Creating a Practice Routine

Practice is a reality for a singer– for any musician in fact- if they want to maintain what they already have and to also continue to develop further- (and the ultimate goal); to achieve complete mastery over their instrument.

However, many individuals shy away from practicing, sometimes out of laziness and sometimes because they know what hard work it takes (and commitment) to practice with intention and focus.

It is too easy to practice and waffle away the time without any clear structure and find that a few hours have passed by and you haven’t really achieved anything; you’ve simply moved from one song to the next, maybe skipping the hard parts and then at the end of it all you wonder what you’ve really accomplished and where the time went. Does this sound familiar? Yes? Well on the odd occasion I’ve been guilty of this and its a problem- AND a waste of your time- because the reality is is that if you continue in this habit you won’t really ‘improve’, not in the way that most people want to.

If you want to achieve mastery over your instrument its important to create a structure to your practice sessions. I want to give my own suggestions that will help you to give your individual sessions focus. A practice routine should consist of;

1. A body warm up (see post on waking the body up). This is just as important as a vocal warm up.

2. A vocal warm up (ng is always a good one; start from the bottom of your range and work up over your passagio/ break up into the upper part of your range. Make sure you are negotiating the passagio smoothly).

3. 10-15 minutes of working on maintaining what you can already do (I know this seems weird but trust me if you neglect to do this- you’ll find that you have made headway with a technique, think its sorted, then forget about it, only to come back to it at a later stage and feel like you’re right back at the start again).

4. 30 minutes of working on a technique that you find incredibly difficult. This is so important. Its too easy to practice the things that we can do well- because they don’t demand alot of us but if you want to really improve, you MUST practice those things that you are currently unable to do or find incredibly difficult.

5. Learn the complete melody of the song/s you are working on.

6. Learn the lyrics of the song.

7. Sing through the song with the correct lyrics and melody.

8. Sing through the song with the correct vocal quality (this is where you might need to go back to step 4 and work on some exercises to get you singing in the right vocal quality).

9. If you have the time record yourself and listen to yourself singing the song. I have found this to be incredibly effective. Once I started to do this it gave me increased perspective on what I was doing vocally and what I needed to pay attention to and work on. Usually I thought I was doing one thing and the recording revealed something different. (Note that its very easy to get distracted by the physical effort it takes to produce certain sounds/qualities so this can be distracting and I find there is a little bit of discrepancy between what the singer hears and what the listener hears.

10. Make sure to do a vocal cool down that is a length of at least 5 minutes.

Some other points to take note of are; If you feel at any point that your mind is starting to wander and you’re losing focus within a practice session its best to take a break. Although its important to practice regularly in some ways its more about the ‘quality’ of your practice sessions than the ‘quantity’. 2 hours a week of focused, constructive practice is better than 20 hours of scattered practice and ‘faffing’ about.

Create a practice space that is free of distractions; turn off your phone, move your computer if you feel that you will be tempted to answer emails and make sure your space is conducive to practise. If you can’t concentrate with clutter- clean and organise your practise space. Make it an environment which inspires you to practice and stay focused.

When you practice in this way you will find huge improvements in your voice after several weeks and chances are you will feel quite physically and mentally tired after each session because of the focus and concentration it requires but you’ll also feel a huge sense of satisfaction as you find yourself being able to master things that you previously were unable to.

Tongue Tension



The tongue can be HUGELY problematic in singing and as time goes by I am increasingly aware of this fact. For singers suffering with vocal fatigue, or experiencing an inability to negotiate the passagio (break in the voice) smoothly and ESPECIALLY if they are experiencing a loss of upper range (if of course they have already been given the all clear for vocal nodules), oftentimes the tongue is the cause of this problem.

The tongue is very muscular and hence it is ENORMOUSLY strong, with muscle fibers running in just about every direction. According to Janice Chapman who wrote the book; “A holistic approach to classical singing” when we swallow the tongue exerts up to 1kg of pressure on the alveolar ridge (the roof of the mouth). The degree of its strength is never more highlighted than through how it can wreak havoc in singing. It is often referred to by many singing teachers as one of the villans in voice production.

