Understanding the connection between proper breathing and great singing is essential to your success. But it can also seem a bit silly to re-learn something you’ve been doing your entire life! Here, Pittsburgh teacher Jen V. shares how she explains the technique to her students…
Have you ever thought about what happens in a voice lesson? The preconceived notion is a room filled with musty old books, a well-worn grand piano and a 90-year-old woman who smells of Aquanet and flecks of Poligrip. You walk into your lesson and are welcomed with a hearty handshake and are instructed to take a seat on the rustic piano bench to begin your scales. This version of a musical education might suffice for some people and for all intents and purposes, it works just fine. However, sometimes what gets forgotten is that particular scenario can often send students running for their lives for fear of Mozart and vocal arpeggios.
As a vocal coach who specializes in working with children and teens, I have come to understand two very important things in my career: 1) Everyone thinks differently, and 2) voice lessons should be eagerly awaited, not feared.
If you are one of my students, you’ll walk into my studio, and the first things you’ll see are a plethora of colored balls, toys, colored pencils, and various brilliantly colored straws (and other equally rainbow-inspired teaching tools). There is a reason for this. Dressed in fabulously colorful socks and mismatched accessories, I have a desire to not only teach you and your child to sing music, but to live it, love it, and truly understand it.
In order to do that, proper breathing technique is the first building block to healthy singing. When performers have a firm grasp on the elements of proper placement, they are able to understand more advanced topics, such as phrasing, down the road. With breathing, it is often a concept that is hard to grasp. How can you understand something you can’t see or touch? Color. I help them understand how their breath relates to color. “What color is your breath?” I ask. “Blue,” says one student. “Green!” exclaims another. And sometimes, I get more personalized responses like “bubblegum sparkly pink” or “midnight black.” It can really be anything your mind imagines! Allowing students to be creative in every step of the way, this gives them complete control over their instrument, often giving them license to be free and uninhibited in the process. Once the student has a specific color in mind, they can then apply the structural underpinning and scientific facts (their logic) to each element.
When this isn’t enough, I break out the 40 differently colored straws, block sets, and toys to give my students a hands-on learning experience. Actually seeing the colors in action in relation to the notes, is sometimes a worthwhile opportunity. I then instruct the student to “build their breath.” I simply guide the student (giving them all the creative freedom they desire) to construct what their breath means to them. I tell them, “Pretend you are holding your breath in your hand. How do you breathe in? How much energy does it take?” Having a physical connection with the concept truly does wonders for the learning process.
Once the student has an understanding of breath, we move on to the music. When you look at a sheet of music, it can be a daunting task to shift between the black dots set on a backdrop of squiggly lines. I break this into separate building blocks. I ask, “how do you see the notes in your head?” “I never thought of it before” is often the response I get, and then they have some kind of epiphany. To take it a step further, I’ll assign a color to each note, like the ROYGBIV of the rainbow.
From this, I utilize several formulas I have constructed to further cement the ideas of notes, scales and chords — recently copyrighted as “The JMV ROYGBIV” concept. At the core of the approach, different color patterns are matched with various music theory concepts. For example, a major element might be visualized as a bright, happy color (like sun yellow), or a minor element might be portrayed as a dark, gloomy color (like tornado grey). Suddenly, my student’s confused understanding of sheet music is transformed into enthusiastic comprehension.
Learning to sing should be a joyful experience. Sometimes to accomplish that, we need to really listen to our students and add a splash of color. Not only do we teach the notes and rhythms; we bring them to life. Regardless of whether music is a career or a hobby, a voice lesson should be something everyone runs toward – not away from.
Jennifer teaches singing, music theory, opera voice, speaking voice, and acting lessons with students of all ages in Pittsburgh, PA. Her education and licensing includes a Bachelor’s degree in Music and a Master’s degree in Classical Performance Wichita State. Find out more about Jennifer, or visit TakeLessons to search for a music teacher near you!
Photo by Daniel Pink