Don’t Be A Dobby, Get Yourself A Rose Book!

A while back, I wrote about becoming a positive listener and the importance of being able to hear the positive things that are being said to us in a singing lesson.

Sometimes the need of training positive listening stretches outside of the singing lesson. We might not only be unable to hear the positive things that are being said to us in a lesson, but we might also be deaf or “immune” towards other positive comments or feedback about our singing in general, or about the shows and concerts we give.

I was reminded of this today, when I worked with a fabulous singer. She has her own show and is touring with it internationally, something many singers are dreaming of doing. Not only does she have a singing career that leaves many singers jealous, she can “sing the stars off the sky” – as the Dutch saying goes (“de sterren van de hemel zingen”). In other words, she can sing challenging repertoire including “Defying Gravity” from Wicked, like many singers would only dream of singing.

I’ve been working with this singer for a while and I can recognize when her “Inner Censor” is kicking in during the singing lessons, analyzing and making opinions about her own singing as the song proceeds. She’s like many other singers I know, making comments while we are singing (either verbally: “that sounded awful”… “that was supposed to sound different”…. or non-verbally, by rolling eyes or with various cringing facial expressions).

What breaks my heart is not only that she doesn’t believe my positive comments about her singing, but also that she is like so many other singers out there who keep telling themselves they absolutely suck at everything, despite all the positive comments they receive from their audiences, teachers or peers. It’s as if there’s this whole bunch of singers who act like Dobby the House Elf from Harry Potter, who keeps punishing himself. Instead of taking in the positive comments, we like to do this to ourselves:

 

DON’T BE A DOBBY, PLEASE…

I’d like to share another tip for becoming a positive listener with you, because we talked about it today with the singer I worked with. It’s a simple and powerful strategy: you document and keep track of all the positive feedback and comments you receive (about your singing, or sometimes even about other things). Keep doing this at least for one month.

This is especially good for people whose ‘Inner Critic Voice’ has become way too loud. And in case you wonder if your ‘Inner Critic Voice’ has become too loud, you’ll recognize this if:

  • people tell you they loved your show
  • if you keep being booked to do the job again and again
  • if your vocal coach tells you what you’re doing is great
  • people in your audience are touched or moved to tears
  • or similar things

…but you still can come up with 1000 reasons why you are not satisfied with ANYTHING AT ALL about your singing.

 

photo credit: studio-d via photopin cc

photo credit: studio-d via photopin cc

 

THE ROSE BOOK

Christina Kürstein-Lecocq, who was one of my teachers at Complete Vocal Institute, once called a collection of positive comments “The Rose Book”, and because I really like that name I keep calling it the same. “The Rose Book” could be a notebook or journal (or iPhone/iPad app) in which you write down ALL the positive comments and feedback you receive. Think about those positive comments, and now imagine someone giving you a bunch of roses after a performance you’ve had (see why I love the name?).

…and now, I challenge you to keep a Rose Book for the coming month! 

Here’s how it goes:

Write down every compliment you receive during the coming month. It might be a compliment about your singing. Or it might be a compliment about other things. Read your Rose Book and your compliments daily, or at least once a week. 

Don’t be a Dobby, get started today!

Become A Confident Singer By Working On Your Listening Skills

Why is it often easier for us to say what we don’t like about our (singing) voice, than saying what we do like about it? Why is it easier for some to accept negative feedback than to genuinely take in positive feedback?

Some time back, I decided to ask all the singers I worked with what they like (or think is beautiful) about their voice. Most of them could not answer the question. Instead, they started laughing or blushing and became all uncomfortable even thinking about the possibility that they could think or say something positive about their own voice. They said they had never even thought about it.

I used to be like that. I did not even think there existed such a possibility as me having my own positive opinion about my own voice. That would have felt arrogant. I allowed other people to have an opinion about my voice, be it negative or positive. But not myself…unless it was a negative opinion.

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Photo credit: jpellgen via Photopin.com

Suffering From Selective Hearing

I find a positive learning environment extremely important, but I also do believe the teacher is not the only one responsible. The singer is responsible too, for their own reactions, thoughts – and for their hearing!

I used to think I was being ‘realistic’ if I thought negative things about my singing. But boy was it confronting to find out I was actually a negative listener!  I realized I suffered from selective hearing, meaning I had a difficulty hearing the positive things being said to me because my mind decided to only listen for negative things.

I found out I was paying lip service to ‘accepting positive feedback’, while actually constantly fishing for negative remarks. If there were no negative remarks, I’d ASK for one (“for the sake of getting it even better” of “for the sake of my development”). Can you believe it?! That’s like asking someone to slap you in the face, just because you have heard it ‘helps build character’!

