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As we conclude our discussion of diagnosing and taking action on correcting vocal technique issues I’d like to discuss a particularly helpful tool.  James McKinney calls it ‘empathy’ and goes on to describe it like this, “One of the most effective techniques used to analyze the cause of a particular fault is to empathize with the student…to try to feel in your own vocal mechanism the actions that are taking place in his…to enter so completely into what he is doing what your own mechanism subconsciously attempts to reproduce his vocal production.”
I use this a lot!  Be careful that when you are emulating the sound that the student is producing you do it in a respectful way and explain to them what you’re doing, otherwise it can be misconstrued as you poking fun.  It is so helpful to feel what they are feeling so you can more accurately relate to what they are experiencing and describe the sensations needed to counteract the issue involved.
It is important to accumulate as many cures as possible for each vocal fault.  Some students will respond to the first one tried, others will exhaust everything you come up with. 
Remember the plan of action:
1. Recognize Symptoms
2. Determine Causes
3. Devise Cures
Join me next week and we’ll chat about one of my favorite mantras, “Singing is Sensation!”
(original posting: December 9, 2013)
As promised here are James McKinney’s next steps in regard to diagnosing vocal faults.
Classification of vocal faults
There are several possible ways to classify vocal faults…
1. Classify them according to their relation to the essential properties or elements of musical sound
2. Classify according to their relation to the physical process involved in the singing act
3. Classify to the part of the vocal mechanism involved
To devise your plan of action asks yourself the following questions:
1. What is wrong with the sound I am hearing?
2. What is causing it to sound that way?
3. What am I going to do about it?
The teacher’s plan of action is to recognize symptoms, determine causes, and devise cures.  In order to recognize symptoms, the teacher will need to evaluate two types of clues; audible ones and visible ones. Whether you teach privately, in the choral setting, or both, you need to be able to evaluating what you are hearing, as well as what you are seeing. 
From my own personal experience with regard to vocal technique, I know that choral directors tend to zone in on what they are hearing and then secondarily will shift focus to the visual aspect.  I would encourage you to broaden your horizons and start taking in as much information visually as you do aurally.  There is a wealth of information to be had if we just open our eyes and pay attention to what our singers are communicating physically.  Heighten your awareness this week and experience the benefits of this additional set of information!
Join me next week as we conclude this mini-series on the importance of being able to diagnose the vocal technique issues of your singers!
(original posting: December 2, 2013)
Before we move on to your plan of action in regard to diagnosing the vocal technique issues of your singers, I want to delve into an aspect of last week’s column.  I’ll never forget the first time I read McKinney’s book and read the sentence [teachers of voice will need] “some of the skills of a master psychologist”.  I might have evened laughed out loud as I read it!  Wow! How true!!!  There are times in my private studio when I feel like the majority of my mental energy is spent trying to figure out what makes this kid tick so I can figure out which approach will work as we are unpacking their potential. 
Singing is a very personal experience.  Singing isn’t like pulling your sax out of it’s case and beginning to play.  Our voice is a part of who we are as individuals.  No one else has the same model # or brand name.  Our voice is one of a kind and a part of our body!   As educators, it’s essential that we respect this fact and remain highly aware of it as we train our singers.
For example, last night I spent 15 minutes in a 30 minute lesson talking to a young lady about the dangers of comparing herself to others and how that mindset will bring her ‘process’ to a quick halt.  The struggle of this particular student is a lack vibrancy in the tone.  We were singing a vocalise from Building Beautiful Voices (if you don’t have that book, you should!) and our focus was making sure that the breathing process was fully engaged and the space was nice and open.  She sang several very beautiful modulations of the vocalise.  I was thrilled!  It was open and free, although not yet filled with the beautiful vibrato that this child desperately wants.  She looked thoroughly discouraged when we finished the vocalise.  When I asked what’s wrong, she teared up and said “I don’t know, it’s just not the sound I wish it was.”  After admonishing her for ‘listening’ and not ‘feeling’ I asked her to elaborate.  She said, “I just sat here listening to the end of Morgan’s lesson and I wish I sounded more like her.  My sister is in 8th grade and has a prettier vibrato than me.  How sad is that? I’d rather sound like an 8th grader than me!” 
