I write a column called Q&A with Breck Alan in every issue of Singer
Magazine. Following are several Q&A's that can be found in
that column. I'd love to hear your questions. Pick up Singer
Magazine at your local bookseller.
about voice lessons are listed on the Voice Lessons page.
Does Study Ruin Style?
Q: I have a lot of technical problems with my singing
but I'm afraid to take voice lessons. I've always been told that
singing lessons will ruin a singers personal style. Do you think
it's possible to study voice without loosing your uniqueness?
Steven H.- Austin TX:
A: High Steve,
This is an age old question for all art forms. Does Study
Ruin Style? The answer is it can, or least temporarily dress
it up in the wrong clothing. The problem with the majority of
vocal training is that it is taught through musical styles. Coached
is actually a more accurate term. Most vocal trainers are coaches
more than they are teachers. A handful of very vague singerisms
are thrown at a student then on to singing the songs to use up
the lesson time. Don't get me wrong, singing is of course the
objective. But if a teacher hasn't taught you some tangible vocal
technique and a vocabulary to communicate these things then you're
wasting your time. When a vocal trainer doesn't have any real
information to teach you they have no choice but to teach you
imitation. And this imitation is often done through musical styles.
Classical singers, theatre singers, blues singers, country singers
etc. that aren't taught to distinguish techniques and vocal variations
from the style they're learning have a hard time not sounding
like that style no matter what music they sing. This is not always
a bad thing. Many singers like other musicians have strong stylistic
preferences. If a style is really in your heart then there is
no shame in being heavily influenced by it. The same goes for
your being influenced by your musical heroes. The key is to be
unique within whatever form of music you are singing. In the
vocal study world this is done by teaching singers several possibilities
for any song they might be singing. This is a contrary notion
to some styles. In classical singing and many theatre derivatives
thereof, a great deal of what I call vocal discrimination is
practiced. In other words, women are taught to sing like women
and men like men, rather than a more neutral stance that a voice
is a voice do with it what you will. Under the influence of this
vocal discrimination you have women believing they can only sing
in a soprano style of head voice in their upper range and men
believing they can only sing in a full non-airy operatic tone.
This is basically a product of many years of conditioning and
not a physical necessity of the voice. Other than on a scale
of higher and lower, men's and women's voices should be addressed
the same. The same approach would apply to posture, resonance,
vocal break, etc. Once a singer can work through several songs
with a variety of vocal techniques, energy levels, and attitude
changes, they begin to learn which of these colors they like
best. With luck, they'll understand that all of these colors
have their place and they will truly begin to make choices best
for the song and best for the moment. In summary, if you find
a good vocal mechanics teacher then you should be able to make
a great deal of progress without destroying your personal style.
In fact, you should greatly enhance that style and with luck
turn into a multi-dimensional singer capable of many moods and
expressions and an ability to bring to life whatever song on
whatever stage you happen to be on.
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Increasing Volume in Voice
Q: I am a female with a deep voice. I personally think it
sounds like a mans, but when I sing, people like it and say my
voice is "soulful",
but barely audible. Its even low with a microphone. Do you
have any tips to increase the volume and keeping the same "quality"?
Kristen - Winter Springs, Fl. -
A: Hi there Kristen,
There are a few principles to increasing the volume and projecting
quality of your voice. 1) Focus on the ingredients of your tonal
color. It is common for singers who sing in their lower range
to have a chesty sound quality. This is probably part of the
soulful man-like quality you are referring to in your voice.
What this means is that most of your resonance is coming from
your body. What you need to do is teach yourself to add some
more head resonance to this tone. Think of resonance in your
body like tone controls. The chest is the bass and the head (particularly
nasal) resonance is the treble. Bass is a non-directional sound.
This is why your tone is not projecting well. Treble is a directional
tone and will carry your voice out, to, and past your audience.
This is difficult to describe without demonstration, but what
you're listening for is a buzzy, edgy sounding resonance. This
comes from deep in the nasal cavities high in your head. When
you're good at accessing this resonance you can add it to your
overall tone and not sound nasally. I often teach this on an
"I" vowel. "I" is a diphthong. That means
it's two vowel sounds in succession to produce a vowel. Be pure
in your vowels. Sustain the "e" part of the vowel and
adjust your placement gently and gradually until you can hear
more and more of the "buzz" sound. This will take some
practice so be patient. Work on isolating this nasal resonance
before you try to add it to your chest resonance. Once you have
a good handle on it start shifting back and forth between the
nasal and the chest resonance. Once you are good at that, go
for the gold and blend these tones together. I call that "Tone
Marriage" and it's a beautiful thing. This way you still
get the deep rich tone that is obviously working for you, and
you get to add the cherry on top (nasal/head resonance) that
will carry your voice to the back of the room. Yeah baby!!! 2)
Now listen to hear if there is a breathy quality to your tone.
