Essential Singing Approaches for Contemporary Styles

Jeannie Gagné, Professor, Voice, Berklee College of Music

Adapted from 2015 BTOT presentation with professors Jeannie Gagné, Cassandre McKinley, Maureen McMullan, Laurie Monahan, and Linda Balliro



For vocalists, the body is the instrument. In contemporary styles, singers must rely on the PA system to be heard, which they do not control while they sing, as well as dynamic awareness by their fellow musicians. Our BTOT session was an interactive panel discussion and demonstration led by experts in vocal pedagogy from the voice department, to address how best to work with singers. Topics included the impact of thought on singing, supportive breathing techniques, anatomy through the lens of the Estill method, healthy belting approaches, speech-level singing, recognizing a student at risk for injury, and knowing when a singer should take it easy. This ongoing discussion is especially important in Berklee classes and ensembles, to support singing that is both effective and safe. Below are some excerpts from our discussion.


The power of thought in singing

Because the voice responds directly to conscious and unconscious thoughts, how we visualize our singing has a significant impact on vocal success. Therefore, part of a vocalist’s skill is managing thoughts and beliefs. This can be especially challenging because a singer is the front person before the audience, socially aware that all eyes are focused on him or her, feeling exposed, and frequently fixated on hoping the performance is a success. This can create a fear-based loop that self-perpetuates:essential1


To reduce the impact of performance anxiety that leads to stress, including symptoms that arise when we are fearful, and a less than ideal performance, these approaches are very helpful when practiced regularly:


  • Preparation: Know your material thoroughly. Go into performance confident of your material, knowing you are doing your best. (You can’t be better than your best; accepting this allows your inner judge to take a step back.)
  • Body: Be mindful of your posture. Is it aligned? Are you stretching out your neck, or balanced evenly on your feet? Check to reduce neck and throat tension, gripping of hands, unfocused eye movements.
  • Breathing: Focus on your breaths to allow deep, calm, and slow inhalations. Listen to your breathing. Calm breaths support the singing voice, and minimize the “fight or flight” adrenaline response of the parasympathetic nervous system that responds as if you are in danger.
  • Mind: What is the risk you are taking? You may not like how you sound; you might forget words; not everyone in the audience will love your voice. So what? There is no tiger. You are not in danger. Do you want to sing? Be in or be out. Choose. Be okay being uncomfortable, you’ll survive.




Vocal response

Remember that normal changes in your bodily functions affect vocal response. The voice changes day to day. What you sang yesterday may not work well today, or it may be better. Your voice is affected by things such as diet, sleep, stress, hormonal shifts, illness, and emotional states. Learn your triggers, and learn your healthy habits, too.


Each voice is unique

The human voice is incredibly flexible, malleable, changeable. Because each person’s larynx, pharynxes, sinus cavity, tongue, teeth, roof of mouth, and lips work collaboratively to create an instrumental structure and sonic environment, each voice is unique sounding. New laryngeal studies show us that how each person produces sound may be distinct for that person, even when sounding similar to another singer. This means the teacher cannot expect the student to mimic him or her exactly—it may not be physically possible. Logic would tell us, then, that sounding like “the original artist” is very difficult, because the instrument, thoughts, body, and vocal range are not the same between two individuals.

Teaching the singer

Because the voice is directly affected by thoughts and reactions, how we instruct the vocal student makes a huge difference in successful singing. For instance, instructions that are framed in the negative, such as “don’t sing like that,” will tend to trigger stress, anxiety and fear, which in turn restrict vocal movement and breathing. On the other hand, clear instructions that are geared instead to shift the student’s focus to a new approach—instead of correcting the old one—often reduce anxiety and increase success.




In an ensemble setting, where the PA setting may not be optimized for the singer, students may over-sing and push their voices past safe limits; or, they sing without hearing themselves adequately. When practicing alone and unamplified, the voice sounds very different than it does through a PA and alongside the volume and frequencies of a live band. Adjusting for this tonal difference is another reason why singers may push too hard, even to the point of vocal fatigue or injury. It is not difficult to injure the human voice, though much harder for it to heal.




Consider: Is your student friends with his or her voice? If a student is singing freely, or instead fighting with his or her instrument, certain clues will inform you:

  • Does the student look uncomfortable? Singing in front of others can be intimidating, even frightening. Fear-based singing will hamper results.
  • Is the student’s singing voice vastly different from his or her speaking voice? Is the range completely different? If yes, the student may be pushing the voice too hard into unnatural territory.
  • Is the singing tone clear, or airy? Airiness indicates a lack of support, making singing more difficult. It occurs when air leaks through the vocal folds which are incompletely adducted, or when a student imitates a favorite artist or even a studio effect on a vocal recording.

