In a previous blog I wrote about the importance of those funny repetitive sounds (i.e. vocal exercises) we often hear singers do during singing lessons.
Check out the blog entry here:
The Difference Between Vocal Exercises and Vocal Warm Ups
Yes, there really IS a point to all those nay-nay-nay’s and gee-gee-gee’s us singing teachers force upon our students! The ability to vocalise well is an important process in any singer’s vocal journey. However, we must remember that there is much more to singing than just being able to vocalise a great “gee” or a fabulous “nay”.
When I was a kid, I took drawing classes. Before I had my first class, I always thought that a pencil was, well, just a pencil. It wasn’t until after taking taking lessons when I learnt that there are in fact many different types of pencils to choose from. I distinctly remember that my first few lessons consisted solely of using different types of pencils to draw tiny little lines one after another. Starting with slight pressure on the pencil tip, the goal was to create thin wispy lines that gradually became darker and bolder as you drew across the page.
At the time all I really wanted to do was draw a picture of Moonchie – the new puppy my parents got us. Being told to sit still and draw line after line after line wasn’t exactly my idea of a good time. However, being the kind of kid who generally did what she was told, I hunkered down and concentrated hard on creating my little lines that went from light to dark in perfect gradation. In fact, I spent hours and hours trying to get them just right. If I was going to create the masterpiece my 9-year-old self had envisioned of our beloved Moonchie, those lines had better be perfect! In fact, I was so determined that I became increasingly caught up in the practice of this exercise. I got lost in the intricacies and imperfections of each and every line. I got frustrated when after 10 minutes of focused drawing, I looked over my work and saw that my lines were becoming shorter and shorter and no longer of equal length. I had somehow convinced myself that if I couldn’t master this basic process then I wouldn’t be able to create any kind of drawing worthy of display.
Needless to say, I am a recovering perfectionist.
Fast forward decades later and I am the WORST player to have on your team in a game of Pictionary, any attempt at drawing results in unintentional abstract art, and sadly, no Moonchie masterpiece.
In the process of perfecting my line-drawing technique, I clearly lost sight of the bigger picture – in this case both metaphorically and literally! In my obsession with getting my technique perfected, I forgot that the reason I enrolled in classes to begin with was so that I could become a better drawer, NOT a master line-maker.
As a singing teacher, I am fortunate to have so many curious and inquisitive vocal students who want to know all the nitty gritty details on how to sing. I absolutely love when students pepper me with questions about the voice. In fact, I could happily spend the whole lesson discussing appropriate vocal fold adduction, laryngeal position, resonators and vowel shaping. However, we need to remember that great technique alone does not make a great singer.
All too often I encounter students who put far too much emphasis on mastering their technique. There are even some who develop an irrational fear of singing actual songs because they feel that their technique is not yet up to standard. The old perfectionist in me totally relates to this by the way.
Yes, establishing good technique is crucial for any singer. But to place this much importance on the mastery of singing exercises in and of itself is to miss the whole point entirely.
My advice to students of singing is the same as what I’d tell myself if I could travel back in time to my childhood drawing days:
Whatever craft you choose to develop, don’t isolate your learning to what can be accomplished solely within the practice room.
If you want to draw, find as many opportunities as you can to draw actual pictures of things that you enjoy. If you want to dance, go out and dance like no one is watching. And if you want to sing, well darn-it, get out there and sing your heart out. Remember, there are many singers with poor technique who are loved by the world because they sing from the heart. In contrast, in all my years of singing and teaching others how to sing, I have never once heard of a famous vocaliser.
Practice vocal exercises so that you can sing forever and express yourself the way YOU want to. Just remember to spend just as much time actually singing (even if it’s just to yourself) without worrying about your pitching, whether you’re breathing correctly, etc.
If you commit to doing both regularly (i.e. vocal exercising AND singing), I guarantee that your technique will eventually make its way into your performances without much conscious effort on your part. And THIS is ultimately the end result that we all want from singing lessons.
With much love, joy & music,
PSST! Wanna know a SECRET to Singing Success?? How about THREE of them?
