Vocal Pedagogy

Introduction to The Four Principles of Healthy Vocal Technique: How to Sing Different Musical Styles without Vocal Pain

I have two rules for my voice students. 1) Sing healthily. 2) Sing in tune. With these two rules in place, most styles can be performed in a way that does not hurt the voice. All singers have to do is apply simple principles of biomechanics (how the body works and moves) to their singing. Unfortunately, many singers needlessly shorten their musical careers because they neglect to learn even the most basic vocal technique.

There are several reasons why singers do not study how to sing. First, they think that “either you got it or you don’t.” Singing—to them—is some sort of magical skill that people are born with. This idea could not be farther from the truth. While some singers are excellent mimickers and have large amounts of innate talent, most singers need to put in the time to develop their talent. They must practice and take lessons and then practice some more, just like a student of any other instrument, such as cello, trumpet, or piano.

Second,  singers are afraid that lessons will change their unique, one-of-a-kind sound. They are afraid that voice lessons will cause them to sound too polished. This is an avoidable danger, but there is an element of truth to this fear. Unhealthy singing can produce a very distinctive tone. Unfortunately, singers often sacrifice a long and fruitful vocal career by creating these distinctive vocal colors. Simply put, the human voice was not meant to make those unusual sounds for extended lengths of time. Biomechanics can be very unforgiving.

Third, they think that they can learn from social media. There are many people on video sharing sites who are happy to get likes and shares and views by talking about and modeling what they think is healthy vocal technique. Often what they teach is anything but healthy vocal technique. It is mere quackery. As a voice coach/teacher with years of experience and multiple degrees, it bothers me when I hear some social media personalities claim to teach viewers how to sing beautifully in 5 minutes, and then the personalities demonstrate using unhealthy vocal technique! Singing is a skill that takes many years to master. Anyone who promises you that you can learn to sing quickly or easily is selling you a bill of goods.

Fourth, they have had unpleasant experiences with voice teachers in the past. Some voice teachers will not push their students, and so their students end up treading water for years. These students have wasted precious time and money with these charlatans, therefore they assume that all voice teachers are like that. This is untrue. Just like with any field, some professionals are good and others are bad. A good voice teacher will push you to develop your most authentic voice in the healthiest way possible.

With this in mind, I have produced this how-to book on the Four Principles of Healthy Vocal Technique. In it, I have distilled years of studying and teaching the voice into its most basic elements. I teach these principles to every voice student and choral singer at the outset of our time together.

The following information is not new. It is not meant to be. It is, however, factual and seeks to develop the ability to sing using scientifically accurate methods. These principles of healthy singing can be applied to many styles of singing, from pop to jazz to country to classical to musical theater to many other styles. I have also included vocal exercises, helpful diagrams, and demonstration videos to help the reader. These tools are meant to supplement the reader’s understanding of this complex topic.

This book will remove much of the mystery of singing, but it will not automatically make the reader a talented singer. As I have stated before, beautiful singing takes a lot of concerted time and effort, trial and error. What this book will do is grant the reader a firm conceptual basis of singing, enable them to sift through the poor teachers and the hucksters on social media, and hopefully start a fulfilling, lifelong journey of making music using the voice as their instrument.

The Unforgivable Sin in Music

As musicians, we are always pursuing the perfect performance. We spend years honing our craft. We practice incessantly, sometimes for hours every day. We pay experienced teachers lots of money, hoping that they give us the skills to play that one scale perfectly or sing that beautifully placed high note.

I’m here to tell you that all of that will only take you so far. There are lots of people who can play technically proficient music that I don’t want to listen to, and there are lots of people with significant flaws in technique that I do want to listen to. For crying out loud, computers can play things more accurately than a human ever could. It doesn’t mean I’m gonna go to a concert played by computers.

So what do I look for in a performance or a composition? I want to feel something. Make me feel the thrill of love or the despair of abandonment, the grandeur of the Grand Canyon or the sheer power of Niagara. Draw me in. Give me no chance to look away. Do this, and I promise you I will pay attention.

The ability to express these powerful emotions engages the listener. This is what separates a good artist from a great one.  Ultimately, audiences will forgive a musician who plays wrong notes; they won’t forgive a musician who consistently fails to move them.

This is what I strove to do when I recorded the ballad that I wrote, The Hunter and His Love (SpotifyAmazon, and itunes). Did the musicians and I perform it 100% correctly? Nope. There will always be mistakes even if others don’t notice them. That’s not the most important question. Did you feel the darkness of a world where even the heroes can die? Did you feel the dark, personal tole paid by the heroes? That was what I was going for.

A good musician plays the right notes; a great musician feels the right notes. Sadly, students often miss this in their pursuit of musical mastery. Technique is not the end in-and-of-itself. Technique is what frees us to express ourselves exactly as we want, without the distractions of wrong notes and sloppy playing. And it is when we express ourselves clearly, honestly, and beautifully that people will stop to listen.

