Today we’re joined by Allan Hubert-Wright, the founder of Le Chanteur Moderne, one of the most respected voice training institutes in France, and one which is remarkable for using modern voice science to help singers and singing teachers be more effective by leveraging what we actually know about the human voice.
He is also the director of the voice department at the prestigious IFPRO performing arts school in Paris and conducts ongoing research into vocal function.
We recently had the chance to see Allan give a presentation, and we came away determined to have him on the show, because he shares the kinds of thing that can save years of frustration, confusion and wasted effort. So whether you don’t sing at all yet, you’re at the beginning of learning to sing, or you’ve been singing for years, you’re going to want to pay attention!
In this conversation we talk about:
- Why being told he was a bad singer as a child didn’t hold him back
- How he helped one singer finally find her own authentic voice after years of imitating various singers and styles
- And we bust three big myths in singing: about breathing and support, about what to eat and drink, and about how to correctly produce vowel sounds.
This conversation was such a pleasure and we know it’s going to be an enlightening one for any of you listening who sing or who would like to – but find some of the teaching a bit confusing.
Listen to the episode:
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Christopher: Welcome to the show, Allan. Thank you for joining us today.
Allan: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Christopher: So you stick in my mind as one of the most interesting blends of musician and scientist. I would love to hear how that came to be. What was your origin story in terms of music, and where did science come into the picture?
Allan: Right. Well, I suppose I come from a fairly musical family in that music was always part of our life. There was always singing at family parties, and someone would play an instrument of some sort or another. There was always music going on, but no one was trained per se. I knew I loved music. I was fascinated with people who played the piano. I would stare at people when they would do this in a slightly scary, stalker-ish way. I remember the big moment being when I saw my first musical theater production. I was just taken in by the opulence and lavishness of it all. When the orchestra struck up the first chords of the overture, I remember it very vividly, bursting into tears and thinking oh, my God, this is amazing. This is the best thing ever. I think that’s when it all started, really.
After that, I tortured my family by putting on shows every weekend and they’d have to sit and watch. I’d get very upset if anyone walked out of the room. My cousin … Paul, if you’re listening to this, I apologize for years of torturing you, and making you do shows with me in front of the family. So I suppose that’s where it came from, really, this desire to perform was born at that moment. It wasn’t necessarily voice. I knew it was music that fascinated me. I had a special fascination for the piano.
Christopher: Did piano come into the picture with lessons at that point, or-?
Allan: Yeah, it did. I mean, we came from a very modest family so there wasn’t much money for piano lessons, but I had a very kind teacher at school who would teach me during lunchtimes. I think she sensed that I really wanted to do it. She was very patient, and a great teacher, I think. I remember spending lunchtimes in the practice rooms picking out things with one hand, and then another, and working on them that way. She trained me, basically, for free, really. Very kind of her.
Christopher: Were you always the kid at the front of the class putting on a show for the others? Did you have any hesitation when it came to music, or were you just 100% in there leading the charge?
Allan: Oh, yeah, it was 100% in there all the time. I mean, I’d get up and sing at the drop of a hat. I would play the piano. When I look back on it, it was probably pretty bad. But the confidence was there even if the competence wasn’t. I guess I loved any chance to perform. I was in every school play, every school musical. I was in the church choir. There was a youth choir, which I thought was amazing. Although, my grandmother was very against it. She called it bloody banjos in church. That was her thought on the youth choir. I loved it. I sang at every opportunity. But I was constantly told that I was rubbish. That’s quite hard to hear.
Christopher: Oh, gosh. And that didn’t put you off?
Allan: I think that I’ve always had quite a, how would you say that in English? I’ve always had a quite a tough character. So if someone says to me, you can’t do this. Instead of thinking all right, okay, well, I can’t do this. I tend to think why? Well, how can I make it better? There must be a way. This can’t be the end of it. So when people told me that I couldn’t sing, it just made me more determined to sing. There’s a certain amount of bloody mindedness involved, I think.
Christopher: Very good. Well, I can see that, that certainly paid off in the long term. It’s kind of heartwarming to hear because so many people have that experience of being told they’re not very good, and it is the end of their musical journey. It sounds like you had that determination. So was it clear to you that you were going to go on and make a career of this? Was that always the path ahead of you as you saw it?
Allan: No, I don’t think so. I mean, I loved it. But I think in my family, it was never on the table that you would take an artistic profession. You had to do something serious, a real job. I remember really, I think what really pushed me down this path was there was a theater group in the town where I’m from, and they did youth musical theater productions, and lots of songs from the shows, and thing along those lines. I got involved with that, initially just in the chorus, I think. I remember just loving being on stage and thinking oh, my God, this is amazing. I worked so hard on my voice that I eventually got a solo in a production that were doing. I sang Enjolras in “One Day More”. I sang it awfully back then, but it was a real turning point for me. I remember standing there with the spotlight hitting me, and the music, and the band playing. I remember thinking oh, my God, this is absolutely what I want to do with my life.
Christopher: Wonderful. So what did you do then as the next step having had that epiphany?