Even though a breathy tone may appear to have a smooth even quality
it seriously cuts down on your volume and projection. Practice
singing without hearing the breathe on the tone. You need to
work carefully on this and make sure not to push or strain. This
takes practice so start out easy and light. As you get better
producing this non-airy tone you will hear the size of your voice
grow as if by magic. Practice this first from your speaking
voice in your lower middle range. I find it useful to count to
five or ten several times over. Each time see if you can gently
hear less and less air on the tone. To help project your voice,
speak as though you are speaking to someone across the room.
When this is comfortable move the pitch by a half step and do
it again. Do this a lot until you can comfortably produce this
tone from your speaking voice in your entire range. Once this
is comfortable go back to your lower middle range and start doing
this with sustained tones. When you can sustain a non-airy tone
and hear the above mentioned tonal characteristics you will really
be getting somewhere. Be patient and work hard at it, but never
strain. Stand up straight and naturally open and allow the support
system (breathe control) to support this tone without force.
No Pushing!! The voice does not work through force but through
coordination. 3) Articulation is the icing on the cake for projection.
I believe in a very natural personal form of projection. Add
your real way of speaking, thinking and above all feeling into
your articulation. Be pure in your vowels but do not over pronounce
or mouth them. Keep your mouth relaxed but fly off the consonants
and live on the vowels. Pulse off of key words for emphasis
to express your singing in a way that is personal to you. Want
to be heard, then others will hear you. These principles will
help your singing come to life without losing the unique quality
that you already possess. Have fun.
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Q: Hi Breck,
I'm a fairly advanced singer and am comfortable with my voice,
but unfortunately I sound just like my favorite singer...I won't
say who. How do I fix that?
A: Dear Imitator,
As it is for any musician on any instrument, to grow you need
to understand the beauty of new techniques and ideas. But critical
to that is applying these techniques with emotional content.
If you're singing with muscle memory singing based on how you've
taught yourself to imitate another singer, then it will be hard
to convey your own emotions and your own style. I like to teach
singers techniques that allow them to see a lot of possibilities.
For example is a tone airy? Which types of resonance are you
hearing on the tone? Are they buzzy or dull or throaty etc.?
I like for singers to pick a few tool songs (anything you like)
and sing those songs in as many ways as possible. Sing them in
different parts of your range (different keys), sing them quietly
like you're singing to a baby, then sing them as though you need
to reach the back of the concert hall. Only do the loud stuff
if you are advanced enough to do it properly and are well warmed
up. Once you have learned that you can sing any song in many
different ways and have really taught yourself to execute the
techniques necessary to do so, then it is very important that
you remember the next key thing, "Singing is Acting."
Here you must learn to connect your techniques to your emotions.
I teach this through something I call "Tone by Attitude."
Get a bunch of cue cards and write several different emotions
on them: happy, sad, mad, confused, tired, anxious, etc. Then
take some songs and start randomly flashing these cards at yourself.
Not too quickly, 2 or 3 per song is fine and start interpreting
the song with the emotion in front of you. Don't worry if it's
not right for the song we're practicing. There's no wrong
answer. However you choose to interpret an emotion is fine as
long as it's honest. Some would interpret angry with very loud
singing, some would interpret it with quiet seething tones. That's
the beauty of it. As you begin to really put a personal touch
into your singing then you will no longer sound like another
singer, you will sound like you! And that's cool.
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Singing for Singing's Sake
Q: Steve R (Uk)-I am not a performer but I am a musician.
I like the idea of knowing 'how' to sing but don't desire at
all to make a point of entertaining people with my voice. Weird
one, I know, but considering the above, I have worried about
how to approach vocal training. The thought of a room with a
number of people each doing their part as a group makes me feel
uncomfortable. I just want to know how to entertain myself while
in the shower and record my voice for compositional purposes
in my project studio. Is there any hope for me?
Breck- There is indeed much hope for you and others like you.
Everyone has a right to sing, if for no other reason than the
sheer fun of it. Your mission to get comfortable and expressive
with your voice is much the same whether you will be using it
in performance or alone. The idea is to see the voice as an instrument
and make it function as such. This is not a cold thing. It is
a practical thing that allows you to connect to emotion in your
singing as you would hopefully do with any other instrument.
