So you are ready to get going with your first student! Let’s explore how you might go about assessing their vocal needs before launching into vocal exercises and singing.
The spoken voice
Your assessment will start with the spoken voice. As soon as the student starts to talk, make sure you are listening out for any signs that might help you understand what their vocal needs will be. Here are a few specific things you can be assessing as you listen to them speak:
What to listen for: Do they have a high, medium, or low voice when they speak.
Possible issues: If the pitch is too high it may indicate high larynx. Also listen out for a Homer Simpson- type voice, which indicates low larynx. Is it consistent – within approximately a major 3rd range, or is it jumping about randomly? In an adolescent male random pitch jumping may indicate they are going through the voice change.
What to listen for: Is it clear and balanced?
Possible issues: Breathiness, forced/pushed, raspy, cutting in and out, nasal.
What to listen for: Are they speaking with a strong accent or dialect? Are they speaking in their first or second language?
Possible issues: May have difficulty with pronunciation, some dialects have negative impact on the vocal mechanism such as high larynx, throaty phonation, or nasal tone placement.
What to listen for: Cracking, fry/creaky voice, flipping, hoarse
Possible issues: Vocal fold strain, injury or illness e.g. over use, abuse, respiratory infection, laryngitis, nodules, polyps from poor vocal technique. Speaking with fry— à la Kim Kardashian — as it’s fashionable, but unhealthy.
The Singing Voice
When we are assessing the singing voice we need to evaluate how successful the singer is in controlling or managing the following variables:
1. Intonation (pitch) – Simply put are they on pitch? If not do they tend to be flat or sharp?
2. Laryngeal stability – Is the larynx high, neutral, or low? Is this consistent or dependent on pitch, e.g. larynx high when notes are high?
3. Vocal fold closure – Are the vocal folds closing weak, balanced or excessively? Is this consistent or dependent on pitch?
4. Range – How much working range does the singer have? Can they access all of the song’s range from low to high notes?
5. The transition – Can the singer transition easily and effortlessly from their low register to their high register? What happens as they get to through the passaggio (bridges) areas . The passaggio areas will vary with voice types and sex. Females 1st passaggio starts approximately at Ab4, and males around Eb4.
6. Breath management – Are they able to manage their breathing appropriately, i.e. no snatched breaths, running out, odd breath placements, losing too much air, high chest breaths, continuously retracted ribs?
7. Tone – Do they have a full and rich tone through out their range? Does it sound well-balanced and consistent, e.g. not too breathy, nasal, squeaky, harsh or strident?
8. Vibrato – Do they have access to a well-balanced vibrato, i.e. not too wide, slow, fast, or narrow?. Can they control it if they want to? E.g. go from straight tone to vibrato?
9. Dynamic control – Are there appropriate dynamics or does the lack of control dictate the volume, e.g. always loud for higher notes?
10. Emotional context – e.g. Is the singer able to convey emotion through their voice or does poor vocal technique limit this?
11. Musicality – How is their musical phrasing, timing, rhythm, stylistic delivery, and do they execute accurate and appropriate riffs/improvisation?
12. Other factors –e.g. Does their posture impede or help? Can we understand the lyrics, – articulation, accent/dialect?. Does playing an instrument at the same time hinder their singing? Do they have any inappropriate bodily movements or are they too stiff?
Assessment can be made on a sound and scale or in the context of a song. Today we will check out this a live performance of the song Bring Me To Life sung by Amy Lee (Evanescence) against the above criteria and see what we come up with. Once you’ve made your notes come back and see what I came up with in my assessment, do we agree or disagree?
Bring Me To Life – Evanescence (Live)
1. Intonation (pitch) Tending to be flat, especially in the chorus and some of the sustained notes, some pitches missed out.
2. Laryngeal stability tending to rise.
3. Vocal fold closure ranged from weak closure (breathy) to over- compressed.
4. Range – not making all of the 2 top notes of the song (D5/C5) every time.
5. The passaggio (Female = ~Ab4-C5) At start of song used breathy quality and the transition was unstable. Voice became strained in the chorus and bridge of song – was then pushing voice to get to notes.
6. Breath management gasping for breath at times, audible inhalation.
7. Tone Pushed/yelled in places, edgy tone, bit nasal.
8. Vibrato not used (genre thing).
9. Dynamic control Started quietly, – used breathiness to reduce volume. From chorus on dynamic became loud, –achieved by yelling.
10. Emotional context Intensity expressed by pushing the sound.
11. Musicality breathlessness and need for high physical energy interfered with rhythm, melody, and phrasing at times, but the artist is obviously musically adept.
12. Other factors
- just came from another song
- not sure how many had been sung before.
- started off accompanying self on keyboard – standing, leaning forward and down to mic, chin protruding.
- high-energy performance – running around through out.
- genre = metal/rock with electronic band, on a large stage in festival setting.
- pro sound gear.
Here is the recorded version of the song to compare it to:
Bring Me To Life – Evanescence (recorded)
Next steps for Singers
At this point you should discuss your findings with the singer and get their thoughts. Remember if the singer insists they want/ don’t want to change their sound all you can do is inform them why it might not be vocal healthy or musically appropriate, but at the end of the day it is the singer’s choice. Most of the time a singer goes to see a teacher in order to learn to sing better.
Being able to define these characteristicszes is a useful way for the teacher to stay objective and focus on functional issues. We need to be careful not to impose our judgments and taste onto a student. It’s a fine line, artistry is so personal—where would we be without Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday, John Mayer, Adele, or Stevie Wonder? Dylan is not known for pitch accuracy, Holiday’s range was limited and her tone husky and rough, Mayer also has a husky tone and he visibly strains when he sings, Adele tends to push her voice into her upper range, and Wonder can sound very nasal at times…they are all amazing artists, no one can doubt that. But on the other hand Adele, Mayer, and Wonder are known to have had to have vocal surgery, and for each the cause was attributed to poor technique.
The job of the singing teacher is to facilitate the student to achieve their goals and aspirations to the best of their ability. It’s a fine line between helping the singer find their full vocal potential and ensuring they remain true to their individuality art, style, or genre. In the contemporary music world we are fortunate to be able to allow for individuality, more so than classical and musical theatre.
Have fun assessing!