Majoring in Performance Is Just the Beginning

Ever since I could speak, I’ve wanted to sing. As I grew, so did my desire to sing well in the classical style. Raised on the operetta-like musicals of Jerome Kern and Lerner and Loewe, I was electrified by the kind of music that requires, or at least accommodates, the standard classical technique of making beautiful, powerful, free sounds mostly in one’s head voice. That’s the kind of singing that floats my boat, and I just had to learn how to produce it.

I was hardly a natural, however. My posture was terrible, my jaw was set like concrete, and I had no idea how to support my tone. As a college freshman I auditioned for the voice department at my university, where the adjudicator flatly said that I had little talent for classical singing and should stick to theatre. So that’s what I majored in, studying voice privately and always burning to sing better.

After graduate school I began to get paid engagements, at first in musical theatre, then in classical vocal ensembles, and ultimately as a classical soloist. Now, after studying singing for almost five decades with seven different teachers ranging from horrible to fantastic, I realize how much of my vocal proficiency is due to work I did on my own in addition to what was strictly required by my teachers. My studies of and experiments with posture, movement, and acting have been and continue to be as important as my singing lessons in strengthening my vocal technique.

Many people who decide to study voice are uncommonly talented. They’re naturally well coordinated and expressive in ways that align with good voice production, so their teachers play the roles of refiners and mentors. But for those students who have fundamental difficulties with breathing, posture, and muscle tension (as I did) and still want to become proficient singers, trying to solve these problems mainly with voice lessons can be chronically frustrating. One needs to address the issues in a more focused and thorough way. If I had understood this when I began studying voice, I would have progressed much more quickly and confidently.

In addition to what I’ve gained from lessons with good teachers, my greatest breakthroughs have come from learning to do four things:

Stand properly

Speak Italian

Move spontaneously in response to music

Connect sound with meaning, always

These skills are a tremendous support to voice development, and for me they are the pillars of my singing. They are not merely ideas; they are habits that need to be formed for a lifetime. And to ingrain and maintain them requires constant practice—just like playing tennis. For example, no one learns to “stand up straight” only from a teacher’s weekly nagging. One must learn what that really means and invest in strengthening the muscles that make it possible.

College and conservatory programs will touch on these topics to different degrees, but usually in the context of a one-semester course or an occasional intensive seminar. The serious students of singing need to take responsibility for developing themselves in these areas and making them part of daily life and work.


Standing Properly: If Posture Is So Important, Why Don’t We Work on It More Intelligently?

I remember a fellow student whose voice teacher—a blazing talent who had debuted at La Scala in her 20s—told her scornfully, “Too bad you sound better when you slouch.” Of course she did. It was what her body was used to, and anything else was uncomfortable and unsustainable. What was really too bad was that the teacher didn’t steer my friend to activities that would have improved her posture instead of demoralizing her.

For good singing, the head, neck, and jaw must be free. Essentially, they must sit lightly on top of an aligned torso, which also promotes deep, full breathing because it allows unimpeded ascent and descent of the diaphragm and full expansion of the ribs. Maintaining this alignment requires strong muscles, the ones in the abdomen and the back. If these muscles are weak and out of balance, the singer will not be able to stand properly for any length of time or to initiate any movement, including phonation, correctly.

Athletes work out. Their trainers identify areas of muscle weakness that the players then exert themselves to strengthen. Why on earth, then, if singers also require specific muscles to be strong, does anyone believe that the best way to build them up is mainly by thinking about them? Teachers say things like, “Imagine you’re hanging from a string coming out of the top of your head,” “Chest up,” and “Don’t thrust your jaw forward.” Sure, this is good advice and promotes awareness, but the reason we don’t do these things consistently is that the core and back muscles that would support these habits are underdeveloped.

So how can we strengthen these muscles? By exercising them several times a week. The best known program for core muscle development is Pilates work, and some yoga exercises help too. Both disciplines are based on a thorough understanding of good posture and the promotion of body awareness. Fortunately, Pilates and yoga classes are easy to find; most campus and community recreation centers offer them.

Some teachers caution against overdeveloping the abdominal muscles, for fear of reducing the space the diaphragm needs to descend fully. Yes, that’s a problem if you insist on achieving a six-pack and you shorten your muscles by doing crunches—which are bad for your neck anyway. Pilates work is great because it strengthens muscles while lengthening them, which is wonderful for singers.

But beware: even some Pilates instructors will ask for crunches—just make an excuse and don’t do them. Planks are safer and more effective and are easy to do on your own. There are many instructional videos of plank exercises on the Internet. Look for the videos made by physical therapists.


Why Learn to Speak Italian?

As a classical singer, you’ll be required to sing in at least three languages besides English: Italian, French, and German. Ideally, you’d be able speak these languages fluently before trying to sing in them, but you probably won’t have time for such extensive study. It’s more important to become thoroughly familiar with the speech sounds of a foreign language and the precise meaning of any text you sing than to learn the conjugations of irregular verbs in subjunctive mood. So as a voice major, in addition to taking some diction courses for singers, you’ll probably be required to take only two semesters of an actual language course.

