Spending and Saving: a Vocalist’s Guide to Thrifty Singing

You’ve arrived at the climax of the song- this is it! Here come the big, exciting notes everyone is waiting for! And…! You completely run out of steam, breath, or vocal stamina and you crack, gasp for air, or pass out (ok, hopefully not that last one).

Here’s a three-step process to give your best performance without blowing out your voice.

You have to learn the concept of saving and spending. This is an idea I teach to my professional (and aspiring professional!) singers, particularly those that are singing an athletic, acrobatic song.

You know, like “Chandelier” by SIA, “Defying Gravity” from WICKED, or anything sung by Brendon Urie, ever.

These kinds of songs require a singer to decide when to spend and when to save. Their voices, I mean.

Imagine that you are singing “Waving Through A Window” from DEAR EVAN HANSEN. You only have $1 of vocal energy to spend on that song, and once you’ve spent it- you’re done! You cannot keep singing!

First off, identify which notes are the “big spender” notes or phrases.

Probably that final “Waving! Waving! Whoa-oah!!” section is a 25 cent phrase, and that’s just the last 10 seconds of the song. What other notes or passages throughout the song require an extra dose of energy, power, stamina, or stylistic effort? Identify those passages right off the bat.

Second, be judicious on where you can save.

What are the penny notes or phrases? Not every word, phrase, or melody is equally important in your storytelling or your technical effort. So, find the places in the song where you can hold back a bit.

Lastly, sing through the whole piece and adjust your budget as necessary.

You may find that once you put the whole song together, your interpretation of the song requires certain phrases to be highlighted with more (or less) volume, power, or effort than you initially planned.

This concept also applies to entire roles you might play in a show, or your band set or concert tour.

If you are playing Evan in DEAR EVAN HANSEN, tell yourself you only have $10 to spend on the entire show! Which songs and scenes get allotted what amount of your total vocal energy?

As singers, there will always be songs, roles, or performances that require a LOT of our energy, and even for us to leave “vocal balance” for a time in order for our interpretation and stylistic choices to come through how we want. That’s ok! By allotting a vocal ‘budget’ to each song you perform, you can save your voice and stay stylistically true to the music.

Q&A: What’s up with these crackly high notes?

Question:

I’ve been practicing the trills and “MUMs” and don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong (hopefully) but sometimes when I get past like an A [5], it gets crackly and I’ve noticed my voice sometimes will ever overshoot to whistle tones (which I don’t even know how that’s possible).

Was just wondering if you had any recommendations for practicing…I really have never had a voice teacher that vocalized me this high consistently so maybe its just uncharted territory and discovering how to sing up there, but thought I’d reach out! Maybe its something I’m eating or doing? I rarely drink or smoke so I know that isn’t the problem. Do you recommend that I get scoped just for safety?

Answer:

First off, I think what you’re experiencing sounds pretty normal, especially because you are new to using this part of your voice on a regular basis. That A5 is your third passage- it’s a very common spot for things to “fall apart” for a time while you work on connecting your chest and middle voice to your true soprano head voice. I’ve worked with many women who break into their Mariah Carey notes before they get it put together. So for now, don’t fear!

There’s a few things I’d recommend trying out over the next few days. First- have you tried vocalizing through a straw? I love this because it really does require very little air flow and keeps your cords together (adducted) as you vocalize. Try blowing through a straw into a cup of water. See here, and here.

I’d also try vocalizing on an NG (like the word SINGGGG), have we done this together?

Give it another week and see how you feel. I’m a huge fan of going to get scoped, so if you have the time and $$ to do it, please do. It’s always a good idea. Here’s who I recommend:

Lucian Sulica, may be difficult to get into see on short notice:
https://voice.weill.cornell.edu/about-us/lucian-sulica-md

Paul Kwak, Laryngologist at NYU:
http://nyulangone.org/doctors/1184937914/paul-e-kwak

Keep me posted, and see you soon!

Q&A: Singing With A Cold

Welcome to my new Q&A series, featuring real questions I receive from students via email

QUESTION

Hi Chelsea!
A couple of the “Annie” cast members and I came down with a nasty chest cold last week, and doing the show has been a struggle. I lost my voice last Friday, due to all the coughing on top of singing, and went on vocal rest for a few days. My voice has since come back, but it still just does not quite feel strong enough to sing Star to Be. I have been flipping into my head voice to sing the song, and mouthing the words to the ensemble songs so that I don’t blow my voice back out. I’m still coughing a lot, which I think is putting a lot of stress on my cords. My voice does feel almost 100% normal, but I still want to take it easy. I was wondering if you have any tips as to how I can ease my way back into singing the song full out without hurting myself.
Best,
Isabella

 

ANSWER

Yuck! I’m so sorry, I hate how those things end up going around an entire cast. Good for you for being careful and cautious, that is so important when trying to recover while still having to perform.

