How to learn and retain understanding

Starting out at IU has been really fun and challenging (in a good way). My intro to instrumental tech class, music ed colloquium class, piano lessons, and voice lessons are the parts I find the most engaging/interesting. When I practice and write notes in my music, I’m more conscious due to some of the discussions we’ve had in studio class/lessons regarding “support” vs. tension. I also think more about the IPA, tongue height, and divergent back vs. front more when I’m approaching a new song. 

I’ve also found it super helpful to record my lessons. Taking notes after the fact has helped an immense amount. It’s hard to process a lot of information within one hour, and being able to listen to chunks at a time has helped me grasp some concepts in a more efficient way.

Rah, note-taking! Sooo very useful, and valuable. You guys have a ton of info to process, coming at you from every direction. Any strategic choices you can make that help you to internalize/own any part of it sooner means you’re getting the biggest bang for your practice-buck. Being more painstaking with that now, when so much is new and disorienting, will get you over the hump sooner– and then, it won’t be so very critical to re-cap– because you’ll have a working glossary, and a reliable paradigm for what we’re after and how to get it.

Kudos to you, too, for emailing for another title to start working on. That lesson hour zooms by, and there’s always something we mean to do– and then don’t. Never fear! Email yr prof!

What are you working on in vocal ped these days?

We have been talking about resonance and formants, which has been pretty familiar but also explained a little differently. Some of the basics are the same, like what resonance is and what a formant is. She did talk a lot about interacting with different formant frequencies, even if you are singing at a different vowel’s formant. I thought that was interesting, because it is not something I really think about or know how to execute. We also talked about divergent front and divergent back shaping, but the terms used were convergent and divergent. This week we are each supposed to pick a video of a singer and discuss resonant strategies, breath management, and posture. I think this will be fun because it is a useful skill to work on for teaching voice lessons

The use of “convergent” is standard– except in my studio. I find it problematic, in that cues us to cinch at the lips, and generally, to reduce something– as opposed to “diverging back,” which cues us to expect stretch, a gesture of opening. A singer tends to cinch at the lips as a significant off-resonant bit of breath management– and what we see consistently is that we’re working to locate breath management that allows us to put the brakes on with nuance, and a minimum of compromise to the clarity of your diction. We only locate those best options when we need them– and the tight convergence at the downstream edge of your resonator damps and manages heavily. No need to find anything else.

As for further interactions– you may already be encountering the idea of Practical Vocal Acoustics. There are many numbers, and much science– but what are the first, primary sensations we encounter and can develop strategies for? Until the entry-level strategies are reliably understood, anything “further up the spectrum” is going to remain theoretical, and may amount to much data with no handy on-ramp.

One thing I’ve been particularly struggling with is overcoming my perfectionism when I go to practice. I am trying to remind myself that time spent practicing is a great opportunity for mistakes. I’ve been working on also hitting some higher notes in my rep. right now and I think something that is really crucial towards helping me is “mouth choreography” that we talk about sometimes in lessons. I find it really helpful to make sure everything feels right and is setting me up for success before I make any sound.

Go for it, go for it, go for it!! An important thing we can achieve with running “mouth choreo” is setting aside shapes that belong to speech– shapes that are designed to end resonance, rather than to sustain resonance. Singers want different shapes. These recruit commitment, engagement– antagonistic muscle groups that feel each other. The physical commitment to a shape allows resonance to establish and strengthen itself– and that resonance means it’s not a struggle to maintain the requisite shape!! But– because they are different, we have to learn them, and they feel awkward, unaccustomed, silly. Until you’ve just droned your way through your choreo day after day– and now they’re familiar, instead of freaky.

Another bonus from your brave practice: what actually happens when a note glitches, or doesn’t even come out…? … Nothing. No brimstone; no ranks of peers pointing and laughing. Go ahead, end with your mouth wide open, and failed phonation. Your “stage crew” learns “OK, not quite like that. Just a notch this way.” ‘s OK.

How to take charge in the practice room

This past week I have been experiencing some problems with my sinuses and tonsils. This has been a hindrance in daily activities such as eating. Other than that, my semester has been to a great start! I am very motivated and have gotten into the habit of practicing. Alongside this, I have gotten a lot of opportunities to perform. One thing that has stuck with me from my lesson this past week was vowel shape. Being able to have a very open under vowel and maintain an over vowel that keeps the correct sound makes so much sense. Another thing that stuck with me was traveling the path of the vowel dial to continue sound production.

As I am practicing, I thought it would be appropriate to take a break and ask some questions. Right now I am currently working on a piece that has a very large leap as well and some intervals that give me trouble because of its close proximity to the first formant. Before I make bad habits, I was wondering what are some techniques/practice tips to navigate this. Thank you!