I once had a female student who insisted on only singing songs sung by men because she felt that songs sung by women were not within her range. She did not have a particularly low voice and after spending a few minutes working on vocal exercises with her, it was clear she had access to her head voice. In other words, aside from a lack of voice training, there were no real reasons, at least from a physical standpoint, why she could not sing songs written in the female key. In fact, restricting herself to singing songs only in the male key could put unnecessary strain on the voice in the long run and lead to potentially severe vocal damage.
Goodbye Sound of Music…
When legendary singer and performer Julie Andrews took the lead role in the Broadway Musical “Victor/Victoria” in 1995, she played a female singer who disguises herself as a man named Victor who performs as a female impersonator (try to wrap your head around that one!).
Playing a female character pretending to be a man meant that she had to spend a lot of time speaking and singing at a range that was far below what was natural for her famous voice – a voice that she herself once described as a “very pure, white, thin voice, (with) a four-octave range”.
In 1997, Andrews was forced to quit the show due to vocal problems and subsequently underwent a throat operation to remove non-cancerous throat nodules that had formed on her vocal folds. It was essentially every singer’s worst nightmare. The surgery ultimately left her with a permanently limited range as well as a limited ability to hold notes. Of course, not all of us are Broadway singers who need to subject ourselves to a gruelling schedule of 8 full performances per week. However, this example is still a clear indication of the toll that can be taken on the voice if we constantly sing unsuitable songs over a period of time.
Factors to Consider When Selecting a Song for Your Voice
There are a lot of factors to consider when selecting an appropriate song for a performance or practice session. Questions such as, “Does the song speak to me?”, “Is the song appropriate for the occasion?”, “Does the song show enough of my vocal abilities?” are all important and relevant in your decision-making process. However, perhaps one of the most crucial musical aspects that one must always look at is the tessitura of the song you are considering.
Tessitura (Italian for “texture”) in the musical sense refers to the general range of pitches found in a melody or vocal part. The tessitura of a piece is determined by which part of the vocal range is most consistently used.
For example, a song like Bruno Mars’s “Grenade” has a relatively high tessitura because on average most of the notes are situated within the higher part of a male’s vocal range (specifically in the first and second bridges, or passaggi, in a typical male’s voice).
In contrast, a song like Frank Sinatra’s “As Time Goes By” has a relatively low tessitura since most of the notes are situated in the lower part of a male’s range. In fact, the highest note in the song is Db4, which means the entire piece is actually sung within a male’s chest voice range.
Tessitura Vs. Range
It’s important to understand that a song’s tessitura and a song’s range are two very different things.
The range of Elvis Presley’s song “If I Can Dream” goes from an A3 (quite low in the male chest voice register) all the way up to the highest note of the song which is A5 (quite high in the male head voice register). Although the range of the song is very wide, spanning two full octaves, I would not say that the tessitura of the song is high because the A5 note only appears two or three times in the entire piece. In fact, approximately two-thirds of all the notes in the song lie at or below a male’s first passaggio (i.e. in the chest register).
Compare this to Bryan Adams’s “Summer of 69” where the highest note of the song is also A5 but, unlike Elvis’s number, the tessitura is also high because most of the notes in this song are arranged around the first and second passaggi (i.e. more in the male head register). Indeed, the A5 is a recurring note that appears many times throughout Adams’s crowd-pleasing tune.
Why is this important?
The tessitura of a song will determine how comfortable you will be when singing it. If you know that your most comfortable singing range is more towards the Frank Sinatra/Michael Buble/Elvis Presley end of the scale, then choosing a Bruno Mars or Jason Mraz song is probably not the best idea.
Yes, there’s always the option of lowering the key of a song with a particularly high tessitura, but this may not always be practical. For a song like “Grenade” where so much of the song sits in such a high part of the male register, a singer whose most comfortable range is at or below their first bridge would have to lower the song by several keys (at least 9 semi-tones lower than the original) before they would begin to feel comfortable.
Remember, it’s one thing to hit a high note once or twice in a song, and an entirely different thing to not only hit but sustain a series of high notes over and over again.
How do I know if the Tessitura of a Song is Suitable for My Voice?
The first step to answering this question is by having a good understanding of your voice.
Enlisting the help of a professional vocal coach would be the best way to go about doing this. But if this option is not available to you, the way to determine if the tessitura of a song is something you would be comfortable with is really through trial and error.