The first thing I’d suggest is to do a vocal check-in every morning and see how the swelling is before warming up. This is a great video that talks about that: https://youtu.be/zit6I7EPMto

Then I’d spent lots of time warming up with semi-occluded sounds like the lip buzz, or even better, vocalizing through a straw into a cup of water: https://youtu.be/0xYDvwvmBIM

I’d then sing the song on some of the exercises we use like NAY or NUH/MUM, substituting those for the words. That will be easier on your voice then just blasting into the actual lyrics and hopefully set you up for good vocal balance once you do end up singing the lyrics.

Hydrate, hydrate, sleep lots, and cool down after your show with the straw again.

Good luck! Keep me posted. If you want to do a little lesson/check in via FaceTime soon, lmk! Otherwise, you got this! I hope you’re through the worst of it 👍🏻

Every Vocalize is a Breathing Exercise

I’ve heard from some folks that I perhaps don’t speak enough about the correct use of breath in voice lessons or on this blog, even. As one of the three systems of singing (respiration, phonation, and resonance) it is certainly necessary! But I’ll say this again- Whatever breathing skills you have employed thus far in life will do you just fine in singing. Most of us speak all day without running out of breath and Yoga instructors and deep sea divers are not necessarily incredible vocalists! When you really get to know the voice, most issues with “breath” are actually issues at the level of the vocal folds- proper phonation resists air to create a clear, strong tone. Improper phonation either presses the folds too much resulting in a squeezed sound or feeling, or keeps the folds too lax, resulting in too much air seeping through the folds and a breathy tone.

But hey, you still want to argue about the need for breathing exercises? How about this then: Every vocalize is a breathing exercise.

Think about it. Every vocalize (arpeggio or scale practiced to balance the voice, i.e. a lip trill or the word MUM on an octave and a half scale) requires that you 1. Inhale and 2. over a long or short period of time, moderately blow that air through your vocal tract while your vocal folds gently vibrate together, resulting in pitched sound. Then you do it again, and again, and again! Each vocalization tests your ability to use your air steadily and over as long a period of time as you choose. That sounds like breathing to me!

Sure, if your posture is poor and your breath shallow, things may not go well. So, in a mirror, check that you are standing up straight, chest lifted, with your chin back so that your neck is aligned with your spine. When you inhale, your abs will gently release as your lungs fill with air (as opposed to your shoulders lifting with tension), and when you sing/exhale, your abs may gently pull in. All of this should feel natural- no holding , gripping, or tension involved. After all, if standing perfectly rigid was mandatory for singing, how do Broadway ensembles sing and dance at the same time? Or how does P!nk fly around in a harness upside down and belt high F’s in her stadium tours?

Ya’ll- take a deep breath, relax, and go vocalize.

The Case for High Notes

Are you trying to get in shape? Lose a few pounds perhaps? Feel a bit more svelte and slim? I’ve got the perfect workout plan for you!

Squats.

Yep, squats! Just that. No need for any other exercises or cardio, just squats!

Just kidding. You knew I was kidding, right?

While squats are GREAT for you, if you’re looking for a total body makeover and improved health, squats are only going to get you so far. Same thing if you only ever did bicep curls and ignored the triceps on the opposite side of your arm. Likely you’ll look and feel quite unbalanced.

Guess where I’m going with this- it’s the same with your voice. I’ve met a fair amount of singers who only want, or really ‘need’, to sing in quite a small range, perhaps an octave and a half. For men, this means they could quite possibly stay in chest voice that entire time. And when that’s the case, issues arise.

That’s because our voice is made up of two major muscle groups, chest voice muscles that keep our vocal folds thick and short, and head voice muscles that stretch and thin our folds*. The thinning and stretching process allows our voices to ascend in pitch. At any given time, both of these muscle groups are working to some degree (otherwise we couldn’t change pitch at all) but often one group is doing most of the work.

If you get stuck in the mentality that you only sing low notes and therefore only need to exercise low notes, you are doing your voice a total disservice and may even cause unnecessary harm and distress. Just like the rest of our body, our voices are made up of opposing muscle groups- both need to be worked to have a HEALTHY voice! Without weekly, nay, DAILY working of both low and high registers, you will be left struggling to transition from chest to head voice, with funky bumps in the road all the way up and down. Your sound may even completely cut out or be very breathy in your middle or top registers. And I promise even your low notes will lack the vibrancy and flexibility that you could achieve with daily work in your upper register.

