Singing tuition in the UK today
There is no official regulation or standardisation to singing tuition in the UK. When you choose a singing teacher or vocal coach you are taking your voice to an individual who has only their own experiences of singing to share with you. So choose wisely!
I have written today’s thoughts for singing tutors looking for a little inspiration, those of you new to singing and are seeking singing tuition for the first time, and those of you who have been singing for many years and have maybe lost your way a little in terms of technique or ideas of what to do next.
The world of singing tuition is thriving. There is plenty out there for students, teachers and coaches to learn from to guide their approach to singing.
2) We have examination boards that exist in order to offer opportunity to students to systematically develop performance, technical and theoretical skills in singing (ABRSM, LCM, Rockschool, Trinity, etc).
3) We have educational courses at schools, colleges, universities, music academies, and theatre schools that have singing technique embedded into their make-up. There are courses for individuals of all ages, at all levels, across a wide range of genre.
4) There are recreational courses run by various vocal tutors, musical directors and supporters of the arts across the year in various locations.
6) We also have the whole history of singing tuition and vocal research to draw from which is accessible via the internet, books and journals.
So we are not alone. Phew!
Knowledge is Power
Singing is an extremely special experience. It takes a leap of faith and a bucketful of courage for a person to expose their ‘true’ voice to others. They are effectively bearing their soul and allowing themselves to be appreciated (and critiqued) by others. With the current trend of X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and The Voice encouraging us all to be couch potato critics, it’s easy to forget the real purpose of making music – the enjoyment of the music, the social interaction and connection, the self-expression, and the confidence boosting parts.
There is so much great work going on across the country, encouraging confidence and enjoyment of singing. Recently, my amazing Mum, who has always loved singing and now is very much involved with a supportive and motivational choir up north called ‘Read’s Warblers’ (run by the incredibly inspirational Jenny Read), was involved in a weekend of guided vocal tuition. She has nothing but praise to sing (pardon the pun) of workshop leaders Kathy Taylor Jones and Caroline Jay. The experience has worked wonders on her confidence and increased her enjoyment of singing to even greater levels than previously (if that’s possible).
To cut a long story short, Mum went through a terrific personal journey on the weekend course, one that was enhanced through her gaining a little knowledge about basic singing technique. ‘Knowledge is power’, as they say.
The role of singing teachers / vocal coaches
Put crudely, the purpose of singing tuition is to correct perceived ‘faults’ in a person’s vocal technique, interpretation and performance according to our own personal standards. People come to us for guidance. This is a privilege we should never abuse.
In truth, singing teachers do so much more than just ‘fault-finding’. We are mentors, motivators, musical directors, psychologists, technicians, business advisors…the list goes on.
In all of these disciplines there is one common theme. We are there to find out what is troubling a student and to offer advice from our own experience. The recent article by Jennifer Hamady ‘The Art of Teaching‘, encapsulates the art of the modern singing teacher (wise words indeed).
Remember that we are not experts in everything – its ok to admit we are not the best person for all the tutoring a person might need. For example, if you are not sure as a tutor what to do with someone who can’t loosen up ingrained tensions, refer them on to someone who is able to help that student out.
Working together as a singing tutor community and playing to our individual strengths could really help the development of our nation’s singers.
So, where should a person start? How DO we sing?
The mechanics of singing are simple. I always begin new private singing students and patients in the Speech, Voice and Swallowing department who have come for therapy with a little education about voice production. I like to use diagrams, models, and kinaesthetic examples to aid a person’s understanding (sneakily this starting point also informs you of a student’s learning style preferences – do they want you to EXPLAIN everything…or just to DO it?!)
Put simply we need:
- adequate breath pressure to support our sound,
- unconstricted vocal fold movement to create the ‘buzz’,
- we need to shape our sound effectively in the throat, nose and mouth,
- and we need to connect our sound to our emotions.
Musicality, personality, dedication, motivation and directional drive are all additional skills that can help singers make a living out of singing.
‘Star Quality’ is elusive. It cannot be taught, and it depends upon so much more than just being able to sing. However, awareness of the fundamental skills for singing CAN be taught – in relatively few sessions depending upon the individual’s receptiveness.