If you are suffering from selective hearing, like I did, it can be a hard habit to break. It will require some serious training, and thought-stopping. But it is possible. Do yourself a favor and stop slapping yourself in the face. You deserve so much better.

Becoming a Positive Listener

In their book ‘Power Performance for Singers: Transcending the Barriers’ Shirlee Emmons and Alma Thomas write about the importance of becoming a positive listener.

Very often, because of the nature of their training, singers may have an inclination to hear only the negative things that are spoken to them. The ability to hear the positive things that are being said is an important skill to learn.

 

Does “Inclination to hear only the negative things” sound familiar to you? Here are some tips for developing positive listening skills (Emmons & Thomas 1998, p. 105):

Listen for the positive things that are said to you. No matter how small they seem, they are important to you.

Set yourself this goal before you go to your lesson or coaching: to listen for and hear the positive things that are said to you

Try to practice this skill in all areas of your life […] so that you become accustomed to what it feels like.

Always acknowledge any compliments that are paid to you, no matter how small or who has said them. Get used to saying, “Thank you,” without feeling embarrassed. […] Do not fall into the trap of saying, “Thank you, but my —- wasn’t very good today.” Take the positive compliment for what it is worth and feel good.

 

©2012 Katja Maria Slotte

If You Can Talk You Can Sing?

Some of you might know the Zimbabwean proverb: “If you can talk you can sing, if you can walk you can dance”. Is this true or is it one of these things that idealistic singing and music teachers post on their classroom and studio walls?

I have to admit: years ago, when I was teaching music in an elementary school, I too had a banner like that on my classroom wall… And my reasons for having such a banner in my classroom were mainly based on the idealism of a young, enthusiastic music teacher. Years have passed since I taught in that particular classroom, and in the meantime I have spent a lot of time studying the voice, the anatomy and the physiology of the voice, the principles of healthy sound production, and the techniques behind specific sounds. I’ve worked with singers of all levels, from children to adults, and from beginners and “tone-deaf people” to professionals and recording artists. So it’s time for a reality check. Would I still have such a banner in my studio?

Yes. But with a little correction. I firmly do believe that anybody with healthy vocal folds can talk and also sing. And…now comes the ‘but’: Singing is an ability that needs to be developed like any other ability. So let’s rephrase the proverb:

If you can talk you can (learn how to) sing.

 

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Photo credit: State Library of Victoria Collections via Photopin

Understanding How The Voice Works

I don’t believe anybody would come to think of asking a person (adult or child) to play a song or a scale on a musical instrument without having learned HOW to play the instrument first. Yet, when it comes to singing, an attitude is often assumed that ‘you either can do it or you can not’. And subsequently: if you can’t do it, you better shut up and let those who can, do it.

Singing in tune is often the main aspect we focus on when we define if a person can sing or not. I do agree that singing in tune is an important goal in mastering the ability of singing. But there are other aspects that need to be taken in consideration as well, even before we consider the aspect of singing in tune (and how it is done).

Just like we need to learn how to play a musical instrument, we need to learn how to play our instrument (the singing voice). In order to do this we need to understand how our instrument works so that we can work with it instead of against it. Understanding how the voice works will also help us understand what singing in tune is, how it can be done, and what we can do about not singing in tune. We need to understand the techniques behind the various sounds, so we can learn how to use our instrument, make different sounds with it and control it. We also need to develop awareness (and later on, control) over aspects such as pitch, melody, rhythm, dynamics, and so on.

Singing Careers And Fame Belong In Other Discussions

The ability of singing can be developed with the right instruction, in a positive learning environment, through successful experiences, through trial and error leading to new insight, by practicing in the right way, and last but not least: by singing. The more time we spend exploring the singing voice and making music, listening to and learning from other singers, the more we learn about the language of music, the deeper our understanding becomes.

If you can talk you can (learn how to) sing…but not everybody will have careers in singing. And not everybody with singing careers will become famous singers. A singer can be famous in one country, and completely unknown in another. Some singers become world famous, but that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with their singing skills. Singing careers and fame belong in different discussions. But one thing is for sure: everybody has the possibility and the right to learn how to use their singing voices, to enjoy singing and express themselves through singing and music.

©2012 Katja Maria Slotte

Choosing a Vocal Method

Yesterday I gave two workshops  for the singing students of the Jazz & Pop department at ArtEZ Conservatory. The workshop was an introduction to the techniques in CVT (Complete Vocal Technique), I gave a presentation about the philosophy behind CVT, an overview of the techniques, and worked with a couple of singers individually in a masterclass. I enjoyed working with the students a lot. They were eager to try out different sounds and techniques, and asked me a lot of good questions. One of the questions that I got yesterday inspired me to write this blog post.

What made you choose to study Complete Vocal Technique instead of some other vocal method?

