A Coaching Session for Singers

Sharon Stohrer
Submitted: Sat, November 11, 2017 - 8:39am EST
Gentle reminders of ways we can grow and develop in our practice sessions.

A COACHING SESSION FOR SINGERS
by Sharon L. Stohrer

Chances are you are reading this article because you want to polish and refine your performance. Perhaps you live in a remote area and cannot take lessons or have coachings as often as you would like. Maybe the budget is strained this month, or you might just feel “stale” with your song or aria and want some new ideas. So, let’s get started! First, perform your song or aria once all the way through. This will make you newly aware of any problem areas. If you can record your performance, all the better. When you are finished, take a deep breath and then come to some conclusion of how well you did—perhaps give yourself a percentage. We will revisit the percentage later.
If you did not make a recording, sit quietly and mentally review how the performance went – then jot down areas for improvement. If you did make a recording, please listen to it and take notes. Since I cannot hear you and see you perform, I have listed below some areas that might need attention and I leave it up to you to be the judge. Be kind to yourself yet thorough: fully consider each point before dismissing it—see if there is any part that you can apply to your singing and acting. If you find no areas for improvement in the list below, then skip ahead to the sections on “percentage,” “background research” and “fun and silly ideas.”

Technical Considerations
1. Is your vibrato even, are you on pitch, and is there adequate air flow and support?
2. Is there chiaroscuro: a balance of light and dark, of depth and forward resonance?
3. Are the high notes free?
4. Is there a true legato line?
5. Are the words intelligible and the diction clear without impeding the vocal line?
6. How effective are expression and dynamic contrast?

