Do Skype Lessons Really Work?

Don’t take my word for it!

I was worried starting Skype lessons. Are they really possible? And if so, are they as good as in-person lessons? And the answer is YES! The sound quality is a lot better than you would think and Chelsea is more than capable of hearing what’s going on in my voice. Besides the very occasional technical difficulty, Skype lessons are just as effective as in-person lessons. And as someone who lives across the country from Chelsea, it’s totally worth it. AND I can do it in my pajamas! Total win.  – Hannah Bayles. Singer & Voice Teacher in Provo, UT

I would highly recommend taking Skype lessons with Chelsea. When you’re on the road singing the same material eight times a week, it is very easy to become complacent with your technique. I find Skype lessons incredibly useful because they reinforce my work ethic, and keep me striving to improve my voice in areas I may not sing in every day. Even through the computer, Chelsea’s ear is stellar in recognizing tension in my voice and diagnosing the cause of it, and giving me exercises to free up my cords.  It doesn’t feel like we’re in different time zones at all! – Isabelle McCalla. Currently traveling the country as Jasmine in the National Tour of Aladdin the Musical. 

My 12 year old daughter has loved taking voice lessons via Skype from Chelsea. At first I wasn’t sure if lessons through this medium would be as effective as in person, but I have been proven wrong. Not only has my daughter’s singing range and tone improved, but her confidence in herself and her voice have increased dramatically in just a few months of lessons. As a busy mom I appreciate the convenience of not having to travel and drive to yet another one of my children’s many activities, and my daughter actually prefers singing from the comfort of her own bedroom. It’s familiar ground for her and she is able to relax and let loose. It has been a great experience all around for us. – Amanda Neilson. Westchester County, NY

The advantages to Skype lessons include schedule flexibility. It’s easier to find time in the day for a lesson when you’re taking a lesson at home. I also like to practice what I learned right after class. By saving time traveling to and from the studio, I have an extra hour of my day that I can devote to singing or to whatever I choose. The primary advantage of studio lessons is the nice, friendly atmosphere and I also feel slightly more focused in-person.  Nevertheless, I feel I can get 95% to 100% of what I can get in studio on Skype. Even if I’m slouching while I’m on Skype, Chelsea can tell. Normally, there’s a slight delay so she won’t play the notes of the scale as I sing- she’ll just give a chord to indicate when and where to start. One word of caution- If you are an absolute beginner like I was many years ago and have trouble singing a scale without somebody playing the notes along with you, then Skype lessons will be difficult.  However, right now I have no problem singing a scale or an arpeggio after given a chord so I have no trouble using Skype. As a result I end up using it the majority of the time. –Zev Aber. Singer, guitarist, and tutor in New York, NY.

Tips for a successful Skype lesson: 

Find a quiet place with minimal distractions. A keyboard nearby may be helpful but is not necessary! Check that you have a strong and fast internet connection BEFORE your first lesson. Make a test call to a friend beforehand to check that everything will go smoothly the day of your lesson.

It is a good idea to play any backing tracks you want to use during your lesson on a different device than the device you are using for your Skype connection. If not, whatever audio you play on that device may cancel out all sound for your teacher on the other end!

In which case, you will need:

  1. A device to connect to Skype on
  2. External speakers to play backing tracks through
  3. An additional device to record your lesson on OR Call Recorder- a desktop application you can download that allows you to record your Skype calls.

 

Every Vocalize is a Breathing Exercise

I’ve heard from some folks that I perhaps don’t speak enough about the correct use of breath in voice lessons or on this blog, even. As one of the three systems of singing (respiration, phonation, and resonance) it is certainly necessary! But I’ll say this again- Whatever breathing skills you have employed thus far in life will do you just fine in singing. Most of us speak all day without running out of breath and Yoga instructors and deep sea divers are not necessarily incredible vocalists! When you really get to know the voice, most issues with “breath” are actually issues at the level of the vocal folds- proper phonation resists air to create a clear, strong tone. Improper phonation either presses the folds too much resulting in a squeezed sound or feeling, or keeps the folds too lax, resulting in too much air seeping through the folds and a breathy tone.

But hey, you still want to argue about the need for breathing exercises? How about this then: Every vocalize is a breathing exercise.

