Matt Edwards

Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute

Mix it up Monday: Make a plan of action!

PlanMix it up Monday is BACK! I took a brief hiatus for the holidays and then travelled to University of Northern Colorado to teach a pop/rock intensive and then to San Diego to present at the Musical Theatre Educators Alliance (check out my spring travel schedule here). Today the spring semester begins and it is time to start blogging again.

When I first started teaching I knew what I had done to fix specific problems with my own voice and I had a handful of my favorite exercises. That was about it; I would be lying if I didn’t say it was overwhelming at times. Luckily I came across a book that proved to be very helpful – James C. McKinney’s The Diagnosis and Correction of Vocal Faults. In the first few pages McKinney lays out the following steps for forming a plan of action when teaching (p. 17) that lay the groundwork for the rest of his book:

  1. Ask yourself what is wrong with the sound you are hearing.
  2. Think about what could be causing the voice to sound that way.
  3. Then decide what you are going to do about it.

Now in hindsight, this seems pretty simple. However, coming from a generation where you did what the teacher asked and didn’t think too much about it, I wasn’t necessarily in the mindset of listening for what was causing the issue and then developing an exercise to fix it. I was really only thinking about placement, posture, and breath. When I started to think about cause and effect, my teaching drastically improved.

So how would you use these steps in a lesson? Let us listen to an example of a “vocal fault” you may hear in your studio.

The student in this situation is seeking lessons to strengthen her “soprano voice” so that she can be more competitive as a musical theatre performer. In this example the singer’s voice is excessively breathy. The harder question for many beginning teachers is what could be causing the breathiness.

When analyzing a singer’s voice, always begin with the vocal folds and ask yourself, “are the vocal folds vibrating the way I want them to?” In this case, the answer would be no, the vocal folds are not closing in an efficient manner and therefore there is more breath than tone being emitted during phonation. So what can you do to correct the issue? Well there are numerous options and through experience it will become easier to know which one is the best to start with for the student in front of you. For instance, you could develop the singer’s chest voice with loud bright vowels to improve vocal fold closure. Another option would be to describe the anatomy of the vocal folds and use your hands to demonstrate the difference between vocal fold closure in thin and thick fold vibration patterns and then vocalize with thick fold configurations. You could also have the student hold their breath and then initiate phonation with a glottal onset as a means to teaching a more efficient vocal fold closure. There are of course many other options as well.

So how do you make a decision about where to start? You always want to pick the simplest way possible to get what you are looking for. If singing louder will get you the result you want, perfect. If that doesn’t work, you may have to try something more tactile. For instance, ask the student to hold their breath and then initiate phonation. Just remember that the simpler you can make the adjustment, the easier it will be for the student to get out of their head and just perform. Therefore, always try to use the most indirect approach you can.

When troubleshooting, spend at least three to five minutes on an exercise before giving up on it. Let your student have time to process what they are doing and assess what they are feeling before giving feedback. Motor learning studies suggest that it is best to give feedback after 5-10 repetitions rather than after every repetition.

So to put this into the three steps outlined by McKinney:

  1. Ask yourself “What is wrong with the sound I am hearing?” In this example, the voice is excessively breathy.
  2. Ask yourself “What could be causing the voice to sound that way?” In this example, the vocal fold closure is inefficient.
  3. Then determine what exercise you are going to use. Try the most indirect path first, then progress to more tactile and assertive approaches if necessary. Resist the urge to give immediate feedback and instead allow the singer to try five to ten repetitions first. 

If you have other thoughts, please share them in the comment section below.

Thanks for reading!


3 comments on “Mix it up Monday: Make a plan of action!

  1. Ian Howell
    January 18, 2016

    Another great article :-). Keep them coming Matt!


  2. Sharon Buck
    January 18, 2016

    I too used the McKinney book! It made sense to me then and still does now. Thanks Matt for your thoughts and Happy New Year!


  3. Kate Hammett-Vaughan
    January 18, 2016

    I have had the McKinney book for some time and continue to go back to it. A great resource. Thanks for mentioning it Matt. And happy new year!


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This entry was posted on January 18, 2016 by in Misc. Thoughts.

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