Allan: I guess I kind of doubled up on music. I got really obsessive about it. I mean, I started to try to learn the guitar. I carried on with the piano. I got more and more serious about singing. I never learned how to play the guitar. I still can’t play the guitar, but I kept going with the piano. I went off to University, initially to study phonetics and I specialized in Voice Sciences. I went on to voice function. I think I just picked, to be honest, the most serious sounding studies that I could so that my family would be happy, but the ones that were nearest to voice so that I could get as much music in there as I possibly could. That was the trick. It was a bit of a spy mission.
I remember getting very involved with the musical societies at University. I ended up running one of them, and becoming a musical director for it. I continued my musical training on the side with that. I got really obsessed about voice function, I think, and how the human voice works. I think during my studies, especially into phonetics and acoustics, I started to find things that didn’t really gel with what I was being told in my voice lessons. That’s really where I started to want to scratch the surface of it more, I think, of how the voice works, and why these old myths were going around.
Christopher: So give an example of what you were being told in a voice lesson that didn’t quite gel with your University studies.
Allan: I suppose the big one would be singing from the diaphragm. That was the big thing. It was always sing from the diaphragm, and then they’d pat my belly button. You know, I had a lot of this going on. And of course, when you look at an anatomy book will tell you that your diaphragm is nowhere near your belly button, in fact. I remember thinking well, that’s not where it is. But nevermind. Perhaps it’s just an image. This idea, the teachers were very into this idea that the diaphragm was what you used to contract to push the air out.
Now, if you do phonetics as a study of voice production, one of the first things you look at is how airflow generates vibration in the voice. That leads you to look at the diaphragm and how it works. You have this realization that the diaphragm is an inspiratory muscle, not an expiratory one. So it’s not contracting to push the air out. In fact, when it contracts, it pulls the air in. So, that was just literally the direct opposite.
There were lots of other things. You know, it was very image-based. I think because I have quite a Cartesian world view, I was struggling with being told to sing to the bluebirds out of my head door, not to imagine a laser beam coming through my cheeks. It seemed to work for other people, but it didn’t work for me.
Christopher: I’m reminded of a previous episode with Davin Youngs who was talking about exactly that, that some of these images and metaphors can be useful to inspire the right action, but it’s important to know that they are just images and metaphors, and not get too caught up in you’re actually meant to be singing like a tree, or whatever the case may be. I think the diaphragm is a great example. I had the same in my singing training. It was all about strengthening the diaphragm to get that strong sound. I’m sure a lot of it was nonsense, and maybe some of it was effective nonsense, but I think it’s valuable to recognize what is and isn’t actually happening. So I want to come back the topic of breathing in a little bit.
But first, you were telling me something recently about how your own perspective on teaching singing evolved from there. One thing you mentioned was methods and the way singing is typically taught with a method. Tell us about that. What were you seeing that was wrong about singing teaching once you left that University stage?
Allan: I’m not sure I’d say wrong. I’d say it doesn’t gel with my world view. But if I say wrong, that kind of implies that I believe that my world view is right. So I think that what I disagree with is the more and more current trend of leaning towards trademarking something. So you have such-and-such’s voice training method, or this is the way to do it, and they all have names. I don’t recite any names, but they’re very popular at the moment. What you get is a very evangelical way of teaching in that if it’s not one of the steps in this method, then it’s not right. I was always taught at University that if you’re looking at the world in a scientific way, you don’t need everybody else to be wrong for you to be right.
I feel that that’s one of the downsides of methods is that if you accept the gospel of that method, then everything else must be wrong. What happens when that method hits its natural limit? Any system that a human designs is bound to have a natural limit. So I think that, in some ways, the training that I got during my University years was a lot more image-y and a lot less adapted to my needs, but it wasn’t, per se, a method because I think they just used whatever they felt would work. It was limited in that because they had no understanding of voice function, or at least the teachers that I was with had no understanding of voice function. If the image didn’t work for you, they couldn’t take it any further.
I think that joins in nicely with what you were saying about a previous guest in that yes, images can solicit the right motor response and that’s a wonderful way. It’s problem is trying to tell a singer to control their cricothyroid muscle, they can’t do it. They need some kind of image to solicit that response. What I think is important is that the teacher understands the voice function behind the image so if that image doesn’t work, they can find another one that does work for the person in front of them.
I think that’s only possible if there’s flexibility. If you start to get too evangelical about your method, then it becomes a set of concrete tools and those tools are the only ones you have. Why would you turn your back on any tool that might help a student that’s in front of you? so I think rather than going down a trademark method approach, I prefer the idea that teachers should have a deep understanding of how the voice works. And then they should have creative minds so they can come up with many, many different ways of soliciting a given muscular response in a student’s body.
Christopher: Well, I think apart from the business side of things, it’s hard to argue with what you just said. That’s clearly a very sensible outlook on things. Obviously, you did not leave University and found the Allan Wright Vocal Method Institute. What did happen next?
Allan: I left University and taught Phonetics for a while. A university in France was my initial attempt at having a sensible job. It really didn’t work. I didn’t like it. I’m not cut out for anything other than freeing around in front of people in the lights with makeup on. That’s pretty much my life path, I think. But I mean, I realized that I was trying to lecture in Phonetics, and I’d just talk about singing all the time. So I apologize profusely to the three years of students that had to put up with me basically performing instead of teaching them.
