Vol. 13 No.2


Spring/Summer 1999 p. 8



More Common Denominators - Speaking and Singing

by Joan Melton, Ph.D. ADVS

"I have this strong low voice where I'm comfortable, and I can sing (or speak) high, but it's like there's nothing in between." Or, "I can belt and I can sing in my head voice but the notes in the middle are breathy and weak." Or simply, "I can't go high," or "I want a low voice. What can I do to make my voice low?" You and I hear these and similar stories every day. Yes, there is definitely more than one solution! To some extent, it depends on what you want, or "it depends on what you pay," in terms of time, study, work and use.

Most actors and singers in this part of the world need a wide range of pitch, pace and volume available to them- immediately and safely-for use in every conceivable type of material and medium. So we include screaming, shouting, laughing, crying, dialects, movement, stage combat, and a huge variety of text work in our courses. Still the matter of vocal range and especially the integration of high, low, medium range is often a problem and one that may be approached differently by singers and speakers.

Integration is not a quick fix, in most cases, although there are exercises that usually make an enormous difference immediately. It is individual and depends a lot on personal beliefs and readiness to venture out of a comfort zone. "Fixing" the middle involves knowing how to handle the whole voice, e.g., knowing that overweighting the bottom can do away with the top, knowing that the voice does not have to get small as it goes up, knowing that working top to bottom with glissandos is usually easier than working bottom to top, and knowing that there are distinct advantages in using one basic technique for speaking and singing.

An undergraduate from my Voice/Movement class was concerned that her "break" had become worse. She has a strong background in musical theatre and had good classical voice training for several years. She is a soprano. singing alto in the chorus of The Magic Flute. We worked for a few minutes, low in the voice humming down a five note scale, then using vowels moving the pattern up by half steps. She was pushing forcing the low notes. Once she relaxed a bit and rediscovered the image of turning the sound up and over as she ascended, there was no break.

A meticulous, shy pretty student needed to prepare a song for musical theatre class, she sounded fairly strong on the low notes but in two thirds of the song her voice was weak and she obviously lacked confidence. We worked technically, then discussed the use of operative words the passion of the piece, and the kind of musical theatre brilliance the style required. She did the song as a monologue, then immediately sang it-and couldn't believe the sound, the power, and the thrill of what she was doing. Next day she sang it in class and unsolicited comments from other students were interesting " Everybody did well, but the most amazing person was Jennifer...That sound-she made me cry."

Our El Gallo in a recent production of The Fantasticks started out as the weakest member of the cast vocally - speaking and singing. The director came to me for help. A good actor, charming, smart, but the voice was unsupported, shallow, couldn't be heard, couldn't begin to balance other voices in the cast. He needed low harmonics and there were none in evidence. He needed to speak and sing in a range he didn't know he had. He was in my Voice/Movement class and I agreed to do several individual sessions with him as well. It was the double exposure that did it. The director began to see immediate application of the class work, and in the private sessions we worked very specifically on articulation and resonance principles he needed to grasp and use quickly. 1) Getting the breath deep and using low abdominal support was critical, 2) making space in the mouth, keeping the tongue from blocking the sound, and not rounding unrounded vowels turned up the volume immediately, and 3) focusing the voice through- out the range took him in the direction of a musical theatre style. Add space awareness and a revised aural image and you have a very strong E1 Gallo. He was brilliant!

At UCI I worked with a gifted MFA actress who "couldn't sing," but was determined to do a recital! Over a period of about four months we worked on her project, starting always with the Fitzmaurice tremors and arches and being very physical about the whole thing. One day she came in with a question. From some of her classmates she'd heard about a "break." What did they mean? I reminded her of lessons from vocal anatomy and physiology. She'd never discovered her own "break" because she learned to work through it smoothly from the beginning.

Following are concepts I work on with virtually every student. The exercises are useful for an entire class, but caution must be used when doing singing work with students who are essentially non-singers. They want to sing high and most of them don't know how; they can hurt themselves trying to sing as high as you take the exercise. First of all, be sure the five principles discussed in "Common Denominators" (VASTA Newsletter, Winter 1999) are in place, especially the low breath, open throat, and thinking down as you go up. In addition, breathy in means breathy out, or noisy inhalation tends to produce a breathy sound, speaking and singing.

1) Work the low voice first. I use an open throated hum, so the student feels buzz in the mask and in the chest as well. Also check rib swing and abdominal action at this point. I use sustained single notes at first, then a five note descending scale moving up by half steps.
2) Release the jaw and isolate the action of the tongue. As the student moves up in pitch, I change to Mee, then Mee ah ee ah ee, then Mah ee ah ee ah-with only the tongue making the legato vowel changes. It's like talking without using your jaw. Critical that the tongue tip remain at the lower gum ridge, that the mouth be as open as possible for ee, and that the lips remain relaxed.
3) "Turn" the sound up and over, or back, up and over as the pitch rises. If the student tries to push the bottom feeling up, the voice usually sounds strained and will tend to "break." Musical theatre students love to belt as high as they can, but in a daily warm-up they need to work in a "neutral" place, throat open, back of the neck long, and without any concern for "style."
4) Isolate abdominal action with staccatos. Start speaking, maybe on all fours, the kind of staccatos we did in Roy Hart workshops; breath drops in from one sound to the next, so we can go on and on. Then use specific pitches, arpeggios are good. Take care there are no glottal attacks and that the heart of the tone is "ringing." The top notes may want to get soft, breathy, off pitch, shy. Don't accept that. The clea'; ringing sound is necessary to take the student easily through notes tha' want to "break. "
5) Bring the voice down from high vocalizing with an open throated hum glissando using the hand and out- stretched arm(s) to visualize and physicalize.

A playful, physical way of working invariably makes singing less daunting, and the more students understand the why of exercises, the sooner they begin to change habits and use the work on their own, speaking and singing!

VASTA Statement of Principles

The Voice And Speech Trainers Association, Inc. expects the following of its members:

1. Offer instruction, advice, and guidance based on their ongoing pursuit of the best information, thought and practices available in their respective specialization.
2. Acknowledge teachers and colleagues who have contributed to their work.
3. Present accurately the nature and duration of their training and experience.
4. Respect the right of colleagues to advocate approaches with which they may not agree and allow students freedom to choose practices which may best meet their needs.
5. Take responsibility for the emotional climate in their classrooms, fostering an atmosphere conducive to their students' optimal growth.
6. Refer a student to a specialist (physician, psychologist, speech pathologist, singing teacher, voice and/or speech teacher, body alignment expert, etc.) whenever the need arises.
7. Maintain confidentiality regarding their students, except in cases where doing so could be detrimental.
8. Give students ongoing, objective assessments, as well as informed opinions of their abilities and progress.
9. Acknowledge the primacy of the director in matters of interpretation and addressing any questions or differences with the director in private.


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