Approach vocal practice as a challenge rather than a chore and you’ll reap the benefits, writes Gary Albert Hughes.
One principle guides my work as a holistic vocal coach: I see the voice and body as an emotional, energetic, spiritual and physical being. I constantly try to shift away from the idea that the voice and body is a machine and vocal problems are caused by the parts of the machine malfunctioning.
“Play, explore, discover” is the key phrase I use in my studio to reinforce this idea. Nine times out of ten this phrase will replace the word “practice”.
If we think of vocal exercises as technical, structured things that must be done every day without mistakes, we lose the magic
and wonder that is available in the miracle of making sound with the voice. Rather than get through six vocal exercises every day, reaching up the scale forever higher and higher, I invite students to linger with one or two patterns in one session; I urge them to explore each exercise and to see what happens when they approach it from an energetic perspective.
What do I mean by “energetic”? The sound we create by bringing together the vocal folds is simply a form of energy.
Sound is the movement of energy through substances in longitudinal waves. Sound is produced when a force causes an object or substance to vibrate – the energy is transferred through the substance in a wave. I find, when singers are invited to experience the sound they create with their voice as a form of energy and to view that sound from a right brain, artistic perspective, tension drops away. This can be far more insightful than taking a left brain, analytical approach. It becomes play rather than work, exploration rather than practice, an adventure rather than a question of right versus wrong. Singers often report an increased sense of freedom, openness, flow and fluidity and can reach higher parts of the range with more ease when they apporach vocal practice this way.
When working with singers, I often ask them to stop and start a phrase again and experiment different positions of the larynx, different amounts of breath (usually less) or to explore freeing the abdomen, neck or other parts of the body.
The trick is to allow for time to stop between phrases to consider, feel and communicate; all the time encouraging the idea that there is no right or wrong. I discuss with the singer where the energy of sound begins in the body and where that energy is being directed to. To quote Meryl Streep, “All performing is about directing energy somewhere. If I am not directing my energy then that needs to be fixed.”
Of course, the ideal balance is a right and left brained approach to all voice work. After all, singing is by definition the blend of the technical and creative. However, having coached in top London drama schools, I have noticed a bias towards the purely technical. In my experience, this can create an analytical approach to singing that starts to become devoid of emotion and feeling. It can also create anxiety in the performer as they continually question “Am I doing it right? Is this the right muscle I am engaging? Is it the right amount of tilt or twang?” These are important questions, but ultimately useless if they are not coming from a creative, artistic perspective.
“Play, explore, discover” invites a sense of curiosity, intrigue and playfulness from the beginning of the lesson, the start of a vocal practice session or even a performance. It aims to release the stressful need to continually “get it right”, create a stress-free space for mistakes and a relaxed atmosphere for discovery which then tends to start crossing over into the actual singing state.