Voice: Breathing Exercises – Part 3

Voice: Breathing Part 2

Voice and the Actor, Part 1: Breathing – The Mechanics

Join Master Talent Teacher and Vocal Coach Steven Memel, as he share tips and techniques in his 3 part, voice lesson series.

Voice Instruction – Vocal Fundamentals I: The Vocal Fry

Interview With Musical Theatre Veteran John Rubinstein

Singing Performance: Exploring Story and Physicality Part 2

In this video, Steven takes us through a private coaching session with Sabrina Miller.

Sabrina is obviously a wonderfully talented and experienced singer. The exciting thing is to realize that even for someone as accomplished as she is, there is always further to go and more to discover.

Here are some of the interesting things to note:

By Rote or Alive Here and Now…

In the first run through of her song, everything goes smoothly for Sabrina. After Steven works with her a bit on the story that the lyrics tell, she unexpectedly forgets the words.

This happens to everyone. Sometimes it can be lack of preparation. Not the case with Sabrina. It’s a very common occurrence when people break free from a rote pattern of singing “words” and instead become vividly aware of what they are saying at each moment of the song. Now that they are singing thought to thought, they realize they don’t actually know what thought follows the one before. Additionally they get so impacted by the intensity of “meaning what they say,” that they forget where they are. However, when the character’s circumstances become fully alive within them, and they move along the journey of the next thing they, as the character, are compelled to communicate, it pulls the singer along in an almost transcendent way. It provides a powerful focus.

Finding an Entry Point…

What you need to identify is the overall moment of where you are at the top of the song. Although you must clearly understand the first words you say and be able to say them like you mean them, they don’t exist in a vacuum. You must also understand the emotional context that you begin the song within. In the video example, the entry point could be summed up in the phrase ‘I’ve had enough, I’ve reached my limit, I have nowhere to go, I have reached my breaking point’. Any one of those things can be the phrase that you focus on and the emotional state that you drop into while the intro to your song is playing, so that by the time you sing the first line you are already exactly where you need to be. And that is what I call the entry point.

Having a rich inner life…

We have a tradition of ‘musical theatre movement’ which can be a habit worth breaking. It can lead very easily to “performing the song” rather than “expressing and communicating” what’s in the song. One way to let that go is to paraphrase the words. Tell yourself the story in your own words. Bring in detail and depth and intensify the degree of how much everything matters to your character. Once you understand what is happening and then apply that inner life to the song, each moment is naturally affected. And when you are involved to that level, you will stop “doing” movements and start “moving like a real human being.”

Adding physicality…

Don’t be afraid to move. Allow yourself to express physically in extreme ways. You can always pull it back. Only truly masterful performers really release themselves and play freely.

Always stay with what is really happening in the story. Be confident about what you are saying and know that for you as the character, it is true!

Singing Performance: Exploring Story and Physicality Part 1

If I’ve heard this once I’ve heard it a thousand times. I’ve said it myself and I don’t think there’s a singer out there who hasn’t. What’s with this odd and disturbing phenomenon?

Let’s see if we can put a face on the mystery. Your voice is the result of the coordination of hundreds of muscles; muscles of the larynx, throat, and also those involved in breathing, resonation, and articulation. They must all do the right thing at the right time for the desired sound to occur. If they don’t – kaboom! So what happens on stage? Why was “it” so much better at home, in the shower, at aunt Zelda’s?

When a human being is under stress heart rate increases, breath becomes shallow, muscles tense. The vocal cords and their attending muscle groups find it more challenging to perform the same gymnastic stunts that were easy in a less stressful environment. You may not feel or sound the same as you did under your ideal circumstances. You sense this immediately. You try to fix it, usually by pushing or increasing tension making the problem worse, and a vicious cycle begins.

However we all have moments when we’re “in the zone” and everything works. What takes us out of the zone? Put simply, distractions. These distractions come in many forms and our clever minds are always attempting to create new ones. We must familiarize ourselves with these distractions so we can remove the obstacles to that wonderful euphoric experience we’re all addicted to. Some distractions can be handled technically, others through growing awareness and mental discipline.

Know the song

When the smallest fraction of doubt can have an impact on your voice, don’t’ let there be unnecessary doubt… handle it! A song has many components, lyrics, melody, harmony, structure, rhythm. These are all things that can be perfected. However, effective rehearsal process is usually lacking. In rehearsal people tend to repeat the whole song again and again, wasting time and vocal endurance. Instead, focus on the one word, interval, or rhythm that is causing trouble. Don’t ignore it and assume that through repetition you’ll eventually stumble onto getting it right. I’ve seen a performance jump up 10 levels when that one problem spot is concentrated on and solved. Most performers are unaware of how much one slight distraction can dull everything else. With the problem gone the lights shine. “Amateurs practice until they get it right. Professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.”

The Mind

Your mind is working on many levels at the same time. You are only conscious of certain amounts of that activity. To grow stronger as an artist, develop your awareness of the nuances of thought that affect your feelings and through them your body and voice.

There is one game our minds plays that most of us experience but are unaware of. When we’re not in the zone, nervous, tense, we’re certain that everyone in the audience knows it and is secretly either feeling pity, laughing at us, or wondering what the hell we’re doing up there when there are so many wonderful performers in the world. We desperately wish someone would get the hook and end our pain. But wait! What if they didn’t know? What if no one was privy to your private hell of shakes, how bad your voice sounds, and how stiff you are on stage? What if that was your own little secret?