How to Choose a Voice Teacher Part 3: Beware the One-Sound-Fits-All Teacher

Those who look for a voice teacher often love to sing specific genres. Many enjoy musical theater, for example. But they also love other genres as well. I have taught students who sing rock, country, jazz, folk, celtic, choral, and opera.

This is not a problem for me, as finding the student’s best natural voice is my ultimate goal. Once the singer masters the fundamentals of healthy technique, they can apply it to any style of singing. I encourage students to bring in repertoire that they want to learn, with the caveat that I reserve the right to say that the particular piece might not be the best fit for them vocally.

Many voice teachers, however, do not share this philosophy. There have been times when I can guess who a singer studied under, not because of the student’s mastery of technique, but because that teacher’s students all sound the same. Often, they sound exactly like that specific teacher.

This is especially true when the teacher is a classically trained voice teacher. Don’t get me wrong; classically trained voice teachers are great. I am one. Due to the nature of classical singing (something I should go into in another post), these teachers possess a deep understanding of the vocal mechanism. That is good. However, this knowledge can lead to a rigidity of thought or an arrogance that says that no other style can be “good” singing. Unless you want to always sound like a classical singer (which is not necessarily a bad thing), avoid this type of teacher.

The uniqueness of the voice necessitates that each voice sound unique. That’s profound, I know :). What it means is that I believe in bringing out the unique beauty of every voice. Some voices are light and flexible, so I try to bring that out. Others are big and powerful or warm and rich. Each voice has its own particular strengths to be developed and weaknesses to be fixed. A one-sound-fits-all approach simply will not do. In fact, it can hurt the student’s voice, or just make them sound unnatural.

A couple more observations and then I will finish. Sometimes the mental rigidity is on the side of the student. Many singers have difficulty singing well in more than one genre or they are mimickers, so they turn into carbon copies of their teacher. A good voice teacher will discourage the student from mimicking his or her exact sound. Students can either be a mediocre copy of their teacher or a great masterpiece of themselves.

It’s okay to master one style, but I want my students to be able to experiment in more than one style. The more styles one can sing, the more marketable one is. It opens up opportunities. It’s like adding more apps to your tablet. The more it can do, the more powerful it is. I practice singing in multiple styles: jazz, folk, choral (jazz, pop, and classical), and classical (baroque, classical, romantic, and modern periods). If you come to my recital on Nov. 18 (shameless plug:)), you will hear the fruit of this.

I hope this somewhat rambling post is helpful to you as you look for a voice teacher.

(Image is in public domain)

Life Update October 2017

Well, it’s that time again: time to let the world know what is going on in my life. I’m excited about finishing several projects, some of which have taken years to come to completion!

Non-fiction Book on How to Sing

If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you know that I like to write and teach about singing. Helping students sing more healthily is a passion of mine. It is something I’ve worked long and hard at for several years. Through that time, I distilled the main elements of healthy singing into four easily understood categories. Most vocal problems can be reduced to one or more of these singing fundamentals.

Well, I finally put these awesome materials down in writing! I’m polishing some things in it and making helpful how-to videos that will make this book even more useful to the beginning singer. This book will enable the beginning singer to gain a clear understanding of the voice as an instrument. It will also help voice teachers who want to know how to teach beginning singers. My goal is to publish this by the end of the year.

Young Adult Fiction Novel

Yes, you read that right. I’ve been slowly writing my first fiction novel. I would have finished it sooner, but school and other priorities tend to take precedence. Thankfully, the book is nearing completion as well.

The book has it all: an evil conspiracy, monsters, hunters, lots of action, and martial arts! Ultimately, though, the book is about family, and how the choices they make impact their lives. I also plan to publish this soon!

Solo Singer Benefit Recital in November

I’ve wanted to sing a recital in Kalamazoo for a while. Now, I’ve made time to do it! I will be raising money for charity at the concert by singing a lot of different repertoire. There should be a little something for everybody. I will be performing jazz, choral, baroque, classical, and other styles of music. A lot of great musicians will be joining me for this event, so the music will be stellar. I will announce dates and what we’re raising money for soon. Stay posted!

Choral Extravaganza Next April

I have been working with several choirs in the south-central MI to host a benefit concert in April 2018. I’m really excited about this, as it accomplishes several things I’m passionate about. I love helping people, and I love collaborating with talented, motivated individuals. More to come on this as we get closer.

Regular Work

I’m also continuing to teach voice lessons and martial arts, conduct the West Michigan Homeschool Fine Arts Kalamazoo Choir, lead worship at Calvary Baptist Church in Quincy, and direct the Branch United Youth Choir in Coldwater. Life is busy, but good!


How to Choose a Voice Teacher Part 2: What Do You Want out of It?

