What would you consider to be the main focus of your career, or your “specialty”?
I specialize in evidence based voice pedagogy within Contemporary Commercial Music (CCM) styles. CCM is an umbrella term that encompases all styles that have been produced for popular consumption. So that would include genres like musical theatre, jazz, blues, pop, rock, and R&B, basically any style performed to make a profit from sales to the general public. That is different from European art music styles such as classical art song, oratorio, and opera that are donor funded in the United States. Donor funded artists have freedom to create without worrying if the result is popular with the public. However, commercial artists are always evolving as their audience evolves. When I’m working one-on-one with a client, we focus on their specific genre and talk about it with the appropriate terminology. But for larger pedagogical discussions, the acronym CCM is helpful to help distinguish big picture differences. Another way to look at these differences is to compare acoustic and amplified singing styles, which really gets to the heart of the difference between most styles.
How did you discover your calling for your speciality? How did it start?
I always wanted to sing in a rock band and do musical theater, but I come from a working-class family where money was not available for me to get the training necessary to pursue those dreams. So instead, I went to my local state university as a music education major. Within the first few weeks of school I was asked to be in the opera. I had a low and loud voice, so it was a great fit and I was excited that I found a place where I could take advantage of my low range while also pursuing my love of acting. After two years, I ended up transferring to a world-class Conservatory on a significant scholarship to pursue my operatic dreams, but my heart was always anchored in rock and roll and musical theater. When I was in grad school pursuing an operatic career, I took a required voice pedagogy class. At that point in time I thought voice science was nonsense, and that I should be studying with famous performers instead. Boy was I wrong. It turned out I needed the complete opposite – someone who understood vocal function. I had my biggest breakthroughs once I understood how the voice worked and soon found myself correcting my own problems.That was the initial spark that made me realize my calling was to teach others so they would not have to go through the same struggles that I did when I was getting started. When I eventually found myself more interested in teaching my students than performing in shows, I knew it was time to commit to a full-time teaching career.
What do you love the most about your work?
There is nothing more rewarding to me than helping someone overcome the barriers that are standing in their way and watching them succeed on the other side. It is the greatest feeling in the world. I also love that there are very few “rules” in CCM styles as opposed to classical styles. There is a narrow window of options for singing Mozart, but you have unlimited possibilities to cover a song by a commercial artist. Even in musical theatre we are seeing standards falling to the side. Some creative teams want more of a pop flair in some Golden Age roles while others like a more traditional sound. That gives artists a lot of room to decide who they are, what they do best, and where they want to focus their work. It’s exciting to be their guide on their artistic journey, which is a much different mindset and approach than the more rigid mentor/student model that a lot of us were trained in when we were getting started.
In your opinion, what qualities do you feel make an “excellent” Vocal Pedagogue?
First of all is empathy. It’s hard for expert teachers to remember what it was like to be a beginner. Unfortunately, my beginning was so rough, I have yet to shake those memories. The self-doubts, the struggles, the frustration, I remember all of it very well. I think teachers who can empathize with the student in front of them are more likely to provide the kind of emotional, technical, and artistic support that a singer needs. Not everyone has to go through hard times to become empathetic, so by no means do I think that’s the only path. In fact, I wasn’t naturally empathetic when I started, because that wasn’t how I was taught. But through a lot of personal development work, I discovered the power of empathy and I now try to always do as Dale Carnegie says and “honestly see things from the other person’s point of view.” Knowledge of anatomy, biomechanics, and motor learning concepts are critical. You don’t have to teach the science to every client, but I think a great pedagogue needs to know how the instrument works and have the skills necessary to create a customized and structured plan for each student that takes both the mental and the physical into consideration. Most importantly, excellent pedagogues know that communicating the human experience is the core of what all singers do. All the technique in the world is useless if the artist does not know how to bring their songs to life with stylistically appropriate choices.
Can you speak to the importance of having mentors? How have mentors influenced your life/career? Can you tell us about some of your mentors?