I think that during my third year, I started to get more and more involved with voice research, and I traveled back to the UK a lot to talk to people about voice research. There are some great trainers in the UK who inspired me. I worked with some people in the States as well. I took a lot of workshops and saw other people’s methods and approaches, all of which I think are wonderful. I do encourage people to go and check out methods. Even though I’m against them, that’s no reason for everyone else to be against them.
I think little by little, I realized that I wasn’t going to get the answer I wanted anywhere because it was all too method-y. Really, what I wanted to do was just take a scientific understanding of the voice works and see if that couldn’t be applied to helping people figure out how their voices worked. I just started, little by little, doing a bit of singing coaching on the side with friends who were in musical theater, and working with people who damaged their voices and needed rehabilitation help. Very humbly, really, just to begin with because I didn’t have much idea what I was doing, to be honest. I was just giving them the advice based on the nuts and bolts of how the voice fits together. It seemed to work quite well.
Then I opened a blog in France because I found here that pretty much all singing was strongly conservatory related. If you weren’t the Conservatoire, then you weren’t doing music properly. Obviously, only classical music was possible at that time in the Conservatoire, and I initially thought my goodness, no one seems to know how the voice works. No one seems to be interested in how the voice works. I tried to give some talks on it, and the Conservatoires met it with quite a lot of disdain, saying things like oh, we’re not taught to do this. We don’t need to know this. I just thought wow, is it really so closed off here?
So I set a blog up just saying this is what I think about voice function. I think it can be a useful tool for voice training. And little by little, it just took off from there, really. Lots of people contacted me to say oh, my goodness, we think the same thing. Nobody is saying this. Please tell us more. Then I started to just publish quite regularly on the blog. Then I ran my first public workshop, and it was a huge success. I wasn’t expecting it and all these people turned up wanting to know more about voice function. I built it from there. Over the last kind of 10 years, it’s turned into this big training organization where we try and spread voice function as evidence-based training, I would say. Evidence-based training, rather than image-based training, we try and promote this throughout France.
Christopher: Fantastic. I find the question of method versus kind of tool kit and open mindedness a really interesting one, and it’s certainly one we’ve grappled with at Musical U, where so far, at least, we haven’t said this is the musicality method, and you must follow this path. We’re very much of the attitude that every musician is different in terms of background, and goals, and so on. But it does, of course, come with a cost, which for us, we experience it most painfully in trying to provide a fully flexible training system that is still very clear and easy for people to follow. I think when you’re teaching one-on-one, it’s one thing to be constantly going back and forth with the student and adapting to their needs and so on, that for us, anyway, it’s been difficult so far to design the perfect system that feels very straight and linear for the student, but is not, as you say, a method. It’s not a strict course and it’s not exclusive of other techniques.
So I’d love to hear a little bit about how you approach things if it’s not, this is the way to do it. You have this organization, Le Chanteur Moderne, and you’re clearly providing training and workshops. I believe you also do some one-on-one teaching. I’d love to hear a little bit what that looks like in practice if it’s not putting everyone on one strict course. How do you bring all of these insights and ideas from voice function and science into the teaching?
Allan: I think the first thing that we have is that we’re a team of teachers. So it’s not just me, there are 10 of us. Each person brings their own unique take on it to the table, which is, I think, quite rich. For people who are coming along, it enrichens the training diversity. So we might get the same thing explained in lots of different ways. We just have this rule that we call ecrous et boulons, which means nuts and bolts. It means when in doubt, come back to the nuts and bolts. So if you’re lost for a solution for a person in front of you, if you can’t figure out what exercise might help them, stop. Think what does their voice actually need to function here? What needs to contract or not contract? What needs to let go? Figure that out, and then create your exercises based on that. So we’re constantly going back to listening to what’s in front of us. What can we hear? What’s the problem? And then going back to nuts and bolts to try and figure out a completely made to measure exercise for that person.
That’s slightly different in a public workshop where we might have 10 or 15 people. In there, what we tend to do is present basic voice function that singers will be able to use themselves afterwards. One of the things that I noticed over years of me attending workshops myself, is that you get a presentation of how the teachers work. You don’t necessarily leave with an idea of how you might apply that to your own voice. So what we try to do is show them a bit about voice function. We don’t make it too science-y because that can be, I think, a bit off putting for people, and give them simple exercises that they can apply so that they can if this isn’t working, I can do this. If this isn’t working, I can do this. We try to make them as autonomous as possible.
In a public workshop, there’s always it’s split into several bits. So we have some theory in the morning. Then we split into small groups with several teachers. So the workshop is always taught by more than one teacher. We split into small groups with two or three students per teacher, and then we’ll check that they can apply the exercises. We might rework them, and change, and make a suggestion especially for that person. Then each person gets an individualized coaching in front of everybody at least once in the week as well, so that they’ll work with one or more of the teachers on applying it to their own repertoire, and everyone can watch and ask questions. So we try and make it as individualized as we can that way.
