Resources for teaching belting and contemporary vocal technique

Teen-girl-singing-iStock-web-477874089.jpg

I recently had two local voice teachers ask me how I became comfortable teaching contemporary vocal techniques like belting. In both cases, the teachers had heard several singers make noticeable improvements after taking voice lessons from me. 

Like many voice teachers working today, I studied classical voice in college and my pedagogy training focused entirely on classical vocal technique. To make up for those limitations, I have spent the last 10 years attempting to educate myself about contemporary singing. I would like to share some of the resources that I have found most helpful.

Mary Saunders-Barton / Bel Canto Can Belto

A NYC-based voice teacher, Mary has been teaching contemporary musical theater vocal technique for several decades. She recently retired from Penn State University, where she was head of voice for the BFA program in Musical Theatre and program head for the MFA in Voice Pedagogy for Musical Theatre. Mary teaches privately in NYC and leads workshops throughout the United States. Her two instructional DVDsBel Canto Can Belto: Teaching Women to Sing Musical Theatre and What About the Boys: Teaching Men to Sing Musical Theatre – are a wonderful introduction to her work. They are available at www.belcantocanbelto.com

Matthew Edwards / Contemporary Commercial Music (CCM) Vocal Pedagogy Institute

A leading teacher of commercial and musical theatre voice, Matt Edwards is artistic director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute and associate professor and coordinator of Musical Theatre Voice at Shenandoah University. The CCM Institute offers summer training programs in teaching and singing commercial and musical theatre styles. The program is divided into three sessions, each of which takes place over three days: 

  • Session 1: Respiration and Phonation for CCM Singers
  • Session 2: Resonance and Articulation for CCM Singers
  • Session 3: CCM Styles and Performance Practice

Read more at www.ccminstitute.com, www.edwardsvoice.com (Matt’s website), and www.edwardsvoice.wordpress.com (Matt’s blog). 

Estill Voice Training

Jo Estill was an American voice teacher and voice researcher whose Estill Voice Training attempts to distill and organize vocal concepts into thirteen “Figures for Voice Control” and six “Voice Qualities.” The system is complex with a strong emphasis on vocal anatomy and physiology. It is used by voice teachers and by speech and language pathologists who specialize in voice therapy. The Figures are essentially anatomical elements that affect vocal tone. They are combined into various “Voice Qualities,” vocal sounds which can be found in musical styles ranging from opera to pop or rock. 

In its most basic form, Estill Voice Training is taught over five days as “Level 1 (Figures for Voice Control)” and “Level 2 (Figure Combinations for Six Voice Qualities).” More info is at www.estillvoice.com

The most prominent proponent of Estill Voice Training is Broadway voice teacher Joan Lader. In 2016, Joan – whose students include Patti LuPone, Kristen Chenoweth, and Sutton Foster – received a special Tony Award for her work as a voice teacher and voice therapist. 

Summer musical theater opportunities for kids and teens

It's never too soon to start thinking about summer musical theater opportunities. Below are some options in the Philadelphia region that I recommend to my students. Please note: There are many other programs around, but these are few that I recommend based on many factors, including: my knowledge of the programs, their instructors, or reputation; my students' experiences; or my own experience as an acting student.

Barley Sheaf Players (Lionville, PA)
Barley Sheaf is a community theater that produces a full season of shows during the year and runs two shows - one for teens, one for kids - during the summer. This year's teen show is Addams Family. Teens are strongly encouraged to attend the Teen Show Audition Workshop to help them prepare. The kids' show will be announced at a later date. Please note that Barley Sheaf's summer programs are practically free (participants pay a small fee of about $25), but acceptance is quite competitive.

West Chester Studio for the Performing Arts (West Chester, PA)
Director Therese Walden-Murphy has acted on Broadway and in L.A., and she is an excellent teacher of acting and musical theater. Sign up early, as sessions fill up quickly! 

West Chester Summer Stage (West Chester, PA) 
WCSS gives students the experience of performing in a high-quality musical theater production. (I have attend several excellent performances there.) However, my impression is that the program is quite large and doesn't offer a lot of individual attention to each student. Also, opportunities tend to go to kids who have been longtime participants.

Walnut Street Theatre (Philadelphia, PA)
As Philadelphia's center for professional musical theater productions, the Walnut offers excellent programs for kids, teens, and adults. Offerings range from beginning acting to advanced musical theater, with additional classes in storytelling, auditioning, and on-camera technique. Some classes may require auditions.

Upper Darby Summer Stage (Upper Darby, PA) 
UDSS has an wonderful reputation as a NY-style theater camp. (Tina Fey is a graduate.) Previous seasons have included six children’s theater shows and a mainstage production of a Broadway musical.

Guidelines for voice work

Teaching has taught me a lot about the average person’s conception of vocal training. Beginning students expect a teacher to talk about breathing, tone, and projection. Yet many of them - even those who have had vocal training before - are surprised by certain aspects of my classes.

