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How do we Teach Singing Safely?

By Mollie Petrie, PenelopeMcKay and Joy Mammen


At the April Conference entitled 'The Singing Will Never Be Done'  a distinguished panel of Singing Teachers shared their thoughts on this very important topic. Following a suggestion by Janice Chapman, all were contacted and invited to submit their presentation for publication. The papers of those who felt able to respond are published here.

Mollie Petrie


SAFELY… The Oxford Dictionary defines the word thus:

'Free from danger'… great!

'Entire'… that too!

'Secure'… hooray!

'Healthy, uninjured'… you hope!

'Not liable to be harmed'… and that's where we come in.

But it goes on… Secured, kept in custody, cautious

surely not!


Although my brief at the excellent BritishVoice Association (BVA) conference was to address especially the problems of the teenage voice, I have to make it clear that my teaching is not confined to this age-group and, if that teaching has any value, I am certain it is because my students vary so much in age, status and experience. What I expect from them all is dedication. My youngest is the twelve-year old girl next door and my oldest a 73-year-old amateur choir tenor. In between, are the Juniors at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, aged between 14 (minus) to 18 (plus), university students, aspiring teachers of singing, several 'in the business' and some very fine professionals. In the last category are several who regularly seek to retain the skill they have, some who have problems to solve, and sadly some who have not sought help until it is almost too late!

BUT… reverting to those young singers, people ask, 'A what age should someone begin to have lessons'? It's never too early! Build good habits early and they'll probably stick. Singing should and can be natural to any children who hear singing in the home, not recorded, professional sounds, which don't relate to their world, but singing from the voices of those who speak to them. That's the start. Have we lost a generation or more who sing to their children, or sing to themselves for pleasure 'around the house', and who are regularly overheard by their children? Does it matter about the quality of that sound? In my opinion not a bit at that stage, but we need to be sure we are not referring to 'imitated style' but a spontaneous expression of feelings in song. How wonderful it would be for every child to have some singing every day, as part of life, from playschool through to teenage!

In my childhood my extended family all sang, but then of course we went to Church! And at school, from the age of five to sixteen, there was choir work and Assembly, where we sang. I was lucky that at home reading words and reading music (staff or sol-fah notation) were almost the same and later in church choir I sang solos, later getting more widely ambitious in my choice of music until a wise lady suggested that lesson might be a good idea … but there was no money for that sort of luxury! As soon as I earned enough, I paid a guinea a lesson to a wonderful lady named Elsie Downing, a fine soprano who immediately told me that I knew 'nothing whatever about it! … Let's get started'! Everything she taught me has been fully substantiated by scientific evidence subsequently absorbed. I don't apologise for this autobiographical diversion because I need to stress the huge importance of working on the growing voice. Unless we know exactly what happens when the voices of girls as well as boys are changing, we do not have full understanding of any singer.

I almost wish that everyone could begin to sing by ear before they know what music looks like on a page or on a piano. If only there could be some other way of looking at music instead of seeing dots on lines and in spaces, going up and down with big leaps and plunges - or watching those black and white things which also go 'up and down' on a piano! Music isn't like that. It's only the map - not the journey! It's shapes, curves and line and it expresses the composer's intentions, his feelings about and response to the words he sets. So for us it has to be the same … appreciation of the text and how it reflects thoughts and emotions, starting at a very simple and basic level. Children and teenagers can respond to this - they are 'virgin territory' and so vulnerable. In teaching teenagers we have to prove to parents - who trust us with these precious voices - that we are going to be careful but certainly not cautious to the extent that we are afraid of 'doing too much'. We have to do exactly what we should do with every student … watch, listen, and learn to know the person behind the voice find his or her vocal identity.

The 13-year old boy who has been a 'star' treble will, at puberty, often be quite emotionally disturbed about his 'funny' voice, even rebellious about doing anything about the new sound, and the more musical he is the more distressing it can be. The voice is inside a growing body, which doesn't even want to stand up straight, so work on a comfortable well-balanced stance is vital - (so what's different from any other singer?) and careful instruction on the use of breath not, 'how to breathe' which every living creature does naturally! There will be an almost complete change of repertoire for him so it is important to find songs in a familiar style at first. We should never make rash judgements about what is the category of any young voice. Would that singers of all ages could just be singers and not graded at all! (But this is another series of articles!) 