What a great question. Before I go ahead and answer, here is an important thing we talked about with the students yesterday:

Techniques and methods are not important, singing is!

Let’s not forget that singing technique is not a goal in itself. What is important in singing? Vocal performance is. Vocal performance is dependent on the message we deliver and the expression we use to deliver our message. Without a message and without expression, there is no vocal performance (at least no performance worth while listening to!). Tools that help us deliver our message include: interpretation, sound, rhythm, melody, and text. Vocal technique is merely a tool that helps us create the sound we want, to sing the melodies we want (or need) to sing with more ease, and so on. Vocal technique also exists to helps us keep healthy while doing this. Whenever we talk about vocal technique, it’s good to remember what its role is in the big picture.

So why all this need for vocal methods?  Why do I have to know about CVT of EVT or [singing method name here] in order to sing? I have news for you: you don’t have to!! If you want to sing, just go ahead and sing! You only need vocal technique if you are not able to sing the way you want to. Or if the way you sing brings you trouble and hoarseness and strain. Those are the only reasons you need technique. If you can produce all the sounds you want, reach all the notes you want, and you never get hoarse, you don’t have to study singing technique. You are DISMISSED!!

Different people, different approaches

Luckily there are (and have been) pedagogues and researchers who are passionate about the voice and want to find out how it works, in order to help singers solve problems that they encounter. This is a good thing. The reason there are different methods is that different researchers have been focusing on different aspects of the voice, and different pedagogues have had different philosophies about the voice and vocal pedagogy. And how great is that, because that way you can choose the approach that suits you and your personality the best. Every method also keeps developing, because research is ongoing and because teachers are all individuals that come from different backgrounds. This also means, not every teacher of a certain vocal method will be exactly the same.

Every singer and teacher has a path

After completing my Master of Music degree at the Sibelius-Academy in Helsinki, I had learned a lot about singing but still had lots of unanswered questions about the voice. This was not because my teachers were not good, but because you cannot learn everything about something during any study. I decided to go look for more answers and to keep learning. I found an approach that provided me with answers, helped me develop my own singing voice further, suited my personality and style of learning, with a pedagogy and philosophy that I liked. That approach happened to be Complete Vocal Technique, developed by Cathrine Sadolin. It is not called ‘Complete’ because of some ‘we know it all’-thought, by the way, but because it contains techniques for every style of singing and also for the speaking voice. I learned so much more than just technique in the 3-year CVT singer/teacher course at Complete Vocal Institute in Copenhagen.

But CVT is just one part of the ‘package’ that creates the teacher-me. Yes, I am an Authorized CVT Teacher, but I am most of all a vocal pedagogue. I have other things in my ‘teaching backpack’ too, some belcanto, some Estill Voice Training, music teacher training, music education approaches like Orff-Schulwerk, Kodàly and Dalcroze eurhythmics, the various music styles I have studied, my own experience as a singer, musician and performing artist, things I have learned through creativity and career coaching, from personal development courses, body-work like Alexander technique, Feldenkrais, Pilates and yoga, working in theater, etc, etc… And I keep adding new knowledge and experience to this package by working in music, staying updated on vocal pedagogy and research, communicating with teachers of other methods, working with logopedists, ENT doctors, producers, choir directors, and countless singers. I keep staying updated in the developments of CVT, and because I love to keep learning I am following workshops and courses with inspiring teachers from other methods and approaches. I don’t really see being certified in a specific method as the only defining factor in how I teach singing. It’s just one of the things that crossed my own teaching path.

Choosing a vocal method

What method should you choose then? The answer is very simple: choose what works for you. Ask questions until you get answers that you are satisfied with, and find solutions to your vocal problems. If something doesn’t work for you move on and find something that does! If you feel you want to pick and mix from different methods, go ahead and do that. And don’t waste your energy on trying to figure out (or prove) why one method is better than the other one, focus your energy on more important things such as singing!

This goes for singing teachers too. Focus on helping singers, teaching, sharing your knowledge and building bridges. Spend less time criticizing, comparing, trying to prove who is right and who is wrong, who was there first and who wasn’t. That’s waste of energy. Focus on dialogue. Share your experiences with your colleagues, communicate with teachers of other methods than the one you teach. We don’t have to agree on every detail or all the terminology. The world would be a boring place if everyone would think the same way and speak the same language. What we can agree on is that we all just want what is best for the singer. Remember that every teacher has a path, and we all share a passion for the voice and a passion for teaching. Try and share those things, instead of focusing on method names and differences. Open doors instead of closing them because of fear of the unknown or fear of competition. There is room for all of us, and we can all learn so much from each other.

©2012 Katja Maria Slotte

This article was originally published on my blog katjamariamusic in February 2012. 

How do you practice?

