Resources for teaching belting and contemporary vocal technique

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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. 

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.

Top 10 ways to begin your vocal warm up - without making a sound!

Sometimes the best vocal warm-ups don’t even involve the vocal cords. Here are my favorite ways to kick-start a practice session without waking the neighbors.

 

  1. Eat breakfast - Breakfast is a great way for morning practicers (like myself) to get started. The actions of chewing and swallowing warm up the face, jaw, and tongue muscles and trigger the salivary glands that moisten the throat. Here are some great breakfast ideas from Zen Habits, one of my favorite blogs.
  2. Take a shower - There’s nothing like warm water to open the sinuses, relax the body and mind, and prep your muscles for action. I recommend showers over baths since showers tend to steam up the bathroom (and hydrate the vocal cords) more quickly.
  3. Drink water - Most singers already know how essential proper hydration is, but just the act of swallowing is beneficial, too.
  4. Drink hot tea - For allergy sufferers like me, tea can help to wash down phlegm and clear the nasal passages. Other hot drinks will also work, but watch out for too much caffeine - it can dry the vocal cords. Besides, tea has additional health benefits (it’s loaded with antioxidants) and half the caffeine (or less) of coffee.
  5. Yawn - Yawning is the ultimate throat and palette stretch!
  6. Stretch - Singing involves the whole body, and unnecessary tension anywhere can have a negative effect on the voice. I find that a good side stretch helps open up the ribcage and free up my breath.
  7. Exercise - Yoga is my favorite because it combines stretching and breathing, but opera star Renee Fleming swears by Pilates and Thomas Hampson uses weights to tone his core support muscles.
  8. Meditate - Mindfulness meditation is the practice of focusing the mind, usually by observing the breath and disengaging from thoughts. It’s a great way to calm anxious nerves and tame self-criticism.
  9. Make faces - Like yawning, making funny faces is a great stretch for the face and jaw, as well as a wonderful way to practice improvisation. For inspiration, visit my post on “gurning” and watch a video of a face-making competition!
  10. Practice in your head - Studies have shown that mental practice can be as effective as an actual practice session. So go ahead …

Give yourself a head start on your warm-up without making a sound. You might discover something new - and your neighbors will thank you!

Photo: mikeautry1