We spent the next 15 minutes talking about comparing yourself to others and how detrimental that choice is.  We talked about a healthier choice being to compare herself to older versions of herself.  That way she is aware of her progress.  We talked about the dangers of comparing your ‘behind the scenes’ work to other people’s ‘high-light reels’. 
What the young lady was struggling with last night is the very issue that is tightening up her throat and not allowing her air to flow correctly.  She is her own worst enemy and is most definitely getting in her own way.  Her mental state is absolutely shutting down her potential.
How does this relate to the bigger choral setting?  You have a whole room full of kids struggling with their confidence and their own personal issues.  As educators, I would encourage you to strive everyday to meet your singers where they are versus where you want them to be.
(original posting: November 25, 2013)
Last week we opened up the topic of diagnosing your singers in regard to their vocal technique.  Let’s continue to exam what James McKinney has to say on the topic in Diagnosis and Correction of Vocal Faults.
To diagnose effectively, McKinney points out 3 things that are needed:
1. Comprehensive knowledge of the vocal mechanism and how it works.
2. The ability to express yourself in terms the student can understand.
3. Some of the skills of a master psychologist.
He goes on to say, “As soon as the student walks into your studio, you can begin accumulating information which may help you do a better job in the identification of his vocal faults.  His stance, posture, the presence or absence of tension or nervous mannerisms, the quality of the speaking voice and fluency of delivery, his command of language and freedom of expression, his apparent attitude toward you, his mental alertness, and so forth.  These first impressions and observations may prove to be quite significant later on.”
“Encourage your student to indulge in self-evaluation…such questions as, “what are your goals as a singer? What do you hope to gain from studying with me?  What previous vocal training have you had?  Are you aware of any specific vocal problems that you have? What kind of songs do you most enjoy singing?”
“Develop questions which are compatible with your own teaching situation, but do give the student a chance to reveal whatever he can about his own goals and problems.  Some of your most important clues to his vocal production may come from his response.
The third and most structured phase of the diagnostic procedure would be to have the student sing for you while you make a systematic analysis of his voice production and other pertinent factors.”
Good stuff!  If you haven’t read Diagnosis and Correction of Vocal Faults by James McKinney, it’s a must read in my opinion!  (No, I do not receive any royalties for plugging his book!) If you have read it, but it was back in college when teaching was a far off dream, it takes on a whole new light huh?  If you are a vocal technique ‘geek’ like me and read it at least once a year, let’s meet for coffee and be friends!!
Join me next week when I share his thoughts on classifying vocal faults and coming up with your plan of action.
(original posting: November 18, 2013)
In the last few months we have extensively covered three of the most important fundamentals for singing: body alignment, breath intake and breath management. Our next big concept to tackle is tone.  Before we break this very subjective concept apart and take a closer look, I’d like to delve into a few other topics that are worth spending some time on. The first of these topics is diagnosing your singers.
The ability to diagnose what you are hearing (and seeing for that matter) should not be taken lightly, nor should the skill be assumed.  I’d like to share a few bullet points from James McKinney’s, Diagnosis and Correction of Vocal Faults.  The parallels are fantastic and worth noting!
  • When you enter the office of a medical doctor, the diagnostic process often begins before you are aware that it is taking place.  Although the process may not be obvious, a well-trained doctor will start at once to collect information, all the while seeking the clues that will help him evaluate your condition.
  • [a doctor] expects you to explain in simple terms why you came to see him.  He wants to know what, in your opinion, is not functioning properly. 
  • Only the patient can describe their sensations.
  • [a doctor] examines the areas where trouble frequently appears…(eyes, ears, nose, throat, etc.)
  • Three basic techniques have been used to accumulate this evidence: 1. Informal observation of the patient, 2. Self-evaluation by the patient and 3. Systematic testing by the doctor.
  • The end purpose of diagnosis is not identification of a disease through its symptoms, but rather is obtaining knowledge about the disease and planning proper corrective procedures.
Whether diagnosing vocal technique issues is a strength or an aspect of teaching that you need to improve upon, it’s worth pondering the parallels McKinney makes.  Join me next week as we delve further into the skills necessary to diagnose your singers!
