Vocal Pedagogy

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)

BUYC Choir Camp 2017 Recap

Choir camps always prove to be enjoyable, busy, and exhausting weeks. Last week was no exception. We played games, worked hard, learned much, and sang a lot! Our theme this year was Songs of Childhood. We learned about how children are raised in different countries, and we even played children’s song games from all over the world. We will be doing one more this summer in Detroit (July 17-20). If you’re interested, here’s the site you need to visit!

Every year, I am amazed how much the kids can learn in 4 days, especially since some of the children have had little to no musical training! Here’s a quick overview of what I taught them:

IMG_1412Day 1:

First we started out with some fun camp songs. It is a choir camp, after all. You have to start with singing :). We then learned how to sing with good posture and how to sing in tune. We also began working on some songs that we would perform at the concert on Thursday. I made a new arrangement of “A la puerta del cielo,” which they sang pretty well.

Day 2:

We reviewed the words and melody to an Argentinian children’s game called “Caracol.” The game is kinda cool, but it takes a little while to be able to sing and play it at the same time if you don’t know Spanish. The kids played an Indian (from India) game called “Fire on the Mountain,” which they liked a lot.

Day 3:

IMG_1415The kids finally got to play “Caracol.” The word means “snail.” It’s a line game where one side of the line twists the other into “the shell.” Then, the opposite side of the line pulls everyone out again. The group picks up speed, and the children are flung outward onto the ground. Children love these kinds of games; they are played all over the world. Learning these games are a great way for kids to connect with other cultures.

Day 4:

IMG_1418One of our board members also leads a drumming circle at her church. She led a short djembe drumming class. This provided a nice change of pace as we were preparing for our end-of-camp concert later that night. The kids sang four songs. Some had harmony, because it is very important for children to sing in harmony if they want to grow musically. Children need to develop their ability to hold their own part while other parts are happening. This grows their musical hearing and performing skills.

IMG_1416Well, that about sums it up. The kids had a great time. They really seemed to enjoy learning about children from other cultures. They immensely enjoyed playing children’s games from other countries. What a fun and informative trip through the musical world!


Life Update May 2017

So, I did it. I finally graduated with my 2nd master’s degree. My first was in voice performance; this one is in choral conducting. I have thus completed one of the most difficult accomplishments of my life! I cannot begin to fully explain to you the hard work it took to get to this point. I am thankful and exhausted.

Let’s just say that I have learned a lot this year. This past fall, I took a very full load and began new teaching duties as the voice graduate assistant. I was privileged to teach voice classes and lessons for the voice department. This was a great experience for me. I got to teach what I consider to be the important fundamentals of vocal skill. The class learned the basics of healthy vocal technique: posture, placement, breathing, and relaxation. I also taught them some slightly more advanced concepts: leaps, dynamics, vowel modification, and registration among other things. I had a blast, and the students seemed very appreciative of my teaching. It’s so cool to see someone grow because of what I taught them!

I also had some struggles. This spring, I performed my conducting recital. It was easily one of the most stressful things I have ever done. The pressure to make the vocal and musical elements as perfect as possible was enormous. I greatly appreciated all the hard work of the singers and instrumentalists. Thank you so much.

A week and a half before my recital, my grandfather passed away. He was diagnosed with cancer several months ago, so I was expecting it. Still, it was very difficult, and it made it hard to concentrate during a crucial time in my life. Thankfully, folks at Western stepped up to help me. I could not have made it without their care and understanding.

Things are starting to settle down. I just have two more major things to do, and then my summer will begin. First, my Branch United Youth  Choir concert is this Saturday, May 6. If you want to come, the concert is at 7 pm. We will be singing in the beautiful sanctuary in St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Coldwater, MI. I always love performing in there. The acoustics are superb, and the architecture is stunning. We will also performing with Blarney Castle, a progressive Irish group. They have been winning competitions and performing all over Southwestern Michigan, and I am excited the BUYC will be with them on their first performance in Coldwater.

