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Building the Foundation

Scott McCoy
Scott McCoy
Scott McCoy, Associate Editor
September/October 2010 43
Journal of Singing, September/October 2010
Volume 67, No. 1, pp. 4346
Copyright 2010
National Association of Teachers of Singing
EPTEMBER MARKS THE BEGINNING of the school year and the unof-
cial opening of audition season. Depending on their age and ability
levels, our students are working toward casting calls, college admis-
sions, young artist programs, competitions, professional engagements,
and a plethora of other activities on the journey through a life that includes
singing, almost all of which begin with an audition. Ranging from sixteen
bars to a full recital program, these auditions are expected to reveal the
strengths and weaknesses of the candidates under consideration. Clearly,
there can be a lot at stake.
Between my teaching position and professional affiliations, I listen to
the auditions of several hundred singers each year. With a scale of expec-
tations that varies according to the situation, I evaluate these singers on
the basis of their current state of vocalism, diction and enunciation, expres-
sive musicality, intonation and musical accuracy, stage presence and dra-
matic presentation, and potential for future growth (which is very difficult
to predict accurately). I hear a lot of good singing. I also hear a great deal
of singing that falls short in critical areas. Some of these deficits clearly
reveal the native abilities of the singer; others, however, can be traced
directly to teaching.
One of our most important jobs as singing teachers is to habilitate appro-
priate vocal technique in our students. There is an ancient proverb that speaks
to this issue: Give a man a sh, you feed him for a day; teach him to sh and
you feed him for a lifetime. At its core, this proverb addresses the diference
between product and process, a dichotomy that often is faced by singing
teachers as we help our students prepare for auditions. Do we simply tell
them what to do, or do we invest the time and energy to facilitate their acqui-
sition of the skills needed to be independent singers and musicians? Based on
what I hear and see all too often in aspiring singers at all levels, as a com-
munity, we teachers of singing need to do a better job at the latter. The more
proactive we can be in instilling good vocal habits (habilitation), the less we
will need to correct bad habits (rehabilitation). In short, we must help our
students build a rm technical foundation that enables them to achieve their
personal vocal goals.
The remainder of this article focuses on elements that serve as the foun-
dation of all good singing. While my remarks are geared primarily to
building this foundation in beginning singers who are pursuing classical
training, they may be applicable to singers in every stage of development
and aspiration.
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I began piano lessons at age four, trumpet lessons at
eleven, organ lessons at fteen, and violin lessons when
I was eighteen. In each case early study focused on the
basics, starting with how to hold the instrument. Keyboard
study persisted until my early twenties when I gradu-
ated with a degree in piano performance. During that
entire period, my physical approach to the keyboard
my posturewas addressed in some overt manner in
almost every lesson. The same held true for my much
briefer encounters with the trumpet and violin. (I still
think that anyone who begins violin study as an adult
must be part contortionistmy wrist and arm would
never bend to the correct position.) My voice studies
did not begin until I was nineteen. Other than the occa-
sional admonition to keep my chest up, posture was
never explicitly addressed. As a pianist, I was taught the
importance of breathing before phrases began. As a
singer, I also was told to breathe; that instruction, how-
ever, was limited to inhalation (my belly was supposed
to go out and my back was supposed to expand). I stud-
ied for three years before anyone tried to explain what
I should do when I exhaled.
My rst voice teachers were gifted singers, but they
spent their time teaching me what to sing, not how to
sing. Based on my observations of the singers who audi-
tion at our university, my own experiences in learning pos-
ture and breath management are far from atypical.
Is it really that difcult to master the skills of posture
and breathing for singing? I think not. Persistence, how-
ever, is required. It is not sufcient to address the topic
in the rst few lessons, abandoning it in favor of more
exciting aspects of repertoire and interpretation. While
I dont expect an eighteen year old to show mastery of pos-
ture and breathing, I do look for evidence that these
basic skills are being addressed.
I look for posture that is conducive to good breath-
ing and phonation. We can take good cues from our col-
leagues who specialize in Alexander Technique and Yoga
in that regard. Posture is upright with a sense of gentle
elongation through the spine and neck. The chest is
comfortably open and elevated, the shoulders relaxed,
the head balanced on the occipital joint, the knees are
unlocked, and weight is distributed evenly over the feet.
Many people like to imagine a continuous line running
from the ear canals through the shoulders, hips, and out
through the arches of the feet. This posture is radically
diferent from the casual slouch currently favored by the
fashion industry and many of our younger students. As
such, it might feel foreign or unnatural. Nonetheless, it
must become habitual over time. Good posture alone
cannot guarantee good singing; poor posture, however,
will almost certainly impede vocal progress. We must
therefore remain vigilant, ofering consistent reminders
both verbal and physicaltoward improvement. A gen-
tle touch to an elevated shoulder often is more meaningful
than a verbal essay.