(original posting: November 11, 2013)
As we wrap up our discussion on breath management I’d like to share a story.  One of my voice teachers early on was fond of saying, “Dina, you need to ‘hook’ your breath into your tone!”  I had NO idea what he was talking about.  He was making the incorrect assumption that I totally and completely understood the breath management process and all of the anatomical functions involved.  Not so.  NOW I totally get it.  As you are starting to sing your phrase and begin that initial movement to stay expanded there is a sensation of the breath process ‘hooking’ into the sound.  The ‘hook’ is that very moment when the muscles have, instead of collapsing and contracting, remained expanded and buoyant. This is yet another example of students needing to understand the process so they can control the process.  If this concept makes sense to you and you think it would help your singers use it! 
Another thing I’d like to focus in on is the fact that breath must never be used as weight, ever.  It is energy, something that is always moving.  Keeping this a mantra in your rehearsals or studios will pay huge dividends and keep you from having to diagnose and fix all of the issues that come from forcing the breath process and using your air as weight.
My favorite metaphors for the energized, focused airstream versus the breathier, unfocused tone are; the diffused light of a flashlight versus the focused light of a laser beam and the fine spray mist coming from a spray bottle or hose versus the more focused, powerful stream of water you can get when you adjust the nozzle.
Rather than the idea of feeling like a singer has to transport their breath out into the room, I find it very useful to work with the idea of ‘going down into the breath’ or the feeling of ‘keeping the breath in your body’ as the tone leaves your face. 
I have a few maxims from Giovanni Lamperti that I’d like to leave you with as we venture beyond breath management…
“As a blossom draws strength to bloom from the plant, so the voice draws energy to sing from the body.”
“Exhale through each note.”
“The moment you have energy of breath sufficient for the phrase, re-adjustable for all details and all pitches in the phrase, yet continuous from start to finish, you can sing.”
Loose, pushed out breath is useless even injurious, though you have lungs full, for it causes local efforts, irregular vibration and disrupted energies.
(original posting: November 4, 2013)
In order to ‘remain in the posture of inhalation’, ‘stay expanded’ or ‘remain in the inspiratory position’ a singer needs to master appoggio.  A term used to indicate how the muscle groups work together to achieve the proper balance of push and pull. The term appoggio is an Italian term that means to ‘lean against’.  A singer’s main goal during breath management is to stay as long as possible in the ‘inspiratory position’, but only as long as is comfortable.  A singer’s responsibility is to identify and drill the natural processes involved in developing the ‘push and pull’ of ‘remaining expanded’ and then to keep these muscles engaged so that breath support remains intact during the last part of the phrase.
I like to tell the students that this is like having one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake, counterbalancing for control.
I explain breath management to my students this way…The breath intake is their “Deposit”, the beginning of the phrase is their “Savings” and the end of their phrase is their “Spending”.  We’ve talked about the “Savings” portion of breath management, the phase where the singer works to ‘stay expanded’ or ‘remain in the posture of inhalation’.  Now let’s talk about the “Spending” portion of breath management.  James McKinney describes it this way, “The ‘breathing in’ muscles stay active during the controlled exhalation stage; they help retain breath in the body by offering resistance to the breathing-out muscles, and assist in the process of breath support thereby.” 
I feel that this (the “spending” or “controlled exhalation”) is the aspect of breath management that is the least understood.  Many choral directors know you’ve got to achieve an ‘in, down and out’ breath intake that expands the torso frontally, dorsally and laterally.  Many choral directors know that the torso and ribs should remain expanded and buoyant at the onset and beginning of the phrase.  Many choral directors don’t realize that the appoggio muscle interaction, the push and pull, should remain through the end of the phase.  If you stop and think about it, it makes sense, our main goal is to keep the diaphragm muscle involved/engaged during the entire phonation phase.  In order to do that we can’t allow the ribs or torso to collapse, even toward the end of the phrase.
I sometimes explain it to my students this way…
If the ‘breathing in’ muscles could talk (the muscles in charge of expansion) they would say:
1. During the “Deposit” or the breath intake phase: “Everybody back!  The diaphragm is comin’ down”. 
2. During the “Savings” or “remaining expanded” phase: “Everybody stay back!  The diaphragm has a job to do!”
3. During the “Spending” or slow “controlled release” phase: “Alright, you can come back in…but nice and slow, the diaphragm is still working!”