What to do? Get studying with a voice teacher who encourages you to sing through two+ octaves if you are a male (a high C is a VERY reasonable goal to vocalize to!) and three+ octaves if you are female. On your own, try semi-occluded vocal exercises like a tongue or lip trill on longer scales throughout your range. Try some headier vowels like EE and OO. You may need to take some time just stretching our your head voice before you can start blending it with your chest. That’s fine, but move towards connecting the registers as quickly as possible. Isolating one register or another is not a good long-term goal.

GET SINGING! And singing HIGH!

 

*If you want to get science-y, those muscles are called the thyroarytenoid and cricothyroid, respectively.

Technique is about Choices

The only reason for mastering technique is to make sure the body does not prevent the soul from expressing itself.
-La Meri-

The best feeling in the world is feeling completely limitless when singing a song- no obstacle in your way, no note out of reach, no melody too tricky to master. The worst is feeling like you’re barely scraping by in the piece, unable to make choices regarding interpretation or style because you are limited by what your voice can physically produce.

Mastering vocal technique gives you options, it gives you choices. It expands the realm of what is possible. Working on technique does not mean you lose that original sound only you are blessed with- it expands what your God-given voice is capable of!

One other thought on the topic of choices: developing good technique is understanding what variables took you from point A to point Z. Good technique is the sum of so many small things- the shape of your vowels, the looseness of your jaw, the relaxation or engagement of certain muscles, the balance of air flow and vocal fold resistance. What allowed you to get the full, released sound on the word “Love” on a high F? Can you identify the small choices that got you there? Eventually, it becomes intuitive.

Work to technically improve your voice, like a ballerina or basketball player might improve their body and game. You’ll find a world of possibility open to you!

10 Years of Vocal Education

This weekend I found out that I PASSED my Mentor Level/Level 5 panel test!

Great! So what does that mean . . . ?

I began my vocal instruction education in 2007 with a voice teaching organization called Speech Level Singing. At that point, I already knew I wanted to teach someday — either part-time to support my other artistic dreams, or full-time if the time came that I felt teaching was more my path. My mentor and teacher, Jeffrey Skouson, encouraged me to consider starting my teacher training before I had even started college. So with his blessing and my parent’s support I started what has been a TEN year process of education, conferences, reading and study, private lessons, yearly testing, and so much more.

Ten years later, I’ve achieved the highest level of certification possible with the Institute for Vocal Advancement. This past month, Jeffrey and the other Master Teachers in our organization watched and assessed as I taught a 20 minute lesson in front of them (a ‘panel test’). It was not unlike the other annual tests I’ve been taking for the past ten years, but this time the entire panel of Master Teachers adjudicated. And I passed! With flying colors!

I am thankful to my teachers and peers who push me and our entire teaching organization to become the best voice teachers possible. I am thankful that at 17 years old, Jeffrey saw something in me that he believed would make a great teacher one day. I am thankful that my parents encouraged me to continue, and I’m grateful for the passion I’ve had to pursue this dream. What 17-year-old sets out to reach very specific goal, which will take a decade or more, and actually achieves it? I recognize that I’m extremely fortunate to have had the support and opportunities necessary to accomplish this long-time goal.

My education is far from over, and thankfully my training will continue with IVA. However, having reached this milestone- there are no more tests in my future! Whew!

I can’t speak highly enough of the community of teachers I am a part of. If teaching voice has ever been something you’ve considered, I encourage you to think about investing in that education and skill set. I’d love to talk to you about how to make that happen for yourself.

All worthwhile endeavors take time and practice! For me, it’s been ten years of time and practice and practice and practice, and I am thrilled to have reached this milestone.

 


A bit about the Institute for Vocal Advancement:

At IVA, we strive to continually develop our program with the latest research in vocal science to address these and other questions. We educate and produce the finest voice instructors in the world who develop, promote, and maintain the highest standards for the teaching of singing.

As a Certified Instructor, you have access to our yearly teacher conference, IVACON, teacher-trainings, master classes and workshops right in your area, as well as online training in the form of webinars. Our education will help you to understand how the voice works and how you can continually improve your teaching in order to quickly diagnose and fix problems in any voice, and also how to develop voices of a professional calibre that can meet the demands of modern careers in singing.

Just Give it Time (+ Practice + Dedication + Lessons + Practice + Dedic…)

I guarantee you all of your favorite singers worked for years to get the voice they have today. Whether it was formal training with a teacher, or practicing along to Whitney’s riffs and runs in their bedroom for years on end, no one just #wokeuplikethis.