I always say it takes a village to develop an artist, and I feel the same about a pedagogue. The first person to ever believe in me as a singer was Mark Jones, the vocal coach at my first university. If it weren’t for him, I probably would have left college after my freshmen year. My first teaching mentor was my voice teacher at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Beverley Rinaldi. She was the first person to tell me that I should consider teaching because I might be good at it. I also learned a lot from the opera team there at CIM. Gary Race and Dr. Paul Transue taught me to let the actor lead the way and the voice will follow, even in opera, which has significantly impacted my work. In grad school it was Dr. Lorraine Sims who first introduced me to voice science and how I could use that information to be a better teacher. She also mentored me during my graduate teaching assistantship, helping me apply what I was learning in class. In 2009, I was a NATS Intern and was mentored by Jeanie LoVetri and Dr. Scott McCoy, which was a life-changing moment in my career. A year later I was teaching at Shenandoah Conservatory as an assistant professor of voice specializing in musical theatre and pop/rock styles. At that point everything shifted to more of a peer mentoring arrangement with my colleagues. Working as part of a team of faculty all focused on getting the best outcomes from students meant that we all had to work together and learn from each other. My voice and theatre colleagues at Shenandoah Conservatory as well as the entire CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute faculty are all part of the network I turn to when I have questions. I also learn a lot from my colleagues in professional organizations like the Voice Foundation, Pan American Vocology Association, and National Association of Teachers of Singing. That’s a lot of people, but I want to acknowledge them all because I think it’s important for everyone to know it’s ok to build a village that does not revolve around your favorite teacher or mentor. We all have someone who greatly influenced us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from others as well. We are all unique and so are our students, which means we will continuously encounter students with different needs and we will have to consult with others to get the best possible outcomes. I cannot emphasize enough that asking others for help does not mean you are a bad, weak, or unknowledgable teacher. The heart doctors at the Cleveland Clinic are the best in the world. Yet, they all get together to review serious cases before operating. If consulting with others is common practice in heart surgery, there is no reason we shouldn’t normalize the same in voice training.
Building Blocks – Questions About Ten Key Areas of Voice
When it comes to breathing, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
My favorite book about singing is “Respiratory Function in Singing” by Dr. Thomas J Hixson. It is the most comprehensive book I’ve ever seen about breathing for singing, detailing everything researchers know about the respiratory system and how those factors contribute to vocal production. Dr. Kari Ragan has a lot of great exercises in her book “A Systematic Approach to Voice” and Dr. Karen Brunssen has critical information about the aging process and how it impacts the respiratory system in her book “The Evolving Singing Voice.” I like to use the term “respiratory management” or “breath management” when talking about breathing. When you inhale you have the maximum amount of air in your lungs and thus maximum breath pressure. As you begin to sing, the volume of air in your lungs decreases as does the pressure. Every singer needs to understand that process, understand the role of the vocal folds in breath management, and then be able to make adjustments as needed. Those adjustments will usually involve abdominal wall contraction, but it is important to remember that we all have different body types. A singer with strong abdominal muscles will need to use a different effort level when employing abdominal contraction than a singer with weak abdominal muscles. Not only will needs vary among singers, needs will vary from song to song. A breathy song will require a different approach than a belted song. Many songs have a variety of qualities, which means the singer will need to use different strategies in different parts of the song. Now at first this all sounds complicated, but we need to constantly remind singers that we are training motor skills. In the first phase of learning, the cognitive phase, everything seems overwhelming, but if you stick with it things improve. Eventually the singer will enter the motor learning phase, which is where they actually understand what they are trying to do and they only need a little guidance from time to time. Soon they will reach the automatic stage where they no longer have to think as hard about what they are doing and the body will just respond to their needs. So yes, this may seem complicated at first, but eventually it becomes second nature.
When it comes to the larynx, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
I had an opportunity to work on a research project with my colleague Dr. Aaron Johnson at NYU Langone Medical Center. We were able to use real-time MRI to reveal what happens in the vocal tract when we sing different vocal qualities. What we found is that there is quite a bit of variation among singers. In some subjects the larynx was relatively stable, in others it moved a lot. We’re used to looking at the larynx and vocal tract from a cross-sectional perspective, but it’s important to remember that the larynx and vocal tract are multidimensional and full of unique variations among the cavities, bumps, and ridges. These variations are what give each singer their unique timbre. So there are no standard setups or recipes that will work for everyone. Some singers will like the sound of a stable laryngeal position, some will let the larynx elevate on high notes to give them some grit, and some opera singers may prefer a slightly lowered laryngeal position to produce a warm vocal quality. You need to discover what fits each voice and style best and make sure the singer is able to produce the sound they want in a way that is sustainable and will not lead to an injury. Ultimately you want a singer to pay very little attention to the movement of the larynx and instead focus on vowel quality or color variations that yield laryngeal changes. However, if a singer does not have an accurate map of laryngeal movement, has an existing tension or weakness that is getting in the way, or lacks coordination, exercises that focus on the movement of the larynx can be beneficial.
