Monday, January 28, 2013

Can you sing?

Some people book a singing lesson to find out if: "Can I sing?" 
That very question may already contain a number of myths and misundertandings all at once and it's hard to know where to start really to answer it. 

First of all, what does it even mean - to be able to sing? 
That's a complex question and needs to be answered bit by bit so that is the way I'm gonna do it.



To be able to sing, you will first need the physical prerequisites making it possible for you to use your voice. Practically everybody has that, with very few exceptions. If you are one of those few exceptions you are probably very aware of it already. We are talking about deformities, illnesses and severe damage. If you are in any doubt, you can easily find out by visiting an ENT doctor (the kind of doctor who can look down your throat with a camera). Or if it is some other part of your body hindering you (like your lungs, your abdominal muscles or such), start by visiting your physician who can either treat you or refer you to the right specialist for your condition. Physical conditions so severe that they impede your vocal ability are very uncommon and the fact is, even if you do have some kind of disability there is a good chance it can be worked around anyway. The human body is an amazing creation that can do marvelous things.. 

Then there are cases when there is a physical condition, but it is caused by functional problems, i.e. - unhealthy technique. This is more common. But don't worry, if it is not severe, even pretty bad vocal damage can be solved simply through rest and technique (and if it is very severe, through medical care and then technique). Again, if you have any suspicion there can be damage, always start by visiting a Physician.

OK, let's say we have now ruled out any physical conditions or illnesses hindering you to sing and that you do have the physical prerequisites needed to sing, just like most people do. 

Then can you sing? Now that depends on what meaning we put into it.

Do you mean - can you produce the notes you want? 

Well maybe you actually can't, but you can learn to. Not being able to reach notes is a functional hinder, i.e; it is all about technique. The same goes for volume, dynamics, staying in pitch, sound color, effects, stability, brightness, -  all aspects of sound really. And not only for sound. Also for rhythm and language. With the correct technique, knowledge and pedagogical tools you can learn how to do all these things with your voice. There can be a number of reasons for why a person's technique might not be working. There can be psychological hinders, misinformation and misunderstanding, the lack of understanding of how the voice works and how to make it work like you want. Whatever the reason is, there is help to get.

Perhaps you haven't learned how your voice works yet, but why wouldn't you be able to? No one expects you to be able to play the drums if you never learned to, right? There are many common and pretty strange ideas about singing. I plan to cover this topic in another post,- or actually - there are so many myths and misunderstandings that I plan to write a whole series about it! But for now all you need to know it that it is possible to overcome technical hinders. What you need is just access to the right knowledge. 

….but perhaps you mean, can you sound good

But to answer that, we first need to know, what is good? That is a matter of taste. You can pay me to find out what I think but is that really worth the money? Everyone has different taste and mine is just one of everyones.. Perhaps you love singers like Whitney Houston, Celine Dion or Mariah Carey and perhaps I only like death metal singers. Now I'm not saying that is true, but it could be. So if you sing like Celine Dion and it is not my taste, does that make you a bad singer? Of course not.
I recommend people to rather hire me for learning how to sing according to their own taste.

But can you move someone with your singing? 

Well that is a good question! Singing is all about expression. You want to express something and listeners want to be touched by it. You want to reach them. You are most likely to do that if you tell them a story and they can relate to it. One that triggers memories and feelings of their own. It is your way of telling the story (and there are very many ways..) and the listeners own story that decide if the both connect. It's just like people, they have different personalities and different backgrounds. Sometime's they connect and sometimes they don't… Some people are easy to like, right? And some people you just can't stand.. But luckily those people are someone else's favorites.
Expression is the whole picture. The core of it is the story you are telling, the message. The way you chose to deliver it is what makes you unique. What materials do you use to paint your picture? With your voice you can put together different elements to create your sound - vocal modes, sound color, effects… How do you work with dynamics, language and rhythm? How do you move or perhaps you don't? Which facial expressions do you show and how intensely? There are so many variations and combinations, there is no right or wrong. There are just choices, what you chose to do - and not to do.. Together, that is your expression. Your way of getting your message across. 