Singing Lessons at RockStarVox
When a student enters my studio for an initial session I ask them to sing a couple of songs for me. Those songs help to inform me of the areas I believe I can help the student improve. I also make sure I ask the student what they want to improve. This helps me gauge how self-aware they are and gives a better idea of what they are aiming for.
Singing lessons can only be successful if the criteria for success are the same between tutor and student.
I try to keep all lessons well-balanced in terms of ‘new concepts’ for the student, helping them develop a little of all the skills outlined below every time I see them, if applicable.
The more a person advances in their singing ability, the more often I get requests for things like: quick technical fixes for specific challenges within songs; ideas for maintenance of the voice during a heavy schedule; interpretation ideas; musicality development such as sight reading and harmonisation development; or for refreshment of vocal workout routines, etc..
That’s all well and good but HOW do you sing I hear you ask?!
- Freedom from emotional and physical barriers
- Breath support and control
- Starts and ends of notes and phrases
- Pitch and tone
- ‘Feel’ and rhythm
- Storytelling skills
Freedom: Breaking through physical and emotional barriers
Our voices are simple. It’s us who complicate matters.
As singing teachers, it is important to first and foremost focus upon empowering the individual to reduce and remove habitual movement patterns that are less than effective. This is common sense.
When a person is stressed, anxious, angry, tired and generally emotional there is an impact upon the voice. This may be transient or more deeply ingrained. As we go through life we pick up habits (good and bad). Singing teachers can help to unpick the ones that are detrimental to singing.
Good ‘active’ posture for singing will free up your muscles to work effectively. Good posture includes:
- relaxed tongue and jaw
- engagement between bottom of the spine to the back of the head
If you fancy some further reading, Moshé Feldenkrais wrote extensively about the connections between dysfunctional movement patterns and anxiety. Popular movement pedagogy methods favoured by singers in the UK currently include Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais. We also have the excellent, evidence-based world of osteopathy and physiotherapy to guide us in developing our knowledge of such matters.
This area can be very complex.
My advice for singing teachers is to do what you can through working with the lyrics and music to create a mood, develop a character, envisage the situation of the character, fight performance anxiety issues… but then stop if that is where your skill level lies. Some people need professional help to aid them with their emotions. Know your limits as a tutor.
If you want to develop skills in this area, seek the help of professional actors, psychologists, or channel your energies into developing counselling skills through official recognised courses.
Dave Grohl spoke at this year’s South by Southwest music conference about cherishing, nurturing and respecting your voice, and using it to get your emotions out. Obviously as a Speech therapist I disagree with his comments on screaming until the voice goes as we have a duty to ‘do no harm’, but the speech is inspirational ‘It’s your voice… (36:40)”.
Breath: Support and Control
Singers often hear the term ‘Breath Support’ in sentences like ‘You need more breath support’, ‘Support the phrase’, etc. Quite often they are unsure of what this really means.
Essentially, the term refers to the breath pressure you provide to your sound. Your vocal folds need just the right amount of air coming to meet them in order for them to vibrate effectively.
Singing requires us to modify how much breath we take in. The amount depends upon the vocal task. Put simply, a longer phrase needs more air taking in. A shorter phrase needs less air taking in. A louder phrase needs slightly more breath pressure given to the vocal folds. A quieter phrase needs slightly less air, but more focus to the breath.
To be good at breathing for singing you need to work on things like:
- controlling the breath in and out
- snatching a quick ‘singer’s breath’
- controlling the escape of breath
Where singers go wrong
Topping up the breath:
Taking too much air in for the vocal task can result in excess tension in your body and loss of control of tone and intonation in your sound.
Taking too little air in for the vocal task can result in a phrase that becomes breathier as it progresses, and ends in strain both acoustically and physically as your body desperately tries to maintain the sound you started with.
Volume changes require altering pressure to the vocal folds slightly, depending on the task.
Louder: In an attempt to singer louder, singers occasionally go wrong by pushing too much air through the vocal folds at the ‘loud’ point. This only results in excess tension in the vocal folds and surrounding area, and loss of tone control and intonation in your sound. The voice may even ‘break’ or strain excessively and stop making a sound altogether.
Quieter: In an attempt to sing more quietly, singers occasionally go wrong by failing maintain the breath pressure to the vocal folds. This results in a note that may cut out, a huskiness or breathy quality to the tone, or a strain as your body tries to create a sound even though there is not enough air to do so.
