Practising Technique, Rehearsing. Warm up Exercises, Scales, and Vocalises.
One of the most effective tools for a singer is a quality (preferably acoustic) piano or keyboard for home rehearsal. It is invaluable for “checking” notes in a piece that is being studied. If it is an acoustic piano, the instrument must be kept tuned to concert pitch at all times.
Pitch is the perceived fundamental frequency of a sound. Instruments – and voices are instruments just like any other – produce vibrations, creating the sounds we hear as music, and are measured in hertz (abbreviated as Hz). One hertz simply means one cycle per second. In music and acoustics, the frequency of pitch of the A above middle C on a piano is defined as 440 Hz. Instruments are tuned from below up, largely to avoid breaking strings. Most other instruments are tuned, by professionals, to a piano which has been tuned to concert pitch. Relative tuning (tuning the instrument to itself) requires considerable experience, time and practise. Just as other instruments are tuned to the piano, so the human voice is tuned to it during lessons and rehearsal.
Developing Good Intonation
Singers develop listening and diagnostic skills from the music to which they are listening, and instruments to which they are singing, be it exercises or songs. There is very little value in singing any scale, arpeggio, or vocalise, only to find that the notes are being produced “in the cracks”, or so far as a half or full tone down from each note. Teaching note recognition is a vital part of the work of a good coach, but it must be reinforced in the rehearsal/performance/home practise environment.
Unless you are skilled at accompaniment, and very experienced as a singer, it is unwise to accompany yourself during practise sessions. Playing the exercises yourself doesn’t allow for building good posture, and bad habits can develop through time spent at the piano. These include, but are not limited to, asymmetry (one shoulder raised), and rotation (incorrect head position). Unless the singer maintains good sitting posture at the piano, breathing is compromised.
Recorded exercises played accurately with regard to time, tempo and intonation, on a well tuned instrument, are a way of getting around this particular issue. The singer can stand, observe their posture, and concentrate on vocal technique and production. there is no compromise of phrasing, intonation, or posture, and it allows the singer to commit to their practise without the distraction of reading music.
Singing with Inexperienced Accompanists
This leads me naturally to discuss singing with accompaniment which is lacking in good time and intonation. Without a doubt, this is detrimental to singers. I have personally performed with a great many individual accompanists, trios, quartets, and orchestras at varying venues both in Australia and internationally. If the tempo wavers, it is physically wearing on the voice. It is far easier to sing a longer session with accomplished instrumentalists, than it is to sing a very short one with an accompanist who plays with wavering time and/or intonation. I have mentioned earlier that the piano must always be tuned to concert pitch, but this applies to all instruments, and throughout a session, experienced and accomplished accompanists will constantly check and tune stringed instruments as necessary. The tuning can be affected by playing, by travel, by the environment, by the amount of humidity in the air – or lack thereof, the age and quality of the instrument itself, the age of the strings themselves and whether or not new strings are “broken in”, as well as the adjustment and position of the tuning pegs, and how the instrument has been “set up” to play. These are but some of the many factors. Some instruments will naturally stay in tune better than others, while some are prone to going out of tune more frequently during a session. I have seen instrumentalists play through an entire session without checking their tuning, and the result is usually poor. I have also seen experienced professional musicians constantly check their instruments, demonstrating an appreciable level of commitment to delivering the best performance possible.
The Critical Path to Development of accomplished Singing Technique
Hearing correct pitch, time, and tempi played by the instrumentalists is critical in the journey to vocal improvement. This applies not only to practise, but also to performance. Singing with a less experienced orchestra, or accompanists who play with wavering intonation and tempi does not benefit a singer at all. If the accompanist or other instrumentalists are not skilled, and are not diligent in their tuning, if they do not exhibit commitment to producing the most accurate rendition possible, always choose not to perform, or demand replacement.
© Helen Coleman