Why do we warm-up? There may seem to be an obvious answer, but how focused are you during your warm-up? Does your mind wander while you are moving up and down the scale while playing? Do you just do easy vowels that your teacher usually uses while singing?
Why do you warm-up before you play a sport or work out at the gym? To get the muscles ready for work. Are you consciously thinking about what muscles you stretch depending on the exercises you’ll be performing?
As musicians, we know there is are physical aspects that go into performing music. We have to make sure those muscles, no matter how small, are ready to do work. We also have to remember that music is a full body experience. If your whole body is ready to move, it will be in a better alignment. And alignment is key to unlocking our optimal performance levels whether it be singing or playing.
STRETCH OUT. Always, always, always stretch out before you sit down to play or stand up to sing. Not sure what to do? Start with rolling your neck, move to your shoulders, stretch your arms high in the air and out to the side as you roll your shoulders back, roll your wrists, and stretch your fingers, roll forward and breathe as you drop your upper body towards the ground. Do a few jumping jacks or run in place for 30 seconds to get your blood flowing. Any of these simple exercises will help you get focused and prepared to enter the music. Sitting down at the piano with energy will help you stay focused and keep your body active so you don’t become stiff and create pain or postural problems.
FOCUS. When doing your vocal warm-up think about the songs you will be singing. Think about what vowels work best in your different voices. Warm-up through all your voice registers. Start in an easy range going up a little and back down. Then focus on your head voice, modifying your vowels toward “Ah” the higher you go, always bringing it back down after. Move to your chest voice, and then back to your mix. Spend a decent time listening to how your voice reacts to different vowels and consonants in different parts of your voice. The point of warm-ups is to get your larynx into a stable position so that you can move through all your ranges with ease.
Doing these simple, yet essential warm-ups will help keep you in alignment and add energy to your sound, no matter if it’s singing or playing. We must have the mentality of a musical athlete. It is also important to remember that there is no “fix all” warm-up. Do not make the mistake of thinking that if it works for one person it works for all or even if it works one day, it will work every day. It’s all about listening to your body and voice in the moment and making adjustments as you go.
Those things you learn in a voice studio stretch beyond vocal technique. Here are ten things I’ve learned as a voice student!
1. Not practicing is expensive. And the teacher can always tell when you didn’t…
2. Breathing is more complicated than anyone ever thought. Sternocledio…what?
4. Vowel shapes are the bane of your existence
(this is a real chart…)
5. Singing in Latin, German, Italian and many other languages can be fun!… French is not.
6. There are just some notes you aren’t meant to sing
7. How awesome it feels when you hit those notes and totally nail it!
8. Outside motivation, such as a performance is needed for memorization to actually work
9. That look your teacher gives you when you finally click with your song
10. A voice is a powerful thing.
Hey readers! Which ones did I miss? Leave a comment below!
It is so crucial that we stay educated and continue to follow research in the vocal education world. I want to make sure I have the best information to give to my students and to remember that every student is different. There is no “one size fits all” solution to vocal coordination.
There have been some myths that have been floating around for years. It is time to put an end to these myths and get back to the basics of vocal anatomy and pedagogy.
Myth #1: “Sing from your diaphragm”
I grew up hearing this statement and though I was clever enough to figure out that my vocal folds are not located in my diaphragm… others have not. Quick anatomy lesson:
Physically, it is impossible to sing from your diaphragm since your vocal folds (we don’t call them cords anymore)are located in your throat, specifically, in the larynx. Your diaphragm is located and connected to the base of your rib cage, like an upside-down bowl, under your lungs.It is used to push your viscera(guts), or as my voice teacher in college used to call them “beef and noodles”,down and out of the way for your lungs to expand. Then you use your abdominal muscles to maintain a feelings of the inhale position as you exhale creating the ability to sustain your breath through a piece of music. That is also why lifting your shoulders to breathe doesn’t actually work… Your lungs have nowhere to expand if the diaphragm is not allowed contract to and make room for them to take in more air.
So though you need your diaphragm to provide support in breath control, you cannot sing from it. Healthy sound comes from having an energized breathing technique. Your folds need a steady stream of air that matches the register you are singing in. A higher register requires a much different stream of air than a low register. That’s getting into the physics of sound and waves and a 40 page paper, so I digress.
