Your First Lesson
First of all, relax! I am not going to ask you to perform for me or prove anything to me. Your first lesson will be as stress-free and easy as I can make it, and I guarantee you'll leave your first lesson feeling inspired, capable, and ready to start working. When we first meet, I'll ask a few questions so I can get to know a little about you.
Have you ever studied music? (It's okay if you haven't.) Do you play an instrument? (It's okay if you don't.) Do you read music? (It's okay if you don't.) What is your experience as a singer? (It's okay if you don't have any.) What kind of music do you listen to? (It's okay to like anything!) What kind of music do you like to sing? (It's ALL good!) And the most important question: What are your goals?
Your lessons will be geared to meet your short-term and long-term goals. See if you share any of these frequently cited short-term goals:
I want to:
• be able to sing higher
• have a fuller voice, not so thin and weak
• develop my vibrato
• control my vibrato
• strengthen my upper range (men)
• open the lower range of my changing voice (young men)
• strengthen my head voice (women) so I can stop "belting"
• learn how to go from chest voice to head voice and back, seamlessly
• finally understand what diaphragmatic support is, and how it should feel
• improve my diction and the understandability of my lyrics
• be able to hold a pitch against another singer's loud (or off-pitch) voice
• learn to sing harmony
• learn how to gesture with my hands and arms
• know where to look when I sing
• stop wondering what I should be "doing" while singing, be comfortable
• stop thrusting my neck and jaw when I sing
• conquer my stage/performance fright
• learn to read music
• learn to sight read a vocal line
• establish and add to a cabaret repertoire
• prepare a theatrical audition well-suited to my voice and the role I want
• prepare a contest or festival solo/ensemble piece
• prepare an operatic and musical theater college audition
• prepare a URTA audition (University/Resident Theatre Association)
• rehearse and fine tune a role in which I've already been cast
Some long term goals follow. Are any of these goals yours, too?
I want to:
• improve my self-image
• sing solos with my church/school choir
• be cast in a musical play
• get a college degree in music/vocal performance/theater
• be a better youth/camp counselor
• add to my skills as a teacher
• be a better parent
• sing in band
• put together a barbershop quartet at work
• learn to sing in a language other than English
• develop an operatic repertoire
• be accepted into an elite youth or children's choir
• be accepted into a symphony chorale
• perform in an opera chorus
• perform in an opera principal role
• be a cabaret singer
• star on Broadway
Once we know what you want to do, then we set about doing it!
The Singer's Body
After we establish your goals, we talk about your instrument: your body!
• good posture and how to achieve it
• the mechanics of breathing and the diaphragm (this is where I teach a lower-torso stretching exercise)
• how the vocal cords make sound
• the difference between the trachea and the esophagus
• myths you may have heard about food/drink that are good/bad for singers
• how voices are injured
• how voices are healed
• how voices are cared for
• how voices are protected and made to last
I make no judgments at all about your height, weight, or body proportions. All you need to sing is a body. I may ask questions about any physical activities you enjoy to help me come up with metaphors for singing that you, personally, will relate to. For example, with my students who dance I refer to my initial warmup exercises as "pliés for the voice." For my golfing students, I talk about a "follow through" with their final consonants. I ask my basketball players to remember how many shots they took before they started making baskets, then use that to help them be patient until they "get the note" on the first attempt.
Once you understand how to take care of your instrument, your voice, we sing!
I have developed a 12- to 15-minute daily warmup of ten exercises that I introduce at the first lesson. As I teach it to you, you may record the warmup on a recording device you bring with you (smart phone, digital recorder, or laptop) so that you have an actual recording to take with you when you leave.
You won't be singing alone! I'll be singing with you the whole time! The warmup consists of:
Five Down five gentle steps down on separate vowels Five Up and Down five gentle steps up and down on separate vowels Short Noodles an alternating skip/jump figure with alternating vowels Bounces diaphragm warmup using repeated, stepwise, and triad pitches Trampolines exercise using triad tones to achieve high pitches easily Turns a quick 4-note ornament to achieve close-pitch agility Diphthongs using a snippet of song, we refine double-vowel articulation Scales yes, scales. Did you think you'd not have to sing scales? Long Noodles a melody coursing circuitously through the notes of one octave, to help build lung power The Bridge an exquisite melody (I wrote it!) that helps the singer cross the mental bridge from "technique" back to artistry and pure singing joy.
After a few weeks of study, you should be comfortable enough with "The Bridge" exercise that I can harmonize with you during your warmup. In this way, you learn to hold your own pitch against a sung harmony. Because I am a woman, I usually sing a line of harmony pitched higher than the Bridge melody for my men students. For my students who are women and children, I'll sing a descant above the melody first; then, as I run out of high range, I'll sing a line of harmony that is lower than the melody sung by the student. I try to sing a little bit "under" each male student, if possible.
Establishing Your Range
When you are fully warmed up, we establish the upper and lower reaches of your current range. This will be done by taking four samples of your voice:
1. How low you can sing comfortably and effectively in your low range.
2. How high you can sing comfortably and effectively in your upper range.
3. How low you can sing effectively in your upper range.
4. How far up you can sing in your lower range until your voice "breaks."
It is very important that we establish where your voice "breaks." This is the point where your chest voice suddenly stops producing sound, or sounds like it cracks, or goes from being strong to weak. This helps you know where to practice the "switch" from chest to head voice in the music you will study. It will also help us to determine your voice range: bass, baritone, tenor, alto, mezzo-soprano, or soprano. Most importantly, it will allow us to know if you might have injured your voice or have grown used to using your voice in a manner that may potentially cause harm to your voice in the long run. (If you're a woman or young singer who is used to "belting," this is when we'll hear what your voice naturally wants to do instead!)
