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Hello Singers!

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Welcome to the Wonder of Voice!

This is the blog of a singing teacher who wishes to share her long experience on singing and vocal pedagogy to all singers and colleagues. Here you will find interesting posts about singing and the voice.

First, let me introduce myself:  My name is Outi Kahkonen. I am a classical singer, soprano, lecturer in vocal pedagogy and voice teacher at the Sibelius Academy, Finland.  I have a keen interest in every aspect of the human voice, singing, vocal technique, vocal pedagogy and performance. In this blog I touch different subjects related to these interesting topics.

Really, my wish is to teach you to sing from your heart´s desire! How could that be possible through a site like this? You can´t learn to sing by books… But still, there is a lot you can learn – new ideas, hints, explanations, professional tips, performance issues etc.

I will also be adding videos where you can  do excercises along with me and develop the practicing singer´s ear.

Watch out for new posts regularly! Let´s Sing!

Have you heard about Estill? It is a great way to learn about your voice – if you are the right type! I mean, if you are something like a vocal nerd. There are singers who just want to sing freely and certainly don´t want to be too aware. For that type of singers I would´t recommend Estill, because in Estill awareness is everything.

How do you know if it suits you? If you are like me, and want to know exactly what is going on in your throat, your mouth, your body and everywhere inside you when you sing – then Estill might be for you. That´s how she was, too: the founder of this training, Jo Estill herself. She was an American classically trained singer, who became so passionate about the instrument itself that she went on a quest to understand it in great detail. Through her ground-breaking research from 1980´s onward, Estill Voice Training evolved into a thorough method and has become very popular in many countries. The method is taught by certified master teachers or course instructors who have gone through a very strict training and tests. That is why those taking part in courses can be certain that everything taught will be correct anatomically, physiologically and brought to students in a pedagogically sound way.

In the training you learn about different structures that affect your voice and learn to isolate them and train them separately. These are called the Compulsory Figures (term taken from figure skating). When you then learn to combine these structures in several ways, you get different sound qualities that you can use in your favourite repertoire. There is no esthetic bias; meaning that all sounds are okay, as long as they are not injurious to your voice. Everybody has a voice – everybody has a beautiful voice when it is discovered, made stronger and freer.

Estill is useful to all voice users: singers, speakers, actors, presenters, priests, teachers – and yes, even opera singers! Being one myself, I was astonished to find my voice again in a new way. It purified my old vocal habits, some of which I had taken for granted. And then I put my opera voice back together and found it was much stronger. Still, now I can sing in other styles if I wish, even belt if needed. So, if you see an Estill course given in your neighborhood, give it a try!

PS. I´m in training to become Certified Master Teacher soon.

 

Messa di voce kuvaThe vocal folds are amazing in their capability of reacting to emotions and the finest feelings. There are mechanoreceptors in the tissue of the vocal folds and one would never really guess how much intricate emotional changes can affect the status of our vocal mechanism. Neither do we need to, in fact, I mean, scientifically. Let the scientists measure those. Enough for us to understand that the larynx is really sensitive.

What we do need to understand as singers, is that the vocal folds can behave in various ways and that we should be able to control them consciously to help our voices stay in good shape. I´m talking about the mechanism that determines if the folds are vibrating with thick or thin mass. The way to protect your voice from excessive workload is to be able to vibrate with thin mass. Only the edges of the folds come into contact. The sound is what we also call head voice or head register. This calls for gentle closure of the cords, even airflow and regulated air pressure. If you can do it, great, you are safe! Because if you no longer can sing softly, you may have a problem. The cords may have become too thick and are perhaps swollen; there might even be some tissue damage (the much feared nodules).

So, always cultivate your ability to sing pianissimo! Evenly, gently, smoothly – both low and high range, but especially in the middle range. If you have a nice mixed voice in the middle range, you also have vocal protection.

This doesn´t mean you should always sing softly – naturally you also need your fortissimo at times. The best exercise for this control is always the messa di voce – the old Italian concept of starting pianissimo and swelling it to full forte, and then back again to piano. Practice this and you gain great control for both your vocal folds and your breathing mechanism.

The Lip Trill

One of the most popular vocal exercises today is the lip trill. What is a lip trill? Why is this funny sounding trick so in?

Here´s how you do it: blow air gently through your pursed lips letting out a sound on any given pitch. It sounds like children´s play or like a kazoo. You can do any scales, intervals or melody patterns or even whole songs on the lip trill.

So what´s the benefit of this? One of the world´s most prominent voice scientists, Prof. Ingo Titze, is a great proponent of an exercise called singing through a straw (see his video). It is equally funny, to tell the truth. Yet singing through a straw, doing the lip trill, doing the ng-sound (the siren) – all these exercises have  something in common. Elegantly speaking, they are called singing through a semi-occluded vocal tract. In other words, you sing while making a partial stop or hindrance in the vocal tract. This has the effect of changing the conditions of the resonance cavities through which the sound travels. Interestingly, it also affects the vibratory pattern of the vocal folds themselves, causing a back pressure that enables the vocal folds to vibrate more easily. It enhances the vibration of the thin edges of the vocal cords. That is very beneficial for the cords, especially when warming up the voice or if your voice is tired.

