A Text from @BrickMartinez: Questions and Realizations I

If you haven’t met Nick Martinez, you’re in or a treat. He’s an awesome person and musician – a multi-instrumentalist with an incredible voice. He first studied with me at 17 years old, and was singing in bands and on his worship team.

He took a break while he was in college and came back a couple years later and … long story short, he’s a new classical tenor. We discovered a whole new sound and a whole new range, and now his interest in voice training is truly blossoming.

Every now and then I get a text from him with such incredible questions and realizations. It’s so exciting to hear from him as he discovers new things and (with his permission, of course) I thought it would be interesting to share his text and my answers:

“I woke up this morning thinking about technique, but I was late for school so I didn’t have time to text you then. I had a quick question about cord closure from the blog that you had sent me from TenorTalk. He mentioned that sometimes you can lose good chord closure and that you couldn’t. It was something along the lines of losing good chord closure when you think you are producing a good dark classical sound.”

It’s true that one can lose good cord closure sometimes. How can you tell? The first indicator is a “breathy” sound – when you hear some air escape as you sing, if the vibrato is too slow or is inconsistent or if you hear crackling in your sound. Vibrato should be energized and full, there should be a solid pitch, the pitch should not sag/get flat or start pitching up/get sharp, and the sound should be clear, meaning there shouldn’t be air escaping or any crackle or worse, a tickle or any kind of pain.

What causes this? Any number of things: lack of energy like feeling tired or lethargic, not enough or too much breath-energy/release of breath, muscular issues like over-activating certain muscles or not activating them enough.

When he mentions a “dark classical sound” I think he means overly dark, like singing into the back of your throat rather than from it, overextending your soft palate and perhaps just stretching everything out too much in general.

“I did some of the exercises that he had mentioned, but when I’m practicing with the recording of our lessons I try to pay attention to it, but I have a hard time telling if I have good cord closure particularly when I’m in the middle of my passagio. I kind of got it once I’m through there and before that point. I’m still working on that, but once I’m in there, I get lost and can’t really tell if it’s good closure. What should I do?”

I think, firstly, that basically you do get good closure in your passagio. It’s your low range where we tend to work the most on cord closure. The two are related so it’s worth it to just work on your low and middle sometimes.

Secondly, listen for the signs I mention above.

Generally, when I hear some closure issues in your passagio I re-introduce light-edge and it works itself out. Of all the things light edge does it really works on cord closure.

Also, don’t over think it. Sometimes you want to dumb it down to achieve the kind of technical freedom we’re always looking for.

“Next, I got sick this past weekend but, I didn’t want to not work out the voice because I didn’t want to have to get to my lesson and have to start cold without working out all week. It wasn’t anything serious just a head cold, so for about a half hour every day this week so far I’ve just done light stuff. For the light-edge “oo” that we do, I just want to make sure I am working on all the right components since it’s my primary focus this week. The sound stays forward which we talked about this past lesson. The goal is to kind of just activate the membrane of the vocal chords which is just a very light sound, and it stays tall both up and down all the way through?”

Wow! An hour and a half straight or did you break it up? That’s some stamina.

It depends on how you feel of course, but I don’t think you should avoid singing full with a head cold. Just be a little more mindful of your practice. If you can do light-edge for that long you can sing full.

Also, yes. I would say your understanding is correct.

“Last thing: High Notes. What [I think] makes classical high notes so exciting is once we are through the passagio, for my voice at least, is it entering kind of a mixed register, which is why we kind of smile into the sound a little bit to keep it bright and forward, but also very tall in the back and then diagonally almost to the back of the head, but also tall and reaching down so that the battle between the two registers that you had talked about takes place. Is this correct?”

Did I say “battle?” Ha ha! Curse my enthusiasm! Its true there is a kind of tug-of-war going on. I would say you have a pretty great understanding of how this works. And I would agree it’s that push and pull that makes it exciting.

It’s true you want to feel tall and deep, both up and down, that’s why I love the term “long” or “lengthy.” “Long,” to me, implies depth AND height and you can more easily connect to both a deep sense core and lengthened vocal tract.

“If that’s correct then what makes the note so exciting is, even though it’s in a battle, it’s also very much free and not jammed up in some part of the throat or the head; where as some pop singers, if they’re not squeezing the note, the note is placed way up high somewhere but it doesn’t really get the same freedom because it’s jammed up somewhere rather than being in that kind of free wild place between the registers. Is that kind of a correct way to look at it?”