Think about it. Every vocalize (arpeggio or scale practiced to balance the voice, i.e. a lip trill or the word MUM on an octave and a half scale) requires that you 1. Inhale and 2. over a long or short period of time, moderately blow that air through your vocal tract while your vocal folds gently vibrate together, resulting in pitched sound. Then you do it again, and again, and again! Each vocalization tests your ability to use your air steadily and over as long a period of time as you choose. That sounds like breathing to me!

Sure, if your posture is poor and your breath shallow, things may not go well. So, in a mirror, check that you are standing up straight, chest lifted, with your chin back so that your neck is aligned with your spine. When you inhale, your abs will gently release as your lungs fill with air (as opposed to your shoulders lifting with tension), and when you sing/exhale, your abs may gently pull in. All of this should feel natural- no holding , gripping, or tension involved. After all, if standing perfectly rigid was mandatory for singing, how do Broadway ensembles sing and dance at the same time? Or how does P!nk fly around in a harness upside down and belt high F’s in her stadium tours?

Ya’ll- take a deep breath, relax, and go vocalize.

The Case for High Notes

Are you trying to get in shape? Lose a few pounds perhaps? Feel a bit more svelte and slim? I’ve got the perfect workout plan for you!

Squats.

Yep, squats! Just that. No need for any other exercises or cardio, just squats!

Just kidding. You knew I was kidding, right?

While squats are GREAT for you, if you’re looking for a total body makeover and improved health, squats are only going to get you so far. Same thing if you only ever did bicep curls and ignored the triceps on the opposite side of your arm. Likely you’ll look and feel quite unbalanced.

Guess where I’m going with this- it’s the same with your voice. I’ve met a fair amount of singers who only want, or really ‘need’, to sing in quite a small range, perhaps an octave and a half. For men, this means they could quite possibly stay in chest voice that entire time. And when that’s the case, issues arise.

That’s because our voice is made up of two major muscle groups, chest voice muscles that keep our vocal folds thick and short, and head voice muscles that stretch and thin our folds*. The thinning and stretching process allows our voices to ascend in pitch. At any given time, both of these muscle groups are working to some degree (otherwise we couldn’t change pitch at all) but often one group is doing most of the work.

If you get stuck in the mentality that you only sing low notes and therefore only need to exercise low notes, you are doing your voice a total disservice and may even cause unnecessary harm and distress. Just like the rest of our body, our voices are made up of opposing muscle groups- both need to be worked to have a HEALTHY voice! Without weekly, nay, DAILY working of both low and high registers, you will be left struggling to transition from chest to head voice, with funky bumps in the road all the way up and down. Your sound may even completely cut out or be very breathy in your middle or top registers. And I promise even your low notes will lack the vibrancy and flexibility that you could achieve with daily work in your upper register.

What to do? Get studying with a voice teacher who encourages you to sing through two+ octaves if you are a male (a high C is a VERY reasonable goal to vocalize to!) and three+ octaves if you are female. On your own, try semi-occluded vocal exercises like a tongue or lip trill on longer scales throughout your range. Try some headier vowels like EE and OO. You may need to take some time just stretching our your head voice before you can start blending it with your chest. That’s fine, but move towards connecting the registers as quickly as possible. Isolating one register or another is not a good long-term goal.

GET SINGING! And singing HIGH!

 

*If you want to get science-y, those muscles are called the thyroarytenoid and cricothyroid, respectively.

Technique is about Choices

The only reason for mastering technique is to make sure the body does not prevent the soul from expressing itself.
-La Meri-

The best feeling in the world is feeling completely limitless when singing a song- no obstacle in your way, no note out of reach, no melody too tricky to master. The worst is feeling like you’re barely scraping by in the piece, unable to make choices regarding interpretation or style because you are limited by what your voice can physically produce.

Mastering vocal technique gives you options, it gives you choices. It expands the realm of what is possible. Working on technique does not mean you lose that original sound only you are blessed with- it expands what your God-given voice is capable of!

One other thought on the topic of choices: developing good technique is understanding what variables took you from point A to point Z. Good technique is the sum of so many small things- the shape of your vowels, the looseness of your jaw, the relaxation or engagement of certain muscles, the balance of air flow and vocal fold resistance. What allowed you to get the full, released sound on the word “Love” on a high F? Can you identify the small choices that got you there? Eventually, it becomes intuitive.

Work to technically improve your voice, like a ballerina or basketball player might improve their body and game. You’ll find a world of possibility open to you!

Who’s On Your Team? Find an ENT!

