“How To” vs. “Hard Work”

Finding the Path toward Vocal Development

By Saul Fox, B.M., Voice Performance; M.M. Voice Pedagogy When students begin voice lessons I often ask them, “What would you like to accomplish through vocal training?” Usually the response goes something like this. “I want to expand my singing range, to sing those high notes with power and control, and by the way, I want them to sound really good too! I’ve got a chance to sing in a talent show next month, and there’s a really cool song I want to sing. Can you help me learn it right away? How should I hold my mouth? Where should I put my tongue? I must be doing something wrong, because every time I try to sing high I get really tight, and then my voice gets hoarse. Maybe it’s my breathing; can you show me how to breathe better?” Wow! What ambitious goals! And they provide a great place to start. But the student needs to rethink some underlying misconceptions before vocal progress can begin. First, it will take much longer than one month to grow into these aspirations. The kind of power, control, and beauty that student desires, takes years to achieve. The human voice is produced using a set of muscles that must be developed and coordinated through regular and consistent practice, over a long period of time. It might be more than a little presumptuous to expect to sing that “really cool” favorite song in the near future. And even more importantly, that particular song may not be the best choice of songs to advance vocal development over the long-term. Students need to adjust their thinking toward long-term goals rather than short-term glory. Be realistic about the time and effort involved. What about how to hold the mouth and tongue, getting tight and hoarse, and breathing better? Aren’t they good questions? Sure they are. But the student assumes that the answers will fix the vocal deficiencies. Let me share with you a couple of my favorite analogies to help explain. In my quest for physical fitness I might decide to take up running. I tell the personal trainer my goals and ask for help. “I want to run a Marathon, yup, the whole 26 miles. And by the way, I want to finish in less than 2½ hours. Yes, I know it will take some time, but can you show me what to do with my feet, legs, and arms while I run? I must be doing something wrong, because whenever I try to run my chest pounds, my ankles and feet hurt, and I get winded really quickly. Maybe I’m breathing wrong. Can you show me the proper breathing technique for long-distance running?” “What? . . . You mean it might have to be like that for a while – that I have to work through it – and that only hard work, in a carefully directed manner over time will ease my concerns?” Ok, that’s it! I don’t like this trainer’s answers – too much effort! I thought she was going to teach me how to run. Maybe I’ll try. . . um, weight training. I know of a famous, Austrian body builder/turned governor. I’ll try asking him for help. “How can I win the “Mr. Universe” muscle man competition? First, I know all you guys shave your bodies to make the muscles show better. What kind of oil should I use to make my muscles shine in the lights? Then, would you show me how to stand and posture for the best effect?” His incredulous response: “Veea ah de mooslss?” Obviously my concept of what it takes to run a marathon or to win a bodybuilding competition needs adjustment. I would do far better to allow my trainer to guide me in a long-term, methodical fitness building program, than to seek short-term manipulations that can’t deliver the results I crave. Development of an outstanding singing technique is more like 10% “how to” and 90% “hard work” Most beginners start training with the idea that the 10% “how to” will give them the voice they desire. The truth is . . . the 10% “how to” really is essential – and that’s why you need voice lessons. But the focus of your energy needs to be shifted toward the 90% hard work. And what makes this really tough is that most untrained voices don’t have the muscle development to apply more than 1 or 2% of the “how to”, even if the singer knows exactly what to do. Until there is some muscle development and coordination, voices simply can’t respond. Toward that aim, singers should implement a daily regimen of supervised practice that includes both exercises and vocal literature. In a perfect world students would have a voice lesson every day so that the teacher could guide their every step. (Fox Music now offers a special rate for multiple classes per week that might help make every day voice lessons affordable.) But since that isn’t possible for everyone, the next best thing is to bring a digital recorder to your lessons and record them on a regular basis. Use your recording as a guide, and sing along with it every day. Because it is essential to do the exercises correctly, stay with the recording. Don’t go off on your own until you understand the purpose and limitations of every exercise in your routine. Usually for the first couple of years, just stick with the recording. I offer these suggestions to help you in your quest for vocal improvement. They represent the most direct way to achieve very high goals. Developing a great voice really is 10% “how to” and 90% “hard work”. Fortunately however, the study of voice, like most disciplines, can be undertaken on many levels. Not everyone who wants to become physically fit needs to run a marathon or win the “Mr. Universe” competition. Most singers find joy in the study of singing at whatever level they embrace it. Just take in the big picture and apply what works in your life.