The breath pressure we provide to our vocal folds should remain ‘balanced’ – not too much, not too little for the specific task. Singing teachers can guide you in practicing finding your correct balanced pressures.
For further information, seek out courses and literature on the ‘accent method’.
Start of notes and ends of phrases
Start of a note
This is a good starting point for beginners. The moment of ‘attack’.
A great tip to help a singer develop the start of notes is to encourage them to mentally ‘hear’ the sound before they sing it. This should automatically get their mouth open, tongue in the correct position, vocal folds and breath ready for starting the note. The aim is to produce clarity. A clean start to the note first and foremost.
Once they can achieve clarity consistently it is then suitable to develop stylistic features. I teach contemporary genres and I love creaking into phrases and adding in little licks and sweeps etc. However, healthy voices require the ability to produce sound healthily FIRST. Then, as the singer progresses and has better control of their instrument, add in the stylistic features. You are not helping a singer if they end up UNABLE to sing the start of a note clearly and at pitch.
End of a phrase
- Can you make the note last as long as it needs to (see the breath support advice)?
- Can you keep it in tune?
- Can you keep it clear?
- Can you keep it loud/ quiet?
- And (after you can do all of the above), can you embellish it?
Pitch and Tone
Best advice I was ever given was to stop (continuously) singing and to listen! The advice came from my big brother and I was aged 4, but it did me good. The same advice has been restated in many workshops and lessons I have attended over the years by vocalists much more proficient than myself. So I listen.
Our measure of what is good comes through our experiences of music and singers that already exist. We all start off mimicking then develop our own style as we set about our personal journeys through life. We pick up everything – melodies, harmonies, rhythms, attitude, phrasing, tone colour and even stylistic flair – from the music we listen to. Choose repertoire to reflect your tastes. It makes singing a whole lot easier for beginners.
I cannot reiterate enough that every single one of us is unique. We all have different voices and shouldn’t do ourselves down by always trying to emulate someone else’s voice. It is so exciting and such a pleasure to be able to attend a show, gig or concert and to hear a variety of voices and the various interpretations of songs by individuals.
My basic tip for tone development is to record yourself so that you can hear whether you have a sound quality you are in control of and that you like to listen to. Then add to it with the help of your singing tutor. In contemporary styles in particular, a good teacher will be able to help you develop ‘options’ for your tone colour through your range.
Singing teachers will also be able to help you with articulation. This includes how you sing vowels, dipthongs (more than one vowel sound in a word e.g, I is actually ‘ah..ee’), and consonants.
For more advice and guidance on this matter, seek the advice of Estill, Vocal Process, Complete Vocal Technique or Speech Level Singing (links all provided above).
Singing teachers are exceptionally good at helping students develop their musical ear, which includes the ability to pitch notes, extend vocal range, develop flexibility and appreciation of genre and style.
Learn to sing in tune with the help of a good singing teacher (and maybe an amplifier).
Feel and Rhythm
Music is better when you internalise the ‘feel’ of it. Click your fingers, tap your feet, sway a little or dance. Get the pulse / heartbeat / feel of the music inside you to help you with the rhythms of the melody you are going to sing.
Grasp of rhythm separates the good singers from the great singers. Listen to a wide variety of music to gain an insight into how rhythm affects the mood and energy of a song. Word emphasis and percussive use of articulation can assist in development of rhythmical performances also.
Connecting our sound to our emotions is vital. Projecting those emotions so an audience feels them also is an advanced skill. I believe ‘star quality’ always involves this skill.
Primal sounds such as sighing, crying, whimpering, whining, sobbing and yelling are good starting point for developing freedom of emotional expression. A fantastic teacher for skills development in this area is Dane Chalfin of 21st Century Singer.
My final bit of advice for today is to sing songs that are realistic for who you are (your age, gender, nationality, life experiences). Stories work better if you can believe the person singing them might have had similar experiences. This is the area of singing that many call ‘authenticity’. This is especially important for auditions.
If you find this useful, please do message me your comments. I love to hear what everyone else is up to out there. And we all learn from debate!
“The humble improve”(Wynton Marsalis)
Love and sunshine