The simplicity of vocal technique and why it is so hard to learn

The basics of vocal technique, like that of any instrument depends on the mastery of three elements: actuator (our breathing mechanism) vibrator (our vocal folds) and resonator (our vocal tract). In the best case scenario, the voice in question is perfectly healthy and no extraneous muscular habit has been learned.

Those who possess such voices are very lucky and with a good teacher tend to develop very quickly. Whether or not these natural singers become our great stars depend greatly on their aptitudes in the many other facets of our art form (e.g. musicianship, language skills, acting ability, poetic sensitivity, etc).

But how does one get such naturally healthy unmarred voices? Is it a gift from God? It might as well be, because the many things that distinguish the natural singer from the rest of us humans do not seem to follow any kind of logic. Yet much of it can be explained. Most of us begin with healthy instruments as babies and in fact instinctively knew how to produce the most perfect vocal sounds, whether through crying or laughter or baby cooing, etc. As soon as we begin to make conscious sounds, which we learn from our immediate environment (parents, siblings, housekeeper, etc) we begin the process of undoing the natural process of vocal production. The lucky baby who will become a natural singer may have had parents or siblings who spoke very healthily, and who may have voices similar to his (hers). In such a case, the baby will have had excellent vocal models. If the baby is lucky, people in the house sing. It could be professional singers, or people who simply sing along to a radio station that broadcasts good vocal music.

The issue however is for the rest of us who seek to re-acquire our natural vocal coordination. What happens to a young coloratura whose mother speaks like a contralto and she emulates this production? Such a singer might be miscategorized early as a lower voice and spend many years struggling with this “unnatural” voice with frustrating results. When such a singer discovers the true coloratura voice, the change does not happen automatically because years of a false muscular imbalance must be undone, and the new muscular balance takes time to strengthen. The frustration that comes with the transition time is often discouraging, and an otherwise extremely talented singing actress may never achieve her goals, unless of course she has the dedication and patience of Job.

The issues however are rarely so extreme, although I have taught several coloraturas who believed that they were mezzos. What is most common are coloraturas who are taught as lyrics because they have over-developed the middle voice to the detriment of their top, and lyric tenors who begin as baritones
because they lowered their speaking voices to sound more “manly”. In the case of dramatic voices, very often dramatic sopranos begin as mezzos and dramatic tenors as baritones because they can sound impressive even when singing a lower tessitura than that which is more appropriate to them.

I have discussed here how health is the first component to a healthy technique. Problems like allergies, acid reflux and post nasal drip can lower the quality of the voice to such an extent that could be career threatening. I suggest that every voice performance program should send every student to a laryngologist who specializes in the singer’s voice, at the beginning of each year. Even if the student sounds impressive, there can be problems that are undetectable by the naked ear (e.g. mild peresis). Such programs should also include a nutritionist who could run the necessary examination to see if the digestive tract of the singer is functioning properly, including taking bacterial cultures. Problems like acid reflux and allergies have a strong influence from dietary practices and the basic ability to digest the food that the singer intakes. When these hindrances are removed, the process of vocal pedagogy is profoundly simplified.

© 10/07/2008