Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How would you describe your approach as a voice teacher?
A: My goals as a teacher and as a singer are to do what works, and to keep things as practical as possible. I believe that the voice can be trained to respond with the most ease and efficient use of effort by fairly simple means that require some years of study and practice. I personally do not respond well to imagery and the associated cognitive dissonance and suspension of disbelief, as a primary mode of teaching. I like to train singing with singing, not with props and non-singing exercises. The “sound” we make as our voice gains in ease and power is the voice we learn to love. I don’t teach to a market; I let the singer’s emerging voice lead to appropriate outlets. Singers will end up doing what they: a) want and b) do well. Helping them with those two things is my satisfying work.
Q: What role does voice science play in training?
A: I am always studying texts on singing from ancient times through the modern era, and am firmly convinced that vocal pedagogy is an empirical process, based on acute listening, refinement of concepts, and trial and error, in harmony with Nature. Science, theory, and acoustical measurement will not get us to free, expressive singing by themselves. We must have a way of DOING based on EFFECTIVE CONCEPTS that gets us closer to our goal of a free, beautiful, expressive voice. The voice and the mind are directly linked and learning how our voice responds to our concepts, rather than self-consciously moving this or that body part, is what makes for good and healthy singing. Science explains “what” but it does not show us “how”.
A: A very simple definition of “function” is the ability to sing high and low, loud and soft, slow and fast, with the appropriate registration (coordination of head and chest voice) and resonance strategy (shape of your vocal tract), all with maximum freedom and ease. I believe that a voice that does these things well is inherently beautiful. In other words, one doesn’t need to try to make it “sound like” anyone or anything other than what it is when it is functioning at its most optimal level. If one wants to be a singer, they should not imitate a particular singer, but rather train to be able to do what the singers in that genre need to do!
Q: How long and how often should lessons be?
A: This will depend on where you are in your development, and what your goals are. A hundred years ago, classical vocalists might have several short lessons per week. Pavarotti had daily lessons for seven years before he made his debut. For very young singers a half hour weekly may be appropriate, but for age 12 and up, 45 minutes is the minimum. As you advance and start working with repertoire, a full hour is better.
Q: What do you emphasize in your teaching?
A: The first and most important thing I teach is unlocking the voice. Learning a freeing technique will help you to sing in a healthy way for the rest of your life, as well as just making everything easier.
Q: What is the definition of “technique”?
A: By technique I mean the “how to” of singing – what your body and mind have to do together to be able to sing your repertoire in the most healthy, free, and expressive manner. Desirable adjustments in the manner of singing need to be practiced until they become automatic.
Q: What is the role of science in the voice lesson?
A: Minimal. Acoustical and physiological analysis tell us interesting things about singing after the fact, but voice culture is an empirical craft. Freedom first.
Q: What do you teach in addition to technique?
A: In addition to establishing a reliable technique, we may work on related skills that are important for singers, including, but not limited to: performing the music in a style-appropriate way, finding the dramatic intent of the lyric, diction, how to physicalize a song, how to practice, timing, expression, groove, and stage presence.
Q: How long will it take me to become a great singer?
A: This is very similar to learning a sport. If you have never had training before, you will learn a lot in a short time, and may start enjoying your new skills quickly. If you are asking when you will be ready to audition for a national talent show or a regional opera house, I’d have you look at the number of hours in practice and the quantity of coaching received by world-class athletes, and you will have some idea of the time and work it takes to become a world-class singer. I enjoy teaching singers who just want to sing better for themselves, those who want to sing in choirs, those who want to play clubs and record, and those who aspire to whatever goal they choose, as long as they understand that it takes time, patience, and intelligent work. An enjoyable and informative book on this subect is Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.
Q: What is the difference between a voice teacher and a voice coach?
A: The terms are often used interchangeably, but traditionally a voice teacher’s main role is to help you with technique, to build your voice. Coaches accompany you and help you with all of the other aspects of performance such as rhythm, text (language and diction), general style, and musicianship. I am a voice teacher for jazz, classical, musical theatre, rock, and R&B singers, and in a coaching role I’m most comfortable with musical theatre, classical, Great American Songbook, and some “easy listening” styles. As the term “vocal coach” becomes more common as a replacement for “voice teacher” in the contemporary commercial music scene, it is important for a client to ask whether the professional they are hiring works on vocal technique, repertoire, or both.
Q: I sing R & B and pop songs. Are you going to try to make me study “classical” style?
Q: How can I increase my range?
A: Many of the most common vocal problems are caused by a faulty technique, especially noticeable when the singer forces the higher tones. You will never be able to expand your range to its maximum potential until you are using only the muscles that are necessary, and keep the others out of the way. For most singers, this means retraining muscles in the throat, tongue, and jaw areas. It takes careful work with a teacher to sort this out. Fortunately, range problems usually show quick improvement once certain wrong tensions are released, and needed muscles are strengthened.
