Technique

Student Quote: “I want to call all my previous students up and show them (what you showed me). I want to call them all and give them a free lesson so I can can check them. I hope I wasn’t passing this stuff on to my students.”– Female Singing Instructor and Vocalist Claudia B

Ellie’s Technique Page Cliff Notes Version …and tips for selecting a teacher

My original training was in the Henderson technique, originating with Larra Henderson in San Diego. The technique is designed to maintian the voice and to teach techniques useful for preventing injury to the voice which can occur with certain types of misuse. Some types of misuse can result in permanent damage that cannot even be repaired by surgery, so it is imperative that a safe technique be used at all times.

The Henderson technique is a bel canto method and relies on proper breathing and breath support and is very much inter-related with Alexander Technique (AT). AT, in case you are unfamiliar is, I think, best summed up as the study of the ergonomic use of the body originally developed to help decrease vocal strain). The Henderson technique encourages posture and use of the body that releases tension in the neck, throat, and tongue, accomplished through proper posture and sound breathing, which stop tightness and vocal strain. If you are experiencing pain during or after singing, something is wrong and you should stop immediately and figure out what it is before permanent damage is sustained.

In my own teaching studio, I try to emphasise individual growth and try not to mold the student into a carbon-copy of how I sound (God help ya…). I feel it is important to know your own voice and to appreciate the unique aspects of it. What may be viewed as a fault can oftentimes be turned around and become a true asset to differentiate you from the veritable plethora of other singers out there. I accept students of many different genres from singer-songwriters, jazz, blues & indie to classical. I accept established singers as well as those with more moderate goals and beginners. The goal is to allow the singer to refine his or her individual and unique vocal sound while teaching how to get the maximum out of the voice and maintain safe technique to allow continued use of the voice throughout the lifetime.

I emphasize posture perhaps more than many other teachers do. The reason for this is that most students think that straight posture involves a lot of work and naturally they then tense up their bodies to accomplish this. This stress in the body can cause vocal strain and in some cases is the only thing standing between the singer and being able to successfully sing through the breaks in the voice. Furthermore, every muscle has a very specific sound when it interferes with a singer’s natural sound. I hear this sound in the voice and it bothers me because it is not difficult to remedy. Beautiful tone (and being able to control the tone in the voice) comes as the entire body releases. Just based on hearing only, I can pretty much identify what muscles are tensing and by releasing those and releasing the others as they occur, the voice get incrementally better and moves toward the full and rich tone that is natural if we singers can just get out of the way. I spend a great deal of time in a typical session with a typical student working with the student to try to isolate where the student may be overriding what his or her body wants to do in a less stressed way. For instance, many people hold their jaws very tight and put a lot of energy into that. By releasing the jaw and allowing it to flow more naturally, tension in the voice is also released and this change alone can cause a surprising improvement to the sound. However, in order to do that, the fundamentals of breathing must be solid and a free and a released posture must be in place from the feet up.

Further, I believe and teach with the principle that breathing is a natural outgrowth of proper posture. If you stand easily (read: correctly) and move easily, your breathing will naturally be “diaphragmatic”. With many students, one modification in their posture causes what we singers refer to as “breathing from the diaphragm”. This modification is not difficult to do and will also help alleviate strain elsewhere in the body.

I have taken the time to continue my studies both with private instruction myself in majour music centers of the world such as Italy, New York, Los Angeles, etc. This is part of my commitment to being the best that I can be as a teacher. I have taken Classical, Musical Theatre, and Contemporary Pop Belting with David Sabella (a top NYC teacher), Alexander Technique And The Voice with NYC-based international teacher Kathryn Armour, and Vocal Improvization in Los Angeles with Michele Weir (authour of the popular book Vocal Improvization and teacher at Northern California’s JazzCamp), as well as many other musical studies including piano, jazz piano, arranging, and theory with such greats as Shep Myers (pianist to Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O’Day, and Julie London). I have extensive training in the Alexander Technique and the ergonomics of movement in your body to alleviate strain (most majour conservatories have an Alexander Department because it helps get the best sound out of the voice and lessens tension greatly).

For more advanced singers, it is important to maintain good habits and keep an open mind to growth (this is why even professional singers often take voice lessons – to maintain good habits, expand their learning, and to get a “second opinion” by way of the voice instructor). And often the more advanced students carry more stress than beginners and, although it is obvious they have had a lot of training, the voice is still lacking the freedom that pulls a listener in. Advanced students are wonderful to work with because often just applying one or two things can bring a voice from sounding trained and “pretty good” to being breath taking and having what can be described as a shimmering quality (not vibrato, something more – the energy of a voice hovering or floating in the air and THAT is what I want to hear).

