Teaching Something or Otter
A story from a recent lesson: She is 10. To emulate her favorite country singer, she pinches her throat, squeezes her lips tightly, and tries to carry her chest voice so high she ends up yelling. She looks like she's in pain. She has no idea she is doing this. But her mother knows that something is wrong with the way she is singing, and that is how she ended up in my studio a few months ago.
I know she needs to find a head voice -- the lighter sound you hear in higher pitches. I know from my Somatic VoiceWork training that she has spent too much time in her chest range, like many tweens who listen to Top 40. Her voice is like a barbell with a 100-pound weight on one end only, and nothing on the other. She needs to balance her voice by strengthening her head register. If she does, she will suddenly have another octave or more of notes to work with, and she'll be able to sing with comfort and ease. In short, she'll be lifting evenly and with power everywhere. If she doesn't strengthen her head register, she will severely hobble her vocal range and become one of those singers who say at age 12, "I'm more of an alto."
To access her head register, we make angel sounds on "ooo", and emit whoops and sighs. Some singers can find head voice while singing traditional vocal exercises, but many singers just continue to tense up on anything that sounds like music. So, we take out melody and rhythm and just make a bunch of weird sounds. It's hard to tense up if you're whooping and sighing, and that's the whole point. Then we add melody and rhythm back in, slowly.
She still strains her neck muscles and pulls her mouth into a rhombus shape to reach higher notes, even on an "oo," which means she's not really accessing her head register at all. We push air into our cheeks and say "poom!" in a light siren-y wail as the air spills out, and she laughs and calls it "chipmunk sound." And there is her head voice, light and clear and easy. She has learned to identify it when she feels it (that is a major accomplishment in itself), but she doesn't think she should use it to sing, so at every lesson I have to sell its benefits to her again and hope that she'll buy. In her very limited singing and listening career, she has decided that she must sing chest in order to be heard and in order to be stylistically "correct." Every time she starts to sing, she defaults back to her pained chest sound. She's much more familiar with that and it feels easier just because she's done it more. She has no idea that her idols don't sing that way.
This is when singing lessons become more like therapy sessions. Somehow I have to convince this sweet girl that it's all right to sing with a mix of chest and head registers. She has to identify what those sounds sound like to her, learn how to make them at different pitches, and then analyze her current singing and deduce which register she is using when (chest, 98% of the time, but I can't just tell her, she has to figure it out, too). And then, she has to consciously decide that she wants to change her register because she knows it will sound better. All this, while singing pitches and forming words and looking like an engaged performer.
I imitate her chest voice technique so she can see how bad it looks and sounds. I have her look in the mirror so she can see how she grimaces to make a chest sound. "Should you have to grit your teeth and stretch your lips tight, to sound like your idol?" I ask. I pull up a clip of her idol on YouTube. "Does your idol look like she's being poisoned when she sings?" My student admits that, no, she doesn't. "Well, you do," I say bluntly. "You shouldn't have to work so hard to sing."
"But I don't want to sound like a chipmunk all the time!" she protests. Aha. There it is. She is worried that if she gives up the only kind of singing she knows how to do, she will sound so different as to be unrecognizable. I hear this all the time. It is very scary to be asked to renounce your vocal identity, to be told it is necessary to explore and embrace something that feels so foreign. It never works to say, "this is how you must do it." With adults and teenagers, I compare it to real estate. I say, "You aren't selling your house, you're just buying the lot next door and getting ready to expand." Explained this way, most singers are then willing to try some different sounds, knowing that I am not going to ask them to give up their previous sound -- only add on to it. They can keep their "old" voice and add on some "new" parts, eventually integrating them into a whole. But how to explain it to this sweet, scared girl?
I decide to see if she can explain it to herself. "Let's make some high squeaky chipmunk sounds again," I say. She is still having difficulty, so I grab a wooden tongue depressor and have her place it on her tongue, to feel how it rises and falls. "Do you feel how your tongue goes way up when you are singing higher?" She nods. "Can you keep it from going waaaaaay up, just let it go up a little?" She does. "It feels bigger in my throat," she reports. "And easier." Then we make some chipmunk sounds at lower pitches. "It's not quite the same, is it?" I say. "No, it's not," she reports. "It feels different. It feels lower in my face." We're getting somewhere. "What would you call it, then?" She smiles and takes out the tongue depressor for a moment. "That's a squirrel sound!" she says. "Okay!" I say. "Can you go between squirrel and chipmunk?" And suddenly she is swooping from her highest pitches to the middle of her range, darting down into her chest range and then soaring back up again. I know this means her larynx is moving freely. The tongue depressor is keeping everything in check. I can see her lips are active but not terribly tense. "Do you notice how strong and loud you are?" I ask. She nods vigorously.
Then we make some chest sounds with the tongue depressor in, just for contrast. The sounds are a little lighter now, since she has been spending time in her head register. "What should we call those?" I ask. "Otter!" she says gleefully. She darts between otter sounds, chipmunk sounds, and squirrel sounds. She is a virtual menagerie. If I wanted to bring all this vocal development to a screeching halt, I would just ask her to sing a five note scale. She would sing every note in her chest range, then squeak out a few pained high notes and tell me she doesn't like singing "high" and we would be back to square one. Instead, I suggest something. "Can you sing part of your song in chipmunk and squirrel voice, even with that tongue depressor in? No words, just chipmunk and squirrelly "ooh"s and "ee"s?" She considers my strange request, and then says, "Sure!" Out comes the melody, plus a bunch of other random notes, but they are light and free. "Was that totally squirrel and chipmunk, or did you also sing a little otter?" I asked, knowing the answer." She is thoughtful. "I think it was mostly squirrel and chipmunk. Maybe a little otter."
"I think you're exactly right," I respond, thinking that Miss Berlin at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory Of Music never taught me the Otter Method of Vocal Pedagogy With Tongue Depressor. "Oh yeah, it's like so much easier to sing in chipmunk and squirrel. Totally," she says.
"Now, try a little of the words, but you're still feeling that squirrel-chipmunk feeling, with a little otter on the lowest notes," I say. "With the tongue depressor still in?" she asks, incredulously. "Yep, with it in," I say. "Let's go really slow to give your mouth a chance to get it all together." We sing a dirge-tempo version of the melody. It doesn't work for every note, but it works enough that she is grinning at the end of the song. And her mother, who has been watching, raises her eyebrows in happy approval.
"I don't know how you are getting that sound, but it sounds great, honey!" Mom says. "Now, how am I going to get her to do this at home?" I hand Mom a tongue depressor so we can all feel what our tongues are doing. This makes Sweet Tween giggle even more. "Now make otter sounds, Mom!"
The lesson is over. She has accomplished so much in 60 minutes, and I tell her so. She sings a little bit of the melody, then stops herself. "That was my old voice," she says. "I'm going to sing it with my new voice." From experience, I know that the next time I see her she will sing with her old voice. She will probably start in her chest register. She will need to be reminded of what her head register sounds like and how to get there. But, she has made a great start. She has three animals for reference. She has tongue depressors to help her feel the action of her tongue, and she has a mirror for observation. Best of all, she has a willingness to change, because now she knows it will sound better.