I get your point, though, about … I think that’s the big difference, isn’t it? When you’re dealing with lung training, you can’t have that backwards and forwards. So there has to be a sense of, perhaps not method, but it’s certainly a structure that has to be there. But what I’ve noticed a little bit about what I’ve seen about music art is that you’re always updating it. So I think that’s where you’re bringing in your individualization. Every time you come across a new tool, you share that with your users. I think that proves it’s not a method.
Christopher: Absolutely. And yeah, I think for us so far anyway, the balance has been to combine that library of training material with a lot of personal support and guidance. So it’s not live and one-on-one, but we are there to guide, and suggest, and point people to the next step, a bit like you were saying. I love your approach there that you don’t just give the student four exercises and say, now we’re done. You help them figure out, or you provide them with the thinking required to say, okay, if I go away and I practice this exercise and it doesn’t work out that way, what can I do next? It sounds like you’re setting them up to kind of guide themselves after the workshop, which is fantastic.
Allan: Yeah, we do try. We try to do that. And we talk a lot about how the brain works, and how to learn, and how to help them kind of pimp their learning process so they can really get the most bang for their buck out of learning time. I think a lot of times, musicians think that practicing and learning is just kind of playing or singing your song over, and over, and over, and over again. Science has given us a few responses as to how we might make that a bit more efficient. So we talk a little bit about that as well in workshops, and try to help people become, I suppose, masters of their own learning process.
Christopher: Terrific. You mentioned individualized coaching there, and we met recently on the Kodály training course here in the UK where you were presenting, and also giving individual singing lessons during the course of the weekend. I heard all of these amazing comments from people who’d had that one-on-one session with you. It was clearly, seriously impactful, short 30 minute experience.
One story really stuck out to me. A lady who had had quite a lot of singing experience, and she said that she’d always felt like she was just mimicking singing styles. She was mimicking a singer or a certain genre like classical voice. She said the session with you allowed her, for the first time, to tap into what she felt was really her authentic voice and her way of singing.
I thought that was so interesting because I think a lot of people could relate to that, that singing felt like putting on an act. And actually what they want to do is express something themselves in music. So I’d love if you wouldn’t mind just sharing a little bit about what that might have looked like when you went through it with her, and what kinds of exercises or ideas you might have used to help her tap into that.
Allan: Yeah, sure. First thing, as I say, it sounds like I transformed her in 30 minutes. Actually, she came in with a beautiful voice anyway, so my job was very easy. She had a lovely voice. I think the first thing that … I took myself back to nuts and bolts, really. I tend to work on the principle if the singer says something is wrong, then something is wrong, even if it all sounds fine to me. So if they say, I’m not feeling this. This doesn’t feel like me. Even if my ear says the production is right, and it sounds musically right, I want to find out what’s going on. So I’ll try and dig a bit behind.
So we talked a little bit about her experience in running singing groups and choirs. She’s someone who has to give an awful lot of demonstrations in different styles and different pitches for people. Clearly, she started to feel like her voice was just this box of imitating, where she’d just pull an imitation out for the tenors, then an imitation out for the sopranos. I think my own experience of working with training singing teachers is that that’s a danger that they run as well, where you demonstrate so much all week, that you kind of lose your own vocal identity, I suppose. I’m not really talking about a vocal identity like a pop artist might have, where he needs to be able to be recognized in the media. I suppose what I’m talking about is the ability to feel that you just open your mouth and sing, and it comes from a very authentic, honest place, rather than open your mouth, put your larynx here, engage your breathing, all of those checklist things that we often hear.
Clearly, I think that’s what was happening with this lady. You know, she’d done a lot of training. She had a lovely voice. But everything she sang to me, she said, I can sing it this way, or I can sing it this way, or I can sing it that way. And she started to touch on problems like when I’m singing in my classical style, I have no power in the low notes. And it became clear that certain laryngeal setups, if you like, or singing recipes were associated with different styles. The problem with recipe-based singing is that each of these recipes has its limitations.
So if you take a very classical head voice sound for a woman, typically, if that singer is not taught to bring it down to connect with their speaking voice, it’ll just get kind of wispy. As she gets down to the bottom, she’ll feel like she’s got no sound. So she felt that, that was a problem. She was thinking that could be part of her voice because it couldn’t be righted if it didn’t reconnect with her speaking voice. Then she had her speaking voice, which she could only take up so far. So that couldn’t be it either. I think she just got to the stage where before she opened her mouth to sing, she felt like she had to think how am I going to do this? What sound am I looking for?
So we did a few things. The first thing we did was try and smooth out the middle of the range. We did that just by making sure that she started off in her speaking voice, and we slid up until we found a big, spectacular break. Then we played around with that a little bit, and just accepted that that’s what human voices do and it’s okay. Then we went up to the high bit, and started to realize that those high notes actually felt a little bit like what she was doing when she felt she was imitating a classical singer. Then we came back down, and she realized that it felt like her speaking voice. Then we worked on building the middle so that actually, all three of those zones came together as one voice. I mean, she didn’t feel like she had to pick one or the other anymore. She could slide between them. And we just kept going back to speaking voice. How would you say this? Speak it out loud to me.