What I listen for and strive for in my studio – my ultimate goal – is a natural sounding voice that is easy to use, allows full use of the 3¼ – 3¾ octaves that *most people* are capable of at minimum when they voice is well-tuned, and allows the singer to use the voice without fatigue. I am not a “voice builder” and I do not try to make a voice larger than it naturally is (it will get louder and more full as you develope as a singer but installing a bigness is not the way to get a nice sounding voice and will ultimately hold that singer back as they must then undo that contrived sound). In advanced students, I try to remove any of that that is in the voice and reveal the natural beauty of the voice (a contrived “built” voice will have an irregular vibrato oftentimes in addition to being just slightly below pitch in many cases or in some areas). In beginning and novice singers, I try to present the material in as non-intrusive way as I can so that I do not cause the singer to sound contrived. This is the mantra “I want to sing better but I don’t want to sound like I’ve had a lot of lessons” comes from that you hear so much from popular music singers. No pop singer (and should be no classical singer either) wants to sound inauthentic because it clouds their connection to the music and the audience. And that is why I can work with singers from a variety of genres – because I am not going for a sound but merely trying to reveal what is there all along in each of us – a beautiful voice.

I teach students of all genres but use a variety of materials depending upon the genre, goals of the individual student, etc. Below is a summary of some of the types of things I do in lessons as they vary between classical and musical theatre, singer-songwriter and pop/rock related genres, and jazz/blues related genres:

Student Accomplishment I have a 96% admission record for all my classical & jazz students for their school of choice. To be counted amongst these, I require 1 year of study at minimum prior to your audition date and you must take other auditions besides your #1 choice. Almost every student who has given me that has made their #1 school of choice (we missed an NYU audition in like 2007 but that is the only one we have missed. And some even made their audition with only had 12 weeks of sessions!

A note to prospective vocal students about vocal technique

Good voice technique should be primarily concerned with your voice and health. This may seem obvious, but be aware that sometimes people are not properly trained or they are more interested in making money in what they think is an easy and harmless way. Please listen to your instincts and back away if you sense things are not right, they probably aren’t. And the permanent well-being of your voice may be compromised finding out. If an instructor tells you to do something that hurts or feel abrasive, I would find another instructor immediately. Another thing to watch for is manipulative practices – sticking spoons in mouths, etc. At it’s worst it can be harmful and at best it will manipulate your voice into something it is not. And singing in a constructed voice does not take advantage of the unique qualities of your own voice. Longitudinal use like that could result in damage so watch yourselves!

A good instructor is someone you can trust and who tells you when they do not know something. You can learn a lot about a technique by doing a little bit if research. Most good techniques are published or have another reliable source such as lists of people using the technique or teachers teaching it. You can find a lot of information in the internet (good and bad – be aware of that). Be overly cautious until you develop a trusting relationship with your instructor.

There are many techniques out there and a lot of them have merit even though they are different from each other. It is never a great idea to mix techniques but realize there are a few ways to get where you are going. That said, beware of techniques that do not teach breathing as a fundamental basis of singing. And there are no short cuts. Singers learn to do things with their bodies that are beyond the average person. For that you need training just as an athlete would. Anyone telling you you can get by in the professional world of singing on a handful of lessons may be putting your long term vocal health at risk. Singing around the campfire once in a while is fun but it is not the same as the stresses places on your voice gigging, singing opera, even speaking for hours on end (of course, you ARE breathing smokey camp fire air so there IS that…). Although you may initially “save money” by taking 3 or 4 $300 lessons instead of a reasonable amount of time at a respectable studio, you will be spending that money fixing injuries and that is not the cheap way out. If you need cheaper lessons, ask! But beware anyone who tells you you can learn everything necessary for a career in singing in a few sessions. That flies in the face of everything everyone else in the industry will tell you and it is complete fabrication designed to make that instructor very very wealthy. The argument that traditional voice teachers are trying to take your money by long term lessons is nonsense. Professionally athletes have coaches their entire careers. Singers need to touch base with other professionals also.

For an EVEN MORE opinionated diatribe on this topic (if you can possibly imagine), please refer to my Questions and Answers section for a short article on finding a good voice teacher.