In a previous post, I wrote about pitfalls to avoid when looking for a voice teacher. Knowing what to look for is very important, because there are a plethora of bad ones out there. Many teachers don’t know what they are doing due to either lack of education or experience. Some are lazy. Some find that it is easier to have low standards than than to push someone to excel.

It is incumbent upon a student to find the right teacher. This can be difficult, because the right teacher for someone else might not be the right one for the student. One of the first things to do is to decide what you want out of the lessons. Accordingly, here are a few questions you should ask yourself before you start looking:

Question 1: What Specifically Do I Want to Get out of These Lessons?

Many students go into voice lessons without a clue as to what they want to accomplish. This is a problem. How will you know the teacher can give you what you want if you don’t even know? Determine what you want to get out of the lessons.

Here are few beneficial goals: 1) You want to sing higher or lower than you currently do. Some teachers are very good at range extension. Ask them how they would teach this. 2) You want to sing with better breath control. Using breath properly is fundamental to healthy singing. 3) You want to sing that one song that you just can’t quite work up by yourself. A good teacher will tell you what skills you need to sharpen in order to perform it.

Question 2: Will I Get Along with This Teacher?

Due to the one-on-one nature of voice lessons, the student’s personality must click with the voice teacher’s. If the student or the teacher is not comfortable, the lesson will suffer. The voice is a temperamental instrument, and it will close up if there are personality clashes.

Question 3:  Do I Want a Teacher Who Will Push Me or One Who Will Make Me Feel Good?

Some teachers are better a pushing their students to new heights of skill. They know what the student needs to learn in order to be a better singer. Some are very talented at affirming. You feel good after a lesson. Figuring out what you want in this regard is crucial.

The pushy teacher might not be warm and fuzzy, but she will not be lazy. You will grow in skill in a short amount of time. On the other hand, the warm, affirming teacher might be able bring out more emotion in your singing. You will grow as a singer, but it will take longer to master skills. On the other hand, you will possibly feel more confident.

It should be said that this is more of a spectrum than a firm set of categories. Still, most teachers will fall more on one side or the other. Deciding which you want is crucial to choosing the right voice teacher for you.


I would like to end with a personal anecdote. I find that I learn best from teachers that are not as affirming, but are good at increasing my skills. I like to know that I learned something in my lesson. I once took from a teacher that was emotionally warm, and yet this teacher failed to teach me specific, attainable skills. Because this teacher was more emotional, this teacher was sometimes emotionally unstable. This was highly destructive to me as a singer. I found that I was dreading my voice lesson, which is a horrible place to be. A little while later, I took from a teacher who was emotionally stable and focused on building my abilities. Through her wonderful training, I mastered singing in my high range and low range. She helped me seamlessly transition from my high range to my low range, as well as a bunch of other skills that I needed.

What We Can Learn from Adele’s Singing 2

As promised, here is the second and last post in my series about Adele’s singing. For those of you who are interested, you can find the first post here. My first post dealt with Adele’s singing technique, and why she has struggled vocally.

However, there is a lot you can appreciate in her singing as well. Adele has accomplished much during the short years of her career. Her soulful singing stirs the heart, and–unlike much of pop music–her music actually has staying power.

This post highlights some of Adele’s strengths as a singer. These are qualities that all singers should develop. Singers will be much more successful in their performances if they do.

Lesson #1: Communication Is Insanely Important

Professional singers often focus extensively on technique. This is good in that their vocal chops are well developed and they have a much more durable and flexible voice. However, singers often forget about the purpose of singing: to communicate. Singing is an emotionally heightened form of speech.

More open and efficient communication should be the goal toward which all singers strive. Say what you will about her vocal technique, but Adele is a communicator par excellence. One might say that it is her superpower. When you watch live videos of her singing, you cannot take your eyes off her. If singers sought to communicate rather than merely focusing on technique, their singing would be so much more expressive and memorable. (This, by the way, is a major part of the so-called “X Factor” that many talk about).

So, how do you communicate effectively as a singer?

Lesson #2: Honest Facial Expression Is Key

It’s always surprising how emotionless singers look when they sing. Their face is completely deadpan. Not so with Adele. She never looks quite happy, to be sure, but that goes with singing sad songs. She has enough facial expression that you truly believe she is in the moment.

Not only do faces need to be animated, but they also need to be honest. The opposite extreme of the deadpan face is the hyper-animated face. Everything is exaggerated. This tends to make singers look like caricatures of real people. As a case in point: I recently watched on TV a performance of a major choral work with soloists. I was astounded at how distracting the facial expressions of the soloists were. They contorted their faces into some of the strangest shapes. Any emotion you portray on your face must be believable.

Lesson #3: Economy of Gesture Is Powerful

If you ever watch a video of Adele performing, you will be struck by how little she moves. She simply stands there most of the time. Other singers prance around the stage and gesticulate wildly to keep your attention. So how does she hold your interest?