While that might be true for some pop singers, I’m reticent to say it as a rule. There are a lot of pop singers out there that have great producers, which cover up all their vocal flaws in post production, but others have great high notes that achieve a similar kind of “free wild place.”

Freddy Mercury is one of my favorite singers EVER, Robert Plant, Whitney Houston, Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Faith Hill and more, all have (or had) great high notes that achieve the same level of excitement, to me. It’s just that the ratio is different.

The balance between the CT (cricothyroid) and TA (thyroarytenoid) muscles and the shape of the vocal tract are different from classical and contemporary and/or music theater. So a contemporary singer’s mix is somewhat different and their vocal tract is a different shape, but ultimately their goal is the same – free, wild, exciting high notes with a push and pull between registers.

How’s that?

Warming Up: Doing it & Doing it & Doing it Well

The inspiration for this post comes from an experience I had in my own voice lesson (yes, of course, I still study) that lead to revelation about my warm up practice.

I live north of Boston and my teacher is south, so once or twice a month I drive a little over an hour to go see her and get fixed up (and inspired). On the way always I warm up a little bit in the car just so I’m not completely cold when I get there.

When I was younger I didn’t need much warm up time. I totally abused this in my late teens and twenties. I would just do a couple sounds like “whoop” or “ah-oooooh” from my low to my high range or a couple lip trills in a similar manner and then be like “alright, let’s do this!” Ready. To. Go.

Now that I’m in my thirties my voice doesn’t quite work that way anymore. It takes me longer to get to a point where I’m actually ready to attempt just the warm ups.

When I got to my lesson my teacher mentioned right away that I was on-setting high. She meant that when I went to sing my larynx was in a slightly higher position than usual.

Now anything can cause this – a little bit of stress, long weeks of singing and/or teaching singing lessons or some tension in my neck and shoulders from old injuries or … well … just being me.

BUT, in this particular case a light bulb went off. When I was warming up in the car I was doing those wide lip trills all over my range again, albeit more gently than in my younger days. Maybe it was too much all at once? Maybe my voice doesn’t like that anymore? Maybe my voice never liked it and I just wasn’t paying attention? Whichever way, I was continuing old habits that train bad muscle memory into my technique!

Ah!! Snap the metaphorical rubber band on my wrist! I have to be more methodical in the same way I am with my students. Practice what you preach a little better.

With each student I don’t just teach the basics that they can understand, like the importance of breath and vowels, but selecting exercises that line them up. By “line them up,” I mean conditioning the muscles in the vocal mechanism to prepare them for the kind of singing they want to do.

Do they always understand what you’re doing? No. Especially if they’re kids. BUT, when a kid has to do a bunch of pushups for gym class, does he understand the body mechanics involved? Not necessarily. Does it mean that he shouldn’t do pushups if he doesn’t fully understand them?

Warm ups aren’t just singing “la la la” until you feel ready to sing. Neither are they singing your song 10 times in a row until you’re no longer cold. They should be unique to your needs and technical goals and set you up for the kind of singing you’re going to do that day. It’s not the fun part of the job, but it can make or break the longevity of your singing career (professional and amateur alike).

It’s a good idea to always start with your body. Move around a bit. Do some stretches or a little bit of yoga if you have space to do it. If you’re body is warm then your voice will be too.

Take the time to focus your attention on your self, the space you occupy and your posture. Take a few full breaths to stretch your ribs and lungs. Focus your mental energy to the task at hand. Get ready to sing. To practice your craft.

Begin in a comfortable low range right around the pitches where you speak. Work on your onset (the initial attack when your vocal cords come together to make sound) on one note and stay within a range of a third or so.

Without exceeding an octave you can work on breath doing things like lip or tongue trills. You can also work on breath by introducing different shapes of inhales ([a], [u], or [i] whatever you know works for you or your student) and start incorporating articulators (tongue and jaw) by introducing words or other sounds.

Don’t be a hero! Be gentle at first, especially if you are an aggressive singer. These first few exercises can determine the rest of your singing for the day, so be thoughtful and take your time.

Once you’re feeling comfortable in that limited range then move on to exercises that address more of your range, laryngeal flexibility, vocal cord elasticity and agility. You can change up the vowels and use wider intervals. Choose exercises that line you up for the kind of singing you are about to do: classical, music theater, R&B, Rock or whatever.

