Sane Singing: A Guide to Vocal Progress

D. Brian Lee thought he had no talent for singing. At least that was his conclusion after a humiliating vocal exam in college.

It was the experience of playing in the orchestra for a production of Peter Pan, however, that caused him to realize he would rather be onstage, singing with the rest of the cast, than “sawing away” down in the pit. That feeling sent him on a quest to find a voice teacher and would serve as his re-entry into singing. Now, after 35 years as a “singers’ problem solver,” Lee has collected his hard-earned lessons into the book Sane Singing: A Guide to Vocal Progress.

In this interview, Lee expands on some of the perspectives in the book.

 

One idea that struck me was the distinction you make between “voice production” and “voice cultivation.” Can you explain what you see as the difference?

The terms “voice production” and “voice building” emerged in the 19th century with the acceleration of the Industrial Revolution. “Production” implies creating objects from raw materials, using precise specifications to obtain a predictable, guaranteed result.

“Cultivation” comes from the paradigm of nurturing a living thing by providing it with favorable conditions for growth. You don’t produce a tree or a puppy—you grow it or raise it. Each of us already has a voice. It is up to us to develop its inherent potential. Just as we accept that each person is born with a unique speaking voice, each singer can and should have a unique singing voice, which can be trained in a manner that allows it to fulfill its unique potential.

 

You also discuss that when we learn how to sing freely, we uncover our true, unique voices. You go on to say that our freest voice is the voice we must learn to love. Can singers do this and still create the sounds that are expected for different genres?

Yes, usually. Regardless of genre, most singers are happy to embrace easier singing! With the psychological element in singing being so strong, people tend to get better at what they love, and can apply functional gains to their chosen genre. However, when a voice becomes more free and high-functioning, sometimes it points to a new genre as a possibility. In such cases, singers might add a new genre that feels good, but they rarely switch out one for another permanently.

 

In another chapter, you state that voice science and functional pedagogy are nice to know but “they do not help us train singers directly.” Other teachers, however, argue that an understanding of voice science actually gives them more tools to help their students sing more efficiently and expressively.

As an example, let’s say a teacher has a baritone student who is working toward an operatic sound that will allow him to be heard over an orchestra. Voice acoustics knowledge tells us that boosting the “singer’s formant” may help achieve that goal, which may be accomplished by lengthening the vocal tract and creating a more convergently shaped resonator. Therefore, the teacher knows that if the student is raising his larynx and widening his mouth, he is probably not going to achieve his goal. Doesn’t that information help teachers “train singers directly”?

“Directly”? No, because there is no mention yet of the teaching technique needed to convert the information into action items. Good teachers taught successfully for centuries without modern science. Many current teachers are getting good results with modern science.

What do the science-ignorant and the science-aware teachers have in common? Application and empirical knowledge. At some point the teacher must create comprehensible next steps for the student—bodily, psychologically, and artistically. In a masterclass, I heard Stephen Smith say, “You can’t do science.” I don’t think he’s wrong.

It would be unhelpful for me to tell the baritone, “Form a more convergently shaped resonator and lengthen your tract,” even if that is exactly what is needed. Once we describe desired conditions, how do we get the singer to create those conditions? The teacher’s mission should be to lead the singer to experience better vocal function and to make those gains stronger and repeatable. Technical instruction means turning knowledge into executable habilitating vocal tasks. Teaching these tasks will “train singers directly.”

Regarding our theoretical baritone: careful listening to many singers has always showed us which kinds of singing project well. The terms the teacher uses—squillo, singer’s formant, carrying power, cut, or ring—are not important. What the teacher instructs the student to do, by making decisions in the moment based on careful listening, is the key. In addition to vocalizing, teachers need to help students to develop their own functional listening skills. Technology may help with initial detection and description, but we must go far beyond that to get to good singing.

Brian Manternach

Tenor Brian Manternach teaches voice at the University of Utah in the Musical Theatre Program. He holds degrees in vocal performance from Saint John’s University in Minnesota (BA), the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (MM), and the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music (DM). He can be reached at bmantern@gmail.com.