Help Your Tongue Do Only What is Necessary
Most singers know that the tip of their tongue should rest gently against the bottom teeth. Few realize when it is not. Heightening awareness of what is actually happening with the tongue can produce quick results in beauty of tone and comfort during production.
To develop an awareness of what your tongue is doing, look in the mirror. Be diligent to focus on the tongue and what it is doing for each of the five singer vowels. You can see what vowels are the culprits and what vowels are helpful as you strive to keep the tip of the tongue where it belongs. If the tongue continues to pull away from the bottom teeth when singing, try speaking the vowel and see if it still does the same thing. Often the tongue behaves more naturally when speaking. If so, you can analyze what you are doing differently when speaking vs singing and adjust accordingly.
If a mirror is not close at hand, you can place an observational finger just behind the chin bone, where the bone is no longer felt and the flesh is soft and squishy. Keep it there and work through the vowels. If you feel this area tighten and push against the finger, that’s tongue tension. Removing unnecessary tongue tension will release your sound and production will feel more comfortable. Of course, some amount of tongue tension is necessary to create a defined vowel. The trick is to only use what is necessary. Generally, however, the tip is key and it’s ideal placement is to rest gently against the bottom teeth.
Love To Win vs. Hate to Lose
What motivates me to give the best possible performance when I walk onstage? What attitude do I take to rehearsal? When I consider accepting a role or concert set, does the difficulty or simplicity of the piece excite me or make me want to run for the hills?
Commentator and former tennis champion John McEnroe made an interesting comment during the Wimbledon Men’s Single’s final on July 6, 2014. He said he was always a player who hated to lose and wished he could have been more like his primary rival, Jimmy Connors, who loved to win. During the 2014 championship, Novak Djokovic vs. Roger Federer, he said that Djokovic plays like he hates to lose, and Federer plays like he loves to win. “On the surface it sounds like the same thing, but it’s not,” he said. Since hearing this, I’ve thought a lot about my own motivations as I approach singing and performance.
First thought, love is positive and hate is negative. When our major motivation is positive, we are likely to have thoughts like, “I want to get this down tonight,” “I can’t wait to sing this piece,” or “I love to perform.” If our major motivation is negative, we are more likely to have thoughts like, “I wonder if I am right for this role,” “I hope I don’t suck tonight” or, “I can’t wait until this show is over.” Further, we find ourselves saying “no” to projects we aren’t sure we will excel in. A role that seems overwhelming, or a vocal range that is on the edge of being right for us, we will simply decline. We would rather turn down the offer than embrace the challenge.
In an article for Psychology Today, Nate Kornell, Ph.D. says, “psychological research shows that people vary on a continuum called regulatory focus. Promotion-focused [positive] people are driven by the thought of winning. Prevention-focused [negative] people are driven by the desire to avoid losses. You love to win or you hate to lose. Most of us never think about regulatory focus. We assume we love to win AND [hate] to lose. But think about it, because it can change your desire to engage in competition in the first place.”
After a successful performance, how do we feel when the ovations and curtain calls are over? If we feel exhilarated and want to jump up and down and hug everyone in sight, we love to win. If we are glad we survived the night, glad we didn’t mess up and glad the whole thing is over, we hate to lose.
As performers, we have an opportunity to shift our focus toward what’s positive. So, as we get ready for our next audition, or we go to our next rehearsal, or we head onstage for our next performance, we can think to ourselves, “this is a great opportunity for me to share my talent and hard work. I’m ready. I love performing and I’m going to savor each moment … and win.”
Controlled Breathing in Vocal Exercises
Historically, I have recommended that students start inhaling as soon as they complete an exercise in preparation for the next one with varying results. More recently, I started applying counts to exercises and found that in most exercises, nearly the same amount of time is available to inhale as there is to sing. The singer’s experience, however, is one of not having enough time. To quantify the time, for example, in a basic 5-note scale, up and down, we could count 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-1 all on sung scale degrees do-re-mi-fa-sol-fa-mi-re-do and inhale (2-3-4-5-6-7-8) before the next exercise and count begins. This is 56% singing 44% inhaling, nearly 50%-50%! Students most commonly wait to inhale on count 8. When I call out 2-3-4-5-6–7-8, I am reminding singers to use the 6 counts prior to 8 to begin inhaling. This means singing a shorter last note with grace (not pressed). In so doing, the singer enjoys a longer inhale and a more centered start to the next exercise.
