Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
“Mix it up Monday” is a new series on the blog. Each Monday I will post an exercise for you to try out in the studio or in your own practice. If you want to receive a message each time a new post is added, be sure to “follow” the blog. Thanks for reading! ~Matt
This week I am going to highlight an exercise by classical voice pedagogue W. Stephen Smith from his book The Naked Voice: A Wholistic Approach to Singing. (This is my summary of Smith’s exercise, please read the Naked Voice, pages 49 through 65 for the full exercise.) Smith believes that we should begin with speech when learning to sing. Other pedagogues share this belief and since CCM styles are primarily speech-based, I find this exercise very useful.
Step one: Vernacular speech
In this step, you are going to help the singer separate the idea of vocal tone from vocal production. Begin by speaking /ni-ne-na-no-nu/ without any attention to tone quality. CCM singers will probably find this easy, whereas singers with classical training will often try to make the voice resonant and will struggle with this step. You may also find that singers with classical training will try to take a huge breath before doing this exercise. This kind of breath puts too much pressure on the vocal folds. Instead, instruct the student to breathe like they would when speaking with a friend.
Step two: Speaking with projection
The next step is projecting the speaking voice using the same pattern, /ni-ne-na-no-nu/. Instruct the singer to imagine they are talking to someone in another room. The goal is to increase the intensity of their speaking voice but avoid adding excess pressure. Smith says it is important to use the word “projection” instead of “loud.” He believes that projection is associated with our regular voice, whereas loud is associated with shouting. In this step you must be careful to preserve the quality of the speaking voice and not fall into the trap of forcing the tone.
Step three: Speaking with line
Next you are going to have the student speak the /ni-ne-na-no-nu/ series with line. Smith prefers the word “line” to “legato.” Line requires a “simple beginning, constant movement, and an ending” with equal intensity between syllables. When speaking with line, the results will be similar to speaking in monotone. Singers will often begin this exercise with a free mechanism, but engage their throat muscles as they repeat this step. We want to avoid this. Instruct the singer to keep the speech spontaneous, always with a sense of moving forward, and tell them to resist the urge to go on autopilot (allowing the throat muscles to engage).
Step four: Speaking with projection and line on pitch
In steps one and two, the speech lacks a steady pitch. When you add line, the voice will naturally find a pitch that can be identified on the keyboard. Ask the singer to repeat the exercise from step three and find the pitch they are speaking on the keyboard. Once you find that pitch, have them sing the series /ni-ne-na-no-nu/ on that specific pitch, and then skip around the keyboard and have them repeat the pattern. This is not a range extension exercise, so remain in the middle part of the voice and avoid approaching extremes. Smith says this keeps the exercise spontaneous and helps prevent the singer from going on autopilot.
In step five, Smith teaches the singer how to refine their vowels. Because I primarily work with CCM singers who sing like they speak, I usually skip this step.
I’ve also developed a process similar to Smiths’ first four steps using the song “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” I begin by having the student speak the text. Next, I have them speak the text with their “radio announcer voice”, which adds inflection to their speech. Then I have them approximate the pitches of the song and instruct them to add no musical inflection whatsoever and only attempt to speak on pitch. Finally, I have them sing the exact pitches and I ask them again to perform it with no attempt at being musical. Throughout this process, I only allow them to progress to the next step when they have mastered the one they are working on. When they can sing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” without manipulating their voice, I coax them into being more musical. I will then move on to a speech based pop/rock or musical theatre song. If they start to ”sing“ instead of speak on pitch, I stop them and go back to speech and work up to singing.
Experiment with both versions of this exercise and see what you discover. While the primary focus of my work is CCM styles, I must say that when I was a working opera singer I found this exercise to be very beneficial. Especially when working on patter songs and recitative. Be sure to check out pages 49 through 65 of Stephen Smith’s book for the full version of his exercise and for a more in-depth explanation of my variation, check out my book “So You Want to Sing Rock ’N’ Roll” pages 98 through 99. If you have comments, please share them below.
Thanks for reading!