It is helpful to separate analysis of your performance by either sitting quietly and going through the checklist above or listening to your recording. Although singers need to have awareness of technique while performing, being in the critical mode can stifle creativity and impede one from being fully in character. It can also contribute to performance anxiety: keeping the singer too aware of mistakes, of possibly being judged by others, and preventing one from being more fully in the moment.
In case you found some deficiencies in the areas listed above, let us consider some possible remedies for each.
1. Is your vibrato even, are you on pitch, and is there adequate air flow and support?
Uneven vibrato and being under-pitch are almost always from lack of support. Get yourself a big helium balloon and blow it up, paying close attention to which muscles are involved. Some people feel it around their solar plexus, others sense the activity near their naval, and others feel it lower in the abdomen, in their sides or even their back. The important thing is to resist gently outwards and/or down, but not push in. Practice some of the phrases from the piece again on a neutral vowel, making sure to use the muscles engaged in blowing up the balloon. If you practice the entire piece on a vowel (“AH” is good) while paying close attention to your support muscles for a few days, you will certainly find improvement when you sing it normally again. Being sharp is usually from neck tension that will also release once the support muscles are fully engaged.
Lack of air-flow could be from holding it back in the effort to sound “focused”. Relax and let there be a little bit of extra air around the sound. It will help your throat to release and make the support muscles do their job; it will also add a bit of “sweetening” to the sound and help it carry farther. The extra air cannot be heard from a few feet away –the tone will simply sound free. If the lack of air-flow is happening at the end of phrases, definitely work on your support.
If you find that the lack of air-flow or support happens more toward the end of the piece, especially if it is long, then practice the end more. Maybe start with the last few phrases or the last couple of pages and practice those first. That way you have “programmed” your muscle memory to be fresh rather than tired at those places.
Another way to avoid breathlessness and lack of air-flow is to take breaths out of tempo, especially in fast pieces or in places where you have to take your breaths quickly. Often in our concern about getting adequate air, we give in to the feeling of the song, and snatch a quick, shallow breath. What is helpful is to program body memory. Sing the phrase in tempo, but stop at the end, take time to fully release and relax and take a deep breath. After a few practice sessions like this, your body will remember to relax and you will be amazed at how much air you can take in quickly. Be sure that your body is expanded to allow for deep breathing.
2. Is there chiaroscuro: a balance of light and dark, of depth and forward resonance?
Resonance-tracking is largely a sensory process—finding where in your head and face you should feel the “buzz”. Sing your song on “EE” or lip-trill it or use an open-mouth hum (the mouth is open as if singing “AH” and one hand covers the mouth to make the hum). Then experiment with a few phrases, seeing if you can keep the resonance of the hum or the trill or the EE vowel, when singing the words. If not, practice a few more days on the hum or trill or EE. Sometimes a third step can be helpful: going from the hum or trill or EE to the vowels of the words and then to the words themselves.
For adequate space, simply thinking “yawn” rather than “breathe” can do it. Be sure it’s the beginning of a yawn, just a slight lowering of the larynx. Sometimes space is sacrificed to diction. In that case, practice some phrases on “AH” and then see if you can keep that shape in your mouth and throat while singing words. You may have to alternate AH and words for a while to do so.
3. Are the high notes free?
Often it is the way we approach a high note, rather than the note itself, that is the problem. Practice both supporting before the high note AND lightening up on the note before. You might also want to sing the phrase down an octave, feel what that feels like in your throat and then sing it at pitch. Go back and forth a few times. Especially if the phrase ends with the high note, practice adding a note or two to the phrase. So often we “grab” onto a high note and hang on. You might try adding a few notes that go higher to help with the feeling of motion on the high note, or add some descending notes, as it can often help to think down for high notes and up for low notes (to keep the latter from going flat or getting too dark). Another mental image that many find helpful, it to imagine that you’re diving into deep water just as you go for the high note. That helps with keeping light before the leap and thinking in opposites: down for high.
4. Is there a true legato line?
It can be a challenge for singers to truly sing legato—especially if their first musical experience was with piano or other “keyed” instruments. String players have less of a challenge, because they are already accustomed to constant motion and the tone never stopping between notes. One way to help yourself is to sing and imagine that you’re a violin or a cello. Or just hear your piece in your head, and bow it on an imaginary string instrument. Then go back to singing it and see if you can hear and feel the difference. A true legato can actually feel a little sloppy, sometimes very sloppy.
Another way to attain greater legato and motion is to work mentally against the tempo. If your piece is very fast, pull against the tempo (mentally) as you sing. If it is very slow, imagine a fast pulse pulling you along, with each note constantly spinning. Sometimes it helps to imagine that “spinning” happening as you take each breath; the motion and legato begin with each inhalation.
5. Are the words intelligible and the diction clear without impeding the vocal line?
In choral singing, great attention must be paid to consonants in order for 30 or 40 or more voices to begin and end together. As a solo singer, what makes your diction intelligible is the quality of the vowel. Be sure you have clear vowels in mind for every syllable and that you have vowel-to-vowel legato as well as note-to-note. It can be useful to practice several phrases on, say, “AH” with focus on legato, then try the vowel of the words. You want to feel as if you can’t quite tell when one vowel begins and the other ends. If it is not that smooth, go back to singing on “AH” for a while. When it does become smooth, see if you can go from singing the phrases on the vowels to the actual words. Again, if it is not smooth, go back one step for a few practice sessions.
If you are singing in a foreign language, it is helpful to practice speaking the text. Exaggerate the “Frenchiness” the “Italianness” –almost to the point of caricature. We Americans tend to swallow our speech and getting the forwardness of other languages can feel silly or exaggerated, but that is usually when it sounds right! Practice speaking the text until it rolls off your tongue easily. Next sing it in rhythm, but on just one or two pitches. Then sing a few phrases on “AH”, immediately repeating them with the foreign text, aiming to keep the legato, motion and ease of the “AH” along with forward clarity of the text. If that union of legato line and easy, clear text does not happen immediately, alternate for a few times –perhaps even for a few practice sessions.
6. How effective are expression and dynamic contrast?
Dynamics can arise simply by giving life to the words—paying close attention to the text. Practice speaking the text first as if to a friend, next as if to a small gathering and finally as if orating on stage, recording yourself if possible. You will undoubtedly have variations of intensity. Now go back to singing it and apply those same variations when possible, keeping aware of an easy throat, good support, and seamless legato. (To avoid a tight throat, simply sing in a breathier way for soft dynamics.) Generally, your variations should be just a matter of degree.
For greater expressiveness, give some thought away from the practice session to your character. If you are actually a narrator, then why do you tell the story? How do you feel about it? If you are a character, then who are you, where are you and to whom do you speak? What is your objective and obstacle? Take some time to write down ideas and make either the narrator or the character a fully developed person to you. Practice in front of a mirror to help with facial expression and gestures. For some singers, throwing themselves fully into character gives even greater energy to their singing and lines everything up. For others, focusing on stagecraft can lead to abandoning their instrument, so to speak. If a recording of your singing is not nearly as compelling as a video, then it would be wise to practice a few times without any movement or facial expression. Pour all of your emotional energy into the singing itself. Then put everything together again and see if there is a true union of acting and singing.
In addition to spending time on character work, it is wise to carefully review the score. Just looking at the vocal line can give clues to interpretation. For example, if a phrase is repeated several times in a row, you might vary your intensities or even do sudden dynamic changes if that is in keeping with the style of the composer/period. Noticing the interplay of vocal line and accompaniment and understanding who is soloist when can also inform your interpretation. If your piece is with orchestra, viewing the orchestral score can also give new ideas for dynamics and expression. Your performance will change in many subtle ways simply by being more fully aware of the music’s architecture, momentum and so forth. Noting which instruments double the vocal line as well as changes in orchestration or tempo or dynamics can help with your dramatic interpretation (change of thought/mood) which will affect the vocal expressiveness.