When it comes to the vocal folds, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
We are constantly learning more about the vocal folds and we’ve reached the point where we are getting into some really detailed research that is fascinating but may not be immediately applicable in the voice studio. So I try to keep it simple with my clients. The vocal folds create the buzz in a voice which is then amplified by the vocal tract. Vocal tract adjustments determine which frequencies released by the vocal folds are amplified or attenuated thus creating variations in vowels, consonants, and timbre. Singers need to know how to alter the vibratory pattern at the vocal fold level. Traditionally pedagogues have discussed these vibrational variations with terms like chest, head, and mix. There are also many alternative terms used in different methodologies. I’m not as interested in what terms we use as I am in the singer’s ability to coordinate the intrinsic muscles of the larynx. As long as the singer is able to sing both breathy, buzzy, and everything in between throughout the range, they will be able to make a wide variety of sounds to communicate their stories. That’s what is most important. To do this I begin with a lot of work on sustained pitches. I have the singer sustain a vowel on one side of the spectrum (breathy or buzzy), then smoothly transition to the other side of the spectrum, then smoothly transition back to where they started. After they have mastered single pitches in both directions, we advance to glides, then stepwise patterns, and finally arpeggios. This work is tedious, so I am constantly reminding my clients that they are developing the coordination of five muscles – the thyroarytenoid, cricothyroid, interarytenoid, posterior cricoarytenoid, and lateral cricoarytenoid. That’s really complicated and the brain needs time to work out the fine motor control. So you have to trust the process, do the work, and not let negative self-talk get in the way. The payoff in the end is huge. When a singer can make any variation of mix on the spot, they can do anything they want with a song.
When it comes to acoustics/resonance, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
There is a lot of great research illuminating how commercial and musical theatre performers make resonance adjustments to produce the various vocal qualities we hear in their performances. One thing that seems to be universal among the findings is that there are no universal resonance strategies in CCM styles. In classical singing there is a fach system that is used to define traditional vocal qualities and there are pretty standard resonance adjustments within each fach. However, in commercial and musical theatre styles, audiences don’t want a codified sound, they want unique voices. That means that one artist’s resonance approach to a high note may be very different than another person’s and both versions plus many others could all be considered “acceptable” for the song or style. So in my work, I show clients all the options and guide them to make their own decisions about what sound they want for any given moment. Singing in CCM styles is all about storytelling and mood setting, so the same vowel on the same pitch may require different approaches in different songs. I don’t spend much focus on forward placement when teaching. In classical singing, you need to maintain consistent strength in the “Singer’s Formant Zone” which we commonly call ring or buzz. That’s what lets the voice be heard over an orchestra without a microphone. But when you have a mic, you don’t need to consistently produce energy in that zone. It’s up to each performer to decide what they like. If a singer does want more ring in the voice, more forward placement, they will need to focus on coordinating the vocal folds and vocal tract to produce that quality. To get that forward ring, you have to produce enough high frequency energy at the vocal fold level for the vocal tract to amplify. Then you need to get the right vowel shape. When you find the sweet spot between vocal fold energy and vocal tract quality, you will get an acoustic boost that will give you that ring in the voice. Many singers will feel their facial bones tingle and if that happens, they may interpret the result as forward placement. That’s fine. The key is letting the placement reveal itself as a result of vocal fold and vocal tract adjustments instead of “placing the voice forward,” which can often create unnecessary tensions in the vocal tract.