It’s a good idea to have sung your highest and lowest notes before you have to perform them, BUT don’t over-practice. You don’t want to make your voice fatigued before your gig. Also, if you’re in rehearsal for 3 hours, you want to make it to the end with some voice left.

A good and experienced teacher/coach will help you figure out what warm-ups are best for you. Practice them daily or as often as you need and you’ll be in good shape! After sometime you’ll start to notice a difference.

The First Lesson: What I Look & Listen For

This is my first post so let me begin with a couple disclaimers:

One, I am not “selling the dream.” I don’t only work with professionals or conservatory level students. I work with many different levels of singers and A LOT of kids. That’s the reality about being a full-time, working voice teacher. Something they don’t really prepare you for in school. You will work with a lot of children. Some are VERY young – 6, 7, or 8 years old.

Some voice teachers call this “the trenches.” If that’s the case, I have to say, I love being in the mud. (Hence “Dirty Paloma Voice Studio” and “Sing It Dirty” slogan.)

I love working with kids and I really try my best to help them sound good so that they can be happy and confident.

I’m equally happy teaching adult professional singers and musicians. Often the problems I find are relevant to both beginners and advanced students in varying degrees. I feel like my time in “the trenches” has made me patient and very well rounded with my variety of students. I truly enjoy my work.

Two, I know what I know and I’m still learning. I’m not interested in talking at you or spewing out thoughts into the void of the internet.

I’m sharing my observations and my way of doing things, putting myself out there so-to-speak, so that we can all learn. I want to encourage you to comment and share your own stories or techniques, so that we have a conversation.

So now on to the actual blog post:

You get that email: “Hello. You were recommended by … and I’m interested in signing up/signing my X year old kid up for voice lessons.” I respond with an email with the basic info they and I need. (I have a pre-written one that’s ready to go with some fill-in-the blanks.)

Don’t forget to mention the tools they need:

  • Smartphone/tablet/recording device
  • Pencil
  • Water
  • Books/Sheet Music

You make it past the email phase and you’re in your first lesson with that new student. Now what?

I chat with them for a sec. We talk about music and life. I try to learn what their goals are and about the music they like. Sometimes they come with a song they want to learn or sing for me. I’m generally cool with most songs they choose as long as it’s appropriate for their age and there’s enough actual singing to work on. (Unless I’m working with an Emcee in which case we’ll probably be working with their verses.)

The first thing I listen for is potential. While singing can indeed be taught, there does have to be a certain level of natural ability and style there. The rest – tone, breath support, vibrato, ability to learn the notes and rhythms in a song – that can be taught and/or enhanced with voice training.

Sometimes pitch issues can work themselves out with practice. Some “pitchiness” is due to technical problems and can be worked out with time and training. So I don’t worry too much about pitch issues at first.

As a part of a quick physical warm up I do some stretches with arms in the air, some light twisting, and full breaths. This brings attention to the part of your body the air actually goes into, your… LUNGS.

Generally, I will always begin by asking them to show me how they take a breath. Then demonstrate how a natural breath turns into a singing breath and how to take a breath that’s neither too full nor too shallow. I talk about taking a “long” breath, as opposed to a “low” breath. We’ll start to learn “ah-breaths,” which are calm breaths in the shape of an “ah.” Thank you to Sarah Goldstein, one of my voice first teachers, for introducing that concept to me.

Lip trills right away! If they can’t do lip trills – do tongue trills. (Practicing how to do lip trills will be their “homework” going home from the first lesson.) If they can’t do tongue trills either, then I’ll have them sing on a [Z] in a limited range not exceeding an octave. For young kids I’ll actually make them say the word “buzzzzzzzz.” With any of these I can tell right away if a new student isn’t releasing enough breath or if they’re releasing too much.

I could spend a whole lesson experimenting with breath support, control, flow, and air-to-pitch ratios, BUT this is just the first lesson, it’s often just a half-hour long. Connecting to your breath support is a life-long journey, so I don’t become obsessed with this. (Also, I’m planning a future blog post on breath, so I’ll save some thoughts for that.)

Cord closure – a big one I listen for – is 99% of what I deal with. A lot of problems are related to this AND this is related to any number of other problems!! One of my favorite bloggers posted on this recently. I encourage you to check it out.

We will first vocalize on [i] as in “easy” or [E] as in “bed” in different registers with both glottal and aspirate onsets. Where do I hear too much air in the sound/a breathy sound or not enough release/a pressed sound?

