Blog about singing, vocal pedagogy and more

About Interpretation and Expression

I’ve been designing a course on interpretation and expression with my colleague recently. While planning the course I have thought of my own experiences on learning those subjects. I have attended several courses, read literature and tried out all kinds of methods and exercises. I touched upon this subject even in my Master's thesis. While it was more about artistic thinking my interviewees still talked about expression and song interpretation from different angles.

Learning interpretation and expression can be roughly divided into lyrics- and music-based methods. Lyrics-based method seems to be much more common. I haven’t seen other teachers working in the other way that much. I think the reason for it might be that finding less ambiguous meanings in lyrics is easier than finding them in music. That’s why I often start with the lyrics-based method even myself. So this post will be about that. I’ll write about music-based exercises and mindful listening sometime later in order not to make this post too long.

Some years ago I got to watch several teachers teaching the same student after each other when they applied for singing teacher job at a university. Almost everyone approached the song the student sang in a similar way. First they reflected on what the lyrics were about. After that they asked the student to read out loud the lyrics. Then the song was sung. I’m familiar with this approach myself. My former teachers used it too. I was surprised that there hadn't been much development. I agree that it is useful to understand what the lyrics are about and also to read them out loud. However, if you just jump straight from that to singing the song most of the expression that was achieved in speech often disappears.

Jennifer Hamady (2009) has written about the subject in her book The Art of Singing. Inspired by her I have re-evaluated my own practice when teaching interpretation. When the singer has understood the meanings of the lyrics and is capable of speaking them in a believable manner it is essential to get this carry over to singing. Instead of jumping straight to singing I find it more useful to speak the lyrics on different pitches. It’s important that the singer thinks that they are speaking instead of singing during these exercises. This exercise also shows what kind of intensity is necessary in the song. Sometimes the singer has to choose whether they are willing to express themselves as intensively as the sound they aim for implies. It’s helpful to listen to other singers in a similar way. How would the singer sound if they spoke with the same voice quality as they sing with?

After single pitches you can move on to a simple melody, for example going up and down the scale a third. Still, one should use the rhythm and sound of the speech. You can try this also on different pitches. When it’s easy on the whole range of the song you can move on to the actual melody and rhythm. Even now, it’s useful to think that you are speaking instead of singing. If a certain phase of the exercise feels difficult you should go back to the previous one and try again.

So why do we want to think that we speak? It is supposed to help bypass the mental image that we are singing as well as mannerisms that might be associated to that image. Often when we start singing we kind of set up ourselves for it. That setting might not always be suitable for the song we are singing.

Here is the exercise in short:

1. Speak the lyrics
2. Speak the lyrics on single pitch, change that single pitch
3. Speak the lyrics with a simple melody keeping the rhythm of speech
4. Sing the original melody and rhythm but think that you’re still speaking

Just by adding a couple of phases between speaking and singing the lyrics will usually result into a more authentic performance, one that also feels more meaningful to the singer themselves. This exercise is usually the easier the more speech-like the lyrics are. It might be more challenging to find speech-like rhythm and expression with very poetic lyrics. That often requires more experience and effort. Another kind of an approach might also work better. I recommend trying out different approaches for interpretation and expression. When you are not tied to only one way of interpretation it is possible to leave some options open and be more present and creative while performing.

What are your favourite approaches for interpretation and expression in singing?

Hamady, Jennifer (2009). The Art of Singing. Hal Leonard.

What Should Singing Teachers Know About Anatomy and Physiology?

bookshelves in a library

First, it’s good to understand how little we understand and that there are no simple answers. Ingo Titze’s Principles of Voice Production book has proven this to me several times. Before I thought that Bernoulli effect explains the vocal fold vibration. However, Titze (2000, 88-89) writes that it cannot explain the vibration by itself. A small thing like vocal folds and their function are such complicated subjects that their proper understanding requires a lot of study. I have to read same chapters again and again. Every time I understand a little bit more. Does it help me to sing better? Not at all! How about teaching? Perhaps. It’s useful to know how things work. Broader understanding feeds creativity and development of new teaching methods. However, you won’t find straightforward answers in books. Or if you do they are usually half truths or speculations.

Vocal production can be divided into three parts. Lungs (power), vocal folds (source) and vocal tract (filter). Air flowing out of the lungs makes the vocal folds vibrate which creates sound. Vocal tract amplifies and filters that sound. However, the process is not quite linear. All parts of the system have an effect on other parts. For example, the vocal tract can affect the vocal folds' function and the phonation threshold pressure (Titze & Verdolini Abbott 2012, 286-310).

