Singing teacher resources in the 21st Century

Robot apple for the teacher?

Robot apple for the teacher?

Teaching vocals in the 21st Century

Specialist TV series like Glee (focusing on high school choral music), or generic competitions like X Factor and The Voice (any music genre as long as it’s entertaining) have raised expectations for young performers

In the not-too-distant past the route to being a singer was

“Teen fan <New performer <Emerging artist <Gigging professional <Recording artist”

Now it’s more like

“Teen Fan <Teen Songwriter <Teen Online Media star”

Today it’s possible to have millions of fans worldwide without an industry recording contract. The duo Karmin used home-recorded covers (and Amy’s astonishingly fast rap skills) to get YouTube attention and TV appearances

When the brilliant a capella group Pentatonix were dumped by their record label after winning a nationwide TV singing competition, their textbook use of online media got them 785 million YouTube views, over 7 million subscribers and a Grammy

The role of the singing teacher in the 21st century is changing

Now you need to help developing voices stay in reality and still sing the music they like. Key to teaching sustainable vocal technique (and keeping your students interested) is an understanding of the demands of different genres

Classical vocal technique aims for smooth, matching sounds, lyrical legato delivery, a wide vocal range and a warm, mature tone that carries acoustically

Musical Theatre vocal technique aims for conversational diction, multiple sounds based on character and many chest-voice-based tones and variations able to stand up to 8 shows a week

For rock, pop and contemporary music singers, vocal technique is needed less for voice building, more for maintaining their chosen vocal style through recording sessions and three-sets-a-night gigs

Comfort zone

Dr Gillyanne Kayes’ research into the female singing voice found that the singer’s vocal comfort zone was one of the most important factors in vocal ‘health and safety’. And the successful professional singers she researched, no matter what genre they worked in, sang in keys that closely fitted their comfort zone

Here’s an exercise to find your comfort zone:

  • Count out loud from 1 to 10, as if you were talking to a friend
  • Start to extend the pitches that you are speaking on (intoning) and notice where you voice pitch is sitting
  • Without “singing”, start to make small pitch glides, like little sounds of agreement, sliding your voice up and down on a vowel
  • Notice the lower and higher notes of the glide and extend until you feel you have to work, or alter something, to continue. This is your approximate comfort zone
  • NB Most vocal comfort zones cover about a 10th in range, depending on where you start. Men usually have a slightly bigger comfort zone range than women due to their longer and thicker vocal folds

Comfort zones reveal something about your voice and best working pitch range. If you listen to Jessie J speak and sing, her comfort zone is high for an adult, which is why she can knock out repeated notes an 11th above middle C in modal voice

Comfort zone and voice change

Comfort zone becomes even more important when a singer is going through voice change (roughly between 11 and 15)

The 5 stages of voice changes in boys’ voices are well documented – look out for diminishing pitch range, lowering of the speaking voice and huskiness
The 4 stages of female voice change are less obvious and sometimes meld together, but the signs to look out for are the same

Don’t be afraid of the transpose button on your keyboard to keep a song sitting within each singer’s comfort zone

It’s ironic that the majority of pop music, which seems to be aimed at young consumers, sits low in the female voice and high in the male voice (both difficult areas in adolescent voice change)

Warmups, Riffs and Vocal Mixes

Vocal style is part of technique, and includes how you sound and how your voice moves between the notes. Most popular music singing is based on a particular type of vocal fold vibration – modal (think chest voice rather than falsetto). Rock, pop, blues, garage, rap, almost every style uses a chest-voice-based sound for men and women. The exception is male soul music as many male singers sing in falsetto

Singers need to move their voice, so warmup routines and exercises are still essential. But classical vocal routines, based on major/minor scales, won’t really work for rock and pop singers – they need routines based on pentatonic scales. Check out Kim Chandler’s “Funky ‘n Fun” CDs for a great collection of pop vocal exercises based on real industry patterns

And if vocal riffing is their thing (and not yours), get up to date with American musical theatre singer Natalie Weiss and stun your pupils with your new riffing abilities. In her excellent “Breaking Down The Riffs” series on YouTube (BDTR) Natalie analyses riffs by divas such as Beyonce, Jessie J and Tori Kelly and teaches them onscreen to a non-riffer in under 10 minutes

Everyone is using the new buzzword (Mixing) but very few people can tell you what mixes with what. Vocal Process specialises in online professional development Webinars that give singing teachers the tools to understand, produce and teach different chest voice mixes, from below middle C to more than an octave above. This allows the singers to use a more ‘natural’ style of voice production that is expected in contemporary music styles

There is more vocal style advice from our colleague in Sweden, Daniel Zangger Borch. The comprehensive book Ultimate Vocal Voyage is packed with style and technique advice for the contemporary singer, and comes with a CD of examples and exercise patterns to practise

Pimp my voice

My favourite type of 1-1 singing lesson is when a singer brings in videos of five different recording artists and says “How do I do what they do?” We spend the time analysing the sound, the style and the onsets, and then getting the singer to do them but in their own voice, rather than a straight imitation of the video. Do this with individuals or small groups, or open it out to discussion and experimentation

Singers going too fast to analyse? Apps such as the Amazing Slow Downer help to slow the recording down to a speed where you can hear individual riff notes without losing the pitch. And for great voice analysis apps, check out the Vocal Process free report on “Six of the Best Apps for Singing Teachers”

Online coaching

And a final word for online coaching. When our artists tour Australia, start rehearsals in Japan or arrive at the Los Angeles studios for their recording session, Gillyanne and I are just a Skype or Facetime call away. We’ve even sat in and advised on recording sessions while they’re happening. The singers get the precise coaching they need, without having to fly us 3,500km and back

Voice training for rock, pop and contemporary singing is still in its infancy compared to classical singing, but there are solid, practical, well-researched resources available online. Check them out!


Six of the Best Apps for Singing Teachers (free report)
Six of the Best Vocal Anatomy Apps for Singing Teachers (free report)
The Singing Teacher’s Retreat (professional development for the 21st century)
Funky ‘n Fun CDs
Breaking Down The Riffs with Natalie Weiss
Professional Development Webinars for singing teachers online
Ultimate Vocal Voyage book, Dr Daniel Zangger Borch Faber Music ISBN: 978-9185575190
Amazing Slow Downer

Jeremy’s article was commissioned by the Singing Teacher magazine for the Music Education Expo 2015 and is reproduced by kind permission of Rhinegold Publishing