The problem if the voice is not at least somewhat developed is
that no matter how inspired you might be, it is impossible for
the voice to follow your emotional content. That's frustrating
in both the singing and the listening stages, because struggling
in singing does not sound good and it's no fun to do. Your level
of development, however, is completely unique to you. You can
have fun singing at almost any level. The important thing first
is to be comfortable and safe. Start out easy and get your voice
loose, then add the mojo. Or rather let the mojo in, as it's
already there. One of the first things I teach a singer is something
called "Speaking the Melody." The first bridge from
speaking to singing is in sustaining notes. Once your comfortable
speaking some melodies from your lower middle range, begin sustaining
the vowels of those melodies and you will be traversing into
the singing world. To start adding tonal variety generally requires
at least some rudimentary studies in vocal technique. That's
where you'll learn the basics of vocal mechanics, i.e. breath
control, resonance work, articulation, interpretation etc. These
are good roads to travel if you're interested in turning up the
energy level and kicking out some sound. But to just add some
interest to your lighter comfortable singing, things like inflection,
attitude and charm come more from just naturally expressing these
feelings as you would in speaking. If you're truly just trying
to get your songs down on a recording so that another singer
can take over, then you don't have to worry very hard about it.
Basically, try to be in tune and just get the melody and phrasing
the way you'd like it. If however this whole writing and recording
thing is strictly for your personal enjoyment then that answer
is also simple. Get it to where you like it. If you don't think
it's good enough then you need to work on it until you like it.
And regardless of whether you perform to other beings or not,
a good vocal take is still a performance. To improve your vocals
for any reason requires some wood shedding (practice) just as
it does with any other instrument. Ultimately, your level of
vocal skills should revolve around one question; Are you achieving
the desired results, your desired results. Good luck and have
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Pulsing/Pant breathing Technique
Q: I have been taking some lessons through
a system that involves the pulsing/pant breathing technique.
We create a lot of volume by pushing from the diaphragm in both
head and chest voice. I'm told that this is supposed to free
the voice and develop strength of the vocal cords. Seems a little
scary. What are your thoughts on this method?
A: Dear Tracy,
You have asked a very good and important question for the world
of voice training. Your instincts to be nervous about this method
are right on. I do not like the pulsing/pant breathing technique.
I feel that it is a very lop-sided approach to vocal training.
First, the vocal cords are not muscles, despite the well-worn
myth that the voice is just a muscle that gets stronger simply
by using it. The vocal cords are in fact unique multi-layered
bands of ligaments with a thin muscular center. Their job is
to produce the initial pitch and tone of voice and then allow
resonance from the body to magnify and color those tones. Second,
the diaphragm is not the only component of the support system
(breath control). Breathing in singing is affected by muscles
from about three to four inches below your navel all the way
up to the magical diaphragm. Teaching diaphragm strength for
its own sake creates pushy, forceful singing. The support system
(breath control) needs to be coordinated in connection to whatever
type of singing you wish to sing, i.e. loud, soft, airy, full
voice, etc. Therefore the initial subject should not be "strengthening
the voice" but rather "coordinating the voice."
When this comes together, adding energy for a bigger voice will
actually turn into something that sounds good, has a lot of tone
variety and is healthy. Start by working on a nice tall open
posture. Then work on gently singing in your lower-middle range
right out of your speaking voice. Sing some melodies you know
in that comfortable part of your range. If part of the melody
goes a bit high, it's OK (for now) to let it release into your
little, falsetto, head voice (or whatever you happen to call
it). In "The Art of Body Singing" I refer to this tone
as the "Mouth Horn" because it is very important to
distinguish it from the resonance in our body. The point here
is to get comfortable first. Then we can add the size,volume
, power, etc. later. The only way to do this effectively is to
take a tour of all the pieces that make up the instrument called
voice and to begin to coordinate them together. I cover this
in a step-by-step procedure in my vocal instruction books "The
Art of Body Singing Volumes 1-4."
Good luck and have fun singing,
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Unhappy with Sound of Voice
Q: Dear Mr. Alan,
I don't like the sound of my voice but I really want to sing.
What can I do about that?
New York NY
A: Hi Jim,
You can do a lot about that. The key is to learn to find tone
variety in your voice. Once you can do that you will have many
choices of colors and can begin finding many things in your voice
that you like the sound of. You need to spend some time working
on resonance. Resonance is the sympathetic vibrations that occur
in your body to the initial vibrations begun in your throat by
your vocal cords. I break resonance down into three chambers:
- The Chest (Bass)
- The Mouth Horn (midrange)
- The Nasal Horn (treble).
It is important that a singer can really work these resonance
chambers individually so that they can then begin to blend them
together to produce the kind of tones that match the emotional
content and the overall esthetic they are trying to deliver.
Record yourself singing and listen back. Make some adjustments,
record yourself and listen again. Repeat procedure several thousand
Keep on looking, your voice is in there.
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Q: Is the vibrato learned through the technique
using slow to faster pulsing a "real" vibrato,"
or is it contrived? Could using this technique do harm? Is there
a better way to develop the vibrato and is it true that other
ways take a very long time?
