Matt Edwards

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

Mix it up Monday: Vocal Exercise Objectives

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cropped-cornelius1Cornelius Reid is one of the founders of modern functional voice training. In chapter seven of his book, The Free Voice, he addresses the use of vocal exercises. He begins with the following:

“All exercises employed to assist technical development should be constructed with four main purposes in mind: 1) to re-establish basic functional principles, 2) to reduce complex problems to simpler and more manageable components, 3) to correct errors of technique, and 4) to exercise the voice.” (p. 127).

He goes on to say:

“the error prevalent in the current attitudes toward traditional exercises is the idea that the mere doing of them is beneficial. They are wrongly concluded to have value in themselves…No exercise, traditional or otherwise, possesses intrinsic worth. Almost any scale pattern can serve a useful purpose, but no purpose is served if the repetition is the sole motivation…Any exercise can be performed correctly or incorrectly and may prove to be either tremendously beneficial or actually harmful, depending upon the intelligence of the effort expended and the soundness of the principles being applied. That some exercises are more adaptable than others as a means to an end is obvious. To credit them with more is a serious error…There is ample proof to refute the contention of those who believe an exercise to have value in itself. How many thousands of students have faithfully practiced Marchesi exercises, and how few have derived benefit from them! The key to vocal development is not to be found in the exercise but in the manner in which it is performed! Of greatest concern always is the way the vocal organs react as they respond to the musical phrases selected…When a specific technical problem is being attacked the physical characteristics of the exercise employed must be so constructed as to render active assistance. If the physical characteristics are not so arranged, the exercise will be without purpose and totally impractical.” (p. 127-128).

Reid is not one to sugarcoat his views, which leads some to take offense to the messenger. But the message itself is very important – we must always have a purpose in mind for every exercise we use in the studio. This is backed up by the writings of many modern pedagogues as well.

Reid says “every exercise must be designed to facilitate progress, and behind each there must be an objective, or a series of objectives.” (p.129). On pages 129 and 130, he offers the following twelve objectives:

  1. Preliminary “warming up.” Exercises for this purpose are numerous. They can be five-tone scales, single tones, triads and arpeggios, preferably on a vowel, or vowels, the student finds most congenial. It is a serious mistake to become overcritical during this period of instruction. The singer must be permitted to get the “feel” of singing before being plunged into corrective instruction. The “ee” vowel is usually best for women’s voices to begin with, the “ah” for the male voice.
  2. Selection of tonal combinations whose pitch, vowel and intensity patterns tend to induce a particular condition within the registration, i.e., in terms of dividing the registers for the purpose of independent development, or uniting them so that they function as a coordinate unit.
  3. To establish a relationship between registration and resonance, particularly with reference to the effect upon the resonance characteristics of the tone as it is influenced by vowel purity.
  4. To ensure the maintenance of a resonance adjustment which is common to both registers, with special care being taken that the resonance adjustment never alters its form and dimension as the registers rotate.
  5. To effect a smooth coordinate relationship between consonant articulation and the vowel form, i.e. resonance, in order to prohibit the tone interfering with the word, and the word with the tone.
  6. Thinking through the technical problems to make certain the directions offered by the teacher are carried out precisely. In general, slower moving passages are used when the student is being encouraged to think, fast moving passages to bypass his wrong thinking. Slow or rapid, all exercises must be sung legato.
  7. Learning to “let go.” Eight-tone scale passages at high velocity are admirable for this purpose, helping to destroy wrong concepts to which the body normally responds by habit. By attempting to execute full scale passages with excessive rapidity, even to the extent of not getting some of the notes in place, wrong controls with their accompanying stiffness will be released. This should succeed in removing the imposed disciplines and habitual coordinative responses, with the result that intuitive processes assert themselves. In this way new coordinative patterns, usually in greater conformity with nature, will emerge because they have been allowed to happen. Exercises in velocity are also useful in assisting the rotation of the registers.
  8. Combining the register action. The most advanced of these exercises is the messa di voce, although others such as legato singing of the full scale at the mezzo piano or, indeed, at higher levels of intensity as well, while crossing the register “break” will suffice to achieve the same purpose.
  9. Balancing the intensity throughout the range. The use of two-octave arpeggios are ideal for this, especially if a concerted effort is made to establish a common resonance adjustment. If this is done, facility of access from one extreme of range and dynamics to its opposite will be assured.
  10. Connection of the five basic vowel sounds, “ah,” “ay,” “ee,” “oh,” and “oo” on a single tone. The intent here should be to have each successive vowel flow logically out of the position formed by its predecessor while maintaining a solid underscoring of basic resonance.
  11. Combining vowel forms with resonance adjustments and articulatory processes. The use of solgège is the most satisfactory exercise for achieving this.
  12. All of the foregoing objectives arranged, combined or interposed in such a way as to fulfill a particular need. Normally all scales should be sung legato. Ultimately, however, staccati and trills can be undertaken, but not before the technique is well advanced. Successful execution of staccato effects and the trill presupposes that certain technical conditions have been prepared and made ready. Except for building confidence there is no reason to practice these vocal “tricks.” Either the conditions are right and the singer can do them, or they are wrong and he cannot.

If you are a CCM teacher, it is important to remember that Reid’s clientele was classical. I believe Reid’s first three points can work for all styles. Of course, the idea of what constitutes “vowel purity” or good resonance will vary from style to style. We must also remember that in classical singing there are a lot of expected norms, while in CCM styles unique is what sells.

In steps four through twelve, you will notice Reid frequently mentions legato. While there are clear benefits of learning to sing a legato line, it is important to remember that commercial and musical theatre songs are often rhythmically driven. If legato becomes habitual in CCM singers, it can significantly impact stylistic authenticity. Therefore, you have to make adaptations to the concepts Reid presents. However, for me, the most important take away is that all technical work should be deliberate with a clear outcome in mind. Reid says you must always consider if what you ask the student to do coincides with why you are choosing that exercise at that moment (when). Finally, “how it is executed will determine the ultimate result in terms of success or failure.” (Reid, p. 128)

For more information about Reid’s thoughts on vocal exercises, read chapter seven of The Free Voice. If you have additional thoughts, feel free to add them in the comment section below. You can also add your name and email (without commenting) to be added to the mailing list, which will ensure you are notified each time there is a new post. If you enjoyed today’s “Mix it up Monday,” please consider sharing it on social media. If you are interested in learning more about functional voice training for all styles, consider joining us this summer at the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute at Shenandoah University.

As always, thank you for reading.


One comment on “Mix it up Monday: Vocal Exercise Objectives

  1. Anthony
    January 31, 2018

    Hello Matt,
    I just wanted to say I enjoy your posts every week. Whether you are talking about your own research or elaborating on the methods and research of others, I always like how you take the information and apply it directly to the teaching process. I believe that is what true great teaching is. We take the pedagogy we study and make it useful and applicable to our students. Thank you!


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This entry was posted on January 29, 2018 by in Misc. Thoughts.

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