We went through some emotional stuff. I suppose a little bit like … I don’t know if you’ve heard of Janice Chapman. Have you heard of Janice Chapman? She’s a singing teacher in the UK, and she’s done a lot of work into implants of primal sounds into singing. She wrote a superb book. Can I plug her book on this, is that okay?
Christopher: Absolutely. Yeah, please do.
Allan: Yeah? It’s called “Singing and Teaching Singing: A Holistic Approach to Classical Voice”, a brilliant book. So the principles in there, one is aimed at classical singers. There are some interesting ideas like these primitive sounds that we make. She’s not the only person that speaks about this. Quite a few voice scientists talk about it. Ingo Titze mentions it in his books “Vocology” and “Principles of Voice Production”, and the idea is that there are these natural sounds that we share with quite a lot of the animal kingdom, and that are linked to our emotions and our neural pathways for producing emotive sound.
So I’d ask her to say the text, but say it perhaps to shriek, and then to whoop, or to laugh it, or to pitchy moan it and sob it and whinge it dramatically. We made lots of little characters up and we played around with them. I think she started to realize that all of those voices were facets of her own voice. Then when we sang again at the end, she said that for the first time, she felt that when she opened her mouth and she didn’t need to ask any questions. It just came out. I think that was quite nice, a nice experience. But I’m not certain that any of it is down to me. A lot of these ideas I’ve nicked off other people over the years.
Christopher: Absolutely. It sounds like you were able to bring all of that together for her in a simple and straightforward way. It sounds like it had a profound impact for her. So that’s wonderful.
Allan: I hope so. I mean, I think the middle voice is often a big problem for everyone. And register problems are central to a lot of things. One of the big questions that comes up in every workshop that I run, they’re all created differently, but really, all anyone cares about is how do I get through the middle without yodeling? That’s what everyone is bothered about. If you can learn to balance that without getting too gimmicky, then your voice really does start to feel like an extension of your speaking voice, and it feels like it’s connected part of you. I think that’s really important if you want to hope to get any emotion across when you’re singing. You have to feel like you’re being authentic.
Christopher: One thing I really loved about your presentation at that training course was that it was refreshingly factual. You know, I’m a scientist and an engineer by background. That is my mindset. For me, for the most part, the musical training I’ve received has always felt a little bit separate. You know, there’s the musical mindset that’s very arty and creative, and wonderful in many ways. But I always love it when someone brings the two together, and this presentation you gave on breathing and support was exactly that. It was taking the science and what do we actually know about the physiology of the human body, can we answer some of these questions or concerns people have about breathing from a factual scientific perspective.
I’d love to just touch on this idea of singing myth busting because it’s where I see the power. The power of the science is that it’s so easy, with all of the respect and admiration we have for these approaches that have been handed down through the years and produced amazing art and amazing musicians, it’s easy to kind of feel, put them up on a pedestal and say well, that’s the way they worked for opera singers 200 years ago. Therefore, it must be right. I think in this day and age, more and more, we’re seeing the value of reassessing some of those inherited ideas with a scientific viewpoint, and taking the bits that are good and work, and letting go of the ones that are just confusing people and holding them back.
I’d love if you could share some of the ideas from that presentation around breathing and support, which are so often these sticking points for singers.
Allan: Yeah. I mean, it’s a presentation that I often give in one version or another because I think it was the biggest thing for me when I was learning to sing. Like everybody, I had multiple teachers, and they all had the absolute truth on breathing, every one of them. I’ve never met so many people that were absolutely right whilst disagreeing with each other. Everyone was right, and one of the, I don’t know if you remember, but one of the slides that I use is just of this massive fight, people scrapping in the street, basically. That’s just how I view breathing and singing. If you mention breathing, it’s sort of like in the touch paper in a voice teacher conference. If you just say, so how should we support? You can just step back and watch this fight ensue.
One of the things I think that I think to actually be true is that yeah, we do tend to put because it’s old, it’s good upon a pedestal. I do think currently, we tend to think well, because it was found in a lab, so it gets put on a pedestal as well. I feel that you’ve got these two groups of people who are trying to say the same thing, but not standing face-to-face, standing back-to-back. No one is kind of taking each one of them by the hand and saying to the scientists, perhaps if you didn’t put equations and graphs on the boards, the singing teachers would get it. And saying to the singing teachers, there is something other than Vera singing Opera. I think they just don’t understand each other’s discourse.
So what we try to do with my team is to try and build a bridge there. It sounds very lofty for 10 people in Northwest France, who probably have barbecues and drink too much wine, more than we do working on West Sides. But our mission is really to try and build these bridges. The breathing one is the big one for me because it just seems that singers are obsessed with it because I think it’s imprinted onto them very early on. And so they have this idea that if you know how to breathe, then everything else will be perfect. And there’s one way to breathe, and it has to be the way your teacher said. And that they’re always very marked ideas.
One of my favorite ones that I had was you have to breathe in, inflate the whole torso, don’t let anything move, and sing. If you have even a basic understanding of how pumps work, then you understand that can’t be the case. Once the air is in there, if you want to make sound, it’s got to come out. And if you don’t let anything move, then nothing is coming out. Or you get things like the belly must absolutely go in, or the belly must absolutely go out. Or the ribs must absolutely come up and not move.
