Many of my clients have been through numerous coaches/teachers before they end up coming to me. This means I often get at least a little insight into the kinds of things that other voice coaches, singing teachers, speech therapists, etc have asked my clients to do.
Recently, someone reminded me they’d had sessions with another coach. The face of disgust they pulled when they recalled those sessions made me ask them what they’d just remembered. When they told me, I honestly couldn’t believe what they’d been told to do.
This then reminded me of all the insane instructions I’ve heard that other instructors have given over the years. I thought I’d share a few of these (and my horror at such instructions), but more helpfully to discuss why someone might think this, and why such thinking is erroneous or unhelpful when it comes to building your voice.
1. “If you can’t hit the note, just croak it“
This was “advice” given by a more contemporary coach. You may even hear a lot of modern singers making croaky/vocal fry type sounds on certain notes for style points.
I’ve heard variations on this advice: “If you miss the note, just do a riff“, “if you are slightly flat, just flip into falsetto to make it”
To give some credit to this mindset, it at least actually that sometimes things go wrong when we are singing. A note that we know we are normally OK to nail, goes a little awry. It happens. This mindset also tries to create constructive ways to keep a performance sounding polished/intentional when such things go wrong.
However, this mindset is not a growth mindset, but a fixed mindset. In this singer’s case, they’d been told “OK, this is your croak limit, don’t try to sing above here” (for the avoidance of doubt, ‘croak limit’ is not a thing). It says that someone’s voice, range, and vocal ability is fixed, and it’s just about hacking your way through whatever you’ve got.
This is simply not true.
For reasons discussed in detail here, the voice is something we can train. Range, tone, stamina, control, these are all by-products of co-ordination and control of the various components that make up our voice. As such, with the right exercises, everyone can increase their range to avoid running afoul of a ‘croak limit’.
Moreover, while things CAN go wrong when we sing, we should be training so that these are the exception not the rule. We shouldn’t need to construct ever more bizarre ways to hide the fact we couldn’t make a note we thought we could. We should either have trained our voice such that the note is a foregoing conclusion, or we shouldn’t have put a given song in that key in the first place.
2. “To get that note, you need to vomit it“
If you ever hear the word “vomit” from your coach in any other context than “vomiting isn’t good for your voice”, then run away.
Why might someone think this is good advice? I honestly couldn’t tell you. The best explanation I could come up with is that to the (alleged) vocal instructor, the act of singing firmly plus raising their soft palette reminded them of the experience of vomiting. If that is the case, I can only sympathise that they ever felt such a commonality.
Nevertheless, I know singers who have received similarly damaging instructions: “You’ve got to shout that top note to make it“, “You’ve got to really force that top note out“, “That’s in my yelling range“. (Note: if you’re yelling, you’re not singing)
Per the originator of Speech Level Singing, Seth Riggs: “Singing is simply sustained speech on pitch”. Yes, the demands of singing are different and greater in many regards, but at no point should we be shouting, yelling, screaming, or vomiting our way to the notes.
Singing is a matter of co-ordination and control in our instrument. Finesse and ever increasing amounts of genteel operation are experiences to which great singers often refer. Therefore, any instruction that amounts to blunt force trauma delivered to our instrument, is a definite no-no, and reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about how the instrument operates.
3. “Sing from your diaphragm“
Oh, now we’re getting into it. This is one of those phrases that gets thrown around with great abandon by the amateur, semi-pro and even pro- community… but what exactly does it mean? Do we really “sing from our diaphragms“? We certainly USE our diaphragms throughout any intake or expulsion of air, or to vocalise, etc, but do we really sing from our diaphragms?
Equivalents I’ve heard: “You should be driving your voice with your diaphragm“, “Your throat/vocal folds/voice is limited, but your diaphragm is unlimited“, “You’ve got to learn to breathe better“.
Honestly, there is some truth to be derived from this statement, but – in my opinion – as an instruction it is next to useless. The way we take in air into our lungs is fundamentally driven by the activation of our diaphragm. That’s just how our respiration system works. Ergo, anyone that DOESN’T know how to use their diaphragm would have died long ago from lack of oxygen.
When it comes to singing however, it is primarily about how we regulate that airflow through our vocal folds and vocal tract. That is not to dismiss the importance of our diaphragm, proper application of air pressure to the vocal folds, etc. In fact, for top level vocalists who have developed that fine motor control, often a lot more work needs to go into this proper fuelling of a given note/of the instrument, via diaphragm control. But as I’ve written about before, breathing is (rarely) the problem.
To emphasise the diaphragm as the primary factor in developing great singing is putting the cart before the horse. Air pressure and air flow delivered by great diaphragmatic engagement in needs to be utilised in a highly controlled and precise way by the vocal folds and vocal tract. This takes years of training, and yet more blunt force trauma won’t help one jot. All these components matter, but we must get the training in the right order to build a voice properly.
The take-home message from this is to help those of you reading this to understand that every voice can be made better. You don’t need to worry about figuring out your ‘croak limit’. There’s nothing magic or bizarre about building your voice. It’s a matter of developing ever increasing amounts of co-ordination and control, through application of appropriate vocal exercises, and that just takes time.
This process shouldn’t feel like yelling, shouting or vomiting, and it shouldn’t feel like you’re having to interpret mystical commands from a guru on a mountain top (or a Youtube video). In every other area of education, if a teacher gives a confusing command, it is the teacher’s job to clarify and help the student implement that instruction to a productive result. The same is true with singing and good singing instruction.
If that’s something you’d like to experience for yourself, book yourself in, and I look forward to working with you.