Guy Babusek said it well in a recent blog post:

“Some students will only book lessons when they have auditions or important gigs coming up. When there are no performances on the horizon, I never see them. This is not a wise way of working with a voice teacher at all. In these cases, there is no time to actually build a solid technique. These singers are trying to cram in years of training into small spurts sporadically. While this is better than no training at all, it is a very ineffective way of working. Solid singing technique is built over time, by taking weekly lessons and vocalizing daily in a systematic manner.”

I can’t agree with Guy more! The best time to start your vocal training was three years ago, but the second best time is NOW. Right this minute! Don’t wait until your dream role audition comes up, or you go into record your debut album next week. A great voice takes REAL time to train.

If you want to be a professional singer, or even just a good amateur singer, take RESPONSIBILITY for the time and effort it takes to accomplish something worthwhile. Recognize you won’t get their on your own. If you value something, give it the time, energy, and even money it deserves. In the case of your voice- book regular lessons and practice every day.

 

My TOP TWO Tips for Audition Preparation

Ready, Set, Audition Season!

Here are my TOP TWO most important tips for the weeks leading up to all your big auditions! Your confidence, preparation, and talent will score you parts and acceptance letters- but these two crucial self-care tips will play a big part in your performance at these critical auditions!

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Imagine your voice is a potted plant, resting on your windowsill. You’re supposed to water it every day, right?  However, If you haven’t, by the time your plant is wilting and turning brown it is TOO LATE to water it! You may try, and the plant may be revived eventually, but it’s not going to perk up until DAYS after that first watering.

The lesson? Excessively water/hydrate yourself in the 3-5 days leading up to an audition! In fact, get in the habit of excessively hydrating yourself every day as your responsibility as a serious vocalist. All the water you drink on audition day won’t do a thing to hydrate and plump your vocal cords, so drink up days beforehand!

Avoid caffeine. I’m serious! AVOID it! Caffeine will dry out your voice, pretty much counteracting all the awesome hydrating you’re doing.

Know that nothing you drink is actually touching your vocal cords (if it did, our lungs would fill with fluid every time you drank something!). If you want the biggest bang for your buck in a pinch, steam. Take a long hot shower, lean over a boiling pot of water and inhale, or get yourself a fancy steamer like this one. Again, start this regiment days and weeks prior to your actual audition(s).

A student of mine just told me about this sweet app, Plant Nanny, that gives you reminders throughout the day to drink up! For iPhone and Android.

VOCALIZE

I don’t know many runners who have had much success starting their training the day before a marathon. The same goes for singers. If you’re not already stretching, exercising, and balancing your voice through purposeful, daily vocalizing (the kind of meaningful exercises I do with you in each of our voice lessons), then you will not be in peak condition on audition day!

Sure, you can vocalize just that morning and your voice may feel warmed up. But with daily practice (much more than just singing your songs!) days and weeks in advance of the audition, you will gain range, flexibility, and balance. And who doesn’t want more of all that on the big day?

Get into a daily regimen of vocalizing. Again, who would skip track practice the week before a big meet? NO ONE.simple-yoga-stretches-for-relieving-chronic-sciatica-pain

Start to think of yourself as the professional you aim to be, and get responsible for your voice! You are quite literally the only one who can give it what it needs—you can’t send it into the shop to be ‘tuned up’—you get to do that!

Why Should I Warm Up My Voice?

Singing is a physical activity, so why do so many singers not take the time to warm up properly before an audition, rehearsal, or performance?

I don’t know the answer to that. But to encourage you to get into your own warm-up routine, here are my TOP TWO reasons why you should take the time to warm up.

Avoid injury

Every single athlete takes the time to warm up their body before practice or competition. Our bodies need to prepare in order to perform our best. This is the same with our voices! You know how you feel in the morning when you first get out of bed? Do you really want to walk on stage sounding like that?

I didn’t think so.

Imagine a Usain Bolt rolling out of bed a few minutes before one of his Olympic sprints. He doesn’t take the time to stretch, work out his muscles, or mentally “get in the zone” for the race. Chances are, no matter how talented of an athlete he may be, he could incur an injury. Cold muscles= risk for injury.

It takes 5-20 minutes to warm up your voice. It can take days, weeks, or months to recover from a vocal injury. Do the math and do your warm-ups!

Find Vocal Balance

I was recently invited to sing four songs in a concert my friend Elisabeth was putting on. Two were duets, two were solos, and all four had a very different stylistic feel to them. Within these four pieces I needed to make a wide variety of sounds.

Warming up with intentional vocal exercises can help you find “home base,” or vocal balance. With my voice in good working order, I could springboard from one style to another because I took the time to find connection and balance. Without first finding vocal balance, your voice may feel squeezed, pushed, or overly breathy, none of which are feelings that will lead to a successful performance!  Find vocal balance and sing anything.

What is your warm up routine? If you don’t usually warm up, I’m curious- why not?