This group actively sought to collaborate with us, and I am thrilled to perform with them. The children have been working hard on a duet with the beautifully expressive voice of EJ Schubkegel. I made a solo arrangement of “Danny Boy” that I will be singing with the guitarist, Patrick Hartson. He and I have had a great time working through all my funky chords that I made him play! I think it will be a fitting tribute to my grandfather.

Lastly, the WMU Chorale will be competing and touring in the Baltics in a couple weeks. I have been so honored to sing with them over the past two years. This year in particular has been truly exciting. They are an exceptional group of musicians, and I think we will represent the USA well in Europe.

Anyway, thanks for reading. I’ve been wanting to get back into writing for my blog, and now I actually have time to do it! More to come!

August 2016 Life Update

The past several months have been eventful! Life has been busy, but good. I ran two of my most successful children’s choir camps (Detroit and Coldwater, MI). Both of them were the best attended of any of the camps I’ve conducted in their areas. The kids responded in ways that I did not expect.

This year, I used a new theme: the African-American Spiritual. I have always loved spirituals, but I was initially at a loss as to how to teach about them. A couple months passed until the curriculum formed in my mind. In fact, the deadline to complete it was quickly approaching.

Thankfully, inspiration finally came knocking. I approached the four-day camp this way:

Day 1: What is a spiritual? (Roots of slavery and how spirituals are a fusion of African music and European hymnody/folk music)

Day 2: The Fisk Jubilee Singers (How they popularized the spiritual and used it to fund Fisk University)

Day 3: The Spiritual and the Civil Rights Movement (How spirituals were adapted to help end Jim Crow and encourage racial integration)

Day 4: The spirituals go mainstream (How choral groups all over America frequently sing the well-loved spirituals)

The kids really connected with the curriculum, but not like they did in years previous. They weren’t bubbly excited; they were seriously interested. They loved singing the spirituals. They understood the plight of slavery and the struggles of black Americans as they have worked to rise from it. I think the spirituals helped personalize this history in a way that only teaching about it can’t.

I had no idea when I came up with the idea for my theme that racial tensions would be this high in the USA. However, I’m thankful that I did it. It is only through understanding that we can truly empathize.

The rest of my summer was spent working. The Lord provided me with a job at a nearby hospital. I have been both blessed and extremely taxed by this job. I work with folks who need to be watched for various reasons (suicidal, homicidal, addiction, dementia, head trauma, etc.). It has definitely caused me to consider things about the world in a different, perhaps deeper, light.

I was also prepping for the upcoming school year at WMU. I will be starting a graduate assistantship in the vocal and choral departments in a few weeks. I am looking forward to the challenge. I love teaching voice lessons and conducting, so this seems right up my alley. I am also choosing repertoire for my graduate conducting recital (Spring 2017!) and my various and sundry choirs.

Lastly, I will be leaving in a few days for the Norfolk Chamber Choir and Choral Conducting Workshop. It is hosted by Yale University and directed by the inimitable Simon Carrington of King’s Singers fame. I’m very excited about it. I believe I will learn a lot about choral singing. Hopefully, it will lead to more choral singing gigs, which I am keen to be doing.

Anyway, that’s about it for now. I will keep you posted as new opportunities and the like happen in my life.


How to Be a Great Singer

I firmly believe that crossing the final barrier between a good singer and a great singer has little to do with technique. There comes a point when having all the skill in the world won’t make people want to listen to you.

Now, don’t get me wrong. All the elements of singing are important. People want to hear someone who has facility. They want to be amazed at someone who can move up and down their range with relative ease. Technique can enable greatness. If a singer does not sing with healthy technique, he will most likely burn out his voice within a few years anyway.

Timbre (voice color) is also important. I have heard singers who have great technique, but you just don’t want to listen to their voices. There is something intrinsically grating or off-putting about it. These are the folks for whom I feel the most pity. There is little that can be done to make them great.

Today, however, I want to talk about the last major element of singing success. I have heard many singers perform with  beautiful tone and skillful dexterity, yet they are missing something, that je ne se quoi (sorry, I’ve always wanted to use that). The listener might think, “O, that’s nice,” but she won’t be drawn to the performance.