The root of the tongue attaches into the hyoid bone (a free floating bone which sits directly above the larynx). We can only actually see quite a small portion of the tongue and the other half that we can’t see forms the front wall of the throat/vocal tract (an important resonating space). It is this very unfortunate location and particularly the strength at the root of the tongue (in particular it is the hyoglossus muscle) that CAN play such a detrimental role in voice production. Hence, anything the tongue does impacts on the production and quality of the voice.

When the tongue tenses it greatly reduces the resonating space talked about above, resulting in an overall ‘darker or wooly’ sound and when it tenses it also presses down on top of the vocal folds greatly affecting their mobility (and health) and making general phonation feel incredibly effortful and strained.  As pitch is ultimately affected by larynx height; e.g. the larynx lifts for higher pitches and lowers for lower pitches, when the tongue tenses it greatly affects the vertical mobility of the larynx, resulting in a general flatting in pitch (which rarely has anything to do with whether a singer has a good or bad ear as they may be able to hear this pitching issue but can not seem to correct it).

N.B: To witness how larynx height is determined by pitch put your fingers on your neck and on an “ee” move randomly up and down in pitch and you will feel the physical sensation of lifting and lowering with your fingers. Then try the same thing but this time retract the tip of the tongue back towards the back of the throat (this will cause the root of the tongue to tense). Then try the same thing as before and be aware of how much harder it is to move up and down in pitch.

Why does the tongue tense?

There is no ‘one’ answer to this question. However, these are some of the theories:

1. The back of the tongue can be very responsive to how we are feeling and if we become upset, angry (or nervous in the case of a singer about to perform) this is simply an area that responds by tensing.

2. Singers tend to use the tongue as a false depressor and push it down and back to create a ‘dark’ sound. This is something contemporary singers can often be guilty of in the pursuit of sounding like a soulful singer. It is also common for classical singers to do this same thing as opposed to using the correct depressors when trying to emulate a low larynx sound.

3. If important support muscles are not engaged (whilst singing) to stablise the larynx, (in particular the soft palate) then we usually try to control the voice with what is most mobile; that being the tongue and the other villan…. the jaw. On their own they make a singers life difficult but together they are a recipe for disaster and unfortunately they tend to act like willing slaves to one another; recruiting the other.

Many assume that we should feel when the tongue tenses but the reality is, is that strong muscles  engage with very little effort and thus we generally don’t feel those muscles working when they are engaged but when we CAN actually feel the tongue working chances are that it is REALLY tight.

If you are already aware that you suffer with tongue tension (e.g you can often feel things getting tight at that level) or perhaps if if you are unsure if you do experience it, the following is a great exercise to try before singing as it tires the tongue out and if the tongue tires it will more than likely stay relaxed throughout singing (which is what we want). This exercise is called ‘Chase the Toffee’:

Move your tongue around the outside of your teeth starting at the top and move all the way around to the back (where the molars are) and then down along the bottom set of teeth right to the very back again, really stretching the tongue and then up to the top teeth again. Do this in a clock wise direction 8 times then anti clockwise 8 times. If your tongue is quite tight it will feel quite sore after this.

I would recommend doing this every time before singing regardless whether it is practice or performance.

Waking the Body Up

 

Isn’t it strange how on certain days your voice works and on others it doesn’t? On the latter days it usually leads singers to warm up for hours on end and provided that hasn’t worked a singer may convince themselves that its because they are getting sick that their voice is just ‘not happening.’ Usually this theory is accompanied by a ‘hot and toasty’ feeling in the throat and in part is due to the length of the warm up. What a singer has actually done is that they’ve warmed their voice up to wear it out AND they haven’t even began their performance yet. I always feel that in this situation the end scenario is going to be a disheartening one for the singer as they get on stage feeling anxious about their voice.

Overall, I feel this issue of the voice working well on some days and not on others has tended to make singers feel insecure about the reliability of their voice and incredibly frustrated. So… I want to scratch the surface of this issue and address whats really going on and dispell a few myths about the warm up and give some effective solutions!