When it comes to registration, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
I define registers as a series of pitches with the same timbre produced by the same basic function at the vocal fold level. The voice is a nonlinear system, which means that changes to one part of the instrument will impact the function of other parts of the instrument as well. While I often talk about registration as a vocal fold level event, technically registration is controlled by adjustments of both the vocal folds and the vocal tract. However, the non-linear interactions are very complicated, which is why I usually talk about registration at the vocal fold level first. Any time I am doing vocal fold level work, I am simultaneously training freedom in the rest of the vocal tract, specifically in the jaw and tongue. That way as coordination improves in both parts of the instrument, I can merge the two together to fine-tune register choices. As we try to define the different qualities technically, I use the terms chest, chest-mix, head-mix, and head. But when we start working on songs, I switch to story-driven terminology. Terms like chest, head, and mix do not automatically stimulate a mental connection to the purpose of the lyric. In fact, if the student is focusing on technical language as they sing, they will not be able to commit to the story. So when working on songs, I start saying things like “exhale more like you are releasing this feeling” or “sing to them like they are one foot away from you” to elicit a lighter/headier registration. If I want a more chest dominant registration, I might say “push them away” or “sing like they are fifteen feet away” or “call out to them.” We also talk a lot about how people would talk in a given situation and carry those characteristics over into the song. This work gets them thinking about making vocal choices based on the story they are telling, which is critical to giving high level performances.
When it comes to vocal health, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
Most influential tip – you only have one set of vocal folds and you cannot replace them like you can replace a knee or hip, so take care of them. The basics are hydration, diet, warming-up and cooling down. A good general rule for hydration is to drink half your body weight in ounces of water per day. You will know you are drinking enough water when your urine is clear. As for diet, make sure you are giving your body the calories, vitamins, protein, and fats you need to stay healthy. Healthy has no universal shape or weight, so these dietary adjustments are not about looks or numbers on a scale. This is only for your physical health, which will help your vocal health. Your whole body is your instrument, so you need to make sure it is nourished. If you suffer from acid reflux, go see a doctor to explore your options. Untreated reflux can lead to serious vocal health problems. Before performing make sure you spend 10-15 minutes warming up. I like to use Dr. Ingo Titze’s framework from his article “Favorite Five Vocal Warm-ups for Singers.” Start with some sort of SOVT work, followed by ascending and descending glides, then isolate the movement of your tongue from the movement of the jaw by placing the tip of the tongue below the bottom teeth and singing “ya ya ya ya ya” on a 1-3-5-3-1 pattern moving only your tongue. The fourth exercise is the messa di voce. I modify this to the same exercise I use to teach mixing, which is transitioning from breathy to full to breathy on a single pitch, then reversing it to full to breathy to full. If the singer has time, I ask them to do the same exercise over the interval of a fifth. Beginning with a breathy sound, transitioning to full voice on the fifth and then transitioning back to breathy. I then have them do the reverse as well. The final step of the warm up is to sing staccato on a 1-3-5-3-1 pattern. This does a great job of awakening the voice and getting it coordinated. To cool down, start with a very slow 5-4-3-2-1 pattern on /u/ in the upper part of the range in head voice/breathy quality. This stretches the folds, which is important to maintain easy high notes. After stretching, finish cooling-down with SOVTs. Perhaps the most important component of maintaining vocal health is addressing your mental health. Your emotions and your voice work closely together and the connection is critical to human communication. This connection is what powers the inflection that enables others to pick up subtext when you talk. If you’re going through a highly emotional situation or a song triggers memories that bring back strong emotional responses, you may feel it in your throat. The muscles around your larynx are contracting in response to your emotions and it can really affect your ability to sing a song. The good news is you can work through this with the help of a voice teacher and mental health specialist. I cannot overstress the importance of a good therapist, they are an essential part of your support team. Staying in a good place mentally will have a huge impact on your performance and the quality of every other part of your life as well.
When it comes to style, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
Here’s the advice I give my students. Whenever you are studying a style, make sure you are also studying the culture and history of how the music came to be as well. Styles come from communities and those communities have shared history, beliefs, and experiences that influenced their creative activities. Read history books and biographies, watch documentaries and YouTube videos, and listen to podcasts to learn as much as you can about creators you admire. Listen to music from every decade of the style you sing and learn songs from all the different eras. We are all influenced by those who came before us and the greatest performers know their roots. So it’s important that you learn the roots too. Most importantly, you can only learn so much from intellectual work, the real learning comes from doing. So get out there and start performing at open-mic nights, get together with friends and have jam sessions just for fun, then either start developing your own solo set list or put together a group. Then give yourself time. The media likes us to think that most artists just appear out of nowhere, but 99% of the time, there was a good 5-10 year journey behind the scenes. Finally, don’t try to please everyone. You don’t love every song you hear, so it’s unreasonable to expect everyone who hears your songs to love them. I suggest you focus on the 1%. That’s the group of people who love what they do. They come up and talk to you after a performance, they follow you on social media, and they stream your songs. There are 350 million people in this country. If you get 1% of them to love your work, you will have 3.5 million fans. That’s more than enough to have a pretty amazing career. You have to stay true to yourself, do the work, give yourself time, and think outside of the box. The world doesn’t need another <insert name of favorite artist> the world wants something new and you might just be what someone is looking for right now.
