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 II

CCM Bannder no dates


Two weeks ago I wrote about Caldwell and Walls’ three components for creating a strategy to address a vocal issue. In chapter 12, they follow with five steps to help you fill in the blanks of the simple equation I shared last week. The following comes directly from pages 142-146 of “Excellence in Singing, Volume 3“:

“#1) Notice the anomaly. As with any teaching response, you must first notice the anomaly to respond to. Suppose you notice a weak tone quality around a soprano’s major passage. The timbre of her voice loses firmness and focus there.

#2) Formulate a goal. Once you hear the anomaly, ask yourself what you want to hear instead. In the simple example, you would prefer to hear a firm, focused middle voice tone quality at her major passage.”

For example: “[Do something] at [the pitch  (or range of pitches)] in order to sing with a firm, focused middle voice tone quality at her major passage.

#3) Draw upon your knowledge of the voice. Ask yourself what your student needs to do to achieve the goal, deriving your answers from your knowledge of the student’s voice. In this example, ask yourself, ‘What does she need to do to sing with a firm, focused middle voice at her major passage?’

With your understanding of your student’s voice, you recall that the tone quality issues related to her middle voice are primarily influenced by the subtle muscle antagonism between the thyroarytenoid muscles and the cricothyroid muscles within the larynx. When your student’s thyroarytenoid muscles contract, she thickens her vocal folds, changing the distribution of their mass, which produces a heavier tone quality. When her cricothyroid muscles contract, she stretches the vocal folds, making them thinner, which produces a lighter tone quality.

Somewhere between the thick, heavy vibrating mass of the vocal folds in the thin, light vibrating mass of the vocal folds, your student has not coordinated her thyroarytenoid and cricothyroid muscles well. This causes her to sing out of balance, producing a weak tone, neither heavy or light. One pair of muscles contracts too much, or the other doesn’t yield enough. Either way, the ensuing chaos produces the anomaly, the weak tone.

While there is much more than this to a weak tone, from this simple observation, you can reason that your student needs to rebalance her thyroarytenoid and cricothyroid muscles to sing with the firm, focused middle voice at her major passage.

#4) Formulate a range of responses. Ask yourself how many ways there are to stimulate her to balance and rebalance her thyroarytenoid and cricothyroid muscles. Since the task is outside her awareness, which would be the best way?

You reason that when your student sings in a lighter register at her major passage, she avoids pressing her tone and discovers more–flexible flow phonation. Eventually, she can sing with the firm, focused middle voice tone quality you want her to discover. To find a lighter register, perhaps she needs to relax her throat and allow her breath to flow more. Maybe she also needs to close her vowel, release her tongue, or feel a lighter emotion. Maybe she needs to send the kinesthetic sensation of spaciousness behind her eyes. All these options fall under a general heading of lightening the tone quality.

For example: “Lighten the tone quality at [the pitch  (or range of pitches)] in order to sing with a firm, focused middle voice tone quality at her major passage.

#5) Complete the strategy. With the first and last component of the strategy filled in, you ask yourself, ‘At which pitch or range of pitches should she lighten the tone to sing with a firm, focused middle voice of the major passage?’

Because the most beneficial location is not always the same place as the rough spot you want to smooth out, think strategically. In this example, you might reason that your student needs to gradually release her thyroarytenoid muscles and increase the contraction of her cricothyroid muscles. You want her to begin lightening her tone approximately a minor third below her major passage in order to arrive at her major passage and a lighter tone quality. Once she gets to this part of her tonal landscape – and to the tone quality that comes from this particular coordination of her muscles – you can ask her to remember it and find more ways into and out of it.

You now have a complete strategy, with all three components:

Lighten the tone quality at a minor third below the major passage in order to sing with a firm, focused middle voice tone quality at her major passage.’

With stochastic processes in mind, you now want to stimulate many experiences in your student that relate to your strategy. In the preceding example, you might want to stimulate many ways for your student to lighten her tone quality. For example, you can help her lighten her tone quality by asking her to do the following:

  • close her vowels
  • Allow her breath to flow more easily
  • Imagine a lighter tone quality
  • Feel a tall, vertical sensation
  • Sing with a more joyful, playful emotion
  • Imitate a child’s voice
  • Imagine a metaphor

This list could go on and on – and you can find just as many ways for any other strategy as well.

By plugging in each variation, you end up with a list of substrategies for your student. You want her to:

  • Close her vowels  just before an event area  to sing into a higher register
  • Allow her breath to flow more easily  just before an event area  to sing into a higher register
  • Imitate a child’s voice  just before an event area  to sing into a higher register

You can use this fill-in-the-blank tool to help keep all your choices organized because, even though the choices might seem completely different, they are all examples of the same strategy.

With the stochastic process in mind – and with the four basic approaches previously described – you can extend the list of possible instructions, yet keep them organized with this tool. You can place nearly all instructions found in traditional vocal pedagogy into one or other of the slots.

Some strategies become complex, and you might end up with a general strategy and several sub-strategies. Most strategies, however, are refinements of a few basic strategies.” (pages 142-146)

Do you have a formula you use to build exercises? If so, please share 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

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This entry was posted on October 8, 2018 by in Misc. Thoughts.

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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