Progress should be evident toward a breathing tech-
nique that is consistent and appropriate to the kind of
singing that is pursued. As we all are aware, singers and
teachers employ a variety of breathing strategies, mak-
ing it virtually impossible to say there is one correct way
to breathe. That said, there are common features among
most successful methods of breath support. On inhala-
tion, the upper chest, shoulders, neck, and head remain
free from excess tension. Immediately prior to taking
the breath, muscles must release to permit the descent
of the diaphragm and the subsequent lling of the lungs
with air (just where that release occurs varies according
to technique and might include the lower thoracic, epi-
gastric, hypogastric, or lumbar regions). On exhalation,
there should be a gentle relationship between inspira-
tory and expiratory gestures. Many singers err in this
regard, aggressively contracting the abdominal wall in an
efort to maximize breath pressure. We must always
remember that support means supplying only the breath
pressure and air ow that is required for the task at hand.
Too much pressurecaused by excess muscularity or a
high clavicular breathdistorts phonation, leading alter-
nately to pressed or breathy tone with poor intonation
(usually sharp). Insufcient breath power leads to an
anemic sound and other intonation difculties (usually
at). Well balanced breathing supports the tone and
enables the free production of sound.
As with posture, breathing is not something we can
teach and forget. Gentle persistence is in order. Many
teachers see breathing as the solution for every vocal
problem; I think it is more accurate to say that it is the
source of many, if not most vocal problems, ranging
from laryngeal elevation to excess tongue and jaw ten-
sion. Unfortunately, once a compensatory gesture devel-
44 Journal of Singing
Scott McCoy
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ops in response to poor breath support, it rarely resolves
automatically with proper breathing. It is therefore vital
that we instill and maintain the best possible breathing
habits from the onset of voice study.
Singing at a high standard is an acquired skill. The
thrilling high notes of an opera tenor are as unnatural as
the grand jets of a ballet dancer; neither is spontaneously
accomplished by a novice. Nonetheless, we must create
the illusion that singing is completely natural and easy.
The foundation of good phonation must include a
cleanly produced tone. In young singers, my expectation
is for reasonable clarity that is consistent throughout
the vocal range, with little breathiness and no raspiness.
The neck should remain relaxed and the larynx should
be allowed to oat in its natural resting position, avoid-
ing extreme elevation or depression. There should be
no sense of struggle to reach the highest and lowest
pitches in the repertoire. Tones should begin and end
cleanly, with limited use of glottal stops and aspirate
onsets. Vibrato should neither be inhibited nor exag-
gerated, but allowed to be a free component of an eas-
ily produced tone. A wide, slow vibrato is usually an
indication of vocal technique that is out of balance and
can be a warning sign of trouble that lies ahead if not
appropriately addressed. Intonation must be accurate.
Singers should not push their voices to produce more
sound than is healthy for their individual instruments.
Articulation of the tongue and jaw should come from
a state of muscular release. Both structures are mobile and
must assume specic positions to create the phonemes
of speech and singing, but must never be held rigidly in
position. Because of the interconnections of the jaw,
tongue, and larynx, improper tension in one area is eas-
ily transferred to another. For example, the jaw is dropped
by contraction of muscles that pull from the hyoid bone,
which is also the upper attachment point of the larynx.
If excessive jaw opening is encouraged in a singer who
has not yet mastered the art of relaxing the strong jaw
closing muscles, the unintended side efect likely will be
laryngeal elevation.
Resonance should be balanced and consistent with
all vowels having the same basic vocal timbre. Balanced
resonance facilitates singing through register transitions
(passaggi) and helps to create a uniform vocal scale from
top to bottom. Singing loudly is not the same as singing
with optimal resonance. As you know from my previ-
ous articles, I am not a fan of overt nasality, which often
is used a substitute for forward placement and as a quick
x for passaggio problems in male singers.
I am reminded of a scene that played out in my studio a
number of years ago. An eighteen year old soprano began
her studies with me as a voice performance major fol-
lowing graduation from a prominent arts-centered high
school and private voice instruction from the age of
twelve. Given that background, her casual disregard for
singing fundamentalsposture, breathing, language,
expression, musical accuracywas unexpected. Major
rehabilitation would be required before new habits could
be instilled. After a few weeks spent concentrating on
basic technique, supported by developmentally appro-
priate repertoire, she asked me to recommend an aria
from one of the Wagner operas in the Ring Cycle that
she could begin to work on. (I am not making this up!)