So what should you know about the vocal folds? I think it’s useful to understand at least that the faster the vocal folds vibrate the higher the pitch. It’s good to know something about the structure of the folds and know they attach to cartilages that move in various ways. I think it’s not that essential to remember which muscle moves which part of the larynx. It’s quite enough if you understand that these parts need to be able to move into different positions. One setting or muscle tension can work for one pitch or sound quality and yet it can be totally wrong and unhealthy for another. There might very well be individual variations and different strategies to produce similar sound qualities.

Many might have heard about CT (cricothyroid) and TA (thyroarytenoid) dominance when talking about registers. To put it simple the idea is that head voice/falsetto/M2 is CT dominant and chest voice/M1 is TA dominant. In order to change smoothly between registers we should increase the activity of one and decrease the activity of the other. Does this help with singing or teaching? I don’t think so. Furthermore it’s wrong! The activity of CT seems to be dependent on the pitch not the register (see Kochis-Jennings 2008 & Hull 2013).

human anatomy

How about muscles of breathing? It could be useful to have a look at the anatomy book in order to get an idea what kind of muscles there are in the torso. Many singers have an incorrect idea about diaphragm so I guess it’s good to know where it is and where it’s attached. It’s more essential to understand how breathing works and what kind of role the diaphragm plays in it. It doesn’t help the singer to sing any better if they know all the latin names of those muscles. And instead of muscles teacher should know the meaning of pressure differences in breathing.

Knowing how the tongue and the jaw move can be helpful in understanding the acoustics of the vocal tract. Personally I don’t remember that many names of the muscles but I know how different parts move. I also know what kind of shapes it is possible to make with the vocal tract. Anyway, concentrating on how a single muscle works is a bad practice strategy. Or have you heard that anyone would have learnt to walk by focusing on their thigh muscles? It’s more important to have an understanding of the acoustics of the vocal tract. You should know the basics of overtones, formants and resonances and understand their function in singing.

Overall, when it comes to details of how our body works I think it’s important to remember what is their function in voice production. The whole is more important than the details.
In my earlier blog post I wrote about breathing. It doesn’t matter much how you produce an even sublottic pressure as long as you do it. Of course, in teaching we are usually looking for the least effortful way. I guess the main point of my writing(s) is that there is a lot of information out there and very few things are straightforward. There are conflicting views so the more you read the more you learn to be critical. Eventually that will prove to be useful for both teaching and singing.

Hull, Darcey Marie (2013). Thyroarytenoid and cricothyroid muscular activity in vocal register control. University of Iowa.
Kochis-Jennings, Karen Ann (2008). Intrinsic laryngeal muscle activity and vocal fold adduction patterns in female vocal registers: chest, chestmix, and headmix. University of Iowa.
Titze, Ingo (2000). Principles of Voice Production. Iowa City: National Center for Voice and Speech.
Titze, Ingo & Verdolini Abbott, Katherine (2012). Vocology - The Science and Practice of Voice Habilitation. Iowa City: National Center for Voice and Speech

Once Upon a Time in London

I made a weekend trip to London in September and attended a conference on ‘Teaching Singing in Higher Education’ at London College of Music. I also went to see two musicals: Book of Mormon and Six. Saturday was pretty packed for me. I flew from Helsinki to Heathrow early in the morning and went straight to the conference site in Ealing. Made it just in time! After the conference I took the Piccadilly line to West End where I finally got to see Book of Mormon. I think it is one of the best and funniest musicals I have seen. My preliminary fear of falling asleep was totally unfounded. After the show I took the bus to my hotel in Whitechapel. On the way there was a never-ending stream of walkers supporting a cancer charity dressed in blinking lights. It was quite a sight.

The conference program was interesting. It was also nice to discuss with British colleagues and hear about singing education in UK and challenges they are facing. Some teachers told me that due to high university fees the level of students has become much more varied.

Gillyanne Kayes started the conference with her presentation. She went through all possible things that can be related to singing teacher’s work. And there's quite a lot! After her Janice Chapman was reflecting on the current teaching system and if it is fit for the purpose. Insights and examples provided by her long career made her presentation very dynamic.