These last few columns have been a LOT to digest.  Ponder them this week and I will continue to bring clarity next week!
(original posting: October 28, 2013)
I’d like to start this week by sharing a few more bits of wisdom from Giovanni Lamperti…”Generally, faulty singing is caused by awkward respiration.  In fact all bad habits of the throat are merely efforts of protection against clumsy management of the breath.”  My other favorite is, “Power either builds or destroys. The energy in regular vibration is constructive. The violence in irregular vibration is destructive.”
Hopefully your week of practicing a consistent and buoyant rib expansion has paid big dividends!  Now on to the next step!
In regard to the muscles involved in breath management, James McKinney says it this way: “Perhaps the best way to gain control of the exhalation process is to try to maintain the expansion around the middle of the body.  The upper abdomen, the lower ribs, and the back.”
In The Structure of Singing, Richard Miller says it this way, “A skillful singer remains in the inspiratory position for as long as possible, maintaining a relatively high sternal position (taking care not to elevate it in military-parade manner), allowing muscles of the lateral abdominal wall to stay close to the position of inhalation and consequently delaying early rib cage collapse.  Of course, something must eventually move, either the chest wall of the abdominal wall.  Slowing these movements depends on an acquired, disciplined breath management technique.”
He goes on to say, “A technique of lateral abdominal wall retention and the noble, elevated sternum has for centuries been known as appoggio. Clearly, one cannot continue to inhale while phonating, but the singer can retard the upward surge of the diaphragm and the collapse of the rib cage by training the musculature of the abdominal wall in cooperation with the pectoral musculature, to delay normal collapse of the breath mechanism.”
In studio, I talk to my singers about their abdominals, lateral abdominals and their intercostal muscles.  When the inspiration has been achieved correctly the lower torso has expanded laterally, dorsally and frontally. I’m a firm believer that if a singer doesn’t understand what’s working they can’t control what’s working.  I make sure they understand that all of these muscle groups are involved in helping the body “remain in the posture of inhalation”.  I’m very careful to focus in on the stomach wall.  I’m not sure about your singers, but mine tend to want to protrude the stomach wall.  When this happens the outward push causes laryngeal tension.  We work for all of the muscle groups working in combination to “remain expanded”, therefore keeping the diaphragm muscle engaged. 
I like to explain breath management to my students this way…the breath intake is their “Deposit”, the beginning of the phrase is their “Savings” and the end of their phrase is their “Spending”.
(original posting: October 21, 2013)
Okay, we’ve done a very thorough job covering breath intake, now on to the management of that breath!
Giovanni Lamperti (Richard Miller’s teacher’s teacher) says, “The vocal folds are helpless without the power of compressed breath to feed their pulsation.  Therefore the lungs should never collapse.”
In Diagnosis and Correction of Vocal Faults, James McKinney says it like this,
“The breath of a singer is the actuator of the vocal instrument.  The pressure of the breath against the vocal folds sets them in vibration and phonation ensues.”
As we begin our conversation about breath management, let’s chat about the phrase ‘diaphragmatic support’.  Yes, the diaphragm muscle is highly involved in the process of pressurizing and compressing the air.  Yes, the diaphragmatic involvement is necessary to achieve proper ‘breath support’.  Let’s be clear about this however, the diaphragm is an involuntary muscle, you do not have control of it.  It triggers into action as the lungs begin to fill and then, through controlling the muscles involved in the breathing process, we can control the ‘ascent’ and involvement of the diaphragmatic muscle.  This is of course safely assuming that the proper ‘descent’ of the diaphragm muscle was achieved during the breath intake.
Step one in ensuring the continued involved of the diaphragm muscle is to keep the rib cage expanded, with a certain amount of buoyancy throughout the phrase.  Step two; do not let the ribs collapse!  Yes, they are essentially the same concept from opposite ends of the spectrum.