If you want everyone to love your way of expressing yourself, you better think again, cause it's not gonna happen... This is the harsh and lovely reality of our uniqueness. There will always be people who won't like what you do, but there will also always be those who love it! Therefore my advice is, do what YOU like. Cause actually you are not THAT unique. I guarantee you that there are other people who like and are touched by the same things as you, so if you stay true to yourself and to a way of expressing yourself that feels right for you, you are going to move those people. If you enjoy your singing, others will too. Isn't that great? You have everything to win from being yourself and doing what you like!

So what was the answer to the question really.. can you sing? :-)

- Annika

Ph.D. Nandhu Radhakrishnan at the University of Missouri, Columbia (Communication Science and disorders) explains it very simply - 
"...there are people who do not sing but it is not because they cannot, but because they do not sing".

Friday, January 18, 2013

Technology and teaching singing | Vol. 3

Hello singers!

This post is about spectrogram and spectrum analysis. You can use whichever software. There are some differencies in how they visualise the sound. SpectrumView is an iOS app that works with both iPhone and iPad. There are others for iOS but I haven't found a one I would like to use better yet.


I find myself using SpectrumView surprisingly often, especially on iPad. This is basically a combined Spectrogram and spectrum analyzer app. It shows the partials and how powerful they are. So, what can we see from the spectrum? It would be lovely to see which vocal mode or sound quality we are using but it's not possible, at least not yet. However, looking at the first partials we can usually see if we are using neutral mode because then the first partial is usually the loudest one. In metallic modes the second partial is usually the loudest.

Kids often love to use all kinds of new software. With one very talented young singer we used this software to keep the air out of the voice. First we checked how it looks when there is air and concluded that the lines should be clearer. He had the program on his own iPod so he kept on practicing with it and seemed to love it. We also worked a bit with vibrato. You can see it quite clearly in the spectrum because the pitch is modulating in laryngeal vibrato. There are better programs for that but SpectrumView is very fast to start and so easy to use.

Another quite specific use I've been working with is creaking. When there is creaking in the voice you can see quite clearly that there are two tones with their own overtones (our ears might not be able to spot it so clearly because of how our brain works in analysing the sound). So, this can help separating creaking from distortion. In distortion there shouldn't be two clear tones but a "messier" overtones because of the noise the ventricular folds create. Of course, you can use creaking together with distortion if you want to.

I also use SpectrumView to demonstrate how the acoustics of the vocal tract influence the sound. You don't really need to understand all about the science and the research and still get a very clear visual representation of why the sound changes when we alter the shape of the vocal tract.

Let me know if you have more ways of using spectrograms and spectrum analysers!


Thursday, January 10, 2013

Researching, relaxing and raving in Copenhagen

One product of all the discussing and experimenting we have done together are some new theories we have developed about vocal technique. After trying out our theories in numerous ways the past few years we finally decided to present them to Cathrine Sadolin at CVI. 
Thankfully she is a very openminded and curious person who constantly wants to develop her methods. The point of view she presents is that it is a great asset that there are different approches to voice pedagogy but that there shouldn't be different "camps". There is no point in debating about the credibility of techniques that are helpful for some people, as they are obviously working and have an important place in voice pedagody. Instead of conflicting about which method is the best, all singers and teachers should come together as a community and share knowledge and exchange experiences. That is the vision she has for CVI in Copenhagen and that is becoming more true for each day. Any knowledge or experience that can improve the pedagogy should naturally be utilized. And so CVT is always developing.

Ville and Annika at CVI, Copenhagen
This is one of several things about Cathrine's way of working that attracted us to CVI from the very start. So when we came with our ideas Cathrine was all ears. Earlier this fall we traveled to CVI and had a good day together with Cathrine describing, demonstrating and trying out our theory. Some of this has now already been integrated in some updates of CVT that was presented at the teachers seminar in November 2012 and is also being further researched already.

