When singers perform, we evaluate their voices based on what pleases and moves us: a beautiful sound, consistent production, musicianship, virtuosity, and emotional honesty.
Naturally, these are also chief among the goals that singers pursue in their vocal studies.
Progress toward any significant goal in fitness or in singing usually entails a long-term endeavor to create new habits, balance existing skill sets, and build strength, coordination and flexibility. It is difficult to make significant improvements in one aspect of physiology or coordination without considering the big picture. Any specific area of concern is likely to be symptomatic of a global issue, and any change to one part of a system then needs to be carefully reintegrated with the whole.
There is therefore a vital distinction between evaluating your actual singing – the beauty of your sound, consistency of your vocal production, etc. – and assessing the functionality of the individual components of your technique and the skill with which you are able to integrate them into a coordinated process. While it’s important to have clear goals, the path to achieving them must be based on a comprehensive assessment of both your physiology and your current skill set in order to evaluate strengths, weaknesses and imbalances in all areas.
My previous post described the components of physical fitness that personal trainers evaluate. Here are the categories of vocal technique I address in an initial consultation:
Vocal Fold Response
- Do your vocal folds proximate cleanly throughout your range?
- Can you speak on pitch without excessive breath pressure?
- Can your vocal folds respond passively to a simple release of breath without excessive breath pressure?
- Are you singing with excessive adduction or abduction? If so, is it global or only in certain areas?
- Do you have good range of motion for both diaphragmatic and costal breathing?
- Are you able to inhale silently?
- Do your shoulders remain relaxed on inspiration?
- Can you maintain good alignment and an expanded rib cage while exhaling?
- Can you use your core muscles for stabilization without pushing?
Pitch Definition and Intonation
- Do you define and adjust pitch by deliberately positioning your larynx, or do you permit your ear to organically tune your voice?
- Do you onset on the pitch you intend or do you scoop up to it?
- How is your overall intonation?
- Does your registration evolve seamlessly from one extreme of your range to the other or are there significant breaks?
- What is your current comfortable range?
- Is there anything unnecessarily limiting it?
Articulation and Vowel Definition
- Can you move your tongue, jaw and lips independently of one another?
- Is your jaw free?
- Do you retract and depress your tongue?
- Do your vowels align with one another or are some more resonant than others?
- Does the shape and expansiveness of your resonance space modulate appropriately to accommodate changes in pitch and vowel?
- Can you execute a free portamento?
- Can you perform accurate scales at different tempi?
In comparison with fitness assessments, it is more challenging to gather objective data in the voice studio. You can’t really cheat on fitness assessments. If I ask you to do an overhead squat to assess your alignment, there’s nothing you can do to make your overhead squat look “better” other than performing an excellent overhead squat. By contrast, there are many ways to manipulate your voice to compensate for flaws and make things sound “better”. I therefore use a series of highly diagnostic exercises to perform vocal assessments. Many of them isolate specific components of singing; when performed correctly they do not result in full-on singing. This makes it easier for you to engage fully in the assessment rather than focus on producing a good sound.
The information gathered from this initial assessment enables me to recommend which skills a student should prioritize in their practice sessions and create a long-term strategy to help them realize their goals. I can ensure their balanced technical development while helping them to eliminate effortful compensations.
My recent re-immersion in fitness training has convinced me that specific, long-term plans based on robust assessments are just as vital for vocal technique as they are for fitness. In offering an initial consultation that generates a written evaluation of a singer’s baseline abilities and challenges, I’m able to provide students with a clear picture of where they are in relation to where they want to go while also providing myself with the data I’ll need to map out the best course for getting them there.