What would you consider to be the main focus of your career, or your “specialty”?
For many years I was just focused on vocal technique for non-classical singers, these days it’s Performing Arts Medicine, mindset, and resilience.
How did you discover your calling for your speciality? How did it start?
My first career was as a nurse. I hadn’t considered music as a way to make a living and initially nursing fascinated me. Two years after I qualified I realized that jazz and singing were my true passion and calling so I transitioned into performance as a jazz vocalist, and eventually, I did a degree in music.
I started private teaching as a way to earn extra income along with gigs. One weekend I observed voice teacher Leigh McRae run two masterclasses at my university. He was able to improve and help every singer that he worked with, no matter what their issue was. There were many tears of joy and gasps of amazement. I knew at that moment I wanted to have the knowledge and skills to be able to help singers quickly and effectively to sing better, higher and for longer just as Leigh had. This inspired me to discover as much as I could about vocal technique and singing. Leigh had studied with Speech Level Singing (SLS) creator, Seth Riggs in LA, and I followed suit. I eventually went on to become an SLS licensed teacher, which I maintained for 10 years.
In 2012 I brought together my medical background with performance when I did an MSc in Performing Arts Medicine at UCL. My approach to working with performers expanded to encompass a far more holistic perspective. I understand now just how everything is connected when it comes to singing and performing optimally. From what we eat, when we eat, quality of sleep, our mood, health, mindset, belief system, posture, medical conditions, training, past injuries, medication, relationships etc. Now I take a very multi-pronged approach to helping the performer, one that encompasses my varied background.
In addition, I’ve trained as a Clinical Hypnotherapist and Rapid Transformational Therapist so I can also work on the mindset of an individual. This stemmed from realising that no matter how well a singer sang, how ‘talented’ they were, or others thought they were, if the singer had the belief they’re not good enough, not worthy, couldn’t fail, needed to be perfect etc, they would never reach their potential, and worse may never achieve anything as a performer. What a waste! These limiting beliefs reside in the subconscious so the easiest way to get rid of them is via hypnosis. When the singer eliminates their limiting beliefs they can finally allow themselves to explore their full potential with confidence and ease. I love this work!
What do you love the most about your work?
I love solving and untangling problems. What I do is a bit like detective work. Getting to the root of the issue, whether physical, mental or spiritual. A client will come in feeling like they’re a mess, they’re overwhelmed, can’t go on, and need to give up. Then within an hour or two, they walk out feeling hopeful, free, creative, empowered, limitless and full of potential. That’s a very satisfying experience.
I love hearing feedback after the session from clients who now enjoy their voice, performance and singing. How they feel in control of their life and career, that they feel confident when they perform or create. That they are now putting themselves forward for things that they would never have dreamed of before…and achieving things they’d only dared to dream about, or may have never thought of at all.
In your opinion, what qualities do you feel make an “excellent” Vocal Pedagogue?
Being curious, having a growth mindset, a student-centred teaching style, being a flexible thinker, non-judgemental, empathetic, compassionate, having great ears, a solid knowledge of functional singing and the vocal instrument, music and the profession, interest in CPD, having a broad referral/resource list and someone prepared to refer on when it’s the right thing for the student.
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?
Having a mentor and being a mentor are integral to an individual’s growth and development. I have been fortunate to have several over the years, mentors who helped me see things in myself that I did not, who were sounding boards when I was confused and gently prodded me forward when I was out of my comfort zone.
A few who were instrumental included my jazz vocal teacher, Helen Matthews. As well as helping me understand and express myself as a jazz vocalist she wrote my first pro bio, which I used variations of for years. Another mentor was Dr Michael Cohen. He was the owner of a pathology lab I worked at and the first person to see my potential as a leader, he pushed me into a leadership role, and allowed me to use my initiative to improve the role and training of the nurses who worked for the lab. I also compiled and wrote a collection procedure manual whilst under his guidance. This might not sound much but traditional nursing didn’t train me to do such work. I learnt a lot about writing, instruction, putting a word doc together and explaining things in such a way that anyone reading it would know exactly how to do a particular test. He also sparked the unknown entrepreneur in me, though it was some years before I followed that path. Another mentor who came into my life when I joined SLS was Dave Stroud, who was instrumental in turning Seth’s work into a teacher training programme. Dave helped me recognise my worth as a teacher and he also helped me understand how to create a business from teaching and a good reputation as a voice teacher.