Straight Theatre and Musical Theatre
After asking two Directors, a Choreographer and a Costume Designer, I came up with the following take-home message on what to wear to an actor or actor/singer audition. Classical Singer auditions are similar with the possible exception of dance trunks for women.
1) Wear character shoes or heels to auditions. Taller women should carry a pair of flats with them just in case they may be paired with other, shorter actors. Shoes should be easy to get in/out of.
2) Wear a dress to auditions with dance trunks underneath. You never know what might happen. You may be asked to do a cartwheel or handstand. Be prepared!
1) Wear dark dress shoes. They should be comfortable, shined and easy to move in.
2) Wear a dark, long sleeved shirt. Jacket and/or Tie optional. Dress slacks, solid color.
No jeans, no tennis shoes/sneakers/Keds. Avoid white top unless you are wearing a jacket (it detracts from your face). Avoid short-sleeved shirts.
Specific Recommendations for women from …
1) I always (play or musical) recommend character shoes because they tend to lift actors into a character. Flats can affect posture.
2) A women should only wear pants if all of the characters she is hoping to play are pant women. She should carry a change of clothes in her audition bag in case they ask for movement/dance.
Choreographer/Female (musical theatre)
1) It really depends on the show, the role desired and the actor. Character shoes say “I want to show you my dance training.” (They should be prepared to back it up). However a great pair of street heels say “look at me now and listen to me sing.” (Shows confidence in their vocal ability). Girls 5′ 7″ and over should always throw a pair of flats in their bag in case they are paired with a short scene partner.
2) Jeans are not appropriate for auditions. She should appear “pulled together” vs too casual. If she chooses a dance dress she should wear dance trunks and tights to be prepared for anything. The audition notice should clarify if they are doing dance auditions or not. Usually it’s a separate call.
1) Personally, I only want to see character shoes at a dance audition. The trend is to wear really cute shoes and a cute dress. Your shoes should be functional, so not a very high heel. Flats are always good too, as long as they are cute. Investing in audition clothes/outfits is tax deductible and necessary in this business.
2) I think wearing a dress is always awesome. If you have a gymnastics background always wear dance trunks under your dress. Not only will she look great, she will look prepared. The only time I wear jeans is if I know the theatre is very informal. Even then, I wear boots and a blazer. I do a very polished informal look.
1) In regards to shoes, I would say heels are best, if not the only option. As mentioned before it shows off a better posture than wearing flats would. Also it portrays the actress as more confident and mature. For straight plays, not musicals, regular heels would be better, than character heels, but something she can take on and off easy should they ask her to do so. A heel height taller than1.5 inches but not over 3 is most likely best. Neutral colors are better; I would have to say nude/tan is the best option. Make sure the actress practices walking in the heels before the audition! Also it doesn’t hurt though to bring a pair of flats in her bag just in case.
2) Definitely wear a dress. It’s more formal, and its what’s expected from the people she is auditioning for. Something that fits her body well, nothing too sexy or too frumpy, just enough to be feminine. As far as colors go, keep it neutral and basic. Nothing too distracting, like loud patterns and colors. A basic green or blue is always a good bet. She will definitely want dance trunks under her dress; you never know what may happen, even for straight theatre! Tights I would say are optional, whatever she is most comfortable with.
For Men …
1) Shoes for men are tricky. They want something formal but not very clunky. Regular dress shoes are very heavy and bulky and draw too much attention to one’s feet, versus the selling point, one’s face. So I would suggest wearing something sleek and slimmer in design, such as a pair of wingtips or even just a very tight-looking shoe. No tennis shoes or slip-ons. Make sure to match the color of the shoes to the outfit. For example brown shoes go well with khakis or slight pants while black shoes go best with black or very dark slacks. Also, always make sure to match the color of the shoes to the belt! Brown with brown and black with black!
