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April 26, 2010

My lessons are going so well -- why can't I sing that well in my songs?

Singing even a simple song is a act of incredible complexity.  You have to produce a well-coordinated tone on pitches that change frequently, often jumping around from one vocal register to another.  You have to manage your resonance as the vowel changes from word to word, while interspersing these sung tones with all the proper consonant sounds.  You have to honor the composer's or conductor's or your own intentions in matters of volume, tempo, emotion, and tonal color.  You have to maintain ease in your body and manage your breath per the demands of the piece you are singing.  You have to convey the meaning of the lyrics, communicate with your audience and any fellow performers, and be poised enough to respond to any unexpected snafus.

Oh yes, and you are expected to look great all the while.

It's not easy to learn under conditions of such complexity.  With so many variables changing all the time, your brain cannot easily analyze the subtleties of your technique and recognize what is and is not working for you vocally.  This is why in your lessons we simplify the situation using exercises.

In an exercise, you normally keep most aspects of your technique constant, while only one or two elements change.  For example, I may have you sing an arpeggio on [ah]: the vowel, the resonance, and the volume stay the same while only the pitch changes.  Or I may have you sing a sequence of vowels on a single pitch: [ah-ay-ee-oh-oo].

With the situation simplified in this way, you can more easily focus your awareness on the single changing element, making learning easier.

Sometimes, after a certain amount of exercises, a student is able to jump right into "real" music, effectively transferring what she has learned.  Sometimes, however, this transition is too abrupt, and the student in desperation reverts to habitual patterns of technique.  When this happens, I know my teaching approach needs to be more step-wise rather than skipping immediately from the very simple to the very complex.  Then I invent gradually more challenging exercises using material from the piece of music my student is practicing.  I find this kind of work to be lots of fun and very satisfying to my need for pedagogical creativity.

You can do this yourself when you practice.  Let's go through the process using the opening phrase of the U.S. National Anthem—the one that goes "Oh, say, can you see. . . ." while traversing a broken chord extending over an octave.  Depending on your range and technical proficiency, this can be a challenging phrase, dipping as it does down into perhaps your lowest notes and giving you a potentially challenging [ee] vowel on an awkward transitional note.  (Let's say that you are an adult male singing in the key of B-flat, which means that the phrase starts on the F below middle C, dips down to low B-flat, then rises to the B-flat an octave above on the word "see."  I'll describe one possible sequence of increasingly more difficult exercises on this phrase:

  1. Sing this arpeggio on [oh]: low B-flat - octave higher B-flat - (descending to ) F - D - B-flat
  2. Same arpeggio, starting on [oh] and changing to [ee] for the second and following notes.
  3. Ascending B-flat arpeggio, starting on [oh] and changing to [ee] on the top and final note.
  4. Sing the phrase of the song on the vowels only: [oh] - [oh] - [ay] - [a] - [oo] - [ee]
  5. Same as #4, but add repetitions of the third and of the final note on the appropriate words: [oh] - [oh] - [ay] - [say] - [say] - [say] - [a] - [oo] - [ee] - [see] - [see] - [see]
  6. Sing the phrase on the words: Oh-oh, say, can you see
Depending how each step goes, you can proceed to the next step or add other intermediate steps to help you practice elements of the phrase that are proving troublesome.  (Often, for example, adding in the consonants with a faulty technique causes singers to lose their laryngeal stability, thus deforming their vowels.)

Try this with a phrase from one of your songs or arias that causes you trouble, and write a comment to let me know if it helped!

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