I might also then experiment with various kinds of slides and vowels. Sometimes only certain vowels are problematic. I can focus right away on the ones my student’s voice likes and vocalize them throughout their range more easily. With this knowledge I can plan to slowly correct the problem vowels through the comfortable one(s) overtime, so in the first lesson I don’t focus too much on vowels, just the big ones [i] and [a], sometimes [E]. (I’m planning another post on cord closure with examples from my studio. I’ll go further into this there.)

As we’re vocalizing I’m trying to observe any excess tension in the upper body or neck and head. Does the student pull their chin up in any part of their range? Doe their shoulders come up?

I do a couple exercises to see if there is tongue-jaw tension or tongue-larynx. Can they sing or say “la la la la la” or “ga ga ga ga ga” without moving their jaw up and down?

Now, when I say “tension” I mean unintentional contortion or strange movements in the body, neck, jaw and/or head. We do need some tension in order to sing. We need tension in order to function in everyday life otherwise we’d all be like jellyfish or something. To sing without ANY tension? Not possible. To sing without looking like you’re being electrocuted or standing on a thumbtack? Totally possible.

What about their posture? Are they always slouched or sitting on their hip? This is a journey of self awareness for the student and also a physiological unraveling for the teacher. I don’t become obsessed with this, but I try to address it right away and keep bringing it back throughout the course of lessons.

New students who are beginners, whether they are adults or (especially) kids, don’t always have the anatomical knowledge or vocabulary to truly understand what’s happening when they sing, the various mechanisms involved, or how to always express what they feel in any technical way. So right away I start to introduce a term or two – not too many, and I’m always asking them to describe their experience.

“Was that better or the same?” “Was that rough or smooth?” “Did it feel tight or open?” “Did you feel tensed or relaxed?” “Does that make sense?”

Sometimes they just don’t know. Either they don’t know what they feel, don’t know what to feel for, or they don’t know how to describe it or your language just isn’t clicking yet. Don’t worry. It will come in time.

Even though we’ve been dong all this vocalizing I save some room at the end for the student to sing a song. I might not have given them much criticism during the vocalizing so that I can listen and observe and I do the same while they’re singing their song of choice.

I never promise that I can get results in the first lesson, because a.) that’s phony, and b.) because I’m just listening, observing and testing a couple of ideas or techniques out on the student while planning a course of action that will take place over many lessons.

Once I formulate a basic game plan I’ll take a couple minutes at the end to share my observations. I always state what’s good. I like to be positive, but honest.

“You’re really great at this thing you do, and I think it would be better if we worked on your chest voice/breath/mix. Let’s focus on that for the next few lessons and see what the results are. Sound like a plan?”

They also get a gift! Well, the kids do. A custom bag to store all their tools and a custom water bottle to bring to each lesson… which lives in the bag.

Most importantly, I try to reinforce that a month or two of singing lessons, while it might be a fun thing to do, is not enough time to actually learn anything that sticks. The muscles that control all the mechanisms involved with singing need to be trained. That takes repetition.

Furthermore, chorus class or your band rehearsal or singing your favorite songs a million times in a row doesn’t really count as practice. You’re not training your voices as you do those activities. Those activities are the practical application of your voice training, but not the training itself.

Even voice teachers! Teaching voice lessons might reinforce elements of your own technique and understanding of general technique, but it’s not your own personal voice training. It’s the practical application of your voice/pedagogical training and understanding. You should check in with your own voice teacher every now and then. A good one will straighten. you. out!

Also, think about this: there’s 168 hours in a week, 56 of those hours we’re sleeping, and your voice lesson is half of an hour or an hour. Let’s also say, just for sake of argument, that you didn’t practice any of the vocalizes from your past lesson all week until your next lesson. So in a half-hour or an hour out of 112 waking hours, what did you actually learn and retain? What happens when you miss a week? Doh!

Let’s take it further and say that out of 5,840 waking hours in a year, for less than 50 hours you are training your voice … That’s what I thought.

Stick with your voice lessons. It’s better for you to show up having not practiced, than to not practice AND not show up.

So, that is basically, everything that goes through my head in a first lesson and some of my approach. I’m always looking forward to the next voice, the next student, the next challenge. (Cue Japanese flute.) A tree starts with a seed, the first lessons. The tree bears fruit, well trained vocalists. The strong roots, good technical foundation. (Cue record scratch.) OK, now I’m getting corny, but you get it.

I’m hoping that over time I’ll get better at conclusions. Any questions comments? Please post and get the conversation started!