2) Men’s attire should look relaxed but still formal and presentable. A good choice for a top is a nice button down, make sure it is well pressed, and then I roll up the sleeves and unbutton the top 2 buttons. Good colors are green, blue, and rust orange/red. You will want to see what color works best with your eyes and skin, but you will not want anything too loud because you don’t want it to distract from you and your performance. Then pair it with khakis or dark slacks. Make sure to pair the pants properly with the top, like black slacks with a darker color while khakis go well with lighter colors.
Producing the Alveolar Trill or Rolled “r”
The rolled “r” is common in Spanish (“Rápido corren los carros”), Italian (“Prostrarre”) and Russian (“Russki teatre”). It is present in Scottish English (“Round the rugged rocks the ragged rascals ran the rural races”). Generally, we don’t find the rolled “r” in American English, but it sure comes in handy for classical singers — imagine “The Trumpet Shall Sound” from Handel’s Messiah without a rolled “r”, or the elocution lesson in “Singin’ in the Rain”—“Moses supposes erroneously” without a rolled “r”. It’s just not as good!
The “back of the throat” rolled “r” (spoken French) is not the same as the Alveolar Trill or “front of the mouth” rolled “r” (spoken Spanish).
- Tongue placement is key. The alveolar ridge is located behind the top front teeth. It’s the area between the soft palate (roof of the mouth) and the front teeth. If your rolled “r” doesn’t work, experiment with where you place the tip of your tongue before releasing air.
- Tongue relaxation is key. The back, or root of the tongue should be relaxed. Some of the exercises below are designed to relax the tongue where needed and energize the tongue where needed. If your rolled “r” doesn’t work, it could be that your tongue is too tense.
- Air flows between the tongue and the alveolar ridge. This should feel like sighing than blowing. If the air stops, the tongue will not flutter.
Exercises for developing a Rolled “r”. (You don’t have to do them all, just until you meet success):
1) Repeat the phrase: “Put it up.” Say it slowly, and then increase speed. Observe the placement of the tongue, which is essentially where it needs to be for a rolled “r”. As you repeat the phrase, remain relaxed and send more air through the tongue as you increase speed–like a breathy sigh.
2) With a Scottish accent, say: “that’s great.” Having the hard “g” before the flipped “r”, helps release the back of the tongue. Be sure the tongue relaxes after making the hard “g” sound. Increase the intensity of the Scottish accent and you may find yourself rolling the “r”.
3) Say the phrase: “Vision Dream.” Do so very, very slowly, elongating every vowel and consonant. Crescendo into the “n” of “visionnnnnnnn”, prepare the tongue for the “d” of “dream” with a “stopped d”. The pent up air flowing from the “n” crescendo into the stopped “d” leads to a burst of air into the “r” of “drrrrrrrrrrrream”.
4) Say the word “Dracula”. You can do this with an eastern European accent to help get the flipped “r” going, then the rolled “r” rolling. Notice how the tongue moves loosely but quickly from the tips of your teeth to the roof of your mouth. Try other words using this tongue combination: Drake, Trade, Brake, Pray. Flip the “r” by making it a “d” sound. Elongate the time the tongue stays on the alveolar ridge with a stopped “d”, then allow the air to burst through the “d” into a rolled “r”.
5) Push Trill Method. This uses the mechanics of a French rolled “r” to remind the tongue how to vibrate in another area besides the alveolar ridge. Many find the French “r” much easier to produce than the rolled “r”. To begin, start a vibration in the back of your throat. Think of a mild hock-a-loogie action. This places the back of your tongue at the back of your soft palate. Once you can get this trill full and constant, add voice and try relocating the vibration forward by touching the tip of your tongue to the alveolar ridge.