In this blog post I will share some thoughts and tips on practicing singing – especially on how we practice.

1. Focus

Set a focus for your practice session. Know what you want to work on, and don’t try to work on too many things at the same time. For singers this means knowing what the ‘problem areas’ in your songs are. A singing teacher can help you find out what the cause of your issue is, give you suggestions and tools on how to solve it, and assign you exercises to practice new skills.

Let’s say, that you are experiencing wobbly endings on notes and phrases, and your singing teacher has presented you with solutions and exercises for this problem. You could start your practice session by setting ‘endings’ as a theme for your session. Set the following intention: ‘I will focus on how I finish my notes and phrases’. Then, using the tools your singing teacher has taught you, work on your endings in a focused way. Setting an intention or a focus for your session is like zooming in on a specific detail on a photo. You are aware of the whole picture, but choose for a while to look at only one part of it.

Choir directors and coaches can also choose a theme for the session or rehearsal. Examples of technique themes are: vibrato, volume, twang, raising the larynx, etc. Setting a focus also means that we are aware of not introducing too many tools or tasks at the same time. It is not effective practice to ask the singers to focus on a technique related issue, while also expecting them to focus on timing, or choir choreography.

2. Quality, not quantity

In order to get quality out of our exercises, we need to set clear goals for our practice. Whatever it is that we practice, it is better to perform simple exercises with a clear goal, than to perform many (complicated) exercises without a clear goal. This means avoiding automated “la-la-la-la exercises”, and having a look at what the intention with the exercise is.

Especially when we are introduced to a new technique or sound, it is better to sing simple exercises with less notes than to sing complicated arpeggios, intervals or scales. We need to be able to master singing one note with the new technique, before we can move on to scales, interval leaps, and so on.

 

Edgar Degas [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Edgar Degas: La répétition de chant [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

3. Keep it short enough

In order to stay focused throughout your practice session, make sure the length of the session is allowing you to stay focused. Shorter and focused practice sessions with clear goals are far more effective than mindless, long practice or endless repetition of the same song or phrase. Also, when possible, try to focus your practice sessions to times of day when you have the most energy.

4. Keep track

Another way to practice effectively is to keep track of your goals and findings. If something works out, make a note of what it is that you did, so that you can return to it another time. Your “clues” are depending on your individual learning style. Some people might focus on the position of their tongue, while others focus on a mental image. Auditive learners benefit from recording their practice sessions and voice lessons, so that they can hear the difference between what works and what doesn’t.

5. Bring the exercises back to the song

Singing is not about being able to perform exercises well. Exercises are not useful, unless we are able to put the skills we learn into practice within the context of the songs we sing. Choose your exercises based on the issues you encounter in your songs, and always try out if the skills you have learned through an exercise stand the test of putting it back into the context of the song. When things don’t go like you want them to, keep track of what it is that you did or did not do. That way you can go back and correct the problem. Sometimes you might have to adjust your exercise, or the way you perform the exercise.

 

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An Italian Family, etching by Samuel Alken after Rowlandson, 1785. Wikimedia Commons.

6. Vary practice with making music

Finally, it is important that we vary practice sessions with making music.

This is how I like to think about it: singers have a split personality of some sorts! There is a singer or an ‘artist’ in us, that wants to sing and make music because we have something to express, because it makes us feel good, because we love music, and so on. There is also another part in us – let’s call it the ‘technician’. The technician wants to practice, learn new skills and develop. It is focused on details like technique, sound, timing, intonation, and so on. These two parts need to co-exist, but they cannot be equally present all the time. Can you identify yourself in this “split personality description”?

A common reason for ineffective practice, next to not having clear enough goals, is mixing the desire to practice with the desire to make music. It might help to make a deal with yourself, and choose to say either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to practice. Being focused when you practice means saying ‘yes’ to practice, and telling the ‘singer inside ourselves’ that it needs to step aside and allow the ‘technician’ to operate for a while.

On the other hand, give yourself permission to sometimes say a clear ‘no’ to practice. Saying ‘no’ to practice means you allow yourself to sing and make music without focusing on technique or other details. It means singing songs because you feel like singing, singing for the sake of expression. Saying ‘no’ to practice means telling the ‘technician’ inside ourselves that it has to step to the side for a while.

Also, be aware of when it is that you are saying ‘maybe’ to practice. This might happen more often than you think. ‘Maybe’ is when you are not quite clear about our intentions. It is an in-between state where a part of you ‘just wants to sing’, and a part of you wants to practice. ‘Maybe’ results in an unhappy singer, an unhappy ‘technician’, and ineffective practice. So satisfy your inner ‘technician’ with focused practice, and make your inner singer happy by making music and regularly singing your heart out!

©2012 Katja Maria Slotte

 

This article was originally published in Vocal Blog