Adele knows how to pace her gestures. She’ll start with very little movement, and increase the amount gradually as the song builds to its climax. It’s brilliant and highly effective. In the context of gesture, less often equals more. This pacing of gesture also lends her an air of gravitas which most singers would love to have.

Lesson #4: Start Small and Build

As a major part of drama, this rule cannot be stressed enough. Adele clearly understands this. Singers frequently begin their songs too loud and too expressive. As a consequence, they have nowhere to grow. Their songs contain no sense of movement towards a climax. Try singing quieter at the beginning of a song. Not only will this save your voice, but it will give your music a sense of forward motion. You will sustain interest, and the climax of the piece will be so much more satisfying.

To Sum Up

Singers all have strengths and weaknesses. Wise students try to learn as much as they can from these other singers. Simply put, learn from their mistakes and successes. This will stop you from repeating the former and enable you to emulate the latter.

[Source: CHRISTOPHER MACSURAK at http://flickr.com/photos/60877182@N00/3211379321. License:  cc-by-2.0.]

What We Can Learn from Adele’s Singing

For those of you not up to date on recent events in the musical world, the world-famous British singer Adele had to cancel the remainder of her tour this year due to vocal troubles. This was not the first time she has struggled with vocal issues. In 2011, Adele had to get surgery for a polyp (a word which should send shivers down the spine of any singer) on her vocal folds.

Her troubles set the vocal world abuzz with comments on her vocal technique, as well as over-singing in general. Finally, a writer posted an article about how we should “Stop Shaming Adele.” He made several interesting comments, and I agree in general with them. When someone has a vocal issue, we should not self-righteously point fingers at them and say, “See, I told you so.” My heart goes out to her, and I hope she recovers.

With that said, I do believe there are things we can learn from any singer, both positive and negative. I wanted to put on my voice-teacher hat in this post to look at a few of them. Part one will deal with the issues of vocal technique. Part 2 will deal with where I believe Adele truly shines: artistry, honesty, and communication. Again, my goal here is not to gleefully point out her vocal foibles, but to observe some things that might help others out there in the world who want to be singers.

Lesson #1: Be Careful Not to Over-Sing

Over-singing can happen to anyone in any genre or style. Classical voice students spend years trying to perfect healthy vocal technique. Many of them take lessons from teachers with doctorates in singing from prestigious universities. Yet, even they struggle with vocal issues. I have known many classical singers who have been forced to go on vocal rest.

In the pop music world, it is not uncommon for singers to tour with several concerts a week. Even if they had perfect healthy vocal technique,  the voice is not a sturdy instrument. It is no wonder singers like Adele, Sam Smith, and Meghan Trainor have had issues. It is exceptionally difficult to sing with such frequency.

When someone sings too much, it can tire the voice. This is why a lot of singers talk about “saving their voice” before a performance. When they say this, they mean talking less during the day, singing more lightly and delicately when they are practicing or doing a sound-check, etc.  Singing is a marathon, not a sprint. Singers need to pace themselves accordingly.

Lesson #2: Breathing Is Foundational to Healthy Singing

Some vocalists and teachers I have known believe there is only one “good way” to sing. I always try to avoid the word “good” when talking about singing. That particular word is imprecise and subjective. However, there are principles of healthy vocal technique that I believe are the same no matter the genre or style. Perhaps the most important of these is what we call “breath support.” Singers need to expel just the right amount of breath in order to sing healthily. Using too little breath can cause an airy or throaty, sound; using too much can cause a pressed sound.

When I listen to Adele, I hear both over-expelling and under-expelling of breath. This causes the tenseness and throatiness which she uses for great emotional and communicative effect. That gritty, gravelly sound evokes the pain of how one feels when going through relationship problems.  However, if one sings too frequently with throaty technique, it can result in severe vocal issues. A technique like that should probably be used sparingly and with great sensitivity to how the voice feels. This leads me to my last point.

Lesson #3: Be Sensitive to Your Voice

Singers should be sensitive to how their voices feel.  If the voice hurts or feels exhausted, singers should pause and reflect, because they are entering dangerous vocal territory. Typically, they are either singing in an unhealthy manner, and/or they are over-singing. If they want to keep singing, then they need to make some changes (under guidance of a well-respected voice coach/teacher). If they are not planning on singing long-term, then they can keep singing the way they always have. That is a personal choice, one each singer has to make.

(This is the first in a two-part series on Adele’s singing. You can find the second post here.)

Picture source: {{Information |Description=Adele – Seattle, WA – 8/12/2011 |Source=[http://www.flickr.com/photos/nikotransmission/6037325659/ Adele – Seattle, WA – 8/12/2011] |Date=2011-08-13 01:29 |Author=[http://www.flickr.com/people/53261981@N03 Niko D] from Sammamish  Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)