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Singing Can Be A Bitch
(How to make a stubborn song behave)
by Mark Baxter

Voicelesson.comHeal. Sit. Stay. Good voice. Don't you just love it when your voice does exactly what you want it to do? Wouldn't it be great if you could send your voice away to obedience school just like a dog? The interesting thing to note about canine classes is that they aren't just for our furry four-legged friends. The owners are trained as well. There is a particular way to address your pooch, or your voice, if you want it to do as told. This may seem like a crazy perspective, but singing lessons are really for the owner of that misbehaving voice. It turn's out that it's not the old dog that has the problem learning the new trick, it's the master!

The first step towards owning a well behaved voice is to erase old commands. All instructions for the body are dispatched by the brain. Commands are sent via conscious and unconscious pathways and have been busy programming the body since birth. Like dogs, the muscles responsible for singing work best when given a fresh slate. Troubles occur when new commands conflict with old ones. For instance, your jaw would be happy to release when singing if it wasn't trained to do exactly the opposite when speaking. Of course you didn't mean to teach the jaw to clench, that was unconscious behavior. Nevertheless, there is an old program which must be dealt with before the new behavior can take its place. Jaw tension can be as stubborn as an old blood hound to move but there's no singing freely until it's gone. It helps to remember it's not the jaw's fault; it doesn't have a mind of its own.

Sometimes the problem between master and voice is communication. The word "control" is often used but rarely does it create the desired result. Usually what happens when we think about it is we just tighten around a note to keep it in place. Imagine a dog fighting and pulling at its leash. You wouldn't say that the animal is under control, even though the dog isn't running around causing trouble. It's really just restrained. The same is true for the voice. If you have to strain and struggle in order to make it through a song, it's time to clarify the message you're sending to your body. Of course you want to sing in tune but what good is the right note if it's accompanied by too much effort? The goal is to have a show-dog of a voice that runs freely through a song without once tugging at its leash. Now that's control!

Old behaviors and fuzzy language always transfer into the material we sing. This is why the voice rarely improves just by singing lots of songs. It takes an unemotional inventory of your mechanics to make real foundational changes. Vocalizing (singing vocal exercises) is as vital to your instrument as house breaking is to an owner of a puppy. It's no fun, tedious, work but it will make your life soooo much more enjoyable afterward. Without a simple set of rules for the voice, we tend to invent tricks to steer around problems when singing songs. These tricks get programmed into the body and the song becomes nothing more than a learned obstacle course. You can't effectively develop new behaviors and try to sound good at the same time. So don't. Leave the performance attitude for songs. Let yourself sound as bad as necessary when vocalizing in order to experience released and efficient coordination. Sometimes you have to be willing to howl like a dog in order to sing like a bird. The sound of your voice will improve and control will come the more you vocalize. The irony is: It takes lots of practice to sound like you're a natural born singer.

Another way to erase unwanted behavior is to unleash the mind. As an exercise, take a phrase from a stubborn song and sing its melody using a single vowel and consonant. Think of Happy Birthday sung as LA-LA-LA-LA. To further remove the melody from its old program, sing it in a variety of keys until you have no tonal home base. Distract your body while singing by moving arms and legs randomly. Vocalize the melody while lying on your back, while crawling, while shaking like a wet dog -- anything but the way you usually sing. Make sure you are acting like a lunatic! Finally, invent a new language for the words. The more outrageous the gibberish the easier it will be to release ingrained behaviors.

If it seems counterproductive to take a song you are struggling with and make it sound even more ridiculous, try it twice. Experiment with a song you already sing well and then try a difficult song. You'll be amazed how easy it is to have fun with the song you sing well and how stuck you'll become on the other tune. Which song do you think illustrates free behavior? Why do you think you sing that one well? Notice how calm your muscles are when you're singing something well; it's not a coincidence. Just as it's no surprise that people with well behaved dogs are calm as well? If you continue to struggle with a particular song it may be that it's not a good fit for your voice. It's best to put it away for a while and wait for your skills to improve. There's no shame in admitting you've been barking up the wrong song. The bottom line is that true control does not require force.

The more sounds you can produce without effort when vocalizing, the more you'll be able to play with the dynamics and timbres of a song. You can always choose to sing a song hard, but it should never be hard to sing. If you have to adjust your face in order to secure a pitch, you'll reduce your options to express yourself visually when in performance. Keep the commands simple when vocalizing and things will progress nicely. Even if it takes a year to reprogram your jaw, it's worth the time when you consider the multiple years of freedom you'll enjoy thereafter. Stay focused. Be patient and know that you're not alone in your frustration. Anyone who's ever been dogged by a disobedient voice will tell ya, "Singing can be a bitch!"

Mark Baxter is a vocal therapist who offers private and video lessons. To contact him, call: (800)659-6002. Visit his website at:

(reprinted with the kind permission of Mark Baxter

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