A: Once long ago as a youngster I was in Berlin
pre-unification. Like all tourists I had one thing on my mind
the Berlin Wall. I asked a local person how I could find
it and she grumbled, "don't look for the wall. It will find
you." Years later I asked a great voice teacher Peter Elvins
how to get vibrato. He said something reminiscent of the crotchety
Berliner, "don't worry about your vibrato. It will come
when it's ready." It took me awhile to understand what he
meant but it did eventually become clear. When you focus on good
tone production, vibrato becomes a natural element that falls
into place. The vibrato I teach to singers is something I call
"Open Body Vibrato." This true vibrato is a natural
balance of breath and resonance. It is possible only when a singer
is capable of an open, unforced and sustained tone. When you
sing a well placed, non airy sustained tone practice patience
first. Listen to this tone and begin to make adjustments. This
is best done when a singer has a good understanding of how resonance
and placement work. The first place to focus on placement is
at the post nasal position inside your mouth. This is right where
your uvula hangs down. This is what I call the "Anchor"
in singing and is basically the sound board of the voice. This
is the beginning of resonance for the voice after the initial
pitch and tone created by the vocal cords. All other resonance
from the nasal passage, the mouth and the chest is attached to
that initial placement. If you are well-Anchored and your support
system (breath control) is even and not pushy, you will begin
to hear the vibrato happening naturally. Because this true "Open
Body Vibrato" is a type of echoing effect of the resonance
in your body it is adjustable by making slight changes in resonance.
If you direct your resonance upwards towards your nasal passage,
it will become faster because that is the smallest resonance
chamber. Conversely, if you direct your resonance more into your
body (chest) it will slow down because that is the largest resonance
chamber. Does this kind of vibrato take more time and patience
then the type you described in your question? Yes it does. But
it's worth it because it's real and when a singer finds it through
this kind of process there are so many other things that come
to them along the way.
The technique you described is indeed capable of causing harm
if you are creating too much pressure on your vocal cords and
larynx. And yes, this type of vibrato sounds very contrived and
phony. Singing is largely about conveying emotion, and as in
any type of communication honest emotion is desirable. That said
I always maintain that anything a singer tries as long as it
doesn't hurt him/her is fair game. A huge part of learning and
continuing to enjoy any instrument is in experimentation and
discovery. So if you are careful with it, you might find some
interesting embellishments that you enjoy.
Have patience, the slow way is the fast way.
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Q: My toddler accidentally head-butted me
in the throat and now I can't even talk without discomfort, much
less sing. Very disconcerting! I have a performance scheduled
in a month. Do you know if it should be better by then?
A: You should probably be fine in a few days.
If it's still within the first 24 hours I would ice it like any
other trauma with swelling. Crushed ice would work best. The
larynx is like a little box of cartilage woven together by muscle
tissue. Unless you really damaged the structure of this you should
be fine when then swelling goes down and the bruising subsides.
I would go to a health food store or natural pharmacy and get
some Arnica. It's magical for bruised and damaged tissue. If
you fear you might have damaged the structure of your larynx,
then you do need to see a doctor!!! I understand how scary that
is for a singer. I won't allow anyone to even touch my throat.
The answer to when you can sing again depends a lot upon how
good your singing habits are. If you're not a singer with great
finesse then I would probably wait for about a week. If you have
great control, then you'll know when.
I wish you the very best,
A week later Linda e-mailed back:
My voice is doing great. Thank you so much for the wonderful
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Q: I sing in a rock band and really enjoy
it. I've had several people tell me that they can't understand
what I'm singing. My girlfriend says I sound like I'm mumbling?
What can I do about that.
A: You need to think a bit about articulation.
Articulation is best achieved by the ear. This simply means "want
to be heard and want to be understood." Often singers mumble
because they're not confident in some part of their presentation.
Maybe it's their lyrics, maybe it's their tone, maybe it's their
stage presence. If you want to be understood then be clear in
what you're saying/singing. So much of that is achieved by listening
to yourself. Something you'll hear me say a lot is "the
first part of voice is the ear."
That said, the first thing is to understand about articulation
is the concept "Living on the Vowel and Skipping off the
Consonant." We sustain vowels and connect them with consonants.
Really learning how to think of singing as "phrases"
and not just notes and words smoothes a singer out and makes
their singing more liquid. I also like to purify a singer's vowels
early on by teaching them about diphthongs. Diphthongs are two
vowel sounds glued together to produce a vowel. For example:
"I" = ahh eee and "A" = ehhh eee. You can
only sing one of these sounds at a time and be clear.
These are a few of the main things. We'll talk more about this
and related subjects soon.
Have fun seeking clarity,
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