Want to be a professional singer? It’s time to get the right professionals on your team. In addition to working regularly with a voice teacher, I recommend developing a relationship with a Laryngologist – an Ear Nose and Throat doctor who specializes in the voice. I recommend going in and getting a ‘base-line’ scope- the doctor will take video and pictures of your vocal folds ideally when you are feeling your most healthy. Then, if any future vocal issues arise, you and your doctor can refer back to your ‘base-line’ exam and really see what the difference is.

Shouldn’t a voice teacher be able to fix anything that’s wrong in my voice? My friend and mentor, Guy Babusek, shared the following thoughts:

“I have witnessed voice teachers in the past saying things like “I don’t hear any nodules, so you’re fine,” “I can give you some therapeutic exercises that will heal your vocal damage,” or “My diagnosis is you have a polyp and need some vocal rest.” These kinds of comments are always quite concerning to me.

While a voice teacher may have some medical knowledge, a voice teacher (unless otherwise licensed) is not a doctor, and therefore is not qualified to diagnose or treat any medical condition, including that of the voice.

While it’s true certain vocal exercises can have amazing therapeutic effects, I recognize I am not a therapist, I am a voice teacher. Only within the confines of the protocol a doctor has outlined, am I able to recommend vocal exercises to a student who has been suffering with a disorder of the voice.

Please remember, a voice teacher who suggests any type of diagnosis or treatment of a voice disorder is NOT qualified to do so (unless they happen to also be a licensed physician). Any student who is worried they have a disorder of the voice,  should get him or herself to a laryngologist’s office.” …read more here

Looking for an ENT in the NY area? Contact me- I have some great docs I highly recommend! Having issues with your speaking voice or need vocal therapy? I’d love to refer you to a Speech Language Pathologist (SLP) I trust.

10 Years of Vocal Education

This weekend I found out that I PASSED my Mentor Level/Level 5 panel test!

Great! So what does that mean . . . ?

I began my vocal instruction education in 2007 with a voice teaching organization called Speech Level Singing. At that point, I already knew I wanted to teach someday — either part-time to support my other artistic dreams, or full-time if the time came that I felt teaching was more my path. My mentor and teacher, Jeffrey Skouson, encouraged me to consider starting my teacher training before I had even started college. So with his blessing and my parent’s support I started what has been a TEN year process of education, conferences, reading and study, private lessons, yearly testing, and so much more.

Ten years later, I’ve achieved the highest level of certification possible with the Institute for Vocal Advancement. This past month, Jeffrey and the other Master Teachers in our organization watched and assessed as I taught a 20 minute lesson in front of them (a ‘panel test’). It was not unlike the other annual tests I’ve been taking for the past ten years, but this time the entire panel of Master Teachers adjudicated. And I passed! With flying colors!

I am thankful to my teachers and peers who push me and our entire teaching organization to become the best voice teachers possible. I am thankful that at 17 years old, Jeffrey saw something in me that he believed would make a great teacher one day. I am thankful that my parents encouraged me to continue, and I’m grateful for the passion I’ve had to pursue this dream. What 17-year-old sets out to reach very specific goal, which will take a decade or more, and actually achieves it? I recognize that I’m extremely fortunate to have had the support and opportunities necessary to accomplish this long-time goal.

My education is far from over, and thankfully my training will continue with IVA. However, having reached this milestone- there are no more tests in my future! Whew!

I can’t speak highly enough of the community of teachers I am a part of. If teaching voice has ever been something you’ve considered, I encourage you to think about investing in that education and skill set. I’d love to talk to you about how to make that happen for yourself.

All worthwhile endeavors take time and practice! For me, it’s been ten years of time and practice and practice and practice, and I am thrilled to have reached this milestone.

 


A bit about the Institute for Vocal Advancement:

At IVA, we strive to continually develop our program with the latest research in vocal science to address these and other questions. We educate and produce the finest voice instructors in the world who develop, promote, and maintain the highest standards for the teaching of singing.

As a Certified Instructor, you have access to our yearly teacher conference, IVACON, teacher-trainings, master classes and workshops right in your area, as well as online training in the form of webinars. Our education will help you to understand how the voice works and how you can continually improve your teaching in order to quickly diagnose and fix problems in any voice, and also how to develop voices of a professional calibre that can meet the demands of modern careers in singing.

more than singing

I got to talk with Renee about this very topic while we were both at IVACON this past week. I agree, singing is transformational! And it’s a blessing we as teachers get to be part of.