After the First Lesson
I ask you to keep all your music and any study guides I give to you in a three-ring binder which you will bring to every lesson. If you don't have a three-ring binder, I will provide one for you. Here are some of the titles of study guides I give to my students:
• Vocal Warmup Guide Sheet
• Vowel Pronunciation Guide
• Consonant Pronunciation Guide
• The Singer's Audition: How to Give a Great One
• The Audition Commandments
• Preparing a Well-Pronounced Lyric
• The International Phonetic Alphabet
• Individual guides to German, Italian, and French Pronunciation
• Recital Instructions
• Etiquette Guidelines for Your Recital Guests
• Payment, Cancellation and Makeup Policy
• Internet article: "Psychological Abuse in the Vocal Studio" (for students who may have had a bad studio experience prior to coming to me)
• New Yorker article: "Petrified," by John Lahr, about epic stage fright in famous performers
What you will learn during our course of study together will differ from student to student, and will be determined to some degree by the music you choose to study. Here is the basic material I cover with every student:
Students will learn the "pure" vowel sounds common to English, Italian, German and French. Often, I utilize the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols to help differentiate phonetic "alphabetic" spelling from actual sound. By helping each student find and consistently "place" each vowel sound so it sounds good every time, we get rid of any jaw or neck tightness or any unwanted nasal tone.
I recognize five commonly used diphthongs (two-vowel combinations) in English (some teachers recognize only four). I teach my students to "spend their time" singing diphthongs on the "large" vowels, rather than on the "small" vowels. Properly-sung diphthongs make a huge difference in the effectiveness of a singer. My students continually tell me that this is one of the most valuable lessons they ever learn from me! They tell me that as soon as they start singing their diphthongs properly, people start saying, "Wow! I didn't know you were such a good singer." This can be our little secret!
This is another one of my trademark secrets — the way I can get a singer to "feel" the engagement of his or her diaphragm, thereby creating support for his or her voice. It's a simple lesson, takes less than five minutes. But once I show students how to achieve that high note with great power and fabulous tone — to "let go and fly" as I call it — I have students exclaiming "Wow! Is that all there is to it? That's easy! And I sound so GREAT!" It's really one of my most favorite lessons to teach.
What the heck is "er"?
Nothing makes me madder than an American singer who sounds like a Brit when when she sings because she "drops her Rs." I expect her to say, "Oh, Fathah! A hoss! You've made me the happiest guhl in the wuhld!" So, how do we sing the "er" sound in the words "world," "burst," "heard," "bird," "first" and "colonel" (notice they're not always spelled with an "er")? That's another one of my studio secrets. I treat "er" as a diphthong, or two-sound phoneme. Once you know the two parts, you'll never again have trouble sounding like your authentic self!
"Ew" versus "oo."
I provide all my students with schooling in the correct English pronunciation of the "yoo" diphthong in words like news, pursue, dew, due, and Tuesday, which are often mispronounced like noos, pursoo, doo, doo, and Toosday. I ask my students "What does M-O-O spell?" and then "What does M-E-W spell?" They get it.
This is so cool! Many of my students are delighted to find out that half of the consonants we say are "whispered" and the other half "voiced." When they understand that they can substitute "voiceless" consonants in place of "voiced" consonants, suddenly some of those high-note phrases with words starting with "b" and "g" and "d" and "v" aren't nearly so daunting. High-pitch passages can now be practiced without strain to the voice, and those voiced consonants can be saved for performance.
What to do with your hands and body when singing; where does a singer "look"?
There are just a few simple guidelines for effective body use while singing (unless of course you are dancing in a musical theater number!). But essentially, the singer must learn to "be comfortable doing nothing." Once you can successfully do nothing while you sing, your performance becomes a "tabula rasa" (blank slate) against which you can create the perfect hand and arm gestures and facial expressions. I'll save my guidelines on "where to look" for when you take your lesson.
I instruct all my students in the recognition of common musical terms and signs ...
Dynamic indications: ff, f, mf, mp, p, pp, crescendo and diminuendo
Tempo change indications: rallentando, ritardando, etc.
Expression indications: tenuto, subito, morendo, etc.
Common Italian words seen in music: molto, più, poco, meno, etc.
Other "road map" indications: fermata, caesura, repeat signs, "da capo," "dal segno," and "coda" indications
Extra Instruction, by Request
For any student planning to make music a career or college major, I teach the following ...
The clef designations for each student's voice (most voices read treble or G clef; only basses and baritones read bass or F clef)
The letter names of the lines and spaces on the staff
The meaning of time signature, measures, and beat subdivision
The rhythmic values of notes and rests
If students want to continue improving basic music reading skills, I pursue a weekly 10 or 15 minute lesson of music reading, using the music we are studying or very simple music. I work to help students recognize melodic intervals on sight, and to sing them before they hear them played.
If students want to progress even further in music reading, then we designate one or two lessons per month (the student decides) for sight reading and dictation exercises. I have designed a six-lesson worksheet course for basic music theory for singers, and a longer, school-year length course for the dedicated music student. These courses of study have been of great benefit to my students who were planning to major in music in college.