I think, and I don’t know if this is because I have this massive love for musical theater, but you just have to watch musical theater productions, especially if you’ve got some modern producer with something to prove, a director with some odd stage ideas. You see the poor actors in the oddest costumes, and oddest of positions, and if they have been taught you must do this when you breathe, they would be so stuffed. The idea that you must inflate your belly, how’s that going to work if you’re wearing a corset? Or you must keep your ribcage open. How’s that going to work if you’re in a certain physical position.
So I think really what we need to look at is what’s true and what’s not true. That’s what I love about the science is that it doesn’t care what your opinion is. You know, the facts are the facts whether you believe in them or not. That’s what I absolutely love about it. So I think the big one for me is the diaphragm. Don’t try and sing from your diaphragm. You can’t. You can’t do it. Give up. If anyone has been telling you to try and sing from your diaphragm, you can just once smile politely at them, and stop trying to do it. It’s not necessary.
Just ask yourself what do I need as a singer? Really, all we know that singers need, breath needs to come through the vocal folds. So that means you need to know how to breathe out. I imagine you can probably tick that box. That’s all right. You need to know how to breathe in. That’s probably okay if you’re still alive. So those two boxes are already ticked. Then you need to have two skills, I think, which can almost be boiled down to one. Those two skills are the ability to generate higher pressure levels to get louder if you want to have control over your intensity levels. And the ability to sing long phrases. Arguably, not everybody needs that second one.
If you’re singing, I don’t know, folk songs with specific breathing patterns, you might not need long phrases. If you’re singing Mozart, you might. But both of those can be boiled down to control over the pressure because as you’re singing for any length of time, the air is coming out of your lungs. If you want to be able to sing to the end of the air that’s in there, you’re going to have to keep increasing, or at least doing the same thing you would do to increase pressure in order to keep the air coming out. It’s as simple as that.
So really, all singers need is to be able to breathe in freely and unhinderedly, and to tailor their air use to what they’re going to sing. If you’re singing short phrases, don’t fill up on air, it’s not necessary. You can get to the Chip Chop and back on half a tank of petrol. You know, you don’t need to fill up just to go around the corner. And if you want to get louder, you need to have control over your pressure. If we boil it down to that, really, the only question is how do I get control over my pressure?
You can do that in many ways. I mean, it’s a balloon, basically, and where you push will increase the pressure. Science has certainly given us some answers in that it appears that some version of belly in breathing is the most mechanically efficient way to increase your pressure. That just means pulling your belly in gently as you’re singing. And if you want to create large amounts of pressure, probably feeling some work in the oblique area, in between your ribs and your arch of your hips. That seems to be a very mechanically efficient way to do it. But it’s a bit of a problem going on in the singing world at the minute. People have got obsessed with this one approach to singing because it’s mechanically efficient. But I think it’s important to remember that mechanically efficient is not the same as saying the only way to do something.
So I would think if anyone wants to give it a go, who’s listening, give yourself two rules. Let go of any abdominal tension when you breath in. Breathe in freely and easily. Don’t make it into a big thing. You don’t have to breathe in a magic way for singing. And then prop your hands around your waist, in between your ribs and your hips, and just have a gentle cough, and you’ll probably feel something pop out a little bit, a little firmer bit under there. Those are the muscles you need to use to increase pressure. You only need to increase pressure actively if you’re singing very loud or at the end of a very long phrase. In most of the cases, if you just get the musical intensity right, the musical intention right, and your registration is balanced in your throat, the breathing will probably take care of itself.
The best way, I think, for people to train then would be to get a water bottle and breathe into that empty water bottle, just blow air into it, feel what’s happening in your abdomen. Train yourself to blow it for as long as you can, then stop to sing and hum some scales into there as well. See how the whole, how the vocal folds and the abs work together to compress the air and create sound. Just do a little bit of that every day, and then your breathing will become autopilot. That should be the goal of everything, not really understanding how it works and how to do it. I don’t think we should be doing things when we’re singing. We should be being the artistic person at that point. We should be creating art. So I think if you train yourself a little bit each day until a new habit forms, then you just don’t have to worry about breathing.
Christopher: Fantastic. I wasn’t sure you could boil down the essence of such an interesting presentation into a few minutes on a podcast. I think you nailed it. Anyone listening is thinking wow, is it actually that simple? I think the science says yes-
Allan: Yes, it really is.
Christopher: It can be that simple.
Allan: And there’s more than one way to do it. So if you’re getting the sounds you want and it doesn’t hurt, don’t worry about it. You’re doing it right.
Christopher: Fantastic. I’m going to play the part of slightly confused singer, who is earnestly trying to learn and reading all kinds of things online and getting in a total muddle. I want to ask you a question we often hear from singers at Musical U, which is what should I eat or drink to sing well?
Allan: Cake and cheese, interesting answer to that question.
Christopher: What should I avoid eating and drinking as often how it’s put.