So that´s why all those funny sounding little exercises are useful! The lip trill calls for an even flow of air, very soft and relaxed lips, thin vocal folds and control of air pressure. This air pressure must be constant but absolutely not too high. That´ s why the singer has to do it right if he wants to execute it at all. Otherwise it almost won´t work – I would say, done correctly the exercise literally teaches itself! The vocal folds thin out and the register breaks seem to disappear. You can easily vocalize your whole range with the lip trill, as well as sing through a straw.

If you can´t get your lips to buzz, lift them slightly with your fingers. Feel the sound very forward and relax your jaw. You can think of the vowel U inside your mouth, that way you may keep your larynx relaxed. Engage the whole body and imagine the sound moving all around you for best balance.

Happy buzzing!

Tilted Larynx

What is laryngeal tilt? Many singers do it  unconsciously because it is sort of built-in in classical vocal technique. What happens when you tilt? What is actually tilted? Can you lose this ability?

Let´s try to answer some of these questions.

The larynx consists of three main cartilages: the thyroid, the cricoid and the arytenoids. The thyroid cartilage sits on top of the cricoid and they are connected to each other with a paired muscle, the cricothyroid. When the cricothyroid muscles contract they pull the thyroid a little forward and down thereby tilting the thyroid. While the arytenoids also rotate towards each other closing the glottic chink, the vocal cords close while stretching and lengthening at the same time. This means we can sing different pitches; the more the folds stretch, the higher the pitch. IF there is no tilt we can still sing higher pitches but not as easily and the sound retains a speechlike quality. With thyroid tilt we can really SING!

Thyroid tilt is therefore very important. How can it be taught? Usually it happens quite automatically and classical teachers ask for it from the very beginning when they show and have students imitate head and mixed voice. This terminology is confusing again – it is not produced in the head but by the vocal cords – but we FEEL it in the head. That´s why it has been named head voice long ago. It is the result of function, not the cause of it. If we don´t have anyone to demonstrate tilted voice sound, we can also imagine crying or sobbing. They are natural human responses and primal sounds that we can take advantage of when learning to sing. Crying means the tilt happens naturally; adding even more cry with sob also lowers the larynx. This enables us to vary the colours of the voice depending on the emotianal contexts of songs.

If you have never been conscious of thyroid tilt it is possible to lose it. That can happen unfortunately for a number of causes. If too much pressure is used in singing the vocal fold vibration may become too thick and the lengthening / stretching of the cords gets more difficult. The fine edges of the cords that should be innervated and touch each other gently and firmly lose their sensitivity and thicken. That calls for even more pressure which of course exacerbates the situation. We hear this kind of forced singing all the time. The tilt that would enable the cords to stretch may be reduced. There are also cases where trauma to the neck or whiplash may cause deterioration of the laryngeal coordination, thus making singing very effortful.Image

How to tilt? Gently moan and cry, do the siren exercise (sing on –ng). You might  palpate the front of the neck gently and feel the tiny forward rocking motion. Tilting adds sweetness to the sound as well as healthy vibrato. Tilt can be used in all genres, not only classical and it makes singing more comfortable and easier.

The heading of this post promises actually too much. I don´ t intend to say anything final about this much debated subject. But for your knowledge, Dear Singers, that´s what it´s about these days in every single voice/singing pedagogy congress. I have attended many of them, lastly the International Congress of Voice Teachers (ICVT) in Brisbane, Australia and

the PEVOC, Pan-European Voice Congress in Prague, Czech Republic this summer. And all those spectrograms describing the formants of the vocal tract; that`s really the craze today.

Spectrogram

Oh, I just love looking at spectrograms! But believe me, they can never substitute a good pair of ears by a good knowledgeable singing teacher. Maybe nobody ever claimed they would. And yet, as a teacher, it`s really great to SEE what you always thought you heard. “Ah, I knew it! “

What I wanted to say with this post is that in classical singing there really exists a thing called vowel modification. Because as a singer ascends higher towards his/her passaggio range, it is very wise to do something about one´s vowels – to modify them towards a more slender, more narrow and vertical form. That is unless you want to sound strident and strained. By so doing, your larynx has it much easier to stay comfortable and your resonance doesn´t spread but finds a higher placement, giving you more overtones while keeping the depth in the sound. It´s really that simple! It´s all about the old bel canto adage “chiaroscuro”, the ideal th

at the vocal sound should be both dark and bright at the same time. That means beautiful balance both in the larynx and in the resonance.

Singing Olympics

Competition is everywhere. That´s the world – winning and losing in the big game of life. We have just finished watching the Olympics and unavoidably they bring to mind competition in music as well.

