Matt Edwards

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

Mix it up Monday: Building a three-step formula – Part I

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In their book, “Excellence in Singing, volume three,” Robert Caldwell and Joan Wall provide excellent advice for strategic, technical training. In their view, the voice teacher must have a specific strategy in mind before offering a correction. In chapter 12, they lay out three important components of a useful strategy.

  • What to do ( the intervention you want your student to make)
  • Where in your student’s range you want her to make the intervention 
  • Why you want your student to make that intervention (the outcome you want to accomplish – for instance, a darker tone color, a high floating pianissimo, or a robust chest voice



They go on to say the following (pages 139-142):

What you want your student to do
When working at this level, you always want your student to coordinate the parts of her voice in some way. For example, you might ask her to accomplish objective tasks: increase her breath, arch her tongue, drop her jaw, lighten the tone quality, close the vowel, open the vowel, or feel the sensations of a broad, hard palate. Or you might ask for subjective tasks: pretend someone just broke a valuable vase, remember a loved one, grieve for a dying child. This component makes up the physical, mental, or emotional action you want your students to take to change the way she is using her voice.” (p. 139)

Where in your student’s range you want her to make the intervention
To answer this question, you need to consider your student’s strengths and weaknesses. Are there certain pitches that are problematic? Do you want to start on the problematic spot or do you want to avoid it? Be specific with where you begin the exercise. If you want to dig deeper into this idea, in Chapter 11 of Volume 3 (pages 19 through 92), the authors suggest a process for “Plotting a Map of the Voice.”

Why you want her to make the change
Here you express what kind of core outcome you want for your student: to sing smooth transitions in pitch, timbre, or dynamic levels throughout her range. More-specific outcomes might be to sing into a brighter tone, to sing into head voice, to focus the intonation, or to sing into the soft, high floating tones. With this strategic component, you describe which part of the tonal landscape you want your student to sing into, which could be any of the brilliant, dark, rich, mellow, soft, delicate, high, or low sounds she has in her tonal landscape.

What great strategies – the ones that are effective in teaching and learning efficiently – have in common is that they contain all three components….Like a three-legged stool without all its legs, a strategy doesn’t stand up without all three components – and this is a major cause of ineffective teaching. One teacher might offer strategies that include only the first component: what to do. Such a teacher might teach with phrases such as “you need better breath support,” or “you need to round your vowels,” or “you need to feel a sense of ‘up and over.'” However, without discussing where specifically to take these actions or why, never addressing what result to expect is unlikely to be successful. Another teacher might focus on only the third component, the reason to make the intervention. Such a teacher might describe images of the voice to the student such as “sing the notes like a string of smooth pearls,” or “not so heavy, not so biting,” without indicating what specifically to do to make the tone less heavy or where in the range to do it.”

Caldwell and Wall go on to say: “Sometimes a teacher has a latent reason for a strategy in mind, but he assumes his students knows what it is – which may not be the case. He might ask his students to open her vowels above the major passage, assuming she knows that the reason is to brighten the tone. But his student might not know which of her many sensations to pay attention to or which part of her sound to listen for. She might actually succeed and not know it: not listening for whether her tone actually brightens, she might continue struggling to achieve some vague goal she has in mind.

Without all three components, a student is likely to become confused, given the many sensations she needs to filter through. So instead of having your student struggle with your instructions, be sure you include all three components when you offer a strategy. If you make all three components explicit, your student can then engage herself in the stochastic process of pursuing your desired outcome.” (pages 140-141)

The authors then provide a formula to get you started with this way of thinking:

____[do something]____ at ____[the pitch (or range of pitches)]____ in order to ____[the desired benefit]_______.

For example:

  • Gradually open your mouth at Bb2 to Eb4 in order to brighten the tone
  • Gradually round your lips at two notes before Eb4 in order to sing into a lighter register
  • Sing the vowel /u/ at F4 in order to soften the dynamic level and darken the tone” (page 142)

Next week, in part two, I will cover additional suggestions from Caldwell and Wall for developing a three-step strategy.

Do you have a formula you use? Feel free to share it in the comment section below. If you are not already following the blog, you can add your name and email address in the comment section and submit it to be added to my email list. You will then receive an email each time there is a new post. As always, thank you for reading and have a wonderful week of teaching.


Matt Edwards is an Associate Professor of Voice/Director of Musical Theatre at Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, VA, and Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute. He is the author of “So You Want to Sing Rock ‘N Roll” and dozens of articles and book chapters on functional voice training for non-classical styles. For more information visit

One comment on “Mix it up Monday: Building a three-step formula – Part I

  1. Adam
    November 26, 2018

    I would like to be added to your subscriber list.


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This entry was posted on September 24, 2018 by in Body, Mix it up Monday.

Ranked the #1 New Release in "Vocal and Singing" on (October 2014), "So You Want To Sing Rock 'N' Roll?" covers voice science, vocal health, technique, style, and how to find your artistic voice in a way that is beneficial to both singers and teachers. Order your copy today!

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