The truth of the matter is that what you experience and what the audience experiences are not necessarily the same thing! One of the reasons performance workshops are so great is that you can stop making up stories about yourself and get some real feedback. Countless times I’ve seen someone finish a song and report how nervous they were, or how they knew that all the afflictions they felt showed all over their faces and bodies. However when the audience is asked if they could tell, the answer is usually “NO”. More often than not the audience had no idea and thought the performance was great. That’s not to say you’re crazy and can’t feel better and have an even greater performance. But with the false belief that you’re transparent and that audiences can see every imperfection or “wrong” move, another damaging feeling enters in: shame. Now you’re not only nervous, but also ashamed about being nervous which of course makes you more nervous which makes you more ashamed, etc… Vicious cycle. More tension. More problems.

We are always looking for mental space, breathing room. When you get nervous, if you practice knowing that, for the most part, your nerves cannot be seen, you don’t have to add embarrassment to your troubles. You can relax a little and, with increased confidence, you can get back to the business of creating.

Additional suggestions:

Study relaxation and physical warm-up techniques.

Prepare relentlessly, practice effectively; you don’t want to be thinking about it while you’re doing it.

Read “Effortless Mastery” by Kenny Werner

Make a commitment to yourself beforehand that you are going to leave the gig feeling good about yourself no matter what happens.

Know that you are there to make music, to communicate something, to tell a story, that some people are going to like it, some aren’t no matter how great you are, and that’s their business – not yours!


The Missing Link: An Introduction, a Story and an Epiphany

“Sing from the diaphragm!” yelled the teacher! You looked around you and everyone else seemed to understand what she meant. So you did your best to sing louder as your face got red and your veins popped out on the sides of your neck. But you lacked a couple of pieces of essential information – where the heck IS your diaphragm and how do you “sing” from it?

The truth is that all those other people in your high school choir probably didn’t have a clue either. We’re all just sort of programmed to nod at instructions we’re given even if we don’t understand clearly what they mean. And then we go on through our life, lacking essential parts of the puzzle that would truly empower us.

I see this constantly in my studio when singers come to me, people who have studied even for a number of years, and don’t have a clue why they’re doing certain exercises. I see it in actors who know they’re not supposed to “speak from their throats”, but have never put that admonition together with the fact that the vocal cords are in the throat. (Well technically they’re in the larynx just below the opening to the pharynx, but nonetheless they’re not down on your diaphragm!)


Keys are the key!

The point here is that success eludes so many of us because we lack key pieces of knowledge. And “key” is the important word here, since we’re talking about pieces of knowledge that would “open the door” to greater success!

Imagine an actor who hasn’t adequately broken down there sides, and because they’re so focused on “getting the performance right,” they miss a joke or a reference to something important in another part of the script. You would think, “How could that happen?” But I see it often – actors missing big pieces of information. Does it insure that their audition is going to be lousy? No. But it certainly isn’t going to help.

Imagine the singer who doesn’t know how to put their music together properly. At their audition, they hand the accompanist loose sheets of paper. In the middle of their song a breeze blows and all the music goes spilling to the floor. If you’re an experienced singer you might be thinking, “C’mon… everyone knows that!” But again… I’ve seen it more than you’d believe.

Now these two examples are kind of obvious, but there are more subtle ones that affect even very talented and experienced people.


Don’t step in that hole!!!

So how do you avoid the “missing link” problem? You must be constantly learning, researching, digging deep and asking yourself, “What else do I need to know?” Here are some important areas for every performer to look into.


Technique, technique… oh where’s my technique?

What in my technique needs improving? Technique provides a channel through which the artist’s creativity can flow. If your technique is lacking, it doesn’t mean you can’t perform at all. But it will set up obstacles to your greatest creativity emerging. When there are technical obstacles, it distracts you from communicating the story you’re telling. It takes you out of the moment and turns your attention back in on yourself. It will increase your anxiety, which besides being no fun at all, won’t allow the audience to see your brightest light.


Do I really understand what I’m talking about?

I think most people would say yes. However my experience is that more performers have a very surface understanding. They don’t dig down deep into the world of the story. Important elements are missed or not given enough weight. With the singer/songwriters I coach, I often joke that I make a good deal of my living teaching people what their own songs are about. And whether you are singing a musical theatre song, a cover song or an original, when that true understanding occurs, there will be an “a ha” experience that is priceless.

How does this affect your performance? When you really know what you’re talking/singing/dancing about, there is a level of intensity and commitment that lights up the stage!


Avoid sticking putting your foot in your mouth!

Don’t tell a casting director who just got finished casting “Friday the 13th Part 97” that you “hate horror films.” They may too, but it’s not a guarantee. There’s too much info out there on the net to get caught with your pants down. Research who you’re meeting with. Know as much as you can. This is a relationship business. Even if you don’t put your foot in your mouth, letting a “key” fact about their history pop out shows you’re on your toes, you do your homework (and will likely continue to do so) and impresses!

Honing in on these areas and more and making sure you’re as well equipped as possible, will do nothing but improve your chances of success in this wonderful and challenging career.