Practice singing the song you are considering over and over again. Then when you are familiar enough with it, record yourself singing it a few times as if you were performing it for an audience. Listen back to the recordings and ask yourself the following questions:
When you have answered the questions for yourself, ask a friend you trust to listen to the recordings and have them answer the questions from their perspective.
If you are finding that you’re struggling consistently with hitting notes, or that your pitching and vocal tone worsen with each repeat performance, or that the song leaves you vocally tired and sore after 2 or 3 tries, then you should considering either lowering the key or changing the song entirely as it is likely that the tessitura of your selection is too high.
Are You a Piano Player? If So, Please Read On!
If you play the piano, finding the tessitura of a song is even simpler. Firstly, you need to know where your vocal bridges generally lie. Below is a list of where the vocal bridges typically are located for different voices:
Male Baritone or Tenor Voice:
1st Bridge: E4-G4
2nd Bridge: A4-C5
Female Soprano Voice:
1st Bridge: A4-C5
2nd Bridge: E5-G5
3rd Bridge: A5-C6
Now that you know where your bridges are, play out the notes of your song on a piano or keyboard and look at where most of the notes are arranged.
Most beginner singers or those who have not had extensive formal vocal training will already experience difficulties in their first bridge. Therefore, if you know that you are one of these singers, all you have to do is see how often the notes in your selected song appear within the range of this first bridge. If they appear only a couple of times, the song may be just fine for your voice. If you find that the notes are appearing over and over again, particularly in the upper areas of your first bridge, then you may want to consider lowering the key or choosing a different song.
A Final Word…
Ultimately, when we sing songs, we want our listeners to be moved by the emotions and message of our delivery.
If the tessitura of the song you are singing is too high for your voice, your audience will notice. Going through this process of determining where your bridges are as well as the tessitura of your chosen song will significantly deepen your understanding of your vocal instrument and allow you to make better song choices. It’ll take a bit of time at the start, but as your ear improves you’ll be able to determine the tessitura of any song very quickly.
PSST! Wanna know a SECRET to Singing Success?? How about THREE of them?
A few years ago, I was invited by a friend to play on his dodge ball team. I have no problem admitting that I am likely the least sportiest person in the world and was shocked, to say the least, that my friend even thought of me. I should probably mention that up until this point I had never even heard of dodge ball (no, I never saw the Ben Stiller movie), but the concept intrigued me enough to give it a go.
What was promised of being a harmless, “friendly” social game turned into a vicious, snarling, competitive sport that consisted of physical assault by ball and resulted in me nursing bruises for the better part of the week. Not one to give up so easily, I continued playing for several more weeks until I realised I was slowly being sidelined to the roles of Ball Collector and Solo Cheering Squad.
It was then that I decided I had better call it quits. The reason for this was not to do with the fact that I was clearly terrible at the game, but rather because I was given absolutely no training or guidance on what I was supposed to do. I knew that getting hit by the ball was a bad thing and that hitting someone on the other team with a ball led to cheers and happy back-slapping. However, no one actually spent the time to teach me what to do with the ball once I had it, or how to avoid it when it was making a bee-line for my face. There were no pre-game drills or warm ups, and we never met as a team outside of game times to practice or strategise. Although I was assured that I would “pick it up as I went along”, I didn’t have the faintest clue where to even begin and I knew that without training and guidance, there was no way I was going to improve.
My singing students will know that my fellow vocal coaches and I place extreme value on the vocal training part of every singing lesson. In fact, it is not uncommon for us to dedicate more than half of the class time on vocal exercises (or “vocalises” – pronounced “vo-kah-lee-zuz”) if we feel the student needs them.
I am often asked the question, “Why do we need to keep making these weird vocal sounds anyway? Is this just to warm up or do these exercises actually do anything for me??”
Students who are new to singing will often confuse vocal training with “warming up” and it’s important to know that there is indeed a difference.
When a singer “warms up”, the goal is similar to that of an athlete or dancer when they warm up before a game or performance:
“Warm-ups not only help the voice function more efficiently, but also can encourage a feeling of relaxation and focus before a performance…The function of the warm-up is to increase blood flow to the working muscles and increase the muscle temperature, decrease the number of injuries to the working muscles, and increase muscle tissue temperature…” (Heywood, V.H., cited by Saxon and Schneider, 1995, p. 69).
