Listen and Diagnose
First, listen to how the singer speaks. Take note of all of the elements in their speaking voice. Just listen. This is how their muscles are used most of the time. It will affect how they sing, even if they do something very different when they sing.
- Loud or Soft?
- Clear or Breathy?
- Glottal start or breathy start on words that begin with vowels?
- Lower or Higher?
- Bright vowels or Dark vowels?
- Open mouth or closed mouth?
Next, listen to how they sing.
They can sing a song that’s their style. Again, just listen. Don’t fix. Listen for the four basic elements in the sound…volume, airflow, pitch, and vowel:
- Do they sing mostly loud or soft?
- What volume changes do you notice? On what pitches do they happen?
- Do they sing mostly clear or breathy?
- What airflow changes do you notice? On what pitches do they happen?
- Do they sing with mostly glottal starts or breathy starts?
- What onset changes do you notice? On what pitches do they happen?
- Do they sound better on lower pitches or higher pitches?
- Do they seem to feel more comfortable with lower pitches or higher pitches?
- Do you notice flatting/sharping? On what pitches does it happen?
- Do you notice difficulty ascending/descending? On what pitches does it happen?
- Do you notice rushing/dragging? On what pitches does it happen?
- Do you notice difficulty with small/larger intervals? On what pitches do they happen?
- In general, do they use bright vowels or dark vowels?
- Do the vowels get brighter/darker? On what pitches does that happen?
- In general, is their mouth more open or closed?
- Do they open/close their mouth more? On what pitches does that happen?
- In general, is their sound swallowed/squeezed/clenched?
- Does it get more/less swallowed/squeezed/clenched? On what pitches does that happen?
- In general, is their sound nasal?
- Does it get more/less nasal? On what pitches does that happen?
They can also (or instead) sing a simple vocalise or two, each on a single vowel. Remember, this is a listening vocalise, not a training vocalise. Gather information on their Volume, Pitch, Vowel, and Airflow, just like you did for the song.
Pick One Thing to Change
Pick ONE element that stuck out to you the most as you were listening. You’re going to create an exercise around that one thing.
Fix: Affect the muscles that are creating the swallowed/squeezed/clenched sound…jaw movers, tongue, constrictors, larynx raising/lowering muscles, etc. Relax them. Or move them. Or stretch them. Or massage them.
Fix: Contract the palate lifters more and/or relax the muscles that are pulling it down (often the tongue). Use a flashlight and mirror to see whether palate is raised.
Create an Exercise That Helps Them Change It
Now that you’ve picked the thing you want to change and what you want to change about it, you’re going to fill in this chart with the other elements that will make up your exercise.
Let’s say I decided that the issue was they they were singing too softly. This is a blue singer problem. To fix it, we need to have them sing loud exercises. This is a red solution. To fill in the rest of my boxes, I’m going to use other red solutions. Here are the reds and blues again for reference:
So here’s an exercise I might put together for a higher-voiced student using red solutions:
As you’re listening to the singer, keep your focus on that one thing and ask the singer to keep their focus on that one thing, too. While the singer is trying to change that thing, they will probably change some other things, too. Example: while they’re trying to make the sound louder, they might make the vowel darker. If they’re accomplishing the primary thing you wanted them to accomplish (being louder), don’t sweat it. They’re getting the job done, right? If they do something else instead of the thing you want, bring that to their awareness and ask them for what you want again. You might have to adjust one of the elements in your exercise to help that happen if your initial choices aren’t doing the trick. (Sometimes the thing they’re naturally changing to accomplish the task will give you a clue about what they need.) The reds and blues are general starting place helpers, but they aren’t hard, fast rules. Everyone’s different.
Make another. (Or a few.)
Create another exercise with the same goal. You can do a few. Eventually, they’re going to need a break, so…
Whatever you picked for the first exercise, do its opposite for a little while. The muscles you exercised first were probably pretty weak, so they need a little break. This also helps the student hear the difference between what they just did and what they (probably) usually do. (They’ll probably feel more comfortable doing the opposite thing since you felt like they needed help with the first thing.) Again, if they’re having a hard time, use sound affinities to help them have the best chance at doing that thing.
Here’s an opposite exercise from the one I originally created to help increase loudness. I made everything the opposite of the original. I could have only changed the volume, but changing other things does give the student more variety in skills used and built, and gives you more information for long term planning regarding things that are harder or easier for them to do.
Create an exercise where they go from the first thing you changed to its opposite within the same pattern. This helps the instrument incorporate the new thing more fully.
If we started with an exercise focused on making a louder sound, and then switched it up with something soft, now we let the student try getting from one to the other.
Now, you’ll have to monitor and adjust individual elements to help with TWO things. If something seems to be getting in the way of helping them complete the goal of going from loud to soft to loud, change it, just like you did before, until you find what helps.
You can also/instead alternate between the two extremes on each repetition of the pattern. For instance, have them sing loud on the first one, then slow on the next one, then loud, then soft, etc. This is one of my favorite exercises to help the student distinguish between and gain more mastery as they learn to access more points on each spectrum of sound (vowel, volume, pitch, and airflow).
Mix it up.
If you changed a red thing, and used some other red things to help it get better, start mixing in some more blue things, particularly the blue things that they’ll need in their style of singing.
Here’s the original exercise for helping with loudness. I used all red elements in this one. Now, I’m going to switch a few out for blue (legato, medium speed, wider interval over the pattern) based on the student’s goal style and see how the student does.
Test it out.
Now, return to the song and/or vocalise that you did at the beginning of the process to see if the one thing you picked has changed. If you decided you wanted to help them be louder, for instance, they should naturally be singing louder when they sing the song again, without you actually asking them to sing louder. How much louder depends on a lot of variables, but it should be different. Be sure to ask the student what they notice about singing now vs. the beginning of the lesson.
Sometimes the change won’t show up. Sometimes it means they need to do the exercises more. Sometimes it means they need different exercises. Sometimes it means they are just really locked into their habits. Sometimes it means they have a psychological block about that particular thing changing in their style. Try asking, “What did you notice about the volume you were just singing in your song as compared to the volume you sang in the exercises we did?” If they didn’t realize they were singing more softly, you can ask them to try singing as loud as they did in the exercises and see what they think. If they did notice that they were softer than the exercises, you can ask why they think that is. It may be a style choice, or it may be fear of pitch going wonky, or any number of things. You can talk through their thoughts and come to a collective decision about how to move forward.
Often, if the change isn’t showing up, they need some of the same helpers they needed in their exercises to help them in the song. For instance, for more volume, I can remind them to drop their jaw more or open the mouth in a more smiley way if those were things that helped with volume before.
You’ll want to change multiple things. It’s tempting. But try sticking to one goal per set of exercises. Meanwhile, keep a list of the other things you notice so you can address them in future lessons. Sometimes one thing will seem to get worse while the thing you’re addressing gets better. To you and the student, this will sometimes feel like you’re playing whack-a-mole with their vocal issues. You can acknowledge this. You can also let them (and yourself) know that as you address each thing separately, and do what it takes to get each thing better, the changes will eventually be able to co-exist more and more peacefully. You’ll find middle ground in areas that seem to be stuck in the extremes, and sounds that are clumsy and awkward will smooth out.