Allan: Yeah, this comes up in every one of my web talks as well. Again, people are scared about it. And the thing about singers, we’re all a bit mad, and we’re all a bit neurotic. So we start to share the crazy. This is what happens. So we read something, and Celine Dion has this, and she has this chicken soup and she takes the chicken meat out. I wonder if that’s true, just for the record. Don’t send your lawyers after me, Celine. But you know, maybe she does this. And people think oh, I’ll give that a go. And then somebody else hears you shouldn’t drink coffee. Well, I’ll stop drinking coffee. And I hear you pouring another drink in the background. Is it coffee?
Christopher: It is.
Allan: And then someone else says you should avoid dairy. What you end up with is people share all these tips genuinely thinking they’re helping each other. You get people who become terrified of food. That breaks my heart. I’m a Norther. You know, this breaks my heart. You’d be scared of food. And a cursory inspection of the science leads us to believe that Celine Dion probably doesn’t sound the way she does because she has a certain kind of soup before she goes on stage. She sounds the way she does because she works her back side off. That’s what it is. It’s down to hard work. There’s nothing else to it.
But if we just take some of these food myths and have a look at them, should I avoid dairy? No. I mean, if you dislike it. No one is forcing you to eat Camembert. But if you like dairy, yes, go ahead, Fred. You know, I mean, there is no, or at least very little, scientific support to the idea that dairy has any kind of impact on phonation. Several studies have been carried out into this. One particularly fascinating one got people who believed that dairy increased mucus production to drink either actual milk or a fake milk substitute that tasted and felt the same. They reported exactly the same reaction to both drinks. Oh, well that’s it, I can feel the top swelling now. So there’s probably a bit if you believe it’s true, it will be true. But there appears to be no medically, statistically valid link between eating dairy and any increased mucus production. So if you fancy a cheese toasty before you go on stage, just have a cheese toasty.
There was a brief study carried out as well that looked into eating before going on stage. Should I eat before I go on stage? Does it impact … Some people say it impacts range. Other people say it inhibits abdominal movement so you can’t breathe so well. Well, that study concluded that it had no impact whatsoever, neither on pitch, range, or maximum phonation tone, or access to the air. All of those things were not affected.
What else do I hear? Don’t drink coffee because caffeine dries you out. We hear that a lot. There’s a few things that I think we need to take into account. The first one is that your larynx sits on top of your lungs. It doesn’t sit on top of your esophagus. So it’s sits on top of your trachea. It’s not on top of our esophagus. Anything that’s going into your stomach is not going through your lungs. So if you drink something or you eat something, it should not come into direct contact with your vocal cords. If it does, you’ll cough violently. Your body goes into panic mechanism because if you end up with half a pint of coffee in your left lung, you probably haven’t got one left. So you don’t want to end up with a [inaudible 00:39:00] in your lungs every time you have a meal. So the idea is that the larynx closes very tightly to protect the lungs and the food slides over the top of it, pops into the esophagus, and goes down to the stomach. So there’s no direct impact of anything you eat or drink on the vocal cords themselves.
So we need to ask are there systemic reactions? Does caffeine dry out the body? Is there a diuretic effect? The research is unclear on this. Some studies indicate a little bit. Some indicate not at all. It seems to be that 300 milligrams tends to be about where some dehydration per day starts to kick in. That’s probably about five cups of coffee. It’s quite a lot. But most studies that have looked at the impact of caffeine intake on phonation have concluded that it has none, simply. People who are given decaffeinated beverages or caffeinated have no difference in acoustic or aerodynamic output afterwards.
Once again, though, if you think it’s true for you, if you find having a coffee before going on stage makes you feel like you can’t perform, then don’t have a coffee. That’s fine. It’s a crazy job being a singer. You know, we basically stand up in front of people and say I am brilliant, do you agree? 15 minutes, you know. It’s weird. Or if you’re doing auditions, you walk into a room and say does anybody want to throw stones at me for 15 minutes? That’s what it feels like.
So anything that enables you, any crazy ritual that enables you to get up there and do it is probably okay. But don’t share the crazy. If it helps you, that’s great. If we start spreading it around, we end up with singers who won’t have cheese, who won’t have coffee, who won’t drink wine before going on stage. All of these things that come in. So just come back to the science and tell yourself that nothing you eat or drink directly affects your vocal folds. Anything that might have a systemic impact is probably not going to happen quickly enough to affect you while you’re on stage. Just eat and drink whatever you like. Obviously, outside of allergies, usually at this point in a workshop, someone sticks their hand up and says, well, I’m allergic to milk. Well, then don’t drink it. It has nothing to do with singing, and lots to do with not dying. It has nothing to do with music.
So then, of course, that raises another interesting product, which is all the magic potions that you can buy for singers. All the teas, special tea that’s made from, I don’t know, slippery aloe that was handpicked by virgins in Madagascan moonlight on the third Thursday of the month. Once again, I mean, it’s just going into your stomach, and what you’re effectively making is really expensive urine. So I would say just drink a bit of water. Hydrate before you go on stage a good bit in advance because it’s not touching the folds directly. So several hours in advance, you need to drink. If your vocal folds are hydrated, they’re happy. That’s it. Eat, drink whatever you like. Eat, drink, and be merry. That’s what I think.