A few thoughts on the above directives…I’m very careful to monitor my singers as we work on this step.  Singers tend to take things to the extremes and ‘hold’ the ribs out with muscle locking and tension, versus keeping the ribs out with buoyancy.  The quickest way to get your singers to feel the difference is to have them ‘hold’ the ribs out and ‘lock’ their muscles in place so they can feel what NOT to do.  Then have them find that rib expansion associated with movement or buoyancy. 
My favorite tool for working this is an exercise band you can pick up at WalMart.  I’m careful to use the lightest weight band so that the expanded buoyancy is the primary focus.  The thicker/heavier the band the more the students will want to engage their ‘lock and hold’ muscles.  Using the band helps the singers realize that there doesn’t need to be a total collapse of the ribs and that it IS possible to keep the ribs lifted and buoyant during the sung phrase. 
Take this week and work on this step. It’s the most essential aspect of correct breath management.  Join me next week as we delve further into the muscles involved in correct breath management.
(original posting: October 14, 2013)
VOCAL ADVANTAGE: BREATH (part 5), by Dina Else
Before we move on to the topic of breath management and support I have a few last words of wisdom to share with you about breath intake.
Before I share those words, I must again give credit where credit is due.
I was very fortunate to have studied with Barbara Honn at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music for three of the most pivotal, life-changing years of my life.  These last little nuggets of truth that I will share regarding breath intake were largely shaped during those years, under her watchful ear and loving guidance.  (Literally under her watchful ear…she had commissioned a piece of art that hung in her studio of a mouse with ginormous ears that used to hang just above her head as she sat at her piano and taught, I’ll never forget the image!)
During breath intake, your primary goal is the intake of air, a secondary and equally as important goal is to use that step to open up your backspace.  The breath intake is one of the only times we have complete control of opening the back pharyngeal space and lifting the palate.  This step is essential because once phonation starts the vocal tract is a servant to the vowel being sung.  As Richard Miller says, “setting up the ‘gola aperta’ (open throat) helps the singer achieve a position of the resonators that feels open without any unnecessary tension.”
One of the other things Barbara used to say that stuck with me was, “Dina, you need to make a reservation for your high notes before you sing them!”  Then she would go on to explain that, prior to singing, (during the breath intake) I needed to make sure I was creating the space necessary to sing that higher passage.  This was an absolute pivotal concept for me.  One day I was struggling to add depth to my tone and felt like there was a glass ceiling over my voice in regard to my higher range, the next day I was singing with a beautiful chiaroscuro, balanced tone and my high notes were a breeze!  Literally!
This last nugget of truth will take us right into breath management.  Barbara would repeatedly tell me that the breath intake was the release of the tone.  “Breath is not a preparation Dina, it’s a release…” I’d be rich if I had a dollar for every time she said that to me.  This concept takes a while to master and is fairly advanced but the pay-offs are huge!  Once I mastered this I was able to rid myself of a lot of extra muscle involvement that was stealing beauty from my tone.  As I’m working this concept with my singers I have them do a lot of gesturing during the intake that physicalizes a release of the tone rather than a gearing up for the next phrase.  The concept is impactful and the results are impressive!
Okay, we have the correct breath intake and a nice open throat, now what?  One of my teachers (I can’t remember which one or I’d credit them) used to say “it’s not how much air you get in, it’s what you do with it once you’ve got it.”  Join me next week as we head down the road to managing that breath now that we have mastered the correct breath intake!
(original posting: October 7, 2013)
Whether it’s a student, a parent, or an administrator, we all have that individual in our sphere who acts as though the world revolves around them; they have probably been making you crazy all year.  As you head out the door for a well-deserved summer break, watch this.  You’ll feel really small, but it will also put your narcissistic tormentor into perspective.
1.  “Courage Lives.”  Mark Patterson.  Heritage/Lorenz 15/2089H.
TTB, with piano.  One of my guys’ all-time favorites.  High tessitura and moderately difficult, but the singers “man up” for this one.
2.  “Come Travel with Me.”  Scott Farthing.  Walton/Hal Leonard  HL08501432.
TTB, with piano.  A staple for tenor-bass choirs with an animated accompaniment, accessible ranges, and great text.