When it comes to posture, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
I recommend the book “What Every Singer Should Know About the Body.” It is based on Body Mapping, an approach created by William Conable. Conable’s philosophy is that we often make inefficient movements because we do not have an accurate mental map of how the body is actually designed to move. I’ve always thought the same thing about the voice, which is why I like this approach for the body. By helping students develop an accurate map of their structure, we can help them learn to evenly distribute their weight across the six points of balance. This will help them let go of compensatory tensions that arise as they attempt to assume physical positions they are not designed to assume. With a well-balanced structure their ribcage can function as it was designed to, which makes respiratory management much easier. When the cervical vertebrae carry the weight of the head without engaging the neck muscles, it’s easier for singers to find laryngeal freedom as well as freedom in the vocal tract. If a client has significant structural imbalances, then I refer them out to a bodywork expert.
When it comes to teaching methods for communicating complex ideas about singing, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
Read up on motor learning principles. Understanding the learning process from the cognitive phase to the motor learning stage to automaticity will change the way you build exercises. Look into motivational interviewing, it’s an approach that will help your clients identify their own roadblocks to making progress. Read “Stick with It” by Dr. Sean Young, a great book about the science behind breaking goals into small chunks that learners are motivated to master. This improves client compliance, satisfaction, and progress. When introducing a technical concept, use models, images, and animations to make sure the student has an accurate map of their instrument. I don’t want my clients to think about mechanics when they sing, but if something goes wrong, it will help them troubleshoot on their own. Finally, never stop learning. In the classical world you can write a book on Mozart or another famous composer of the past and be considered an expert on that subject for the rest of your career. There are only rare new discoveries at this point, so there’s not a lot for you to keep researching. However, CCM styles are always evolving and as soon as you feel like you’ve caught up with what you need to know there’s a new breakout artist or musical and things start shifting again. This is scary to some teachers, they feel like they can never keep up. You’re right – you can’t. That’s why we all need to shift our mindset away from the mentor/artist model of voice training where the teacher is expected to be the expert and the student the novice. That model just doesn’t work in CCM styles. Instead, adopt a guide/artist mindset. You are the guide, helping the artist in front of you find their way. That doesn’t require you to know everything about the student’s style. It requires you to know where to find the answers when you need them and how to reverse engineer so you can help singers produce any vocal quality they want in any song they want to perform. It takes a village to develop an artist, so find out where you fit in and be the most productive member of the village that you can be. Finally, always remember that when in doubt, refer out. There’s always someone else in the village who can help when you encounter a special case. Referrals eventually become reciprocal and everyone benefits, most importantly the client.
Final Thoughts (Words of Wisdom, Recommended Books and Resources)?
Be the teacher you wish you had when you were in need. Be supportive of every singer you work with even if they have a long way to go. My high school choir director discouraged me frequently – I’m glad I didn’t listen. However, many can never let go of that discouraging voice and it haunts them for years to come. If you come across someone you can’t help, recommend them to someone else. It’s ok to say “I’m not the right fit for this student.” There’s an old saying that those who can do and those who can’t, teach. That’s an outdated and misinformed point of view. Those who teach have a calling and a deep desire to help others. You don’t have to be a world-class performer to teach world-class artists. You just have to open yourself to new experiences, continuing education, and personal development. As your students get better, push yourself to get better by digging deeper and deeper into the artistic side of what we do. That’s where the polishing happens and that’s where you will eventually set your students free. When their voice follows every nuance of the story they are telling, they will be ready to share their full selves with their audience and that’s when the magic happens. The good news is the whole process is a lot of fun and will lead to a rewarding and sustainable career.
If you want to learn more about my work visit my website EdwardsVoice.com, you can learn about the CCM Institute at CCMInstitute.com. My book “So You Want to Sing Rock ‘n Roll?” is available online through your favorite retailer, and I have two online courses “How the Voice Works” (how-the-voice-works.com) and “Singing with Style” (singing-with-style.com).
Please note that Matt Edwards is not affiliated with VocalPedagogy.com and we do not disclose contact information. We hope you enjoy the interview!