Just know that you don’t “sing from your diaphragm”. Myth busted! Most of my students are beginners, but they have, so far, understood the concept of how breathing works, even if we are still learning how to do it, without using this phrase. It is a process that is not solved overnight or by practicing breathing techniques without adding vocalization. Singing technique is about coordination and if you don’t practice adding the vocalization and breathing together, then it’s a waste to practice breathing at all.
Supplemental material for method books is a necessary in my mind. Yes the method works in general for most people, but I want each of my students to have a tailored experience that is directly relatable to them.
I have a student, we’ll call him T, had decided he wanted to learn to play the piano at the age of 61. Now others had convinced T that you “can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” And though he signed up for lessons, he struggled with this mentality. I have told him and will continue to remind him that if a person has opened their heart and mind to learning something new, then they will learn. He tried for a few months, but he struggled with the book we are using, believing that these unfamiliar songs were not teaching him anything. Though he saw the value in the exercise they provided, it was not meaningful and so he was not progressing as he had hoped he would. One day he came to lessons with a bunch of Easy Piano Books he bought online full of songs he knew and enjoyed. In his experience, familiarity with a song made it easier to recognize and correct mistakes better than a new piece that sounded like an exercise, granted, that’s what the new songs were 😉 I promised him that as long as we kept learning theory and exercises in the method book we could add some of these songs to the routine.
We discovered, though that the Easy Piano was still too advanced for a total beginner only five months into his lessons. I could tell that he was frustrated, as he really did want to understand the foreign language of music that he was only beginning to understand, and just like any foreign language, you can’t learn it over-night. We struggled to get his fingers to move and change positions to match what the song called for and to recognize the notes that were not addressed in the method book yet.
I wanted him to feel successful and to be able to play his favorite songs. So I took the piece, Let It Be by the Beatles, and using my music software, created a version that used techniques and hand positions that complemented what we were learning in his method book. He was thrilled that he could read the music and recognize the tune while also building his skills as a pianist. This also gave him more confidence to learn the new pieces in the method book and we were able to move on to more challenging lessons.
I now regularly arrange songs for him that range from the Beatles, Billy Joel, and his other favorite artists that go along with his lessons for the month and even rearranging songs he’s already done to create more depth to a song he can already play. And he can see his progress and be proud of what he has learned. Which is a foundation sometimes forgotten in music. Progress, not the end result, is the beauty in music. Feeling that you have accomplished something for yourself and not having to compare it to someone else.
My students know they can come to me with any troubles they are having.
When I ask a student how practice went during the week I am looking for more than just a “good” or “bad.” I want to know what they struggled with, what was easy, what was rewarding and what was challenging. I also ask for the journal to read because students don’t always remember how each practice went. This gives me the tools I need to know how to help each individual student.
It is important that they know they can tell me what they need and I will help them. That I would never use the information against them. I am here to uplift and encourage their growth and skills not diminish them. Just as Maslow’ hierarchy of needs suggest, a person must feel safe before they can effectively learn. It is my duty as a teacher to make sure my students feel safe and secure in my studio so that they can open up and explore the many facets of music.
No matter where you are at in your musical journey, you will run into plateaus and bumps in the road. It is the job of the teacher to guide you across them so that the next time you come to it, you are more capable of doing it on your own. For example, I had an 8 year old student named L who was struggling with her homework one week. Up to that point she wasn’t having any trouble and was truly enjoying lessons, but I noticed a shift in her during one lesson. I asked her what was wrong and she told me “practice was bad this week.” I reminded her that it’s ok to have a “bad” week. Not everything in music or life will be easy, but if you take it one step at a time you’ll be able to do it. To demonstrate my point, I took the piece she was having trouble with and broke it down into smaller parts and asked her to do just a little, when she felt like she had it down, I asked her to do the next part and then add the two parts together, we did this until the song was learned. By the end of the lesson, she felt very confident about the song and was able to feel good about her ability to perform it from beginning to end. I asked her if this process helped her learn the piece better and she happily replied that it did. And now she has that tool in her box to use when she gets stuck again. To break it down, little by little and add each piece in at a time. And I have shown her that she can trust me to guide her on the right path when she doesn’t understand a concept.
I want my students to understand that learning music is more than just notes on a page. It’s about understanding that failure is the opportunity to find a new way of doing something. That there is something to learn about yourself through your mistakes. That it takes courage and discipline to do anything worthwhile. This is why a safe space is necessary. To allow mistakes to teach lessons and that success is always possible with the right tools.