The Lunch Break Diaries

I’m currently at a conference in San Diego put together by the fine folks at the Institute of Vocal Advancement (IVA). Every year, IVA vocal instructors such as myself gather from all over the world to learn more about the craft of singing and the highly nuanced art of teaching vocal technique. We’re basically kept in windowless rooms 10 hours a day for five days and we cram our brains full of knowledge until we feel like pulp on the inside. It’s awesome.

On our second day in the conference, I was interviewed for an upcoming episode of the IVA podcast. One of the questions they asked me was “What is it about teaching that you find most fulfilling?” It prompted me to reflect on what this profession means to me now after all these years.

When I started out as a vocal instructor, I was excited about the idea…

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Just Give it Time (+ Practice + Dedication + Lessons + Practice + Dedic…)

I guarantee you all of your favorite singers worked for years to get the voice they have today. Whether it was formal training with a teacher, or practicing along to Whitney’s riffs and runs in their bedroom for years on end, no one just #wokeuplikethis.

Guy Babusek said it well in a recent blog post:

“Some students will only book lessons when they have auditions or important gigs coming up. When there are no performances on the horizon, I never see them. This is not a wise way of working with a voice teacher at all. In these cases, there is no time to actually build a solid technique. These singers are trying to cram in years of training into small spurts sporadically. While this is better than no training at all, it is a very ineffective way of working. Solid singing technique is built over time, by taking weekly lessons and vocalizing daily in a systematic manner.”

I can’t agree with Guy more! The best time to start your vocal training was three years ago, but the second best time is NOW. Right this minute! Don’t wait until your dream role audition comes up, or you go into record your debut album next week. A great voice takes REAL time to train.

If you want to be a professional singer, or even just a good amateur singer, take RESPONSIBILITY for the time and effort it takes to accomplish something worthwhile. Recognize you won’t get their on your own. If you value something, give it the time, energy, and even money it deserves. In the case of your voice- book regular lessons and practice every day.

 

I’m Sick! Should I Cancel My lesson?

Last week I jumped on Facebook live to chat about what to do if you’re under the weather and feel like you should cancel your lesson. Hop on over to my Facebook page to see that in full. And we’ve already talked about sickness and singing here on the blog.

Just here for the highlights? Here’s what you need to remember if you’re thinking about cancelling your lesson.

  1. Know the cancellation policy and be prepared to pay for the lesson. For me and my studio, I send out my studio policies after your very first lesson- which includes my cancellation policy:

    For in-person lessons, if you make a cancellation within 48 hours of the lesson, you are responsible for paying the cost of the studio rental fee, which varies from $17 to $22 an hour. This also applies to re-scheduling.

    If you make a cancellation within 24 hours of the lesson, you are responsible for paying the total cost of the lesson.

    Sickness comes up, and I try to be as understanding as possible with my students as sickness arises. However, I hold all my students to this policy and appreciate their understanding of it. After all, they’ve known about it since day one!

  2. Feel something coming on? Cancel while you can. Back to the above- if you feel something coming on, chances are that stuffy nose will get worse before it gets better. Cancel before 48 hours and ensure you don’t have to pay any lesson fees. Be in communication with me- I want you to take care of yourself and get well!
  3. Have a show tonight? Audition tomorrow? Maybe don’t cancel. If you absolutely have to go on stage tonight or have an audition tomorrow that cannot be rescheduled, it may be useful for you to keep your lesson. I work with under the weather professionals often- it is valuable to learn how to warm up and cool down your voice specifically for when you are sick, and also how to get through a piece with congestion or slight swelling in your cords. *This is NOT a long term solution! Overusing your voice when you are not well can cause long term vocal damage. Some rare times, however, you may need to know how to sing when you are not at your best.
  4. There are other things we can do in a lesson besides sing! Come in and listen to and find new repertoire for your audition book. Let’s do a listening lesson, where we can analyze and assess other singer’s voices and find application for yourself. If you’ve already paid for the lesson, there are other valuable things we can do.
  5. You know your body- make the call for yourself. You are responsible for you and your voice- period! If you know you need time to rest and recover, please do. Be prepared to pay the full lesson fee if this is the case. If you have a stuffy nose, but your voice is unaffected, come on in and sing. It is your call and your voice! You only get one, so take care of it.

 

Stop Looking Sideways, or How I Embraced My Own Path

I am a University of Michigan Musical Theatre grad and I wear my Maize and Blue proud. Being a U of M grad in the world of musical theatre has given me opportunities that never would have been open to me otherwise, and dear friends and a network of professional artists that I am blessed to have. It’s like having a golden ticket- a degree from Michigan is a privilege, an honor, and a great accomplishment.