So, what is the last element? Simply put, it is communication. The message must come across. This is particularly true with singing because it is the one instrument that almost always uses text. Communication is inherent in singing.

Emotion first, words second

How does one communicate? First, the singer must connect with the general mood of the music. It must move him before he can move others. There is an intrinsic danger with this. He must tap the power of his emotions without being carried away by them.

I take as an illustration the singing of a sad song. If he taps too much sadness, his voice can close up. His singing will be strained. Conversely, too little sadness can make for a very boring performance.

The importance of the words

Second, the singer needs to understand what he is singing. There are nuances in communication that only understanding the text can bring. This is one of those questions that voice teachers need to ask their students more often. Do you understand what you are singing?

Once the singer does this, he will be amazed at the reception. The listener will connect with the performance, even if she does not understand fully what he is singing. He might be singing in a different language, but she will still enjoy it if he communicates with enough emotion and understanding.

I have seen this barrier arise many times as I have listened to singers. I have heard singers with less technique get a more positive reaction from the crowd than someone with greater. Why is this? The answer is not that the technique was  unhelpful. The answer is often that the skillful singer did not sing with emotional authenticity.  This is incredibly  important. If you incorporate emotional communication in your singing, you will be head and shoulders above most singers. You just might achieve greatness.

Staying on the Front Lines

I recently spoke with a well-known music teacher and clinician. Sometimes, you don’t know what to expect when talking with someone who has achieved a high degree of success in their career. This person, however, owned that special combination of being very philosophical and yet very practical.

We were talking about music education. This teacher stated that many music ed professors on the collegiate level had not stepped foot in a k-12 classroom in years. They needed to be in the field. How else would they know how the changes in culture and technology were affecting music education? I thought this was an interesting idea. I made a comment, something to the effect of “so you want them to spend time on the front lines?”

While I do not know the extent to which someone needs to be on the front lines (perhaps it is different for everybody?), I do believe this teacher was correct in principle. Successful directors and profs often become removed from the day-to-day grind that they went through at the beginning of their career. They’ve taught college students the same lectures for twenty years. Over time, they can forget what it is like  to be on the front lines. They are so used to being generals that they have forgotten what it is like to be lieutenants.

I believe this can do a couple things. 1) This can decrease their empathy. Some profs have lived somewhat comfortably for many years in the ivory tower. They simply do not remember all the sacrifices they had to make, the exhaustion that comes at the end of the school year, the frustrations that can arise in working with admin and parents, etc. 2) This can make those profs unaware of the changes in culture and development that affect children. Simply put, life has changed drastically even in twenty years. The ubiquitous presence of electronic devices, video games, and instant information has dramatically transformed the education landscape. Family life has changed as well. I’ve known many parents who have their kids heavily involved in multiple after-school activities. College profs should know what that functionally means when teaching the next generation.

This is partly why I enjoy my choir camps that I run in the summers. This last week, I was able to direct and teach children in the downriver area of Detroit for a four-day seminar. The extent of their vocal and musical training varied widely. Many of them had never sung in a choir. Several hadn’t sung harmony before, much less learned to read a piece of music. I taught them the very basics of singing and making music. The kids loved it and grew so much. It was a great time!

This next week (July 11-14), the Branch United Youth Choir will be hosting a choir camp in Coldwater, MI. If you know of any child or family who wants to learn to sing, please contact us. I am excited to work with this new batch of kids. I love the challenge of starting at square one, giving the children the skills to succeed musically, teaching them to create and have fun with music, and bringing it to a conclusion with an enjoyable performance at the end. They work hard and learn much.

Additionally, teaching on the grunt level refreshes in my mind what it is like to work with the populace at large. Many times, the children’s parents aren’t musicians. They aren’t signing up to support the arts in schools. They just know their kids seem to like music. Perhaps the kids sing around the house all the time. Maybe the kids were told by their friends that choir camp was a lot of fun and that they learned a lot. Understanding this keeps things in perspective when I advocate for music education.

In whatever field, it is important for professionals keep abreast of current developments. This is also true in music education. We should never forget from whence we came. For me, teaching young musicians is an excellent way to do that.