Annika, Camilla, Cathrine and Julian in deep thoughts..
Cathrine has an ongoing cooperation with the ENT doctor Julian McGlashan whom she has done several studies together with. You can view some of their results at Youtube.
Now they are making a new study together covering the four vocal modes and their nuances and we were invited to take part. Not only are we thrilled about having this honor, we also use our trips to Copenhagen as a chance to work together as we do live far apart. 


Electroglottogram ready and tightly
strapped around the neck..
We arrived in Copenhagen on Thursday to check in to the hotel, made a quick visit to CVI and spent the rest of the day working and finally just relaxing.

Friday morning we had an hour each with the study team that analysed a long list of sounds we made by using several methods simultaneously; stroboscopy, fiberscope, electroglottogram...

It was really interesting to see what was happening and to compare it to our theories. Without revealing anything until the results have been analyzed we can say so much that much of what we thought seemed to be correct! We are so excited about this and can't wait to tell you more, but will hold our horses :).

Ville with Julian's stroboscope in action and Cathrine deeply engaged in the drama. 

Now one may think that the two of us do nothing else but working, analyzing and being dead serious.. But that is not completely the truth :)

After being very focused on the research and summing it up with discussions over coffee, tea and dinner with friends.. we actually spent the rest of the night having fun at a …karaoke bar!

We might want to add that our many singing performances there had very little to do with analysing vocal techinque but still very much to do with having fun :)


Obviously we didn't wake up early the next day.. but still managed to get ourselves together to do some work also Saturday. We then spent the evening with good friends over dinner and playing Singstar till the morning :) Again we put away our Teachers' hats as Singstar is really a game having very little to do with singing despite the name of it… and we had so much fun. Look at the photo of Ville below and you'll get the picture :)

For those of you who would like to have tricks for winning Singstar BTW… we can reveal some :) To have a chance at this game you actually need to put aside most things you learned about singing since it will probably give you bad points in this case..!

We have discovered the following tricks:
- Sing ahead in time (a lot!)
- Don't use the lyrics, just go "ah, uh, oh, bla bla.. "
- Sing legato (forget the rhythm and slide from note to note)
- Change octave if you wish
- Actually, even whistle instead if you want to!
:) Good luck!

Sunday we were obviously exhausted and after a long weekend of work and hard fun.. it was time to go home again for a few days off to build up energy to work again. 

All in all it was a terrific trip with happy memories, some new inspiring plans and a lot of exciting results from the research to look forward too. We need to be patient though. The results of the study will probably not be ready until about a year from now..  But we won't wait that long to visit Copenhagen again however. The next time will probably be in March when the next update seminar for Authorized CVT Teachers takes place at Complete Vocal Institute. We are excited to see what adventures this lovely city holds for us then.

- Annika & Ville

Copenhagen in a Christmas gown

Best Teahouse in Copenhagen

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Technology and teaching singing | Vol. 2

Happy new year to all singers and voice teachers!

I'm picking up where I left last with my technology and teaching singing subject. Last time I wrote about DropVox. This time I'm gonna write about a couple of quick and easy iOS apps.


QuickVoice is basically like the voice recorder app that comes with iOS. However, it's much nicer to use because all the functions are on one page. It's also free so there's no reason not to get it. I often urge my students to get this app because it's so quick to record a phrase, an exercise and then listen back to it. It helps to spot the problems and also what is already working. Also, it can help shifting the focus from listening to feeling because you know that you'll be able to listen to what you did later. Of course, we often need some time to get used to recording ourselves.

Video Camera

So how can we use the iOS camera? Recording video is often used to analyse performance and working with it. This is a great use provided that you don't get too critical towards everything you do. I use video recorder also when working with technique. Basically it works like a mirror. Even with mirror I sometimes find some singers looking elsewhere than they should. This is natural because there's so many things to focus on. So recording an exercise can help making it more simple. Video is a great tool when working with support, for instance. You see the movement of the abdomen or the lack of it.