Teaching mix in a college environment is a challenge. Its much more challenging than teaching my private students and clients…
First, the singing schedule and course projects burden even the hardest working A-level students. First semesters sing with a band in a Rhythm and Grooves class at least once a week. Their homework load is unrelenting. Auditions, showcases, performances, gigs… the schedule for a Berklee student could stand up to that of any professional touring musician in terms of hours in the day, performance pressure, and battle fatigue. But the Berklee students are barely out of their teens, with little real world experience, undeveloped voices and lots of peer pressure.
So, how could I, and my students, not only survive but thrive is this environment? As much as I was aghast by the conditions I saw here my first semester of teaching at Berklee, I am not a quitter. I decided to face the challenge – I knew if I could help singers develop a strong mix here, so they could sing with power, flexibility and expression, I could do it anywhere.
So here’s what I’ve learned:
Singers do best when they have a lot of good information about the body
When singers have a busy schedule and a lot of physical and emotional stress, the tools of vowel and volume and “ney-ney-ney” go along way, but they are not enough. A singer’s emotional and physical experience can be quite confusing in the best of circumstances, but in the Berklee environment, its can be mind-boggling. But, I’ve found singers adapt really well when they understand the muscles of their body.
Simple, direct information from any respectable anatomy source goes a long way to help students calm their minds and focus even when they can’t hear, or feel what’s happening. This means quality anatomy information, not “voice teacher speak”, but anatomy photos and general anatomy descriptions of respiration and how the body works – like 4th grade science basics. Knowledge isn’t only empowering, it’s a great stress-reducer.
Train hearing fast!
Although most intonation issues are cured by balancing the registers, singers’ respond even faster to vocal training when musical hearing is amped up. Training musical hearing isn’t something extra, its part of training mix. Its really remarkable how often a student can be working on a song, having some trouble on a bridge note, but as soon as they note what note it is, they can solve the balance problem themselves. And it gives them confidence so when they’re in a tiny ensemble room getting blasted by the freshman drummer who doesn’t understand volume yet, they have something solid to back up the “ney-ney-ney”.
Teach rhythmic “feel” immediately.
Likewise, when young singers have to sing in demanding environments immediately, they’ve got to be connected to the feel of the music because that’s the best chance they have that whatever training they’ve had will “kick-in.”
If a singers is doing vocal scales without a feeling for the beat, they will sing songs the same way, contributing to the difficulty of applying technique to songs. But if they create the habit for feeling the beat, or swing or phrasing right way, in their first vocal scales, they will go to that immediately in a song. Then, when they are in an intense audition situation, there is far less chance they will reach or push for the high notes – the rhythmic feel will take over before the bad habits have a chance.
Teach phrasing and inflection as soon as possible.
Singers with a daily demand on their singing can’t wait until the mix is consistent and reliable – they have to sing even though they don’t have a mix yet. I can’t control which songs they are assigned in every class, although I can influence it. Learning phrasing and how to inflect words for expression gives them another tool they can use in those stressful situations when they can’t hear themselves or the ensemble is changing tempo every few measures.
I have found that working these approaches into the mix vocal technique training from the beginning, not after a few weeks of balancing the registers, helps singers develop faster and have more confidence.
And, the survival toolkit for singers is the same as for teachers. Even better, prepare students with these skills before they even apply or get accepted to a college or conservatory. When singers have a strong background musicianship training, like hearing, rhythm and “feel”, (even in classical and MT), and they know how to inflect words for expression, they are ready to face the pressures of any environment.