6) Raspberry Method. This assumes you already know how to blow a raspberry or to do a Bronx cheer. Place your tongue against the underside of your top lip and blow air between the tongue and top lip. This sound is technically known as an “unvoiced linguolabial trill”. There is a great similarity between a raspberry and a rolled “r”. Both sounds feature the tongue vibrating against the underside of either the lip or the alveolar ridge. Blow a raspberry; add voicing by humming. Continue the voiced-raspberry and lower your jaw as quickly as possible until the tongue shifts from you upper lip to the roof of your mouth. If quickly doesn’t work, try moving the jaw down slowly.
7) Bilabial Trill Method. If you are able to produce a lip trill, get it going. While continuing the lip trill, try placing the tip of your tongue on the alveolar ridge while allowing your cheeks to puff out like a chipmunk. If the tongue begins to flutter, you’re halfway there because you’re now producing both the lip trill and the rolled “r”. Observe the sensation in your tongue. Slowly, after several successful attempts of producing both sounds simultaneously, try releasing the cheeks and lips and drop the jaw slowly while maintaining the rolled “r”.
Genetics and environment are two factors that determine one’s ability to roll the “r”. Conditions that may prevent you from producing a rolled “r”:
- Some have found that if you can’t fold your tongue, or roll your tongue, you will likely not be able to roll your “r”. If you can perform either of these tongue tricks, chances are you can learn to roll your “r”.
- Tongue Tied Condition (ankyloglossia inferior, or tight frenulum) where the piece of skin inside the mouth located below the tongue (where the tongue joins the lower palate) is too short and the tongue cannot reach to top palate for any dental fricatives.
- Cleft Palate. When the two sides of the soft palate have not fused properly during fetal development.
The Lip Trill
The lip trill is a great tool for getting the body and breath to do a number of things related to singing, without having to think about them. A lip trill is a focused, hummed sound, produced while the lips trill, flap or flutter. Make sure your lip trill is not breathy, but produces a focused tone. Also, make sure the neck and face remain free without excess tension. The tongue is relaxed.
A lip trill requires consistent airflow. It also, requires very smooth or molto legato singing, almost to the point of blurring or sliding from note to note. When changing notes, avoid double tonging, like a brass player would do to achieve pitch clarity. A singer’s pitch center comes from length of time on the pitch, rather than hitting or pointing out each pitch.
Practice exercises for producing a lip trill:
1) Inhale and sigh-hum on your exhale. Now inhale, plug your nose and sigh-hum with the same amount of air passing between your lips. Air can no longer escape from your nose because it’s plugged. If air simply escapes without a lip flutter, it could be that your lips are too loose or too tight.
2) Wet your lips and pout your lower lip. Sigh-hum across relaxed lips. Plug your nose if air is escaping there. Think exhale, not blow. Air should gently flow over your pouty lower lip.
3) Place your flat fingers on either side of your mouth –your facial cheeks– to pooch the lips forward and nudge them into a somewhat vertical position. Loose and vertical might look like Lucille Ball when she gets caught doing something she knows Ricky won’t like and blurts out, “eeeeiiiiiwwww”. In this position, move your lips together and exhale through your lips.
4) Say “brrrrrrr” like it’s really cold outside. You can also try “drrrrrrr”. Do this while blowing out, purposely puffing out your cheeks. It’s the puffy cheeks that may help you with just enough tension to make sure the lips flutter.
5) Your lips are the entire orbicularis oris muscle (all the way around your mouth), not just the lipstick part of your lips. The lips should be loose, not wide and tight like a flute player’s embouchure.
Once you are able to produce a lip trill, practice exercises on a lip trill followed by words or various vowels. You will find your breath is more consistently managed. Similarly, practice a long, challenging phrase on lip trill. Do this, and then sing the text. Frequently, the body learns a more efficient use of air and the phrase becomes easier with breath to spare! Try practicing an entire piece on lip trill, and then go back and sing the text.
Some singers find it difficult to produce a lip trill altogether. Fear not! Some of the benefits derived from a lip trill can also be achieved using a rolled “r” or other voice consonants like a sustained “v”, “th” or “z”.