Percentage
Until you are a seasoned performer, including a lot of experience with auditions, your performance can vary widely. It is often beneficial to simply perform your piece or audition package or recital program or rôle for several days in a row and give yourself a percentage each time. Frequently the act of just performing many times will help smooth out fluctuations and increase the overall quality. Be aware that even highly experienced professionals rarely perform at their peak level. The internationally famous opera diva, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, used to say that if you can sing in performance 75% as well as you do in practice or rehearsal, then you are doing an excellent job.
Another approach to keeping your performing at a consistent level is to practice under various circumstances. If you have an upcoming audition, you likely have little control over when it is scheduled. So practice performing at various times of the day—being cautious that you do not sing when you are so tired that you cannot support well.
Ask friends to listen and gently critique or record your performance. Enlist them to make some noises and other distractions to help you practice keeping your focus and staying in character no matter what. A different distraction can be your own clothing and shoes. Practice in your audition outfit or your concert attire to be sure that you can breathe deeply and support well and that your shoes help you feel grounded. If that is not the case, then you still have time to make changes before the actual date.
If you enjoy making lists or keeping a journal, that activity can contribute to raising your percentage. Each time you perform your piece, your audition package, your rôle or your upcoming recital; take some time afterward to jot down the surrounding circumstances. How much sleep did you have? What did you eat prior to performing? What is your emotional state today? What is the weather like? Did you exercise prior to singing? Were there upsetting events prior to the performance? Were there distractions during the performance? Did you make time to walk or meditate or pray today? Add categories of your own as well. While there are some matters over which you have no control (such as the weather or distractions) you may find that such log-keeping assist you in finding supportive routines for performance days that help you do your best.