Let’s ascertain one thing; the body is the singers instrument AND singing is muscular. Usually what goes hand in hand with those days that a singers voice is “not happening” is that they are tired, run down and possibly it may even be that “time of the month” (if they are a female). In a nutshell; the body is lethargic and if this is the case, the muscles will be slow to respond hence the voice will have difficulty ‘waking up.’ On the flipside, have you ever noticed how it is so much easier to sing when you are feeling happy, enthusiastic or physically energised?  Or perhaps you have noticed that your voice sounds better later on in the day/evening- say compared to first thing in the morning? Many students complain to me that they can’t sing in the morning. Well I’d like to say that it needn’t be that way- that we can get our voices in the same mint condition they are in at night, as in the morning- or at ANY time (provided we’re in good vocal health). All we need to do is get the body feeling awake and invigorated and this is something we especially need to give ALOT MORE attention to when we’re NOT feeling energised.

As singing is muscular, then in conjunction with specific vocal exercises (that should not be overdone- remember the ole ; ‘warming -the -voice- up -to -wear -it -out’ scenario) our warm up must include something that warms the body up, or more specifically: WAKES the body up.

Some very effective body exercises, (which will wake the body up quickly) are listed below;

  • Jump up and down on the spot for 2 minutes.
  • Go for a 5 minute run.
  • Do some silent shouting (keeping the vocal folds open so as to prevent constriction). Make sure to get your whole body in on the act, (so best to stand) -just as you do when you are shouting. Wave your hands in the air and think of winning the lotto and shouting out “YAY!!!” or alternatively pretend you are calling out to a loved one who is across the street who you haven’t seen in a long time.
  • Another great body warm up I learnt (which is very effective to do with a whole band to get everyone psyched up before a show) is to vigorously shake the right arm for a count of 8 (count out aloud), then the left arm, then the right leg, then the left leg. Do this again but half this number to 4- starting with the right arm again and following the same sequence as before. The next time through halve the number to 2 and do as before and then halve the number again (1). Once you’ve finished this then jump up and shout “Yeah!!”.

Some of these suggestions may sound strange but it will make a big difference to the length of time it takes to warm your voice up.  I would encourage you to try incorporating into your daily vocal warm up routine something that will also wake the body up and notice how much less time it takes to get the voice working.

Jo Estill

 

I was saddened to hear recently that Jo Estill, who created The Estill Voice Model, had died a few weeks before Christmas. Fortunately, she had lived a relatively long- and full life- leaving us at the age of 89. Her life is one marked by significant achievements, both as a professional performer and in the later stage of her life; as a contributor, researcher and educator of voice science and technique.

Many actors, singers and professional voice users may be familiar with the Estill Voice System (13 Compulsory Figures for voice and 6 voice qualities), through attending Estill Workshops. No doubt, many have also been indirectly influenced by Jo through their own teachers, who may teach/ have taught many of her techniques- without even knowing the true origins of those techniques.

Jo Estill was born in 1921 in Pennsylvania, USA and began singing from a very young age. As an adult she had a successful career as an Opera singer in America and also toured throughout Europe. Despite her level of vocal proficiency and all the lessons she had received, she was aware that none of her teachers had ever TRULY explained to her how the voice worked, thus she was unaware of how she was actually able to make the sounds that she did. Even more importantly; she was unaware of how to fix things when her voice wasn’t working. It has been quoted that she often said to herself “how am I doing this?” and that it was this fundamental question that led her to leave behind her performance career and go back into education to undertake an MA in Music Education to uncover the answers. Much of the information obtained from the research conducted during her MA (and subsequent years of research) paved the way for the Estill Voice Model.