Give it a try!
Controlled Breathing: Strategies for the First Entrance and Between Phrases
The concept to “breathe early” is common, but to do so on a set beat gives the concept some structure. The singer will engage in the piece sooner by counting (not just listening to the intro), breathing makes the singer a physically active participant before phonation and breathing calms nerves.
1) When a first entrance is preceded by an intro, use the time to begin controlled breathing. The inhale should reach it’s peak just before phonation—i.e. avoid inhaling and holding the breath, waiting to come in. A more frequent bad-habit is to wait too long, and inhale the nanosecond before the first sung pitch. This creates panic right before the first phrase, the breath isn’t full and the soft palate and larynx don’t have time to assume their proper positions. Breathing early creates calm and guides the palate and larynx into position naturally — lifted palate and lowered larynx.
Given a hypothetical 4 bar intro, in 4/4, try something like:
Bar 1: Intro begins, attention, we’re starting, exhale to prep for …
Bar 2: inhale slowly beats 1, 2, 3, 4
Bar 3: exhale slowly beats 1, 2, 3, 4
Bar 4: inhale slowly beats 1, 2, 3, 4 in the shape of the first sung vowel
Bar 5: Sing
The same strategy applies mid-piece, when an entrance is preceded by a long interlude. Set a controlled breathing strategy here as well.
2) When a phrase begins without an interlude, or even a rest between phrases, prepare the body for the next inhale by not over-singing the final note of the previous phrase and lifting the sternum in anticipation of the next breath. After a phrase nears completion and the last note is being sung, exit elegantly—this often means, decrescendo. A frequent bad-habit is to hold the last note of a phrase too loud and too long. It takes time to release the body to receive the next breath. If the body is stuck in singing-support mode, there’s not enough time to release it and get a breath in a short period of time. That’s not to say the last note doesn’t need support, it does — but the body can prepare for the next inhale by taking pressure off the final note, lifting the sternum and thinking ahead to the next inhale.
Make Practice and Memory Happen
1) Students who record their lessons progress faster. It’s a good way to capture foreign language pronunciation and hear the sounds you make in lesson while trying different placement suggestions, etc. You will be surprised what works and what doesn’t as you listen back. Record!
1) Set aside time to practice. Treat it like a rehearsal and put it on your calendar. If it helps, sign up for a room at a school or church and go there like you would any other rehearsal with a choir, theater or opera company, etc. It’s a discipline. If you only practice when you feel like it, it won’t be enough. Schedule it and do it.
2) Record your practice time. Talk to the recorder and tell it what you’re trying (modifying the vowel toward “oe” or “u” or “a”, etc.) Then try something different and tell the recorder what you’re doing “that one I was thinking, ‘more forward’ or ‘more inside.'” When you listen back, you can reference what sounds better with what you trying at the time. It’s easy to forget what you were thinking while recording, so mark your practice with comments.
1) If you need to perform from memory, memorize early, not the night before (or the morning of)! You don’t have to sing to practice memory. Speak the words and work yourself up to being able to do so quickly. Practice saying your text while walking or driving, thereby challenging yourself with distractions. There WILL BE distractions in performance, so you need to practice being distracted. A siren may pass on the street outside the performance space, someone may sneeze or walk in the room unexpectedly, the lights may flick or go off for a period of time, a small earthquake may shake the room. These are all things I’ve experienced in performance, so relish distractions in your practice time.
2) Write out the text without referencing the score. While writing the first draft, you may have to look at the score almost every word, but make yourself do this. Each draft will get easier. Do this until you can write out your lyrics without double-checking. Typing or handwriting is fine–both work. The pace of writing is much slower than speaking, so you lock in the words and melody (no doubt you will be singing phrases in your head as you do this exercise) into the deeper recesses of the brain. Also, you are engaging a kinesthetic (physical) connection with the words as you write them out. This also sets the piece into your deeper memory.
1) Record, Practice and Memorize!