Body clues

  • Is the chest collapsed, bent or hunched, or up and open? Posture should be aligned, lifted but not tense.
  • Is the torso hunched as if slumped over a guitar or computer? That makes supportive breathing difficult.
  • Does the jaw jut forward, especially on belted or high notes? Jaw tension also tenses the muscles of the larynx and tongue, which results in vocal strain.
  • Does the student “do the Muppet”? This also means the jaw is tight, causing the top of the head to move up while the jaw moves excessively, instead of the jaw opening downward on its natural hinges in front of the ears.

Breathing clues

  • Is the student able to breathe easily? Or, does the student suck in air audibly, or run out of air during a phrase?
  • Are breaths coming from the abdominal area, or high in the chest? High breaths are not supportive; belly breaths are better; the best breaths are supported by the intercostal muscles in between ribs, and by muscles of the abdominal region where the diaphragm is located.



Vocalist Leadership—“TO LEAD OR NOT TO LEAD”

As instructors we are responsible for educating our students on the most effective ways of creating a cohesive and respectful environment in the ensemble, for themselves and with the other musicians. Not all vocalists believe that they carry the same weight as the rest of the musicians in a group. They should not be regarded as less of a musician because they are “just the singer,” nor carry any more or less importance than the other players as the up-front person interacting most frequently with the audience.


How do we balance leadership? An effective leader is in control, yet respects and acknowledges the input and creativity of everyone in the group. Singers are often trained to be followers, not leaders, such as in a school chorus or having a part in a musical. A typical vocal lesson does not always stress musical independence or theory, focusing more on vocal production, diction, appropriate style, and performance skills. To guide a singer toward stronger leadership, these tips are helpful:

  • Always remain professional, respectful, and on time
  • Develop strong musical knowledge to convey your thoughts directly and clearly, without being bossy
  • Know your keys; memorize lyrics and song form, to be independent from the printed music
  • Count off and cut off songs confidently; practice stop time cues or other hits within the tune; understand the groove of the tune
  • Keep open communication throughout a performance
  • Be open to other ideas and concepts, arrangements, etc.
  • Be willing to shift the leadership to others within the group
  • Don’t feel threatened when another musician tries to undermine your authority
  • Be firm and respectful in your response


Maintaining a healthy voice


  • What if you think a singer is at risk for injury? Pushing the voice through injury is serious business. If the voice is hoarse, if sound comes in and out, or if the student is working hard to produce sound, it is time to stop. Many artists have permanently damaged their voices by over-doing it. Adele, John Mayer, Steven Tyler and Julie Andrews are just four well known artists who have had surgery to correct damage from singing through problems. Vocal surgery is very delicate and is not always successful. For Julie Andrews, surgery could not repair her voice to its original luster.
  • If a student is sick, or exhausted, pushing through illness is a bad idea. How do you know if a student is truly sick, or just avoiding an assignment? Welcome to the world of the voice teacher! Here’s our best advice: use your judgment. If the speaking voice sounds tired, the voice needs to rest. If the speaking voice is fine, the singing voice may be healthy enough to use, but still should not be pushed too hard. If the body is exhausted, singing is much more difficult. (Imagine hiking up a mountain on no sleep. Singing is very athletic, too.) Remember, vocal issues are not visible. If you are not sure whether a student should or should not sing, you can suggest that he or she “mark it” by singing gently, or just lead the band without singing. Err on the side of believing the student. That is the safest course.
  • Here’s an effective and safe exercise for a tired or strained voice: sing a soft, clean-toned, simple phrase, such as do-re-mi-re-do on half notes, placed lower in the range. This helps to massage the voice gently toward flexibility and healing.
  • Remember, the vocal folds inside the larynx are soft tissue on top of muscle and ligaments, supported by cartilages. They need to be warm and supple, hydrated, and flexible to work well. The voice needs warming just as any muscle group in the body does before vigorous exercise. Cold muscles can be injured; warm muscles are more flexible. When we sing gently to warm up, blood flow is directed to the voice, and the vibrations of the folds themselves help them to heal and stay conditioned.

Yes, there is a great deal to singing. The voice is a complex instrument with a myriad of responses, just as complex as the human range of thoughts and feelings. The more we learn about our voices—how the voice works, how the mind, body, and spirit affect singing—the better singers and teachers we become.