Denise Borland and Ali Bell gave a presentation on ‘Psychology of one-to-one teaching in the studio’. It was easy to agree with them. Among other things they discussed physical touch in teaching and its boundaries which I found important. Johan Sundberg gave a presentation that I was largely familiar with already. He was busting some vocal pedagogy myths with his vast knowledge on voice research. I was hoping to hear more about his and Brian Gill’s research on velopharyngeal opening and its resonance effects but unfortunately I seem to have to wait a bit longer.

Tori Burnay gave an interesting presentation on BAPAM’s new initiative for performers’ vocal rehabilitation. In UK doctors, SLPs and singing teachers seem to collaborate more when treating professionals with vocal problems. I would like to see more of this kind of collaboration happening in Finland too.

Susan Yarnall is the current president of EVTA - European Voice Teachers’ Association. She presented energetically on European vocal pedagogy. She brought up the problem of multiple terms which mean different things in different countries. She also mentioned that in Netherlands there are some universities that require teachers to be trained in certain method and thought that this is problematic. I think she might have mentioned Estill here. Anyway, I agree with her. However, I think it’s also problematic if studying a method or technique such as Estill or CVT is considered negative and would prevent a teacher getting hired. For example, the only music university in Finland, University of the Arts has not hired any authorised CVT teachers (with the exception of when students of certain faculties have been able to pick their teacher from outside the university, including me). Could it be that such continuing education as CVT teacher training is seen as an unwanted asset at the University of the Arts Helsinki?

After Susan’s presentation we were divided into groups to discuss what major areas of knowledge singing teachers require to teach effectively and what are the core competencies essential to our work. We had a lively discussion in our group and I’m sure others groups had too. Afterwards one person from each group recounted the key points. All the groups had pretty similar views including teacher’s singing skills, knowledge on styles and genres, vocal anatomy and physiology, acoustics, psychology and motor learning principles.

One subject that I think we often forget about is the relationship of our profession with general pedagogy and the meaning of teaching singing in the society. I believe we should also reflect on them more critically. Pedagogy is easily forgotten when we get absorbed in vocal folds, formants and breathing. I wish that this subject would be discussed more actively. I did mention it in our group discussion but sadly it was omitted from the summary. However, I believe that if you keep on bringing something up eventually someone else will catch it and maybe think it’s their original idea and make things happen.

To sum it up, I had a good time in London. I’m looking forward to the next conference which I believe will be PEVOC in Copenhagen next summer. Anyone else gonna be there?

Breathing, Support and Phonation Threshold Pressure

pink neon sign and green

After my last blog post I got a question about support and breathing so I thought I could write a bit more about it. First a disclaimer: I'm trying to balance between being specific and clear so probably I will fail miserably in both.

We all know that air flowing out of the lungs is needed for the vocal folds to start vibrating (of course you could produce sound by inhaling too but let's leave that out for now). In order to keep the vocal folds vibrating the airflow must be kept up. Phonation threshold pressure (PTP) is the minimum subglottic pressure needed to keep the vocal folds vibrating. If the pressure stays under the threshold there is no vibration. PTP is affected by the fundamental frequency and also the amount of adduction and stiffness of the vocal folds as well as the shape of the vocal tract (see eg Titze 2000).

In singing the PTP is changing constantly. So the suitable pressure to make different sounds is changing. Let’s make it a bit more simple and think what happens if we produce one long tone in one pitch without changing the quality. We need both a constant subglottic pressure and vocal fold setting. Because the air is flowing out while we sing the lung volume diminishes too. You can perceive that around chest and abdomen. Singers have been observed to have different strategies on whether the chest or the abdomen goes in first. Anyway it’s simply not possible to keep them both extended while singing a phrase. The pressure would drop too low.

It doesn’t matter much how exactly you produce the necessary pressure as long as you do it. Because singers are different there are probably many viable training strategies. There are two that I advice to avoid though. First one is trying to keep the whole torso expanded which will lead to insufficient pressure. The other one to avoid is to tense muscles suddenly. That will often lead to subglottic pressure first increasing and then decreasing which will probably have an effect on the sound quality and pitch.

Things that are utter nonsense can work as learning tools for singers. I come up with all kinds of images when I’m teaching. Often they prove to be useful. However, I always remind that they are just that, images. They don’t represent how things actually work. So even if I said earlier that you shouldn’t keep your torso expanded thinking about doing it might actually work in some cases.

breathing out

While on the subject I’ll give a little critique on how support is presented in Complete Vocal Technique. Cathrine Sadolin describes support as if holding back the breath (Sadolin 2018). The idea is that after we have inhaled our lungs want to let the air out. We should work against this urge by engaging our abdominal and back muscles. I guess this could be true in theory if we would only sing until our lungs reach their resting volume. You can find your resting lung volume by inhaling and then letting your breath out with a relaxed sigh. You will find that it is possible to exhale even after that. In order to do that we need to engage our abdominal muscles. Those muscles Sadolin describes as support muscles (which would mean that according to her they hold back the breath).

