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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.



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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!

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Singers are often puzzled with two seemingly opposing concepts: letting the air out while at the same time conserving it. Equally puzzling can be this: you must keep the cords together; they must close for tone to be created. On the other hand air must come through for the cords to vibrate. There are differing pedagogical views of the application of these concepts. Others consider it paramount that there is good closure, even a tiny pinch of the glottis. Others think the air must flow and the cords will be closed through the Bernouilli effect.

All I can say is, both are right. Good closure will ensure clear tone, bad closure creates breathy tone. But even with good firm closure the air will come through in tiny puffs through the cords. So which should you think about; the closure or the air. This involves the whole body and the breathing apparatus obviously. And the final emphasis pedagogically speaking is always individual depending on the student. If the student has a breathy voice it will not be wise to stress airflow too much. If he/she has a tight, tense voice, the opposite is true. That´s why the same exercises will not do for everybody.

Airflow and air pressure are two different things. The old bel canto masters talked about lotta vocale, vocal competition – not meaning singing competition! – the pull between to opposing forces.

Excessive air pressure can hinder vocal fold vibration. The female middle range especially can be severely affected , the folds vibrating with too thick mass. Thick folds in the middle range require ever more pressure with unfavourable results: pitch problems and compensatory tensions. Male singers can usually cope with less problems because their vocal fold mass is always greater but they should learn to thin their folds, too, if they want to be able to sing high notes. That´s called technique!

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Tongue and jaw

Tensions in the tongue and jaw are all too common for singers. What a nuisance they can be! I once read that even Dame Kiri Te Kanawa had problems with her tongue in the beginning. It always seemed to get in the way! That´s really comforting, though, isn´t it for the rest of us!

Why would one be too tense in these important parts of our instrument? We need them all the time, for eating and drinking mostly, for speaking and singing always too. The jaw muscles are very strong indeed and have gained strength through daily practice. Our nervous system is connected to all muscles and we may keep the jaw muscles tight even while sleeping. Sometimes we even clench our teeth, whether awake, nervous or angry, or during the night , our subconscious stress manifesting itself in the tightness of the masseter and pterygoid muscles (biting muscles).

Try to sing with your teeth together. The space in the pharynx obviously diminishes but the muscles connected to the hyoid bone and all the way to the larynx are also affected. That is why we should relax the jaw when singing. The opening of the mouth aperture is actually not the most important thing, but the loose feeling between the jaws, some space between the molars, is actually very important. In our speech we are sometimes accustomed to pronouncing some vowels with a spread mouth opening, for ex. Italian i (ee) or e (eh). In singing this opening may be too tight and it may also be difficult to open the jaw for higher pitches.

How to open the mouth correctly?  Funny, but this can really be an issue especially for beginning singers. Find the spot where the jaw can be unhinged, situated in front of the ears. Let the jaw move slightly forward, then down and back, not directly backwards and down. You don´t need a constantly hanging jaw like an idiot, but you must be able to open to maximum at will on certain higher pitches. If the opening is not correct it may hinder the ease of high notes and cause tensions elsewhere. This movement should be automatic and coordinated according to the range of a sung phrase; singing should never be “led” by the jaw.

The other culprit, the tongue, is really an artist! It helps in molding the cavities into different vowel formants and moves like a quick little snake to all possible syllable forms. Really a surprisingly multitasking organ, it also likes to “help” when there is a balance problem. The root of the tongue can unfortunately do much harm to the beauty of the sound, make a wide range difficult and create problems for the pronouncing of words. (See my previous article). Sometimes we hear a sound that has been dubbed “Knödel”, a German word meaning there´s a hot potato in your throat. That sound is instinctively produced by children mockingly imitating opera singers! But no so! It´s too bad a singer cannot really hear it himself. In the singer´s ears the sound may just be darker and more “professional”, whereas in reality it sounds muffled and hollow. So we should get rid of that tension as soon as possible. But how?

It can be very difficult to correct, I must say. And yet, with lots of practicing and a good pair of other ears it is possible. First and foremost, don´t try to listen to yourself too much (it´s inevitable of course) but go for the good feeling in the throat and  tongue root. Check your body connection and support for too much pressure. Remember support is about elasticity, not rigid force. Check your head position and the back of your neck (also important for the jaw). For exercise, try rolling your tongue out as far it can go, feeling a good stretch way back in the throat. For singing, find a tongue position very forward in the mouth and keep this as your “home base” to which the tongue always returns after its adventures inside the mouth for different consonants. Relax the tongue with every inhalation, returning to this position. Avoid pressing to tongue against the front teeth but do keep it slightly in touch with your lower front teeth. It is possible to pronounce all vowels in this position but if you are used to something else it may be strange at first.

I´m quite aware there are lots of great singers whom we see singing with their tongues tipped up against the palate or in any other positions.  We are all individuals and they possibly have such big cavities that tiny adjustments just don´t count. But most singers less endowed might find these tips helpful I hope.

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Why can the ng-sound, as at the end of the word sing, be beneficial to your vocal development? On the ng you can vocalize up and down, do scales and slides. The tongue is high touching the palate. With it you can safely sing both low and high because you really can´t force the voice while “ng-ing”. It gives a nice stretch to the vocal folds and helps register shifts. Also, it trains the awareness of higher voice placement, the head voice, the feeling of sound high in the head but without pushing too forward.

How should the ng be executed? Let the tongue rest quite forward, away from the throat. Open the jaw while ascending the scale – it is possible to vary the degree of mouth opening according to pitch while doing ng. Remember all the good things about posture and breathing and body connection. Then just let the voice glide easily from note to note without h´s in between.

When you learn to “ride” on the ng-sound you can even imitate the movements of articulation while doing it. That way you gain awareness of the sound staying up high up in the pharynx even though you pronounce words. It´s a bit funny, of course, but can be a useful training trick for classical singers. Pop singers want to have the voice sound more like speech but even they can benefit of the flexibility the ng can give.

Sometimes singers fear that the ng will raise the larynx too high. That can be the case if you cannot loosen the space between the hyoid bone (tongue bone) and the larynx. That space helps singing so a stretch in that area should be possible. So, don´t swallow the tongue while inhaling, rather bring it gently up away from the throat. If your inhalation is deep it will also relax the larynx and help it descend.

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