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When "proper" is dead wrong: how traditional methods fail aspiring artists.

Somewhere outside the classical paradigm of perfect posture, pure vowels, and forward placement exists a vast universe of music-making singers. These artists pour their souls into each note, their voices shaking you, moving you to your very core. These singers have never heard of the zygomatic arch or the ligament vocalis; they have never even considered raising their soft palates. If you were to ask one of them to define bel canto, he or she might guess that it was a cocktail--or perhaps a new fragrance by Chanel. Many of them have never had a voice lesson in their lives--and see no reason to. And yet somehow, these singers that exist outside the realm of traditional voice pedagogy have long, fabulous careers making hits, helping their minions dance, laugh, cry, vent, and fall in love.

This reality leaves many classically trained voice teachers at a serious disadvantage when dealing with young and aspiring commercial vocalists. Suddenly, "pure" is not always appropriate, "pretty" is not always effective, and "proper" ... is dead wrong. My motive for writing this article is to give seasoned advice to fellow pedagogues who now want or need to teach commercial vocalists. The classical teacher will find that his/her hard earned knowledge and experience will pay off when teaching a young man how to sing "Open Arms" by Journey. The fundamentals are similar: establish balanced airflow and vocal fold adduction, stabilize the larynx, and maximize resonance potential. The trouble begins when an inexperienced instructor is faced with the most common requests: "I need more range" (what some would call "belting"), "I need to find a unique sound," or "I need help with my phrasing." I spend a great deal of my time teaching teachers how to teach, and undoing years of "traditional" training with students that want to sing country, pop, or rock.

Here is a very common scenario. I have a new client. She has had many years of voice lessons and is now giving voice lessons herself. About twenty minutes into the coaching session, she tears up. I ask what is wrong. She replies, "I've taken voice lessons for years, and every teacher told me I couldn't do any of this because it would hurt my voice." "Does it hurt?" I ask. "No!" she says, "It feels wonderful! I just thought I'd never be able to sound like this."

This scene plays out over and over in my studio. As flattering as it may be to assume that it is my pedagogic prowess that brings them to tears, it's actually something much more powerful: the truth. In spite of truthful intentions, voice studios around the world are plagued by subjective imagery, fruitless repetition, and outdated methods. The evidence to support that rather harsh statement is nowhere more on display than in every Q&A session at the end of my master classes. I endure disapproving expressions and whispers as I take a singer through a series of exercises that sound harsh and impure. "Vocal fry will destroy the voice!" "The larynx is too high!" "The vowels are not pure!" In about ten minutes, I have the singer vocalizing freely up to F5 in "hard mix" (what most people call "belt"). Then I watch disgust change to curiosity, and finally to genuine excitement. Then come the questions:

Q: Isn't this terribly dangerous?!

A: No. An imbalanced voice is dangerous. Ignoring the development of the female chest voice is dangerous. While building a career voice is a lifetime pursuit, vocal freedom can be established rather quickly with most singers. Heavy or husky voices can take a bit longer to connect.

Q: How can (a female) chesting F5 ever be healthy?

A: It's not. What you're hearing is "hard mix." It is achieved through balance and connection. It is not chesting and it is certainly not just singing hard in head voice. By the way, much of my method is not new. The witchy-sounding "nay nay" was used hundreds of years ago to help connect the enormous ranges of the castrati. Once an acceptable level of freedom is established, then I take the singer from "nay" to "naa" to "nuh," gradually getting the larynx back down.

Q: Won't vocal fry cause nodules?

A: This is one of the most debated sounds that I utilize. Habitual fry, just like habitual throat clearing, or habitual donuts, can be damaging. But when used in a controlled setting under supervision, it can be a powerful tool to train the primo passaggio--changing it from a "break" to a true "bridge." It should be used with no excessive pressure; just breathe/sigh into it. Try taking a singer on a five-note scale (1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1) using vocal fry on a hum. Very lightly and carefully, go right through the first bridge. Then do the same thing on a "mum," careful to keep the sound "pouty/dopey." The larynx should remain comfortably low. The resonance will shift, but the tone should not change. This is one of my best secrets to getting a singer to connect quickly. Also not to be ignored, vocal fry is a very common technique used in style and song interpretation.

Q: Why don't you talk about breathing more?

A: I believe singer's breathing is very important. I also believe that it is over-taught to the point of distraction-even to the point of causing tension. I deal with breathing problems quickly and directly, careful to not preoccupy the singer with unnecessary multitasking.

Q: Many of your exercises don't use pure vowels. Why is this?

A: This one covers too much ground for a single answer.

1) Diphthongs and otherwise "sloppy" vowels are great for relaxing the outer muscles (digrastics and sternocleidomastoids). These "designer vowels," such as "moi," have amazing "training wheel" properties that allow the singer to establish proper airflow and approximation through the first bridge.