How appropriate! And I am able to answer, because so many of us are out sick today 🙁
One handy tip is to transpose any difficult line to a less difficult tessitura (a segment of your range), just to first become familiar with the quality of that leap. It sounds anguished? Inspired? Angry? How big is it, anyway? so that when you place it at written pitch, at least you can audiate the gesture that needs to happen. You never want to be feeling around with your singing voice, like playing pin the tail on the F# with a blindfold on. A move can happen efficiently, period. But it will only happen efficiently when you know exactly where you’re headed before you leave home.
Play it on the piano. Sing it in a lower tessitura. and only then, go find the sensation of moving around and through those registration events. Work it on smooth /u/, so that you can count on feeling (and even hearing) the undervowel do the necessary dialing as you go. Remove consonants; get the balanced, dialed vowel spectrum first. When you put consonants back in, be aware of whether they lie below Db4 (ih-quality) or above (uh-quality).
If you’re working on coloratura runs, take it way lower and use dubbadubbadubba syllables, until you really understand where the half-steps are and where are the whole steps, etc. Ladders through runs are also very helpful (if you’re in 16ths, the pitches that fall on the eighth-notes usually outline the harmony, or a simpler stepwise sequence).

This week’s practice progress was very eventful! I worked vigorously on the chromatic sections of “Oh, Is There Not One Maiden Breast” from The Pirates of Penzance and I believe I have it down. One moment I am struggling on within this piece is when I’m battling with the Bb. Though I am hitting the correct pitch, I want to make sure I am doing it with good technique. Is this section something I should wait to do in lessons, or are there some tips and tricks in order to get The Wanted product?


  1. Identify the vowel, its divergence, and its under-vowel
  2. understand that offset will be in an off-resonant direction
  3. look at the approach to that note
    • from what phoneme? does the transition require releasing air, or braking air?
    • from what interval? does the preceding phoneme facilitate balanced resonance over that interval (in this case, an L that bends in pitch from an /e/ to an /a/)?
    • understand that all of these resonance strategies embody the character’s emotions/intentions/revelations at this point in the music-drama.
  4. Recall that a sequence of notes all have the same central axis– so, an upward leap (and a series of upward leaps) moves from balanced position to balanced position

I’d say feel free to try stuff out– unless it hurts, or you know “this sound is 100% NOT what I want!”– in that case, just step away from the car, and save it for your lesson.

Singing though the pandemic

My big struggle these past couple of weeks has been adjusting to masked singing. I’ve been noticing that when I’m wearing a mask I’ve been holding a lot of tension in my jaw – I think because the feeling of the fabric against my face makes me hyper-aware of that area – so I’ve been working on not letting the feeling mask affect the way I sing. On one hand having the mask on feels like a hindrance, but on the other I’m having to really focus on the sensations of singing instead of relying on the mirror to see if something isn’t right. The mirror can be useful though – I feel like I’m learning a lot of brand-new technique in my lessons, but as a result some of my old bad habits are popping up. This week in particular, I noticed that I’m pulling my top lip down when I sing (something that doesn’t show through the mask).

In lessons, I really like the work we did with vocalise #10 – the idea of singing through the ‘w’ on that one is starting to click, though it takes me a while to get the hang of it.

I agree– the masks are super interesting– and annoying.

Something we turn a bit of awareness toward is the position of the chin– the “drawer” of your jaw being open or closed, into the dresser of your head! For the vowels that march down the right of the vowel dial, forward tongue-height vowels, we want to watch that the drawer is not “open,” or thrust forward. Difficult to have a forward tongue height, when forward is so very far forward! And vice versa for the left-side vowels– for those, we do want to imagine the drawer open, so that a pressed-back jaw won’t deprive us of the space we’d like a back-tongue-height vowel to utilize. And median vowels, those that march down the middle? I like to check for a “porch swing” jaw; that it has a bit of lateral freedom.

Adopting an arrangement that works in opposition to a balanced vowel resonance– well, that would be using off-resonance as breath management. We may find that double-checking on appropriate appoggio choices will ease the stress on your stiff jaw.
The pulled-down upper lip is also last-chance breath management. Amazingly, just a little horn shape, or “lifting your skirts,” will give you ample, and more nuanced breath management, without damping your timbre. I think the divergent-back shape allows us to manage with that lifted embouchure– I call that a keyhole-shaped resonator. Imagine this on its side– since I can’t figure out how to rotate it.

This week marked my first in-person lesson; it was quite an experience singing the whole time with my mask on. I had to focus more on the physical sensations of good sound-making than the sound itself. Focusing on the sensation rather than the sound helped me to avoid “pushing” in order to achieve my “usual” sound. I found that my inhalations were a lot shallower than usual because I was overly conscious of the mask on my face, and the mask is not porous to allow generous helpings of air in.
This is reminiscent to my experience in the Joshi studio the previous week; my consciousness of a headphone balancing on my head affected my posture and to some extent, inhalation. It is interesting how external additions can influence internal singing processes.

I strongly agree. In teaching, I often see “tools” in teachers’ studios- elastic bands, body balls, pipes for practicing slow, steady breath release– a common element here is exactly that contact from an outside object, that makes you aware of the outlines and alignment of your body. In opera chorus, women often have to deal with corsets– and realize just how strong and active their intercostal muscles are. So, it goes both ways. Those headphones may seem heavy and prohibitive. Are we shortening our instrument? And/or are we being made aware of how finely tuned and balanced our antagonistic muscle engagement already is?

I am hesitant to use objects, myself. I’m not convinced of the correlation– the effective transition from feeling engagement with an object, versus feeling that engagement within oneself. In addition, I think an “object” that exerts a more inhibitive force on us, while singing, than any of these others– is our imagining the critical scrutiny of others. It’s pretty much entirely invented. But it can stop us from breathing abundantly; from moving extravagantly; from taking our rubato to daring / fun extremes—