star performer who has single-mindedly pursued excellence in performance throughout their career should not be expected to instantly become capable of teaching technique upon receipt of a faculty appointment. An academic who has focused on pedagogical excellence over the pursuit of professional performance opportunities should not be expected to accrue performing credits as they march towards tenure. Our voice faculties should ideally include members of both backgrounds who each contribute their specialized expertise to the department and are eager to learn from and collaborate with one another. Our students should be free to draw on their expertise as needed. I am not encouraging studio-hopping; singers need to engage in regular one-on-one instruction and commit to their teacher’s methods. But when they inevitably demonstrate a need their teacher is less qualified to address than a colleague, that teacher should not hesitate to help them access the appropriate expert assistance.
All of our students need support for technical mastery. Not all voice teachers are technical experts. No single voice teacher has all the answers. The absence of a common understanding of what technical mastery means, combined with the unrealistic expectations levied upon our voice teachers, leaves it to chance whether our students will get what they need. At best, we have brilliant, committed teachers who still may feel as though they have to cover up for an inevitable imbalance in their areas of expertise; at worst, we have teachers with little grasp of technique who are essentially just winging it and have no idea why some of their students improve while others do not.
There are great teachers who are great pedagogues.
There are great teachers who turned to teaching after enjoying a successful performance career.
Styles and philosophies vary. Some who express themselves in scientific and anatomical terms, while others rely on imagery and imitation. Some focus on innovation and research while others come from exalted traditional lineages. Each of these approaches has its strengths and weaknesses. Each student must seek the approach that best resonates with them and meets their individual needs.
Reverse engineer a master singer, and you will find that chief among their achievements is technical proficiency. To accept a singer into a performance degree program is to promise them that you have the means to help them develop this proficiency. We must deliver on this promise with state-of-the-art resources and strategies. This means designing a curriculum that provides comprehensive technical instruction, cultivating voice faculties whose members embody excellence in a variety of areas, and fostering a culture of curiosity and colleagiality.
We still have so much to learn about vocal technique and how to lead our students to mastery. Let us work together to devise ways to make our programs more effective, drawing on the unique strengths each teacher potentially brings to the process.