There are a multitude of ways to teach voice. Of course, speaking directly to the student and describing in clear terms what you would like them to do often works well. Suggesting that they listen to other singers in their genre is helpful. But sometimes the addition of a tool or image can help the student create the proper sensation and/or sound. And from this experience the student tries to create the proper sensation/sound again by remembering what it felt like the first time. A bit like a scientific experiment which must be able to be recreated to be valid, the student can create the proper sound with a tool, but must be able to recreate it on their own.
A direction I often use for landing the pitch correctly on the tone (especially, perhaps, a higher tone which may be more difficult) is to land the tone from above. With this I often use a hand movement: my palm, facing out, moves up in front of me and then the fingers curl over like a waterfall, landing ‘on top of the tone.’ When the singer does this hand motion as he moves toward and lands on the pitch, he tends to release the tension that sometimes comes with reaching for a pitch. He holds his neck straighter, tends not to lift his chin and keeps his throat more open.
Another hand movement I like to use is related to singing a sustained line. In other words, singing truly legato, the sound never stopping during the phrase. The index finger is close to the chest and pointed outward. As the student sings the phrase, their finger slowly moves outward, mimicking the line of unbroken sound. The visual image and the slow movement of their finger also helps the student maintain the constant support and steady tone which creates that legato phrase.
I once attended some master classes by the late Master Teacher Shirlee Emmons, and she used Theraband resistance bands to great effect in teaching proper support. If a student is having problems singing a particular phrase on one breath, fold the theraband in half and have her hold the doubled band, a hand on either end, arms straight out at shoulder height. As the singer takes the breath for the phrase, she begins pulling her arms apart, gently stretching the band and continuing to do so throughout the phrase. As the singer reaches the end of the phrase, she releases the tension on the band and then begins pulling gently again as she takes another breath and begins a new phrase. The gentle tension (make sure the arms are straight out at shoulder height) engages the muscles of inspiration, keeping too much air from coming out and keeping the support under the tone. It’s magic!
The first thing I talk about with a new voice student is posture. It is so basic and so important. Since our body is our instrument, the correct alignment of our body is imperative for proper breathing and supporting the tone, which makes it vital for producing good singing. My description of good posture comes from my study of Tai Chi. Imagine that your head is hanging from the ceiling by a string. All your vertebrae seem to be spread apart and you are standing as tall as you can, but with a feeling of lightness. Your shoulders fall in to a normal postion, in other words, not pulled back and down. Next, imagine that there is a string that is pulling from your sternum slightly up and out. This pulls up your chest slightly and opens up your ribs, making you ready for a full breath. As I mentioned before, there is a feeling of lightness that comes with this posture and with this way of thinking about posture. This feeling of lightness enhances the feelings of alertness and nimbleness, the readiness and concentration that a singer must have to perform well while simultaneously remaining relaxed. Singing is an intense and energetic activity, but the singer must remain like the tiger walking through the jungle — relaxed, alert, ready to pounce.
Just look on the Web. There is a lot of advice and many techniques on how to conquer your performance nerves. We all know what happens when stage fright strikes. The mouth dries up, breathing becomes shallow and rapid, the heartbeat quickens, our knees shake and we feel nauseous. We can’t sing well as a result. Obviously, mastering your vocal technique and the music are the first things you can do to help combat nerves. There are many other ideas out there, such as visualizing success, not failure, and not drinking a lot of coffee the day of the performance. But we still get nervous. Years ago when I would be waiting to go on stage to perform, I would sometimes do Tai Chi to calm myself if there was room backstage. It always worked. Some people call Tai Chi meditation in motion. Breathing in and out is synchronized with the movements. Years later when I began doing yoga, I learned a breathing technique that required no special area, and that I could do while sitting or standing. It’s called the 1:2 breathing practice, or the extended exhale breathing practice. To do this exercise breathe in deeply but easily (a ‘diaphragmatic’ breath). Then exhale, extending the exhale to twice the amount of time as the inhale. So if, for example, you breathe in to the count of 3, you exhale to the count of 6. This slows the heart rate, steadies the breathing, and seems to lower blood pressure, and is all possibly related to a phenomenon called respiratory sinus arrhythmia in which the heart rate quickens with inhalation and slows with exhalation. In any case, it works! There is one exception that I know of, and that is if you suffer from anxiety or panic attacks, you may hyperventilate if you do the 1:2 breathing technique. In that case, low steady breaths will help to calm your nerves.