A new book from top vocal coach John Henny offers a well-informed synopsis of the core principles of singing, writes LAURA LONG.
Teaching Contemporary Singing is John Henny’s first book and is based on over 25 years of teaching people how to sing. He condenses a huge amount of excellent information into this slim volume, which could easily be the basis for several more manuals on the art of understanding and working with the voice.
For this reason, I would suggest this book is more suited to someone who has already delved into singing in quite a significant way, as there’s a lot to get to grips with here, and it’s likely to be a bit overwhelming for a complete beginner, at least without some proper guidance through it.
Henny covers many core topics, getting straight into basic principles for each one – registration, vowels, consonants, the singers “mix” and so on. Each subject benefits from slow, considered reading and the understanding that many hours of practical studio application and exploration are required to bring these things into full light.
Since singing is experiential, it’s worth remembering that anything academic has to be sensorially felt to be appreciated – and in particular, “tuned into” with ever increasingly subtle skills of “hearing”. A detailed chapter on “how to listen” would have been a great addition, particularly with the notes on “voice types”.
The teaching triangle
In terms of how to structure actual lessons, Henny offers a condensed practical “teaching triangle”, a kind a flowchart, as a way for the teacher to format and shape the teaching and learning process. It serves, he says, “to keep the lesson focused and moving forward”, and even more reassuringly, “as something to keep referring back to if you get stuck”.
The teaching triangle begins with three things to consider when diagnosing a voice: the use of air flow, what’s happening with the vocal cords, and the way in which the vowel sound is produced.
Henny discusses the use of the breath and air flow pretty much exclusively in relation to how the vocal cords function, (ie. the degree to which the cords resist air), leaving the rest of the subject of breathing somewhat skimmed over. Rightly so, he states that singing from the diaphragm is too misleading and general, and his “hissing” exercise is indeed a great way to begin an understanding of the breath.
However, his description of good “posture” for breathing is the commonly over-used “constructed manufacturing” of an erect position (with the imaginary string providing alignment), which in fact doesn’t help to promote natural stature, nor optimal functioning, but can ultimately add unnecessary tension.
The triangle continues with three questions that the teacher can ask him/herself while listening to what’s happening with the cords, vowel and airflow – followed by an outline of the main features in the toolbox of exercises available to teachers: scale patterns, consonants and vowels.
Vowels and the science of singing
Henny really comes into his element when discussing the intricacies of vowel formation and sounds, and a good deal of the book is focussed on this.
He is affectionately known in the singing world as “the vowel man” and uses what could be considered his trademark employment of the “science of singing” to illustrate the acoustic and physical mechanisms at play when creating vowel sounds.
Henny describes how sound waves are made, specifically harmonics, and how we are able to manipulate these. By understanding how to use the main resonating chambers of the body (ie. the throat and mouth), he offers a means of constructing a tension free voice, which allows the singer to create subtle or dramatic variations in tone, texture, intensity – and contemporary styling. His definition of under and over vowels is particularly useful, as a way to understand how to affect balance in the voice, particularly through the registers and in developing the “mixed” voice, ie. the area between chest voice and head voice that is so often a difficult area for the singer to navigate.
However, a scientific approach to singing is, by definition, very mechanistic. It’s interesting and very useful as a kind of architectural support to underpin the skills of hearing, and to explain the subtle changes of shape that occur (instinctively) in the vocal tract and mouth, but to be governed first and foremost by acoustic “formants”, and so on, might not be to everyone’s taste.
At worst, this approach could cause over-thinking and confusion, and is by no means a necessity or a prerequisite to understanding the singing voice – as Henny himself acknowledges: “Your ears and experience are your true superpowers as a voice teacher.” So undoubtedly, more on how to train and develop the ear would be most welcome here.
Human beings are so much more than mere executors of phenomena of the world of physics – we know that the singing voice is especially sensitive to so many other factors: our state of mind, our ways of thinking, our emotions and our physical well being. A nod, at the very least, to understanding how these things can affect the mechanics of the voice is fundamental. Henny recognises this by saying how important it is to put a singer at ease in the lesson.
No single book could ever hope to cover the vast subject of understanding and teaching the singing voice. If someone is looking for direction in the artistry of singing, it wasn’t Henny’s intention to include it in this volume. But his enthusiasm and passion for structural voice work is undeniable, as is his dedication to truly wanting to help singers. Teaching Contemporary Singing deserves a place on every teacher’s book shelf, as it’s a great synopsis of well-established core principles. But let’s not forget, learning to teach the subtle art of voice is a time-consuming process that requires a lot of dedication, and there are no short cuts to becoming a great teacher.
You can purchase Teaching Contemporary Singing HERE.