And the teenage girl? Exactly the same. Both sexes are experiencing the problems of hormone change and often-emotional instability as well as physical growth and change. In some girls there can be quite a noticeable so-called 'break' - especially in large voices, and it can be more precarious when the change into a mature sound is not recognised or acknowledged, as it is in boys. Being required to 'sing contralto because you can reach the low notes and are a good reader' has prevented many a fine, rich soprano from developing properly and can be the source of difficulty much later in life. So, posture, breathing patterns, understanding of the whole vocal function, appreciation of words and music of all kinds, suitable repertoire.

And it need not be confined to what is called 'classical music', but for me music must have shape and rhythm, not just beat - with word which themselves adequately express idea and emotions. And young people should be encouraged to justify their choices.

Pressure to pass examinations is often a difficulty, and tends to cut across the slow gradual development of a young instrument, which is unique in each singer. But exams have value of course, and early introduction to the use of foreign languages can be highly beneficial - finding new things to do with tongue, teeth and lips - quite apart from appreciating the poetry of other nations. But a singer must learn to appreciate the words of his/her own language most of all and to remember that it was the text which inspired the composer. Most of all - have fun - this is a joyous business!

At the Conference we were asked to address the questions: 'How do we judge who is fit to teach'? And 'Who is to judge who is fit to teach'? Who indeed? Who is an authority in this complex and challenging business?

I think I would only trust teachers who told me that they felt they would never know it all and that they didn't have a method because each pupil they faced drew from them something new each day. Certainly one cannot assume that a well-known or famous singer will make even a good teacher. This hugely complicated business has to be slowly and carefully learned by observation and gradual open-minded experience. It needs endless patience, a great pair of ears and eyes and the ability and desire to understand the Singer's mind as well as the voice: a combination of confidence in what one knows and great humility about the enormous responsibility involved. And a teacher cannot be judged by his/her students either! The quality of their work with a variety of vocal ability should be monitored over a period. Nor can one be guided merely by academic qualifications. I'm certain I'm not alone in knowing some fine, but modest teachers working in unspectacular places!




What in fact is my aim in teaching singing at all?

My aim is to help students release their own particular singing potential, and enjoy the activity of singing. Students have different goals, depending on their vocal talent, and musical awareness. These can range from learning to sing in tune to achieving professional operatic or music theatre skills - and I have students at both ends of this spectrum - as no doubt have many of you.


What do I perceive as unsafe singing?

Singing with too much physical tension in the breathing muscles; with constriction round the larynx, so that the vocal folds are used under too much pressure - singing with a backed tongue and overly depressed or raised larynx - singing without adequate breath support - attempting music theatre belt with an incorrect muscular set-up - trying to make too much volume - trying to make a more mature sound that the natural sound of the individual - forcing the vocal range - over-exercising any part of the voice - faulty posture. These are some of the things that can lead to unsafe singing.

In order to teach safely, when I see a new student: first of all I will run them through various exercises, and get them to sing something to me so that I can check the present state of their vocal development. I will be looking for information on their habitual singing posture, breath use, whether there is any head, neck or jaw tension; I will be checking their articulation as well as their phonation. I will be listening intently to how they produce their sound, and trying to assess not only its innate quality, but also any signs of blockage or interference with its production. Then it will depend on the student's particular intelligence and physical awareness as to how I approach the various tasks I perceive.

I encourage the student to approach their vocal training like a physical workout or like a dancer practising at the barre. I encourage them to think of their various vocal exercises in physical terms, and to leave the aesthetics of the sounds they produce to one side - to think in terms of "when I make this sound, where do I feel the effort? Does it feel comfortable? If not, what do I feel and where?" I also encourage them to learn to isolate various functions and develop them without aesthetic implication. In other words, being an Estill Primary Licensee, I use an Estill Voice craft approach. I will probably teach them all the Estill figures but I don't always teach them in the same order, and will apply them as and when it seems appropriate to me for a particular student. I also encourage them to be aware of their posture, and I will spend time on encouraging an energised breath flow with toned abdominal muscle use, as well as awareness of the lower back.

My main corrective aims will be to make the student aware of his or her unnecessary vocal tensions and to give them the tools with which to release these tensions once recognised. Often the first task is to get them to recognise vocal constriction at the larynx, or through a backed tongue. This usually leads on to breath work. However, I may find the first priority is postural alignment. Another student may present with a really tight, high or held breath, with tense shoulders. To make them more conscious of their actions, I will usually discuss with the student what we have done to correct the problem, and get them to put what they are experiencing into their own words, so that they become really conscious of what they are doing, and don't just take my words as gospel.

