April/May 2014

by Caitlin Smith

Finding Your Voice: Focus, young Jedi!

by Caitlin Smith

Finding Your Voice: Focus, young Jedi!

Yoda – Sigh… “Always with you what cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say? You must unlearn what you have learned.””
Luke – “Alright, I’ll give it a try.””
Yoda – “No! Try not… Do! or do not. There is no ‘try’.””

When it comes to singing, strange mind-games emerge. I’’m fascinated by our ability to use technique perfectly while warming-up, then lose it completely when practising or in performance.

One student I coached had a beautiful, full sound when ‘toning’ (for sound-healing), but when singing… her voice was constricted, breathy and small. She had separated the two vocal disciplines in her head. Singing meant the voice automatically snapped back into bad habits of a tight throat, breathiness and push.

This disconnect can happen for a number of psychological reasons (i.e. actors forgetting their vocal training when singing, fear, nerves and self-consciousness)

We either use good technique, or we do not. It must be conscious and consistent. If we aren’’t conscientious, we’ll have good and bad days, but no control. It’s nothing to do with confidence, or years of study either. We must learn to choose good technique as a permanent fixture of vocalisation.

For a whole heap-o-reasons, we unnecessarily compartmentalise tasks: thinking singing is totally different to speaking; singing high is way more difficult than lower pitches; playing an instrument and singing at the same time is a struggle (or impossible). These mindsets and assumptions keep us from being present.

We cannot use a technique in the moment if we are fearful, tense, anxious, anticipatory or despairing. We can’’t sing if concerned for a mistake just made, or anticipating a difficult patch in the song that we know is coming up. When it comes to ‘using the force’/technique – we must surrender to it and allow it to transform our sound each moment we’re in its embrace (be it singing or songwriting… No experience, talent, or deep understanding needed. Isn’’t that great? That is the power of ‘the force’.

Technique demands focus – keeping it and not losing it when it’s show-time. When we use a tool like ‘’ng’’ to give smooth onsets during warm-up exercises, we are able to concentrate wholeheartedly and single-mindedly on one task. These specific exercises are like boot camp for ‘ng’ – we know what good form sounds and feels like, and how much is needed within the sheltered environment of singing along with the CD/MP3. Singing warm-ups requires diligent and constant concentration. The same is true when singing.

Stop suffering under the confusion of a cluttered, unfocused mind by clustering all your problems together. Just do one thing at a time – intensely. Consequently, each tool can show us what it can do. There’s no substitute for each tool’s unique superpowers (e.g. you can’’t use twang for an open throat). Understanding what technique is for is most liberating. Sometimes we can’’t fully understand how something works, just be adventurous enough to explore the unknown, often inexplicable. Experience rather than pre-judge.

Don’’t just save technique for the songs you like/respect. The body needs to ‘feel’ and familiarise itself with good technique. It’s dark down in the throat. Vocal cords don’t know if they’’re vibrating in your lounge or Vector Arena. Even the most unlikeable and mediocre song has some merit and point of connection. Find it. Borrow other people’’s appreciation of it. What do you think they like about it? Use technique to get a connection with it.

Find out what you don’’t like about songs you don’t enjoy (e.g. it’’s really high or on your breaking point). Then, focus on the hard parts to do the work and make it easy. Know what you find genuinely difficult – honestly address your issues. Become able to detect your mistakes and shortcomings (e.g. glottal onsets). Focus on solutions (e.g. hyper-nasality is often cured by using facial anchoring to lift the soft palate). Weaknesses are merely opportunities to learn and improve. Don’’t be distracted by anyone else around you.

Become very physically aware, sensitive to subtleties and open to ALL indicators. Record yourself, feel where the sound is in your body when singing and doing yoga stretches, look in the mirror. Celebrate victories and notice positive change when you’re ‘getting it right’ and recognise this. Make it work for you by defining and describing good voice production your way. ‘Parallel process’, that is, deliberately using bad technique to notice/contrast the bad sensations/sounds with the good.

As with people, you think you’’ll love a song when you understand it. Quite the opposite, you’’ll only understand a song when you unconditionally love it. Make songs ‘stick’ as ‘friends for life’ by not judging them. The same goes for your voice, and vocal technique too – when we understand instead of criticise, we’ll have compassion and appreciation for what we’re doing.

Striving for perfection is fruitless, misplaced focus. You’ll make more mistakes because you’re stressed out. So what if you forgot some words?

Analyse your prerequisites for ‘feeling safe’ when singing. Acknowledge that you won’’t always have good foldback, live sound, vocal health or comfort levels. Then you’re not distracted by their absence. Make yourself personally responsible for retaining focus when on-stage or practising. Remain unaffected by your surroundings so you’’re not ‘put off’ (“I can’t hear myself,”)… feel it.

Practice technique on songs you already have fully memorised. Employing technique and being sensitive to its effects cannot happen when you’re reading the lyrics from the page (or screen), or if you haven’’t rote-learned a song so that it’s under your belt.

Using ‘technique’ is like praying for believers, or stretching if you’’re a dancer. We’’ll always need it, especially as we age. Experienced professionals ‘deliberately focus’ even though they’’re very good. Technique is rarely automatic all the time. Give yourself ‘micro-reminders’ (as with taking breaks to stretch when at a computer).

In summary: be present and mindful and make each technique your ‘sole focus’. Be sensitive to where your voice is at all times (check its pulse regularly). Use whatever works for YOU (e.g. gentleness instead of feeling nose buzz for ‘ng’). Focus yourself before singing – don’’t rush into it blindly. Don’’t over think – hand it over to the belly and forehead to sing. Tap into the force that is greater than yourself – the technique of the Jedi Master.
Twitter @BraveCaitlin

support nzm