What makes a great singing lesson? Part 2
Finding Focus in a great singing lesson
In the second of this three-part post, internationally renowned vocal coach and author Jeremy Fisher shares his top tips for a great singing lesson
Whether you’re a singing teacher, a vocal coach or a singing student, a great singing lesson has three ingredients:
Form, Focus and Feedback.
My first post here examined Form. Let’s explore the second ingredient:
Focus means the content of the lesson – what you are concentrating on. So for example, a great singing lesson with Focus will look like this
Listen – Analyse – Target
A great singing lesson really needs all three of these. Let’s break them down
When I was learning my craft, I used to play for singing lessons with different singing teachers. You would be amazed how many teachers had already decided what to focus on before the student arrived (“today is resonance day”), whether the student needed it or not
Singing is a moment-by-moment process. How you sing depends on how you feel, what your understanding is, and sometimes what’s just happened. The ideal is to be able to sing at the same high standard every time. To do that, you have to accept where you are when you start – and life is not ideal!
So it’s part of the teacher’s job, and part of the student’s process, to spend the first few minutes of a lesson listening to find out where they are right now. You can use the warmup or skill-building sessions I wrote about in the first of these posts here, or you can “tune in” using conversation, physical movement exercises or stillness
What’s my mood (colour, feel, emotion)?
What’s my mind doing (is there anything stopping me from wanting to sing)?
What’s my body energy right now (tired, listless, bouncy)?
Only when you accept and acknowledge the state you are in when you arrive for a lesson will you be in the moment. And when you are in the moment, you are ready to move forwards
Listening is lovely, but passive listening will not move you forwards. You need to analyse what you are doing:
What is happening with my voice right now? Focus on Feel, Sound, Movement, Colour, Shape.
Notice this isn’t yet about getting exercises right or singing correct rhythms in your song. This is about tuning in to where you are at that moment vocally.
Doing this (which may only take a minute) sets you up to be present, open and engaged in your singing lesson.
It’s rare in my experience to find singers who have been taught to analyse and correct efficiently. Here’s how it usually goes: You sing a phrase, something doesn’t work. You go back to the beginning of the phrase and try again. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. You either repeat or just go on, but you’re not sure what you did (other than perhaps stand on one leg or make a different face…)
The first thing to analyse is precisely at what point in the song/exercise things are not working. Sing the phrase again, and focus on just the point where you think it falls apart. Then back up two or three notes and sing from there. If that’s ok, back up another few notes and sing from there. You will usually find something going awry that you didn’t notice before. This is because the part that isn’t working correctly isn’t always where you think it is. The error often happens a few notes or phrases earlier and causes a more obvious error later.
Errors fall into five broad categories or TEMPT
- Technical (a vocal production or resonance issue)
- Emotional (you can’t sing it with the expression you want)
- Musical (rhythm, pitching or melody shape)
- Plot (your story isn’t clear, or your chosen peaks don’t match the writing)
- Textual (difficult or wrong words)
Once you’ve discovered where you’re going wrong, and what type of error it is, you’re ready to…
You’ve listened, you’ve analysed, and when things aren’t quite working for you, you need to start targeting the problems.
Here are a few suggestions to focus on that may help you improve:
The melody – are you singing the correct notes? Are you sure? You’d be amazed how the slightest waver of confidence in the melody can affect your singing. Sing the phrase r–e–a–l–l–y slowly to make sure.
And if you’re riffing, sometimes it helps to have worked out some of the riffs beforehand. After all, most riffing is based on interchangeable patterns – make sure you know what the patterns are!
The words – are you singing the right words? What are the actual sounds of each word? Forget how they are spelt and pronounce them r–e–a–l–l–y slowly. Can you feel/hear/taste what’s going on?
Very few words have just one sound (“ah” has one, but “oh” has two – it’s a diphthong). Do you need to do them all, or does your singing style not require it?
And where does each part of the word fit – before, on or after the beat? In general, a word like “love” will need the “l” to sound before the beat.
If you want to stay in time, start the vowel on the beat.
Do you need to sing the under, on or above the note, or glide around the pitch? Gillyanne’s book Singing and the Actor contains a song with the words written as they are sung, with consonants, vowel changes and rhythm positioning indicated. It looks nothing like the printed text!
Remember that there’s no real “right or wrong” here. Each music style has different quirks. In operatic writing such as in Puccini’s La Boheme, you can (and should) slide between the notes quite a lot – it’s part of the connected sound and legato singing style required. In Jazz, you wouldn’t do much sliding as you’re often matching piano or wind writing, and tight rhythm is essential. Consonants in Opera, Musical Theatre, Jazz, R&B are treated very differently – touched, kicked, glossed over, removed, even stretched.
A great singing lesson is one where you emerge feeling and singing better than when you arrived. Although what I’ve described here looks like a lot of work, once you’re into the Listen-Analyse-Target process it’s actually the fastest way to move on, to begin embedding good skills, and to get quick results
In my next blog post, I’ll discuss the third vital ingredient to a great singing lesson – Feedback
In the meanwhile, here’s to your Focus for a great singing lesson!
PS If you want to experience the sort of laser focus that Jeremy brings to a lesson, either in person on online, click here for more details