Singers: A Real Head Case
By Susan Plemons
I was online reading through the evaluations I received from my private Contemporary Voice students last week and stopped to smile when I read, “love the crazy vocal warm ups!” Yes, it is true that you can often find my students huddled together in the cafeteria discussing the “chair of death,” “barking,” laying on the floor, using books to simulate pushups against the wall—in addition to all of the usual scales and arpeggios. Why would I put my singers through these strange exercise and, most of all, why do they strangely work?
Let us, as Maria Ranier says, go back to the very beginning. When a student enters my studio for the first time and we are finished with all of the paper work, I begin by asking, “What and/or where is your instrument?” You can imagine that the astute student knows that this is a trick question and doesn’t just go for the larynx. My goal is for them to begin to step back and analyze what they use to sing. My final answer to this discussion is “Your body is your instrument.”
Thank about it from the toes up and remember that I teach Contemporary Voice which has elements of the traditional Bel Canto singing (what I call “In the Box” singing), but goes out of the box for style and technique. You need to have your feet planted to support you, even if you are moving around as you sing. There needs to be balance. Your support travels up your legs and to your back. Your posture doesn’t need to be rigid, but whether you are on your knees or standing on a chair—your diaphragm muscles need to be working to support your tones. Now we have entered the familiar area of breathing, producing the vocal tones, resonance, and articulation.
You can now sit back and consider the wonder of our very complex instrument.
Or can you? We just breezed by what I consider to be the core of the vocal instrument and key to what separates the singers from the Singers. The Brain. What plays your instrument? Do you touch it to play it? No, the brain audiates the pitch and sends the information to your vocal folds so they will stretch the proper length for the pitch. It is the only non-tactile instrument in the world. Really, Harold Hill in The Music Man got it close to right. We do use the Think System when we sing!
I believe that is why the singer’s ego can be so closely tied to the instrument. When I correct a piano student for a wrong note the pianist can drill the fingering or approach needed and soon the muscle memory will kick in so the complicated passage is mastered. But correct a singer and sometimes the meltdown is uncanny. You are correcting the instrument and the player. The singer must mentally learn what is wrong and then indirectly work to correct the passage. Granted, some mistakes are easier to correct—like wrong words—but oftentimes our corrections touch the tip of an iceberg of insecurity and feelings of inadequacy can develop which may block further progress.
So the first lesson starts at the top and not in the throat. The singer’s ability to sing on pitch, bend a note, add improvisation, dynamics, color to the tone, and emotion to the words must come from an understanding of the power of the mind. Likewise, if a singer is insecure, tense, negative, off key, behind the beat and monotone they will never be able to have vocal freedom until they learn to change their thinking. When correcting a student I first focus on what they did correctly to begin to build their confidence. Once the singer is relaxed and confident then the rest of the instrument (the body) will be able to follow.
While it is true that everyone can open their mouths and sing, it is the great singer that can discipline the mind so the instrument (body) is singing accurately, sensitively, and with a confident relaxation that will blossom into a vocal freedom that is the cornerstone of great vocalists. Now the singer is ready to explore the instrument through my strange warm ups, to extend the range, and to learn to sing with power and expression that transcends the musical score. We may be head cases to others, but this is the only instrument that is designed by God—not by man—and it is uniquely qualified to reflect His glory.
Susan Plemons is Assistant Professor of Worship at Cedarville University. She holds a BM in Church Music/Vocal Performance from Baylor University and a MM from USF in Choral Conducting. She served on the music faculties at Southeastern University and the University of South Florida and has been Minister of Music for two churches. She is a guest soloist and conductor as well as effective speaker for conferences. www.cedarville.edu/worship