It’s also a burden to bear.

You graduated from U of M? Wow! You must be so talented! Are you on Broadway? Have you been on Broadway? How many Broadway shows have you done? Are you friends with Gavin Creel?

The answers are no, no, none, and no- although we do live in the same neighborhood and I smile at him when I see him walking his dog.

What no one tells you in your four years of preparation to enter this crazy field is that there is no guarantee of success. And what’s more, the expectations we have for ourselves as graduates of such a program can be too much to handle.

I graduated in 2012 thinking I would make it ‘big’ right away. Every week my classmates and I would hear the awesome news of friends of ours in previous classes making their Broadway debut (or second or third appearance) or getting a tour, or even a TV gig. It was Broadway or bust for all 24 of my classmates and I. We saw the standard of excellence for Michigan grads and we were chomping at the bit to have our chance at success.

Things did not play out how I imagined. I finished showcase, didn’t sign with an agent, and set out on a year and a half of auditions where nothing really came to fruition. I was called back for Broadway shows and tours, I performed in small things here and there, but there was no “I’ve made it in New York” moment for me. It was discouraging to say the least.

But what my real mistake was, and the whole point of me writing this, was… I was looking sideways the whole time.

You know Mr. Wagner’s line? Something like, you can’t go forward if you’re looking sideways? That was me. And that was so many of my friends. And that is so many of my talented, incredible, hard working students now. I was absolutely comparing my life and my success to people on completely different paths. I kept happiness at arm’s length because my life looked different from theirs.

My life started to look more and more like this: spending time in the studio teaching voice lessons to people who valued my skills and whose energy brought light to my life, pursuing a relationship with my now husband and then planning a wedding, growing my teaching business, pursuing continued vocal education, pouring energy into my friendships and family and getting back the same.

I always knew I wanted to be a full time voice teacher one day, I just didn’t imagine it meaning so much to me so quickly. In fact, I’ve been teaching, training and re-certifying as an instructor every year for the past ten years, with what is now the Institute for Vocal Advancement. What was initially going to help me avoid waiting tables has become my real passion and the thing that I am most fulfilled by.

It was hard to admit this to myself, let alone my friends, a few of whom were making huge strides in their acting careers right about this time. It was honestly embarrassing for me to say things like, “It doesn’t seem like now is the right time for me in this business. But you know what I might like even more? This whole teaching thing.”

Did people think I was “giving up?” My professors and family expect more from me, am I letting them down? Am I letting myself down? Isn’t acting what I was “supposed” to do?

I just found this “journal” entry in a forgotten notebook tonight. It’s from the day before last year’s incredible Maize and Blue on Broadway concert in honor of Brent Wagner. I wrote,

“I am sad not to be important enough to to be in the Maize and Blue concert. Not to not be in it, but to be of so little consequence in this field, I’m useless… I’m afraid to feel fat, unimportant, untalented by my friends and colleagues at the concert tomorrow. I feel like nothing I’ve accomplished matters, especially in the Michigan MT context.”

Have you ever felt this way?

Here’s what I’ve learned. My path is not the same as yours, and yours is different from the next person’s. When I have let success be defined as just one narrow outcome in a world FULL of opportunity, I have absolutely let myself be miserable. When I measure myself against my friends with Broadway credits or Broadway bodies, I keep happiness at arm’s length.

If this is your dream, do it! Do it with all your heart, mind, and strength! If it’s taking longer than you expected, that’s ok. Breathe, relax, and keep working. And if it turns out this funny business of show isn’t where your heart lies, then give yourself permission to follow it elsewhere. I admire my friends and colleagues who have found themselves in law school, behind a casting table, teaching children’s dance classes, writing Oscar winning songs, directing commercials, starring in their own plays, becoming parents, launching a community theatre, and going to med school.

The world is wide enough. You are important just the way you are, and Broadway credits or not, that will not change. We each have inherent value, and this life is too short to not find out what your unique contribution to the world will be.

Today, seeing my best friends’ names in the playbill is a thrill. I genuinely rejoice in the success of those around me, and I’ve allowed others to celebrate mine as well. To my fellow Wolverines and all dreamers out there- I can’t wait to see what you create. Keep looking forward, because I promise you don’t want to miss the beautiful path you are on.

Photo credit to Lauren Hartman