Q: What is this “mix” I’ve heard about?
A: Due to the anatomy of the muscles of the larynx, there are two basic registers of the voice. The one usually associated with our lowest voice, called “chest voice” is the voice most of us speak with. The lighter register is called “falsetto” or “head voice” and is associated with higher and softer sounds. If you sing from your lowest notes to your highest notes, you may experience a distinct break or crack between your lower register and your higher register. The “mix” refers to the coordination between your chest and head voice that allows there to be a smooth transition, with no breaks. This has other names such as “middle voice” and “balanced registration”. Done properly, it sounds like an extension of the chest voice, pure and strong, without the strain of pushing pure “chest” until it becomes yelling. A good mix makes going on up into head voice easy and it sounds and feels great. The mix is not another register, it is just a name for the result of coordination between the muscles controlling the lower and upper registers.
Q: Am I too old for voice lessons?
A: Never! Better vocal function is a worthy goal at any age. For examples of people singing well into their 70s and beyond look up Tony Bennett, Magda Oliveiro, Alfredo Kraus, Barbara Cook, Andy Williams, and Leontyne Price.
Q: Can you teach me how to belt?
A: Yes, with several caveats. First, it is important to understand that one voice can’t do everything equally well. True belt is a very chest-dominant way of singing. Sometimes what people really need and want when they say “belt” is an ability to adjust the mix to allow for more or less “chest” in the sound. Someone with control over their mix can often perform belt style numbers very effectively without using a full belt that could eliminate the possibility of a transition to a headier mix or head voice, especially for higher and/or softer notes.
Q: Isn’t falsetto the same as head voice?
A: Not in the terminology that I use. Falsetto refers to the more breathy, hollow sound that occurs when the vocal folds (also called “cords”) are not completely together. Head voice refers to a tone above the “break” that has more “ring” or “ping” in the sound due to its being coordinated with the lower register or “chest voice”. Understanding falsetto is important for vocal study but is not used much by itself in performance.
Q: I have been told that I need to use better breath support. What does this mean?
A: When you ask different people what they think “breath support” means, you get very different answers. Because this term has so hugely varied baggage with it, I don’t use it. Here are some thoughts about the air supply that is the fuel for our singing. It does not take much air to sing. When a great singer can sing a long phrase on a breath, it is not because they have learned to put more air into their lungs, it is because they use it more slowly. Constantly taking the largest possible breaths can create unnecessary tension. Neither do we want to squeeze out every cubic centimeter of air before taking the next breath, because this encourages a collapsed and tense condition of the torso. All the fancy breathing in the world (and there are some really complicated methods out there!) won’t fix problems in the coordination of the muscles in your larynx that are responsible for changing and sustaining pitches. When the intrinsic muscles of the larynx have been properly trained, there is plenty of breath for phrases. A tall, expanded, alert posture needs to be maintained during the beginning, middle, and end of every breath. This is not hard to do, but sometimes attention needs to be focused on this area for a while until it becomes a good habit. Complicated formulas about different body parts moving in different directions tend to make breathing laborious and take attention away from vocal flaws that need to be resolved directly.
Q: What was the purpose of that exercise?
A: This is a question that comes up during a lesson sometimes. Don’t ever be afraid to ask your teacher for the purpose of an exercise if you are unsure. You’ll learn a lot more when you understand “why”.
Q: Can you help me get ready for American Idol?
A: I can help you to sing your material in a more healthy manner, but in order to compete at a national level, you need to be out gigging and studying the stylings of great artists of your genre, while developing your own style. If you train in order to audition for American Idol, and you are not selected, what then? The answer to that question will determine whether you should be considering voice lessons. Every contestant on those shows has been performing for years before getting to that level. It’s a long-term commitment. I’m happy to work with wherever you are in your development, but I cannot make any predictions or promises about your career.
Q: Is it true that if you can sing classical, you can sing anything?
A: A lot of people say so, but I disagree. Learning how to sing with a free, well-coordinated, powerful voice is a different goal from learning how to sing a particular genre of music. People can certainly learn to sing popular styles in addition to classical, but there are important stylistic differences to learn in each. Crossing between classical and popular styles can be especially tricky for women.
Q: Won’t taking lessons train the uniqueness out of my voice?
A: It shouldn’t. A voice that is free and healthy will assert its own unique characteristics and retain an individuality. However, a voice that is injured will probably change a little bit in terms of the sound and audience hears, as it heals, strengthens, and frees up. It can be difficult for the singer to accept the new sound, even though the voice is working better. On the other hand, a voice that is injured or under excessive strain can also change (usually for the worse) over time. Once a singer has a reliable technique, however, they usually retain the same signature sound for the rest of their career.