It was with Jo’s passing that I realised just how grateful I feel towards her efforts and her dedication to uncover the answers to the questions that she- and so many other singers have asked. I also feel immense gratitude for her generosity of knowledge and the fact that she has shared this information with others. I have found the Estill model excellent for obtaining real and tangible vocal results as opposed to many other teaching methods that I have also been exposed to that have no grounding in scientific facts or reality and consequently… results are elusive. Knowledge is power. The more you know about your voice and how it works the more likely you are able to improve and be able to make adjustments or fix things yourself (when having problems), without needing the constant assistance of a teacher. The Estill technique has given me that.
I feel that without Jo Estill many singers would not be where they are today; many would have not reached their true potential and there would still be an abundance of teachers teaching damaging vocal techniques or blaming their students for a lack of talent because they do not know how the voice functions or how to teach. Her discoveries and her training system have revolutionized the teaching of the voice and peoples understanding of how the voice functions.
So… thank you Jo!

I would encourage anyone if they are interested in developing their vocal ability and their knowledge and awareness about the voice to do an Estill course. You can find more information about Estill courses below.

http://www.estillvoice.com/

Water Anyone????

In my previous post I mentioned the importance of cooling down the voice to ensure good vocal health but I also wanted to add some other suggestions as to “DO’s and DONT’S that will greatly improve your vocal longevity. A huge part of maintaining good vocal health is to retain lubrication of the vocal folds and anything that compromises this should be avoided when you are needing to sing. So what are some of the things you should and shouldn’t do?

1. One of the most obvious ways is to drink plenty of water!  However, if you’ve already reached the point at which you’re noticeably dehydrated it is worth noting that it takes at least a couple of hours for the water to be absorbed by your cells at the level of the vocal folds and for them to return to normal hydration. Make sure you don’t get to the point where you’re noticeably parched by bringing a bottle of water around with you as you go about your daily activities.

2. Steam! Steam! Steam! Steam!  (This is one of the best!) You can purchase a steam inhaler from most chemists. Add boiling hot water to the steamer and inhale. Alternatively if you can’t get a steam inhaler get a big pot of water (DON’T add eucalyptus, tea tree or olbas oil as these tend to be quite drying) put a towel over you head and inhale. Steaming is also one of the best things to do when you have a cold and you still have to use your voice.

3. Avoid consuming anything particularly drying or irritating to the voice directly before singing such as antihistamines, cold and flu tablets and excessive amounts of caffeine and alcohol.

4. Too much abdominal pumping (excessive breath pressure) causes tightening within the throat (scratching) and dries out the vocal folds. Avoid this at all costs. Many singers find this hard to let go of as they find a quick and instant connection between pumping/pushing from their stomachs and volume. Needless to say it is not a safe loud. Pushing is a surefire way to lead to vocal trauma and yet in some singing studios some teachers are still teaching this method???!!!!

6. Avoid excessive breathy singing by singing with clear, clean tone.

7. Avoid smoking. Your vocal folds are like the guardians of the airway- anything that reaches your lungs has to pass by the vocal folds first. We all know what smoking does to your lungs- its effects on the voice are equally as bad with one of the most noticeable aspects being a diminished ability to hit high notes, sing cleanly (without breathiness) and to sustain long phrases and notes. The same is even more so true of wacky tabaccy (marijuana).  Whatever your crutch or addiction I am not advocating going cold turkey but if the desire is there to kick the habit find professional help to do so!

8. Stand and sing with good posture.

9. Develop your technique by getting singing lessons AND practice.

10. Warm the voice up with soft vocal slides- avoid singing a song to warm the voice up.

11. Avoid excessive throat clearing.

Your body is your instrument and singing is muscular. This connection between the body and the voice is never more highlighted than when one is sick and does not have the physical energy or stamina to sing. Needless to say it is important that you look after your physical health by getting enough sleep, eating well and exercising (I know- its common sense stuff but I am never ceased to be surprised by how many singers forget about the “voice-body connection” on occasion and this is usually the time that coincides with their own vocal problems).

There has also been a significant degree of research into the link between one’s mental state and ones physical health. Thus maintaining a positive attitude and frame of mind is also hugely important- especially as it is during times of increased emotional stress is when vocal difficulties surface. Activities such as meditation, yoga and tai chi are great to regain the balance!