In other words, warm-ups help to prepare the singing voice for an extended period of active use. Vocalises, however, serve a deeper, more long-term function.
Going back to my dodge ball experience, although I knew basically how the game worked, my muscles had no clue how to react quickly enough for me to be an effective player. No matter how much I tried to dodge a ball that was hurled in my direction, I was never quick enough to move out of harm’s way. On the rare occasion that I actually had the ball, my instincts were not sharp enough for me to know if I should pass it to my team mate or hurl it towards someone on the opposing team. On the rare occasion when I DID make a decision, my body did not know how to properly coordinate itself to make an effective and powerful enough throw.
Vocal exercises enable a singer to train their vocal instrument to behave in the most effective and efficient manner possible. This way, a singer can enjoy the experience of performing live because they know they can rely on their voice to “do its job”.
Of course, all this is easier said than done. A beginner singer (and sometimes even an advanced singer who has been singing incorrectly for a long period of time) will often require months, or even years, of repetitive training before they can get to a point where vocal exercising become less about fixing vocal issues as they are about maintaining proper vocal function.
To put it another way, vocal exercises pave the way towards building good vocal technique and teach you how to stay on the right track. Vocal warm-ups merely remind you of the vocal skills and techniques that you already know.
Singing a song without having the proper training in place beforehand is equivalent to me jumping into a dodge ball game with limited knowledge and crossing my fingers that I won’t end up with too many bumps and bruises by the end of the session.
Believing that one can learn how to sing correctly just by singing songs alone is like me believing I could become a good dodge ball player just by blindly throwing myself into a game.
Sure, with time, I could probably figure it out as I went along. But without proper training, I’d probably make far more mistakes and sustain far more injuries as a result. Plus, no matter how proficient of a player I ultimately became, I would always know deep down inside that I could have been so much better.
PSST! Wanna know a SECRET to Singing Success?? How about THREE of them?
A lot of students ask me for vocal hygiene tips. In a place like Hong Kong where, let’s face it, the air pollution is horrendous and air conditioning is inescapable, it’s not uncommon to develop allergic reactions to the environment that do affect the quality of the voice. While there’s not much that can be done to permanently solve this problem, (other than, of course, moving to a different country), here are a few small things that you can do that will help to protect your voice:
1. Drink 2 litres of liquids per day. A lot of people I know will drink water only right before they have to perform. If you’re worried about having a dry throat or excessive phlegm during a performance, the only way you can counteract this is by drinking plenty of fluids throughout the day. The body needs time to flush out the toxins and the vocal folds need to be hydrated from the inside out. Although it seems like it works, sipping hot lemon water with honey right before show time won’t do anything to “moisten” your vocal folds.
2. No matter how tempting it may be, try to avoid clearing your throat by coughing loudly. If you must cough, hold your breath briefly and make a series of gentle, “unvoiced” coughs instead. This will help prevent your vocal folds from slamming too hard against each other.
3. As much as possible (especially on show days), avoid dry interiors and smoggy, polluted air. In other words, stay out of Causeway Bay.
4. Don’t speak excessively in noisy environments. This is a sure way to dry out the vocal folds and possibly lose your voice. It’s ok to be the quiet one during a wild night out in Lan Kwai Fong.
5. Generally, try to speak at the same pitch level where you would naturally say “Um-hmm” (as in, “Um-hmm, that’s interesting!”). Many people speak at a pitch that is not optimal for their range (i.e. either too high or too low). The famous case in point would be Julie Andrews when she was in the Broadway musical “Victor, Victoria”. She suffered extreme vocal damage because the lead character she played was a female pretending to be a male and so she had to speak for extensive periods of time at a pitch that was far too low in her range.
6. Don’t use antihistamines excessively. They cause a drying of the mouth, nose and throat.
7. Use good vocal inflection during speech. In other words, speaking like a robot is a bad idea.
8. Don’t whisper. Excessive whispering is just as bad for your vocal folds as screaming is. Excessive air blasting through the vocal folds is never a good thing.
If you know of any other tips to add to the list, please feel free to leave me a note!