When it comes to breathing, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
Reading research papers on breathing tends to raise more questions than answering them! As I understand it to date there are no studies that have been able to identify the absolute best strategies, which muscles we should/shouldn’t engage and when. Most singing research is done using subjects from the Classical and Musical Theatre world, which can be useful but not always applicable in the commercial singing world. I gave up finding the best way for a singer to manage their breath for singing when I read a paper that demonstrated that several professional male singers, singing the same aria, all used different muscles and strategies to equally good effect.
I tend to focus on helping the singer take a full and low inhalation using a strategy devised by flautist Keith Underwood (http://www.sci.brooklyn.cuny.edu/~jones/Shirlee/Underwood.html) and an exhale where the ribs are smoothly and consistently moving in and down, as advised in Breathing Coordination (https://www.breathingcoordination.ch). I’ve recently been exploring Patrick McKeown’s work (https://oxygenadvantage.com). In particular, it has been helpful to calm anxious minds and improve any respiratory deficits caused by Covid. My approach is to eliminate the obvious hindrances such as high clavicular inhales, lack of planned breathing points, shallow breaths and excessive air loss, then I explain what a good inhalation is for sustained phonation and give exercises that encourage a controlled but relaxed release of air when singing and let the body do the rest. It’s a WIP, to be honest.
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?
As mentioned before there is limited research done using commercial singers. The limited amount that is available just indicates we should be doing more research! For my MSc research project, I compared Classical and non-Classical female singers as they sang a major scale from D4-D5 on the vowel AH. One of the measurements I took was laryngeal height. It was interesting to note that in both genres the larynx raised slightly around G4, dropped and then rose incrementally as they continued to ascend, to varying degrees between the genres.
As a result of the literature research I did for my MSc I realised that this area is still much debated and under-researched. My anecdotal observations are that different genres and vocal qualities require different laryngeal heights, and that as a teacher/coach I need to help the singer gain control of their larynx when singing and then they can explore the parameters of what their instrument can do and the desired outcome. I discuss larynx height in terms of High (this is when it’s too high and the tone, pitch, volume and transition are negatively impacted) Neutral High (required for a belted vocal quality) Neutral (speech-like) Neutral low (slightly imposed sound but balanced), and Low (where the larynx is too low and now the vocal folds are unable to adduct – tone, volume and pitch are negatively affected). I help the singer explore the parameters of their laryngeal height and tune into how it feels proprioceptively so they can find the right height whenever they need it. With deliberate practice and repetition eventually, this becomes an automatic adjustment.
I believe we need to account for physiology when we work with the vocal instrument – size matters.
And then there is hypermobility…
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?
There seems to be more research and information when it comes to the vocal folds. In particular around vocal fold pathologies and injuries. I often turn to Ingo Titze’s books, Vocology and Principals of Voice Productions and when possible check out any current research papers coming out on the voice. For years I’ve been trying to find out why the arytenoid cartilages have to have 3 distinct movements (sliding, rotating and tilting) and how we can use that to inform vocal pedagogy. Still waiting for that study. Also want to know how we can isolate the intrinsic muscles to regulate vocal fold mass during the glottal cycle.
I’ve taken exercises from both vocal pedagogies and speech and language pathology where I’ve adapted them to scalic exercises to help singers gain stronger and more balanced vocal fold closure. It can be challenging given we can’t see our vocal folds when we’re singing, so exercises need to have a proprioceptive component. As with all my teaching, I adapt the exercises according to the individual’s needs and state of health.
The key is understanding that the vocal folds need to be well hydrated to function optimally, as well as appropriately warmed up to sing. So many contemporary singers go on stage without warming up! Research seems to indicate that warm-ups are beneficial to the singer and their voice. I am a big fan of Semi Occluded Vocal Tract exercises as a starting point. In terms of what exercises, how long and when – these need to be adapted to the individual, the conditions and requirements of the voice. In other words, we need to experiment and be prepared to adapt accordingly!