3.  “Rest Not!”  Laura Farnell.  Hal Leonard  HL08552012
TB, with piano.  A well-written piece!  ABA form, easy harmonies, and guys ask when they can sing it again!
4.  “Shoshone Love Song (The Heart’s Friend).”  Roger Emerson.  Hal Leonard HL 08740097
TBB, with piano.  Beautifully crafted piece; easy TBB harmonies and several unison lines; accompaniment doubles vocal lines throughout.
5.  “Great Gettin’ Up Mornin’ (with Do Lord).”  Donald Moore.  Heritage/Lorenz 15/1716H.
TTB, a cappella.  Syncopated, high energy, and all three parts alternate having the melody.  Guys love the optional snaps!
(“Five from the Folder” provides brief, text-length reviews of vocal works currently in the folders of choral directors throughout the United States.  To share five from your folder, contact Scott Dorsey at
(An excerpt from the Choral Journal article, “Standards of Choral Music,” by Elwood Keister)
       Speaking from a singer's viewpoint, Lloyd F. Sunderman of the University of Toledo, Ohio, deplored the negative effects of popular singing whereby a personality and an assumed "style" creates false impressions of singing and negates a solid vocal foundation and artistic expression. Since the inception of MENC in 1907 to provide the burden of inspiration and leadership for choral directors, there are gradual signs of improvement: the excellent choirs throughout the country whose travels and interchange of concerts provide new avenues of exchange, the great advance of the publishing industry in the past 15 years, the use of TV and radio for such performances as the schola Cantorum’s presentation of the Bach "Magnificat" last Christmas, the growth of District, State and National choral festivals and the use of Hi-Fi and TV in both home and school.
       Despite some good vocal training and good choral conducting and singing, there still exists a great lack of basic knowledge of the voice and its treatment. The teacher shortage caused by the single salary schedule has brought in too many vocal "baby sitters", the' overcrowded schools, the pressure for college preparation and overemphasis of other "solid" subjects, the problem of education minus musicianship, the false conception that music education and music are one and the same, all of these have conspired to bring about much mediocre and poor quality work.
READ the entire article.
The academic year is – thankfully – drawing to a close; for some fortunate folks 2014-15 is already in the history books.  The next few weeks will provide a welcome change of pace and a respite from the daily grind.
Before you lose yourself to travel, summer employment, or a well-deserved collapse, may we suggest one more assignment?  Take a brief look backward to assess your rehearsal performance with this casual little quiz.
Be honest, kids (if you can’t be honest with and about yourself, well, we can’t help you).
                              2014-15 REHEARSAL PERFORMANCE QUIZ
[1] What year-long goals did you set for the choir at the beginning of the academic year?
[2] Based on item [1], give a grade reflecting the accomplishment of each those goals.
[3] In what ways did the choir exceed your expectations?
[4] In what ways did you let the choir down?
[5] How often did you BEGIN rehearsals on time?  (One second late is still late.)
     ___ 90%-100%     ___ 80%-89%     ___ 70%-79%     ___ Below 70%
[6] How often did you END rehearsals on time? (One second late is still late.)
     ___ 90%-100%     ___ 80%-89%     ___ 70%-79%     ___ Below 70%
[7] How frequently did you write a bona fide rehearsal plan?
     ___ 90%-100%     ___ 80%-89%     ___ 70%-79%     ___ Below 70%
[8] How many times did you lose your temper in rehearsal?
     ___ 0-2     ___ 3-5     ___ 6-8     ___ 9-10     ___ More than 10 times
[9] What do you know now about the choir that you didn’t know on September 1, 2014?
[10] Are you being completely honest with yourself in this quiz?
     ___ Yes     ___ No
[11] If your conducting mentor could watch unedited video of your entire year of rehearsals, what would she/he say about your work?
[12] How frequently did you do warm-ups before working on repertoire?
     ___ 90%-100%     ___ 80%-89%     ___ 70%-79%     ___ Below 70%
[13] Does the choir sound better than they did at the end of LAST season?  If so, how?
[14] How frequently did you incorporate sight-singing exercises in the rehearsal?
     ___ 90%-100%     ___ 80%-89%     ___ 70%-79%     ___ Below 70%
[15] Are members of the choir individually better musicians than they were at the end of LAST season?