Background Research
If your piece is from an opera or a musical, it is wise to look at the whole play. Note what other characters say about your character and what your character says about herself or himself. Look at the orchestral lines to see what kind of music accompanies your entrances and your singing.
Go to a museum, look online, visit your local library and research the era. How did people live, what arts did they enjoy, what were the social mores? Flesh out the era as much as you fleshed out your character.
Treat yourself to watching an online video of the entire opera or musical theatre production. There are some fine recordings of art song recitals as well. I never suggest that singers learn their material from listening to or watching recordings, because you need to get the music “in your body” and it is wise to avoid learning other singers’ mistakes. Yet once you have worked on your songs or arias for a while, watching and listening to others can inspire you and give new life to your own performance in many subtle ways.
It can be especially profitable to listen to a recording twice. First with the score, taking notes, and then again with your eyes closed—seeing if you can intuit what the singer does physically, mentally and emotionally to get the effects you enjoy.
If your song is about mythological characters or has references to mythology (e.g. Schubert’s Ganymed or Purcell’s Music for a While) researching the characters and reading the myths can deepen your understanding and interpretation of the song. If your song or aria is from a play or opera based on a book, reading the original book can give you rich character insights.

Fun and Silly Ideas
I do not suggest that you do silly things just to liven up your practice sessions or as a cure for boredom. The reason to have a few zany sessions is to unleash your creativity. The noted Jungian psychoanalyst, author, and lecturer, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés explains in her recording The Creative Fire (*) that one of the best ways to get “unstuck” (from a writer’s block, from an artist’s loss of direction or from being “stale” in performance) is to use humor. In fact, she suggests that the creative path requires approaching our music or writing or dance with a great deal of playfulness, a sense of enjoying the journey without a goal in sight.
I will list below several approaches to “shake up” your practice sessions. If they help you invent your own ideas, all the better. Use as many as you like; perhaps schedule zany sessions on a regular basis or alternate approaching one piece technically and the next piece in a creative way.
• No matter if your piece is a song or an aria, you are likely singing to someone. Can you enlist a friend to be that someone? Seeing their reactions to what you sing can be very helpful in enlivening your own acting and then transferring that energy to when you sing alone. You might even experiment with asking your “foil” to react in unanticipated, zany ways to what you sing. See what that brings out in your portrayal!
• Sing your piece in an opposite style. If it’s a musical theatre song, sing it as if it were from a Baroque Oratorio or Grand Opera. If it’s opera, try it in a pop or country-western style.
• Stage the piece—even if it is a simple art song. Use costumes, props, friends who react to what you sing.
• Turn your song into a melodrama—exaggerate it, mock it, make it campy.
• If you have a pianist who is willing, it can be especially fruitful for your ensemble and the flow of creativity to practice your piece in a wooden, strict, metronomic way. Next perform it as hammy, schmaltzy, over-the-top as you can. In the last repetition, let the song sing and play itself—get yourself “out of the way”, allow it to emerge. Then talk with each other about the three versions.
• Hear your piece in real time (do not rush through) and conduct an imaginary singer or dance in a free-form dance. Immediately sing the piece and see what emerges. Sometimes it’s even more productive to do this phrase by phrase.
• Sing your song with a variety of feelings—perhaps use flashcards with very strong emotions (rage, lust, vengeance, terror). Pull out a card and sing the next phrase that way. Some emotions may work better than others on various days.
• Sing your piece in the opposite mood than logic would dictate. If it’s a tale of mourning, sing it as if full of infectious, bubbly joy.
• Without changing your technique, if you are a woman, sing your song from a man’s point of view. If you are a man, the opposite applies.
• Try some silly, hammy gestures—maybe against the mood, maybe wooden or pantomime.
• Sing your song in a variety of poses and postures: kneeling, arms raised in conquest, arms open in contrition, and so forth. Alternate using stances that complement the mood or the character’s motivation with those that are opposite.
• Sing your aria in an opposite character. If you are a maid imploring for understanding, sing it as if you were the queen.
• If your song is in a foreign language, sing it in English. Or sing it in gibberish—aiming for correct expression (which will require that you fully comprehend each word).
• If you have a recording of your piece that you enjoy, put it on and lip-sync while acting. Then try singing along with the recording.

Invent and Enjoy!
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(*) Estés, Clarissa Pinkola. The Creative Fire. Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2005. CD.

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