This summer I have attended 3 different singing competitions, not as a participant but as eager supporter and observer. Obviously many people always argue you cannot compete in music because it cannot be measured. Quite true. But some singers just do very well in competitions and others often fail. If you don´t reach your best in a competition how can you do well in other performance situations? That´s just the issue – there are many great singers who under-perform in competitions and auditions which resemble each other and are often the worst situations a singer must face. Must you win? Yes, if you want that prize or that part. Must you compete? No, but then your talent may remain unnoticed. Must you audition? Yes, unless you want to sing at home only.

Shall I take part in a competition? What are my chances? How do I control my nerves? What is the best repertoire? Do I convey the image a successfull performer, a winning attitude? Have I found my vocal fach, my best assets?

So a singer must find a solution to these questions.

Winning can also be seen in the context of winning oneself, not only others. A tip: My friend Cristina Andersson has winning solutions in her book The Winning Helix.

What do we look for in a winning singer? Here is my list:

  • great voice with personal timbre
  • solid vocal technique
  • musicality: sense of rhythm, clean intonation, good legato and phrasing
  • total performer package with the look, physique and voice suitable for the part  if you sing opera
  • posture, poise and control of body movements
  • ability to sing with nervousness and in spite of it (that´s a big separate issue!)
  • temperament and intelligence to interpret the text
  • deep understanding of the character and/or poem
  • soulfulness (this is seen in the eyes and face)
  • sense of humor, wit and ability to react
  • ability to tell a story and engage the audience

Those are the requirements – and even more!  And they apply to all performances of course. But if you wonder why you have not been successful so far; check the list honestly and do what you can to be even better!

Picture above: Winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World 2011, soprano Valentina Nafornita from Moldova.

Picture on the right: Tuuli Petäjä, Winner of the 2012 Olympic Silver Medal in Windsurfing, from Finland.

Madonna´s Voice

For a figure so prominent in the field of pop music, not very much has been said about Madonna´s voice. It´s as if it were taken for granted or overlooked. And yet, it´s an integral  part of her performing. That being said, most of the attention in her performances always goes to the show elements, her figure and shocking outfits, her dancing and choreoraphy.

Madonna has a good voice but not an exceptional one. Some writers have described it as mezzo soprano but in CCM singing the vocal fach is not of importance as a classification,  as in operatic singing. A real mezzo soprano has depth and substance. Madonna´s voice is such a basic material that it can go towards many different colours, depending on the meaning of the song. That is also a great skill. It´s like a good photo model whose face would not attract particular attention without makeup but who can look stunning in different pictures with a skillful makeover. Likewise, Madonna likes to change her voice according to the songs.

Her range in most songs is actually quite limited, ranging between F3-C5 which is about 1,5 octaves. Usually this is sufficient for a lot of CCM repertoire. She uses a basically healthy vocal technique, very seldom going for extreme pitches, screaming, sighing or crying. The emotional colour is actually missing; it seems she always wants to be in control. Of course, dancing like crazy in a show, you must keep your core support and rather not lose vocal control if you want to survive. From a vocal pedagogue´s point of view, she uses thin vocal folds and avoids forcing.

Madonna was criticized in the early stages of her career of a childish, naive, little- girl voice. This can be heard in her hit Like a Virgin. She sounds very girlie, a little breathy and nasal. This was the so called ”Minnie the Mouse on Helium”. But what better describe the song´s provocative feeling? So one suspects it was done on purpose.

During the filming of Evita, Madonna had to take vocal lessons, which increased her range. So her voice grew much deeper and fuller. Of this experience she has been quoted saying that she studied with a vocal coach for Evita and realized there was a whole piece of her voice she wasn’t using. Before, she just believed she had a really limited range and was going to make the most of it.  Isn´t that what so many singers notice after taking lessons!  Usually her singing is still very close to speech: every word is carefully articulated, the words are clearly understandable, and the pitches resemble the speech melody of the sentences. It is called speech quality singing. There is not much resonance of the back or higher cavities of the vocal tract but rather the sound is resonated in the mouth. The vocal folds can be thin or thick or something inbetween. It can also be called mixed voice which is basically a healthy production.

For any artist, straining her voice all the time is dangerous to the vocal cords. In Madonna´s later songs there is less nasality, sometimes thicker cords, not very much vibrato but nevertheless control which can unfortunately let her down in live performances doing all the other stuff. That is when we may hear her singing off key.

Career women often start lowering  their voices, reinforcing the stereotype that power and a low voice go together. A similar stereotype can also be found in rock music. Women with low, raw, raucous voices are perceived as strong, sexy, wild and intense. Their voices seem to witness an intense, wild life with lots of sex, drugs and alcohol. This is not always healthy for the voice either! But Madonna again goes against these masculine traits. Perhaps Madonna’s girlie voice can be considered as a statement against this stereotype ?

In her latest hit Gang Bang Madonna again breaks all rules; both in the context of the text and suddenly singing with a much heavier vocal style. The chest register is somewhat strained, like it were too low for her but well conveying the appalling content of that song.

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