They don’t expect me to ask questions about their health, talk about relaxation, inquire about their earliest vocal memories, or assign yoga exercises. Many are surprised that they feel uncomfortable talking about or exploring their voices. Others only want a few simple tips they can use on their own to suddenly bring their vocal skills from an amateur to a professional level.

As I have learned more about the expectations of my students, I have slowly developed some guidelines for beginners.

Guidelines for Voice Work

  • The voice is deeply personal. Along with our physical appearance, our voice is one of the primary ways in which we express ourselves to the world. Our voices reflect our upbringing, social influences, and self-image.
  • Voice work involves releasing tension and engaging the breath. Most voice problems are caused when some muscles are too tense and others are not working hard enough. Voice training can help you retrain your muscles, relaxing some and engaging others.
  • Voice work takes time. Be patient with yourself, and do not expect a quick fix. Poor vocal habits may take years to develop, and they will not disappear overnight.
  • Voice work involves replacing habit with choice. This requires 1) knowledge 2) attention 3) change and 4) repetition.
  • Voice work requires regular practice. You will get the most out of vocal training if you practice regularly. It is more effective to practice for 10-20 minutes several times a day than to practice for one hour once a week.

Download my Guidelines for Voice Work as a PDF.

What it takes to teach voice

Scott Barnes in conversation with singers Elizabeth Batton, Krysty Swann, and Dolora Zajick (Photo: © Dario Acosta 2007)I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it takes to be a great voice teacher, so I was excited to see that the latest issue of Opera News focuses on education. It includes a great piece by vocal coach and frequent Opera News contributor Scott Barnes. Here’s my favorite quote from the article.

Ultimately, the path to being a good singing teacher is not so different from the one that leads to being a good psychotherapist – empathy, an avid interest in process as well as product, the flexibility to adjust vocabulary in order to achieve understanding, technical as well as instinctive knowledge, and driving curiosity.

–Scott Barnes, Opera News, July 2009

Learning to sing: How to find a voice teacher

I wrote in my previous post that finding the right voice teacher is the most important decision an aspiring singer can make. I included some ideas on what to look for in a teacher. But how do you go about finding that person? Here are a few ideas.

  • Ask singers you admire: Not all teachers advertise their studios, so word of mouth is probably the best way to find a voice teacher. If you go to a concert or club where a local singer performs, ask if the singer gives lessons. If not, maybe the singer can recommend a friend who teaches or even put you in contact with her or his own teacher.
  • Ask a musician: These people can probably recommend someone: your school choir/band/orchestra director or music teacher, the music director or cantor at your church or place of worship, your piano teacher, or your friend’s piano teacher.
  • Find a community music school: There are thousands of community arts schools (nonprofit, non-degree granting, community-based institutions) in the United States. Many of their teachers are experienced performers with multiple degrees and years of teaching experience. Prices are often on the low end. Find a school near you at www.nationalguild.org.
  • Contact your local college or university: Many professors supplement their salaries by giving private lessons. You can also inquire whether any advanced students teach voice. (If cost is a concern, keep in mind that students will certainly charge less their professors do.) Ask for a graduate student, an advanced undergrad, or someone who has taken classes in vocal pedagogy or music education. (“Vocal pedagogy” means the study of teaching singing.) The downside to studying with a college student is that he or she could leave the area after graduation.
  • Ask friends and family: You never know who’s taken singing lessons until you ask.
  • Check Craigslist: Teachers who need to fill spots in their studios often post on Craigslist. You might not find much information on the teacher’s experience, but you can always ask questions by phone or email.
  • Call your local music store: Many stores offer lessons onsite. Others keep a list of area music teachers on hand.
  • Visit www.nats.org: The National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) has strict requirements for its members. Teachers need to have a college degree or equivalent experience and must abide by a Code of Ethics. The NATS website allows you to search for members in your state or hometown.
  • Visit www.classicalsinger.com: Classical Singer magazine is a great source for anyone who wants to sing classical music or opera. You can search the site for a teacher in your area.
  • Visit www.mtna.org: The Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) is a professional organization for music teachers who are employed by a school or who teach privately. You can find members at www.mtna.org. Keep in mind, though, that MTNA doesn’t screen its members. However, teachers can choose to go through the group’s thorough certification process.
  • Visit other websites. Two popular websites list music teachers: www.musicstaff.com and www.privatelessons.com. In my experience, however, there aren’t many voice teachers on the sites, and those that are listed seem somewhat underqualified.
  • Ask a voice doctor: This may seem like an odd source, but laryngologists (voice doctors) often work closely with voice teachers to help singers who’ve had vocal trouble. A teacher with experience in vocal rehabilitation is a great choice if you suspect something might be wrong with your vocal cords. See my previous post on finding a voice doctor.

Good luck in your search for a voice teacher! And remember - always ask about a teacher’s credentials before you sign up for lessons!