You should, however, consider making it your own requirement to study Italian until you’re fluent and to speak it almost daily. Why? Because to pronounce it properly, you must use your mouth and facial muscles in ways conducive to good singing. I believe it’s one reason there are so many great Italian singers. They grow up inoculating themselves against some potential vocal challenges just by speaking their native language.

Speaking Italian is an enjoyable and effective way to make and keep the articulators agile and to counteract what native English speakers can’t help practicing their whole lives—namely, articulating more laterally and farther back in the mouth. If you’re in college, sign up for Italian every semester. Away from campus you can practice speaking with CDs from your local library (I recommend the Pimsleur series). In addition, community education programs frequently offer inexpensive language courses taught by native speakers.


Moving to Music: So You Think You Can’t Dance?

Moving to your music should be a part of your practice sessions, and particularly so if the thought makes you cringe. It will teach you how your whole body, not only your head and your heart, responds to the music you want to sing. This habit was jump-started for me when I took an improvisational dance class (not a regular dance class where I would have had to learn predetermined movements and combinations). Improvisation terrified me at first but eventually became tremendous fun. More importantly, moving spontaneously to music enriched my relationship to it while increasing my body confidence and decreasing tension.

Though a class will loosen you up, the key thing is to move to your music when you practice in private. Play a well performed recording of the piece you’re studying and let it inspire free-form movement (start with one body part such as an arm, if it’s easier). Forget what you look like—no jury is watching you. Later, when you have the piece memorized, try singing it while moving and then again while standing still, which you’ll basically be doing anyway in oratorios and recitals. The kinesthetic awareness you gained when you were dancing will color your voice and add depth to your interpretation.


Connecting Sound with Meaning

The purpose of making sound is usually to communicate something to someone. For what you say or sing to come alive, it must be preceded by a vivid thought, and you must know where you’re aiming that thought. Actors learn this—it’s called having an intention—and it’s hard enough to do when you’re saying words someone else has written. It’s harder still when you’re singing words that aren’t your own and it’s most difficult when you’re singing “meaningless” syllables as you concentrate on your technique.

Fortunately, you can develop your ability to communicate even when doing vocal exercises. Why should you? First, because when speech or singing is inspired by the need to connect with a listener, the whole physical apparatus automatically works better to achieve the intention you’re pursuing. For example, without any conscious intervention from you, your body knows how much breath it needs to utter a complete thought.

Second, you probably will spend at least half your practice time doing scales, etc. If you reinforce the sound/meaning connection only when you sing words, you are undermining your ability to communicate through your voice.

Of course, one does have to concentrate consciously on specific body parts (checking jaw and tongue position, for example) when trying to ingrain new habits. I believe, however, it’s possible to focus on one or two technical concepts and, at the same time, to make your utterances mean something.

Let’s say your teacher has given you an exercise that involves singing “mi-mi-mi” for some technical reason. As you focus on the technical goal, everything will work better if you know why you’re singing “mi-mi-mi.” Do you mean, “Look at me” or “Why me?” or “Come to me”? You can communicate anything you want, but I find it’s easier to use the sound of the syllable as a springboard to meaning.

And to whom are you singing? It’s easier to figure out when you’re performing an aria or a song, but when you’re vocalizing, you need to invent an imaginary listener, mentally placed in front of you—your boyfriend, your mother, the friend who disappointed you, a deity, or the movie star who makes you go weak in the knees.

A related trick is to pretend you’re conducting a chorus while you’re singing. This demands advance thought, sustained focus, and intention—or the imaginary sopranos are going to come in late and flat! Practicing like this is not only fun, it will also improve your vocal coordination and relieve the tedium of doing exercises. Communicating something to someone whenever you sing is a habit to start developing today, in every practice session.

Many conductors and directors lament that these days young singers tend to be technically proficient but don’t communicate. Habitually marrying sound with meaning will develop you into a singer who has the right stuff. When asked what gets his attention in auditions in an April 2007 interview with the Boston Singers’ Resource, John Oliver, founder and longtime conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, said: “Technique and very accurate readings of music—loud, soft, tempi—all this is a given. But it really boils down . . . to whether they’re communicating something. And it isn’t so much that they’re standing there trying to communicate, it’s that . . . the song or aria itself is communicating something to them; and that it comes through their voice. That’s essentially the most important thing.” (

Kristin Linklater, former master teacher of voice in the New York University Graduate Theatre Program, puts it another way in her book Freeing the Natural Voice: “The natural voice is transparent—revealing, not describing, inner impulses of emotion and thought, directly and spontaneously. The person is heard, not the person’s voice.” This is what thrills an audience.

Becoming a confident and competent classical singer is a long journey for most aspirants. Like me, you may not be the most naturally talented singer in your class, and you might have to address bad habits that can sometimes seem intractable. If you’re dedicated to singing well, however, and sharing your love of music with an audience, you have something unique to offer, and the world needs you to develop it. Practicing the skills identified here will accelerate your progress, increase your confidence, and enrich your vocal practice at any stage of your life.

Marya Danihel

Marya Danihel has sung with Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, Tanglewood Festival Chorus, New England Light Opera, and many other professional music organizations. Her lecture/concert on 19th century popular music, “Pleasures of the Parlor,” is underwritten by NH Humanities. She received degrees in theatre from the University of New Hampshire and Smith College.