I will give cooling down exercises and encourage them to monitor their practice sessions, as most students tend to sing for too long at a stretch and tire themselves unnecessarily. Depending on the expertise and experience of the singer, I will also encourage a sensible approach to marking in rehearsals. I will try at all times to give the student positive instructions as to what they can do to help themselves, rather than 'don'ts'. I will also discuss vocal hygiene, and general diet tips, the necessity for hydration, and getting enough sleep!

I encourage the use of tapes or mini-discs both during their lessons and during practise. I feel the more used they get to the sound of their voice, the more able they will be to start hearing function - over which they have the possibility of control, rather than voice quality - which they consider an unalterable state. The more aware they are both physically and aurally, the better able they are to monitor their own performance and sing safely.

I don't think I do anything that isn't done by most of my colleagues - I try to get on the wavelength of each student and make sure they understand what we are jointly trying to achieve, and also encourage them to enjoy the process.

I draw from Alexander work, Tai Chi, the Accent Breathing method, Jo Estill's Voice Craft, Brain Gym, and I steal from all my colleagues - in particular Janice Chapman, Diane Forlano, Joy Mammen, and my previous teachers, including Peter Harrison, David Harper, Rupert Bruce-Lockhart, and Winifred Radford.
I also steal from various coaches with whom I have worked, and master classes that I have attended. I do try and acknowledge the origin of these gems of wisdom to the student and thus impress them with the wealth of my connections - if not my originality of thought!


Joy Mammen

I would like to say at the outset that I fully endorse the thoughts of my colleagues and will try only to add rather than reiterate on the subject.

I think that most teachers think that they teach safely but unfortunately, as there is no general policing, there are some strange methods used.

When I first started my training in England I tried many different teachers. One had me singing through my bottom teeth, another told me to send the sound out through holes under my eyes, yet another said that singing was like putting clothes pegs on a line or doing the ironing. I had many more giving me different ideas of where to put my voice and what to hold in, at all times. I was told to support, but had little idea of what that meant so I mainly pulled every muscle in very vigorously and hoped for the best. Although none of the teachers I tried suited me, I cannot dismiss them completely as from their stable came some very good voices. Can it be that 'cream always comes to the top'?

I needed logic and I needed to find my own imagery not repeat someone else's. Knowing the voice functions and teaching them without knowledge is also not a safe way to teach. We all need to have a basic awareness of the anatomy of the larynx and body and to allow the students to express themselves in their own special way. I think one should look for what is special in the voice and work from there, changing only what is incorrect and adding rather than subtracting. Making sure that they learn to listen, communicate and enjoy singing.

Nowadays I think that singers are more informed and sing much better than when I started to sing. I now must add a 'but' and it is a very big 'but'. When I was at university there were so many wonderful singers to listen to on disc to name but a few - Callas, Sutherland, Los Angeles, Schwarzkopf, Tebaldi, Leontyne Price, Steber, Nillson and many more. I have only mentioned sopranos but the same thing applied in every voice. All of those wonderful singers had one thing in common - INDIVIDUALITY. I now listen to very well schooled excellent singers but very often cannot recognise them. Can it be that we are cloning our singers? An individual quality is now quite rare. Much is to do with the recording techniques of today which even out the tone in the voice, therefore suppressing much of the excitement. Maybe it is what the youth wants nowadays, their words are cool, chilled, laid back. But I am sure that youth would still recognise a voice full of risk and adventure with a freedom of tone and expression.

Teaching singing and all it involves is not easy. Very rarely do we get a voice that is perfect. Often we misuse the word natural. Is it natural to sing Bach or carry over a 100-piece orchestra? No. We are trained to perform the difficult and the delicate works. In the end when the public says that it sounds easy and natural we know that, as teachers, we have done our job. The idea that one morning the singer will wake with a top C is not feasible. God has given one all that he wants and it is training and hard work on the singer's part. I only hope that some time in the future we work out a way to build a new training programme that will embrace all singing teaches including not only teaching colleges but all the teachers throughout the country.

After all the years that I have been singing and teaching, I still think that when one sings it is the nearest we ever get to our souls.



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