I believe that the muscles of both inhalation and exhalation should work together from the beginning of a phrase so that we can better regulate the subglottic pressure. More intensive phonation and higher fundamental frequency require higher subglottic pressure. PTP is higher and vocal folds won’t vibrate if the pressure stays too low. I find it pretty logical that muscles of exhalation can assist in controlling the pressure.

So what is holding back the breath if not support muscles? That is vocal folds (adduction and stiffness I mentioned earlier). For this reason I think it’s useful to include vocal fold function when training “support”. In practice this could mean doing the same exercise several times and changing the focus between laryngeal function and support muscles.

So PTP is changing depending on the pitch and intensity. This means that also the intensity of the muscle work to produce the pressure is changing. I believe that if there is an option of achieving the artistic expression with smaller pressure change you should aim for that. I have some interesting observations about this, one from the study I did together with Johan Sundberg (Sundberg et al 2017). However, I’ll write more about them later.

This post got a bit too long as it is but I’m happy to continue discussing the subject in the comments. Next weekend I’ll be heading to London to attend the conference ‘Towards Best Practice: Teaching Singing in Higher Education’. I’m going to write a more in-depth post about it later but you can tune into my
Facebook and Instagram for some real-time updates.

― Ville ―

Sadolin C. (2018). Complete Vocal Technique mobile application. Complete Vocal Institute.
Sundberg J., Holmberg A., Bitelli M., Laaksonen V. (2017). The "Overdrive" Mode in the "Complete Vocal Technique": A Preliminary Study. Journal of Voice.
Titze I. (2000). Principles of Voice Production. Iowa City: National Center for Voice and Speech.

I'm Not a CVT Teacher Anymore

Man on a top of a hill looking down in the valley

Ok, I am still an authorised CVT teacher. It means I graduated from the 3-year teacher course at the Complete Vocal Institute and have attended an update seminar during last three years.

So why the subject? I think that calling myself a CVT teacher is not entirely accurate and truthful anymore. I use so many methods and tools that I have developed myself or picked up elsewhere which are not related to CVT in any way. I don't want to mislead anyone to thinking that this part of my teaching would be CVT. Also, calling myself a CVT teacher isn't representative of the full scope of my professional skills. Of course, I haven’t abandoned everything CVT. I use what I think works well and there’s a lot. For example effects, how they are organised and their teaching methods are pretty clever and most comprehensive I've seen so far. However, nowadays I’m able to help singers much better and more efficiently in my own unique way.

Vocal modes and their vowels rules as well as separating them from sound colour form a nicely simplified model. It is easy to understand for beginners. However, I don't think it’s enough for ambitious teachers. Having studied theory and function of the singing voice and having done research with professor Johan Sundberg I have learned to understand the background of the model in a much deeper way. I understand now better why it works and why it doesn’t sometimes. And for those occasions it doesn’t work I have more tools now. Most of the theoretical information might not be useful for a singer but it helps me to provide them with better informed and more efficient teaching.

Previously I avoided taking credit when I did a good job and would credit CVT instead. Now that I think it might not have been beneficial to be that humble. Could it have been that I did well because I was skilled in applying the technique? The way my teaching has changed has been a process fuelled by constant studying. It has been difficult to notice the change because it hasn't been sudden. So I've come to realise that I should be proud of my skills and what I know as a teacher and not hide it. Maybe I have something unique to give to the vocal pedagogy community. Something that others can learn from too.

So I guess the bottom line here for singers and anyone looking for a teacher is that if you want to study strictly CVT you should pick someone else than me to teach you. However, if you wanna get best possible tools for you vocal development I could be a good choice.

And for singing teachers, vocal coaches and anyone interested, I hope you start following my blog. I'm going to write about how I have reorganised the vocal modes and sound colour in my head. I'll discuss why many technical instructions can be pointless. I'm also planning to write about vocal tract acoustics and resonance and share my observations and ideas about pedagogy, motor learning, embodiment and expression. Stay tuned!

If you have any comments, please write them below. All ideas are welcome!

— Ville —