2) We are not Italian. We speak and sing in English. American English in its natural state is not pure. When you impose pure vowels on pop songs, it just sounds silly. It sounds ridiculous, actually. One of the worst critiques a commercial singer can get is " ... sounds like you've been taking voice lessons." Yes, pure vowels are great for capitalizing on resonance and correcting tongue problems. But as one who has spent countless sessions untraining "trained" voices, I would advise any voice teacher to lay aside "proper" and consider "appropriate." I promise you: no one will ever pay to hear a "proper" rendition of "Chain of Fools."

It is my desire and intent to convey truthful techniques supported by the most current information, medical knowledge, and, most importantly, successes. Of course, there will always be some subjective elements such as matters of taste. Diverse views can prove very beneficial, and I hope to learn from yours. Although we all have the right to form opinions, we do not have the right to sell opinions as facts. I try to be very transparent when those two elements come into question.

In terms of vocal skill, it's sort of a new day in the commercial music industry. Just a few years ago, when I was a kid, singing was not the cool thing to do. In fact, it could earn you bad names and get you into fights. But thanks to the Backstreet Boys, *NSync, American Idol, the Mickey Mouse Club, The Jonas Brothers, and many other pop culture elements, singing has been initiated into the inner circle of "cool." Young people simply are singing better these days. There is a much greater interest in studying with a great vocal coach. To be competitive today, young artists need every edge they can get. Many of them are looking to us to help them find their unique sound, to give them greater facility of range (a.k.a. "the money notes"), and to help them stay vocally fit when they go on tour. Some older artists will come to you desperately needing to sharpen their skills to stay competitive in a youth obsessed industry. Often what these seekers find is a teacher who gives them "Sebben, crudele" and tells them to sing from their diaphragm. Fortunately, I am finding that many of these teachers are open and even anxious to learn about commercial teaching. The need for Contemporary Commercial Music voice pedagogy is being recognized by universities and organizations, so we are off to a good start.


Now I would like to include something practical in this article that can help any teacher become a hero in the eyes of his/her students. A wise marketing expert recently told me: "Think of your best secret that you use for your business. Now ... give it away." As shocked as I was initially, I soon saw the wisdom in this. And so, here is my first unveiling of a simple process that I have developed over the past two decades. Implementing this concept will be one of the most valuable things you can do for your aspiring commercial artists.

Attached to every aspiring artist is an unspoken, invisible list. It is a list of every reason that this singer will be told "no." Here is a typical list:

1) No original style.

2) Doesn't play an instrument.

3) There's no image/brand; nothing to market.

4) Doesn't write his/her own songs.

5) Doesn't "fit the costume" (not in shape).

6) Not much experience actually performing/working with a band.

7) Not actually out there "doing it."

8) Pitchy.

9) No "pocket"/bad phrasing.

10) Can't engage the audience.

Do you see how this list contains both vocal and industry issues? Commercial coaching is about the whole package. Yes, my primary focus is the voice, but I also consider it my job to help my artists look honestly at their lists. Then, one by one, we check them off. I help my singers turn each "no" into a "yes." The new list becomes:

1) Very original.

2) Plays guitar or another instrument.

3) Strong image.

4) Writes own material.

5) Great shape/appeal.

6) Good control of band.

7) Shows every week.

8) Great pitch.

9) Easy and relaxed phrasing. 10) Audience really "gets it"!

In addition to the immense satisfaction of helping your students become truly marketable, there is an amazing perk: every time you take a singer through this process, you become a better artist. Not a bad deal. In order to coach style, you have to be really good at it. If you are going to critique original material, you must learn what makes a great song. Also, you cannot effectively teach performance if you are not doing it, experiencing it, and studying it yourself. The challenge here is to stay relevant to the needs of our student artists.

In conclusion, I am obliged to leave a short list for the aspiring commercial voice teacher: 1) acknowledge pure vowels don't sell records; 2) strive for "reckless" and "refined" in equal measure; and 3) favor passion over perfection any day! I feel certain that Maria Callas would have agreed. Blessings on you and your students.

"The better voice doesn't mean being a better singer"

--Luciano Pavarotti

James R. Wigginton is honored to teach private commercial voice and performance, and to direct the pop/rock ensemble PHOENIX at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. His private practice VocalEdge is located on historic Music Row near downtown Nashville, where he trains aspiring young artists as well as #1-selling celebrities. Mr. Wigginton is a contributing author of Singing Success; A Systematic Vocal Training Program, and the creator of The Pro Singer's Warm-up and The Karaoke Singer's Guide to Greatness. Jamie has presented master classes and private instruction in eleven countries as well as throughout the U.S. Readers are encouraged to contact Mr. Wigginton with questions or comments via email:
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Author:Wigginton, James R.
Publication:Journal of Singing
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2010
Previous Article:Hungarian vocal music, with an introduction to Hungarian lyric diction, Part 2.
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