Of course, people always want to know how much water we need to drink to ensure well-hydrated vocal folds? I understand that in terms of hierarchy the vocal folds are a low priority for hydration so ultimately we need to ensure we are always well hydrated and the best way to ascertain this is by checking our urine is a pale, straw-coloured yellow. Too dark and we’re dehydrated and too watery and we’re over hydrated. Each individual and day will require different levels of hydration. The age, physical size and health of the individual, environmental temperature, physical activity, altitude, diet, medication and disease will impact our hydration levels.
Dargin, T. and Searl, J., 2015. Semi-Occluded Vocal Tract Exercises: Aerodynamic and Electroglottographic Measurements in Singers. Journal of Voice, 29(2), pp.155-164.
Elliot, N., Sundberg, J. and Gramming, P., 1995. What happens during vocal warm-up?. Journal of Voice, 9(1), pp.37-44.
Guzman, M., Angulo, M., Muñoz, D. and Mayerhoff, R., 2012. Effect on long-term average spectrum of pop singers’ vocal warm-up with vocal function exercises. International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 15(2), pp.127-135.
Herbst, C., Qiu, Q., Schutte, H. and Švec, J., 2011. Membranous and cartilaginous vocal fold adduction in singing. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 129(4), pp.2253-2262.
Kochis-Jennings, K., Finnegan, E., Hoffman, H. and Jaiswal, S., 2012. Laryngeal Muscle Activity and Vocal Fold Adduction During Chest, Chestmix, Headmix, and Head Registers in Females. Journal of Voice, 26(2), pp.182-193.
Miri, A., Barthelat, F. and Mongeau, L., 2012. Effects of Dehydration on the Viscoelastic Properties of Vocal Folds in Large Deformations. Journal of Voice, 26(6), pp.688-697.
Moorcroft, L. and Kenny, D., 2012. Vocal Warm-Up Produces Acoustic Change in Singers’ Vibrato Rate. Journal of Voice, 26(5), pp.667.e13-667.e18.
Sivasankar, M. and Leydon, C., 2010. The role of hydration in vocal fold physiology. Current Opinion in Otolaryngology & Head & Neck Surgery, 18(3), pp.171-175.
Verdolini Abbott, K., Li, N., Branski, R., Rosen, C., Grillo, E., Steinhauer, K. and Hebda, P., 2012. Vocal Exercise May Attenuate Acute Vocal Fold Inflammation. Journal of Voice, 26(6), pp.814.e1-814.e13.
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?
When it comes to voice science it is easy to get caught up in the minutia of sound making. Science is useful but it mustn’t overwhelm the singer, teacher or the art. I know enough about acoustical science to speed up a diagnosis and fix technical issues but I am no expert.
I found Donald Miller’s book ‘Resonance in Singing: Voice Building Through Acoustic Feedback” and Kenneth Bozeman’s book ‘Practical Acoustics’ helpful but I am still far from being an expert in this area. I tend to use my ear and get the singer to play around with their vocal tract shape to find the right balance.
Bozeman, K. 2014. Practical vocal acoustics. 1st ed. New York: Pendragon Press.
Miller, D. 2008. Resonance in singing. Princeton, NJ: Inside View Press.
Sundberg, J. 1988. The Science of the singing voice. DeKalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois University Press.
Titze, I. R , Verdolini Abbott, K. 2012. Vocology The Science and Practice of Voice Habilitation. Salt Lake City: National Centre for Voice and Voice.
Titze, I.R. 2000. Principals of voice production. USA, Prentise Hall.
When it comes to registration, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
Based on my master’s research project I have come to understand that registration is a pedagogical quagmire! Even a three-day conference on the topic (Thurman, 2004) couldn’t come to any definitive definitions, parameters or terminology that everyone could agree on.
