So in issue 1 we covered doing a self-evaluation to find out where you are right now so you could identify your strengths as well as the areas you need to build on in order to get to the place where you’re ready to teach other singers. Issue 2 we looked into location considerations and the equipment that you need to teach singing. In this issue I will outline the tools of the teaching trade. In other words, what you specifically use to help a singer either develop what they already have or to correct issues. These are the tools that you will use every lesson, every day, on every singer. You will not use all of the tools all of the time, but you will want to have access to them at any given moment.
From my experience, the day-to-day tools of my trade include instruction, demonstration, musical scales, vowel and consonant sounds.
I know that the VAK (visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic) teaching approach is debated in the education field but from my experience, teaching with an awareness of these learning strategies does help to ensure you are covering the learning styles of your students. I like to mix up my strategies between giving verbal, visual, and action-based instruction.
Often all that is required to create change is corrective instruction. Pointing out to someone that they tend to raise their shoulders when they take a breath or drop the microphone between phrases may be enough to elicit a change. If this fails then utilise video – so easy these days with the smartphone.
Make sure you explain why you are giving a particular instruction. If they are to improve and develop, it is vital that your students are compliant. Understanding the reason behind an exercise will also help them become more self-sufficient and take an active role in their learning and development.
Constructive verbal feedback will also ensure the students are deepening their understanding of the process. Saying “You’re doing great” or “That was fantastic’ is not constructive. Whilst students need encouragement, when they come to a lesson it’s to learn. If you as the teacher notice there is an issue then it needs to be addressed. I have found that the best method for this is to be objective by giving feedback based on measurable markers such as pitch, the vocal mechanism, musicality, etc. Then explain the reason the issue occurred. For instance, if the singer sounded strained and the voice cracked during the exercise I might say something like,
“Did you notice that the sound was strained and there was a crack in your voice as you transitioned into your head register? This is because you were engaging too much of the wrong vocal muscles”.
Another great strategy is to have the student do a self-appraisal. Say they responded with, “Oh that was awful. I was off pitch”, you could respond with something like, “ It was a good attempt but, as you recognised, the pitch went off as you got higher in range. This is because you are engaging too much of the wrong vocal muscle. Here’s an exercise to address this problem”. You are recognising the student’s attempt, confirming the problem then offering a solution. This objective approach should encourage the singer to continue and help them recognise it is all a process.
If you can’t do it how can you expect the student to? Keep your own voice in good condition. Like with any profession it is good practice to undergo continuing professional development. Singers tend to be good at imitating so if you are able to demonstrate an exercise or concept, more often than not the student will be able to imitate you. This is, after all, how we learnt to speak. You can explain what’s happening technically after they have achieved the task.
Some teachers like to demonstrate both the correct and incorrect way. I personally found that method too tiring for my voice. But I will on occasion imitate what the student has done if they aren’t hearing it in their own voice.
I look at scales in the same way a personal trainer looks at weights.
Scales help the voice to
- build form
- improve coordination and dexterity
- develop range
There are scales with:
- larger intervals that help build form, negotiate the transition (passaggio), e.g. triads, 1 and 2 octave arpeggios Audio1
- small intervals that challenge the voice to make small incremental adjustments, e.g. major and chromatic scales Audio 2 and 2b
We can use just part of a scale and build to the whole scale, e.g. start with 3 notes of major scale, then 5, then 8. Audio 3
Ascending and descending Audio 4
Broken patterns of movement, e.g. broken arpeggio Audio 5
Repetitions Audio 6
Sustains Audio 7
Repetitions and sustains Audio 8
Staccato and legato Audio 9
Speed changes from slow to medium to fast Audio 10
Dynamic variations, e.g. very quiet (pp) to moderately quiet (m) to very loud (ff) Audio 11
Advanced scales and patterns. In addition to major and minor scales we have a great variety of other scales and patterns to use as the singer progresses and that can be specific to the singer’s genre, for example:
- Dorian, mixalydian, pentatonic, blues etc Audio 12
- Extracts from melody lines Audio 13
- Extracts from vocal licks Audio 14
Generally scales will ascend and descend in semitone (half step) movements, but as the singer advances you can play random keys to help the singer’s ear and develop vocal coordination.
Vowel and consonant sounds
Not only are vowels and consonants the basis of the words we sing, they are also very useful tools for helping the teacher to guide the voice into healthy and efficient placement.
Vowels are naturally placed in the:
- central, and
of the mouth. They also have open, midway, or closed articulatory characteristics.
- /i/ (as in beep) is a front/closed vowel,
- /ə/ (as in bird) is a central/mid vowel, and
- /a/ (as in Posh English bath or Amer. hot) is a back/open vowel.
PHONETICS - BASIC SEGMENTS OF SPEECH (VOWELS I & II) - PROF JURGEN HANDKE
Consonants are useful in helping the singer increase or decrease airflow and direct vowel placement.
Examples of consonants with high airflow include h,f,s, and w. Examples of low airflow are g, b, l. The least airflow can be found with the consonants n, m, and ng.
If I want a consonant to direct the sound to a particular place in the mouth such as the front, center, or back, then I find the following useful:
- Front – b, p, m, v, f
- Central – n, d, t, l
- Back – g, k, ng
PHONETICS - BASIC SEGMENTS OF SPEECH (CONSONANTS)- PROF JURGEN HANDKE
I will use any combination of consonants and vowels to help the singer who has problems such as straining, flipping, balancing the registers, getting through the transition, as well as for articulation exercises such as in the case of an ESL singer who wants to lose their accent.
In the case of a singer who is straining as they transition I may use a combination of b + /a/ (bah). The b will bring the sound further towards the front of the mouth, and the /a/ will open the back of the throat and hopefully reduce muscle tension.
In my mind these tools allow me to ‘mix and match’ according to the singer’s needs and goals. Each student and each lesson will provide new and ever-changing challenges. But with these tools you will have a wide variety of components to pull on. Have fun with it and don’t be afraid to make up your own combos!
I have an extra bag of tricks for difficult cases or to shortcut some concepts, but that’s for another issue!