I tactfully explained that this repertoire was more suited
to a select group of mature singers with secure vocal
technique and a special kind of vocal and physical prowess.
I likened assigning her Brnnhilde to her class piano
instructor asking her to learn a Rachmaninof piano
concerto. She responded: But I already know how to
sing! Clearly, we had a diference of opinion.
In my imagined pedagogic dictatorship, nearly all study
of postbaroque operatic arias would be banned for singers
under eighteen years of age. (I might allow exemptions
for things like Barbarinas Cavatina from Le nozze di
Figaro that actually were written for preadult voices.)
The extremes of tessitura, dynamic range, and emotional
demands of the vast majority of operatic repertoire are
simply not compatible with vocal technique that is still
under development. The huge repository of song reper-
toire provides ample support for the developmental
needs of younger singers. When assigning new reper-
toire, especially when it will be used for auditions, sim-
pler is often better. I will be much more impressed by a
potential freshman who sings Caro mio ben with beauty
and elegance than someone who struggles through Vissi
Voice Pedagogy
September/October 2010 45
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darte. Unlike gure skating or gymnastics, extra points
are not awarded for difculty.
When selecting repertoire, we need to look beyond
whether or not the student is able to sing all the notes.
Tessiturawhere the average pitch liesis much more
important than absolute range. Look for the relation-
ship between vowels and pitch; women will likely have
difculty if closed vowels are set on higher pitches, while
men often have difculty with open vowels in their upper
range. Remember to look at the relationship between
the accompaniment and the vocal line; developing singers
might not have sufcient musical maturity to tackle a
piece with an independent accompaniment (think of
Brittens setting of The Ash Grove).
The principal violinist enters the hall, oversees the tun-
ing of the orchestra, and takes his seat in preparation
for the rst rehearsal of a new symphony. He addresses
the conductor: Maestro, I dont read music, but I have
a good ear and can pick things up really quickly. I can-
celed my appointment with my violin coach yesterday to
meet with my personal trainer, so will you please play
my part a couple of times so I can learn it?
Of course, the above scenario is patently absurd. But
substitute a singer for the violinist and it suddenly becomes
plausible. The stereotype of singer versus musician
is not entirely undeserved.
We singing teachers might be the only musical men-
tors who routinely absolve ourselves of responsibility
for our students musical literacy. Lesson one with my
piano teacher began with posture (arm, wrist, hand, and
nger position); lesson two began with every good boy
does fine. None of my other applied music teachers
addressed music reading skills: they didnt need to because
I was already literate. By contrast, I would estimate that
at least seventy-ve percent of the potential voice majors
we audition each year are functionally illiterate when it
comes to fundamental musicianship skills. Anecdotal
evidence suggests things were diferent for those of us
in older age brackets. Pianos were a xture in most house-
holds and children routinely were taught to play. Music
classes in the public schools taught notation and read-
ing skillswe didnt just sing along with recordings.
Things are diferent now. Fewer and fewer children
are raised in homes with a piano. In troubled nancial
times, the arts usually are the rst casualties in elemen-
tary and secondary curricula. As a result, many, if not
most young people have had little or no exposure to or
education in fundamental musicianship. Ive been a cru-
sader for the cause of musical literacy in singers for many
years and am heartened when I meet others who share
my fervor, taking time in each voice lesson to educate
the entire musician. Ten minutes per lesson is all it takes,
especially when augmented by self-study through one
of the excellent web-based music theory sites. Remember,
the time we take during the early stages of study to fos-
ter musical literacy will be returned many times over as
our students become independent musicians, capable
of mastering a new works on their own. Nonetheless,
there are too many of us who shirk this responsibility,
making use of recordings, accompaniment CDs, MIDI
tracks, and YouTube videos to teach the music to our
charges. We owe them more.
Scott McCoy is Professor Voice and Director of the Presser Music Cen-
ter Voice laboratory at Westminster College of the Arts in Princeton, New
Jersey. He is the immediate Past President of NATS and has served the
Association as President, Vice President for Workshops, Program Chair
of the Minneapolis and Nashville national conferences, and master teacher
for the 2005 and 2009 Intern Programs. In addition to his multimedia
voice science and pedagogy textbook Your Voice: An Inside View, he has
authored numerous articles related to singing and pedagogy for journals
in the United States and abroad. He is a member of the distinguished
American Academy of Teachers of Singing.
46 Journal of Singing
Scott McCoy
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music, too,
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
John Keats, from To Autumn
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