I take the approach that as a voice teacher I need to have a broad understanding of registration from a physiological, acoustical and perceptual point of view. I am not married to any particular terminology, rather I let the singer lead here. I think about registers in terms of low, middle and upper registers and that we need to ‘transition’ between each one. I am happy to use any register terms the singer prefers. To help a singer navigate their transitions I use a combination of functional strategies. It seems the first transient (passaggio) is more of a physiological one and consequent transitions are more acoustical. As I am mostly working with contemporary singers my focus is on the transition being around Eb4 in males (Bb3 in a low voice) and Ab4 in females (Eb4 in a low voice). I always do a diagnostic assessment, which will then determine the functional approach I’ll take. For instance, if the singer tends to track the larynx up through the transition I will focus on lowering the larynx in that area. If the issue stems from a vocal track imbalance I adjust the vowel/acoustics, if there is not enough vocal fold closure then I’ll focus on engaging the Thyroarytenoid (TA) or if there is an imbalance of air/muscle I’ll focus on exercises around addressing this imbalance. I use a variety of tools from scales, consonants, vowels, instruction, demonstration and feedback to address register issues some ‘borrowed’ from vocal pedagogies and pedagogues and some I invented along the way.
Echternach, M., Sundberg, J., Arndt, S., Markl, M., Schumacher, M. and Richter, B., 2010. Vocal Tract in Female Registers—A Dynamic Real-Time MRI Study. Journal of Voice, 24(2), pp.133-139.
Henrich, D., 2006. Mirroring the voice from Garcia to the present day: Some insights into singing voice registers. Logopedics Phoniatrics Vocology, 31(1), pp.3-14.
Thurman, L., Welch, G., Theimer, A. and Klitzke, C., 2022. Addressing vocal register discrepancies: an alternative, science-based theory of register phenomena. pp. 2-43.
Titze, I., 1988. A framework for the study of vocal registers. Journal of Voice, 2(3), pp.183-194.
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?
My strength is on the medical/health side. I pull on my nursing and Performing Art Medicine knowledge and understanding, as well as vocal health information I’ve gleaned from ENT/Laryngologists and SLPs. In my first 10 years, I regularly observed ENT/Laryngologist and voice clinics. I’ve been privileged to observe some of the top specialists in this field including Dr Steven Zeitels, Dr Robert Sataloff, Dr Rena Gupta, Dr John Ruben, Dr Declan Costello and Dr Nicholas Gibbins. When I work with clients I aim to ensure they have the information and understanding they need to care for their precious instrument. This starts on the inside! Good nutrition, hydration and sleep. Then the appropriate technical work and a bespoke warm-up routine that’s appropriate for how the voice will be used. For example, preparing for an acoustic gig will not be the same as for a rock band gig. I re-enforce the negative impact of overuse, misuse or abuse of their instrument by reminding them, no voice no gig, no gig, no money, as well as loss of reputation and potentially career, leading to depression! I am pretty forthright, but this way the singer can make informed decisions.
My three top tips are:
1. Get enough sleep – it’s at the root of all our general and mental health and wellbeing
2. Keep well hydrated but forget the counting the litres/ounces/glasses – if you’re well hydrated your pee should be a pale straw yellow colour
3. Regard yourself as a vocal athlete – get a coach, train your instrument (which is not isolated to just the voice – it’s a whole body job) and do warm-ups before singing – physical, vocal and mental.
When it comes to style, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
Moving from classical to jazz challenged me immensely as I had to change the focus from beats 1 & 3, tonal music, non-syncopated rhythms, head resonance, pure vowels, and vibrato to beats 2 & 4, modal music, chest and middle resonance, syncopation, consonants and thinking of my voice more instrumentally. It took me about two years to extract my classical influences and a further four to live with a chestier resonance as I went through to my upper range. And way more to be comfortable improvising.
I worked and studied hard to find my jazz style. I listened to past and present singers, and noted what vocal qualities they used, how they scatted, their phrasing and improvisational strategies. I transcribed and learned scat solos by singers and instrumentalists such as Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Mark Murphy, Betty Carter, Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon. I listened endlessly to jazz artists, to the point I wasn’t able to hear non-jazz music as it dissatisfied my ear!
Eventually, I felt pulled toward Brazilian and Cuban influences. I joined a Samba School in London and played percussion with the band for about four years, I also took drum lessons to become more rhythmically secure. I attended workshops, courses, and masterclasses in Australia, Britain and the States. Doing a music degree was four of the most fun and satisfying years of my musical life!
Working in the contemporary singing world has opened my ears to the amazing things the voice is capable of, but I’ve noticed singers generally don’t want to work too much on their musicality. Many can’t explain what makes the difference between one style and another, musically or vocally. I’d like to see singers being more accountable for understanding the history and evolution of voice and vocal styles, stylistic characteristics and musical nuances. Personally, I find it fascinating, but this could be the nerd in me!
As far as tips on learning style, if you want to become skilled then you have to live and breathe it.
When it comes to posture, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
As a nurse, I’ve always been very aware of looking after my back and neck. These are weak areas for most people but even more so for nurses as back in my day we did a lot of lifting and moving people manually. As well as the repeated bending to make beds. I’ve had a few episodes in my life where I’ve been flat on my back for several days in pain.
Over the years I’ve turned to physio, crania sacral osteopathy, Chiropractic, Alexander, and massage to help alleviate niggles and maintain my postural health. I also use a standing desk – an absolute game-changer! Research seems to support that using a standing desk along with regular movement decreases Musculoskeletal disorders. I will break away from the computer to do a 5-minute ‘dance off’ with myself or I’ll do Zach Bush’s 4 Minute workout. As well as working 16 of the largest muscle groups it boosts Nitric Oxide, which increases oxygen being delivered to the body, which helps the brain function and the body fight disease. It gives my brain a buzz too! (suggested video on Nitric Oxide: Nasal Nitric Oxide- The Oxygen Advantage Patrick McKeown)
During my masters, hypermobility got brought to my attention. I have theories in relation to its impact on a singer’s voice but more scientifically established is the correlation between hypermobility and anxiety. These days I check for a history of hypermobility in clients who experience anxiety. Whilst there is no ‘cure’ as such, bringing awareness can help the client understand their anxiety. In addition to mindset work, I encourage these clients to get support from any manual therapies of their choice and to add joint strengthening into their daily regimes.
Gurer, G., Sendur, F., Gultekin, B. and Ozcan, M., 2010. The anxiety between individuals with and without joint hypermobility. The European Journal of Psychiatry, 24(4).
Garcia-Campayo, J., Asso, E. and Alda, M., 2010. Joint Hypermobility and Anxiety: The State of the Art. Current Psychiatry Reports, 13(1), pp.18-25.
When it comes to teaching methods or communicating complex ideas about singing, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
If I have a complex concept to teach I first make sure I understand it in theory and practice. This might mean I have to do a ton of research, get training and allow myself the time I need to come to grips with it. I might create a webinar or blog about the topic – forcing me to understand it. If I don’t think I’m getting it I’ll see if I can find someone else to teach it! There are only so many hours!
Many of the insights I have come from my degree in education and of course my own experience. I use a student-centred approach when teaching. I take into consideration learning styles, needs, and motivation. Some of what I consider in the following when I teach, coach, and design courses includes:
- scaffolding – attaching a new concept to one already known
- peer learning/teaching
- slowing down
- reflective learning/self-learning
- using a variety of visual, auditory, kinaesthetic and reading/writing learning opportunities
- emotional connection (for the student)
- Interleaving – mixing different topics or forms of practice, non-sequentially
- chunking – breaking larger concepts into smaller chunks
- mindset – eliminating the limiting beliefs that interfere with confidence, learning and development
- Letting go to – exercises from Inner Game of Music
- mental practice v physical practice
- sleep – a vital part of the learning process, retention, and problem solving
Also worth remembering is that students don’t need to be spoon-fed, you don’t have to be responsible for filling them with knowledge. I set homework tasks sometimes, e.g. researching singers, styles, and careers.
Final Thoughts (Words of Wisdom, Books, Resources)?
The wonderful thing about contemporary vocal pedagogy is that because we’re still in the early days of this field, there is still so much to know and learn, this feels exciting to me. My advice to those getting started as teachers is be to open-minded, flexible, curious and most of all have fun!
- Anders Ericsson, K., Charness, N., Feltovich, P.J., and Hoffman, R.R. 2006. The Cambridge Handbook of expertise and expert performance. USA, Cambridge University Press.
- Eustis, L. 2013. The Teacher’s Ego. When singers become voice teachers. USA, GIA Publications.
- Green, L. 2002. How Popular Musicians Learn. 1st ed. London: Taylor & Francis.
- Hunt, A. 2008. Pragmatic Thinking & Learning. USA, The Pragmatic Bookshelf.