Christopher: Fantastic. Good advice for life in general.
Christopher: I’m going to play the part of confused, aspiring singer once again, and ask you about the other thing I’ve been hearing a lot about, which is how to correctly pronounce my vowels. It’s something I’m getting different information about from every website I look at, and every style of music I look at. How should I be thinking about vowels?
Allan: Well, it’s a big question, vowels and one that’s getting a lot of research attention at the moment. I think one of the first things we need to ask ourself a question about is really what is a vowel? Your voice functions like pretty much, I feel, an instrument. It’s a resonation instrument. You have a reed, which is your vocal folds which down in your Adam’s apple. They’re put into vibration, or oscillation more correctly I suppose, by an airflow. Then the space above amplifies that just like a violin, or a guitar. You pluck the string and the body of the instrument amplifies the sound. The same thing happens in your voice. The space that’s amplifying the sound is often called the vocal tract, but it’s really just a fancy word for mouth and throat, that’s all they’re saying. I suppose the big difference then with the guitar or a violin is that you have a resonator that is flexible. You can’t change the shape of a violin’s resonator. You can’t change the shape of guitar’s resonator. Not without a hammer, anyway, and guitarists tend to get a bit touchy about that.
So where your voice is concerned, you can move all kinds of stuff around in your throat and mouth. When you do that, it changes the shape of your resonancer. Just like the violin doesn’t sound like a piccolo even when they’re playing the same note, then different mouth and throat shapes create very different timboral responses in your instrument. That’s why you can make so many different voices. You’re moving stuff around in your throat.
What a vowel is, is essentially a recipe in the throat. So a vowel is a particular form or shape that you create in between your vocal folds and the outside world, and it’s causes a certain harmonic response. It boosts certain harmonics in the sound you’re producing, and it dulls the harmonics. The brilliant thing, and this is how science can blow your mind, is that other people’s ears can hear this. You just kind of have to go how? How?
But I mean, that’s how they can hear when you say ah, or eh, that’s how they’re hearing the difference. There is no other way possible. You’re saying ah or eh, and even with their back turned, they can hear it. So that ear is able to recognize where these strong and weak areas are in the spectrum of the sound, and interprets it as vowels. So, that’s what we know about vowels is that they are like mini-resonators of their own. And like any resonator, they have certain pitches that they love, and other pitches that they don’t.
So anyone who plays a stringed instrument will know that they’re often what we call wolf notes, or notes that are a bit dead, or notes that will make a rolling sound when you play them. They just don’t sing well in that instrument. It would be the same in a given voice. Certain vowels or a given pitch will be more resonant, or free, or easy to produce. That doesn’t mean that you have to sing certain vowels on certain pitches, of course, because composers are very … They love their text to be pronounced as they’ve written it. They don’t want you to just go changing the words and sounds. I’m just going to sing ah here even though you’ve written it … That would make our life a lot easier, but we can’t do that.
So the interplay between pitch and vowel comes down to what the singer is looking for. If you’re looking for the most open, resonant sound that projects the easiest, like you might be if you’re an opera singer, then certain vowel choices are going to be necessary. Those vowel choices are probably going to be fairly big modifications, which is why we find opera singers difficult to understand a lot of the time. They have to produce certain shapes in their throat to enable the projection that they’re creating. That makes certain vowels difficult to pronounce. So they just don’t pronounce them. And we hear ah on a lot of the top notes even though it might be ee or oo. But they can’t tell from the vowels.
A lot of teachers will say things like you have produce purer vowels. Well, you can’t. You can’t. As you go higher in your range, you can’t keep producing pure vowels. With one exception, if you want to sing in a fairly heavy chest voice on the bottom, have a massive 14 year old boy break in the middle, you know, that kind of oh no, nobody understands me sound. And then as you go higher, shift into a very pure falsetto sound. If that’s what you want your voice to sound like, then by all means, sing purer vowels. Even that will get you into trouble eventually if you go high enough.
Basically, the maths don’t add up. Each note is producing a set of harmonic frequencies that are mathematically defined by the basic pitch. Some of those harmonic frequencies will be aligned with what the vowel wants, and some of them won’t. That has an impact on timber. So if you don’t mind your timber closing in as you go higher, where it’s more like Bruno Mars when he sings his high notes, we hear quite a closed sound, and that’s what we look for in that side of music. It’s not a mistake. It sounds good, in fact, in that sound of music. Certain vowels will lead you towards that. If you’re looking for a very open operatic tenor sound, then different vowels will lead you towards that. But at one point in your voice, make peace with it. You’re going to have to modify your vowels. If you sing on anything more than a one and a half octave range, you’re going to have to modify your vowels.
Christopher: Terrific. We had a really good example of that actually just last week. In Musical U, we have these training tracks for solfa, and a member reported that in a certain track, the high do sound, it was a la instead of a do. And I listened back, and I checked all of the sound clips we used to synthesize this example. The singer had nicely sung do on every pitch very patiently, chromatically, across her range. Sure enough, in that context it was a very high do. It came out as da because that’s the limit of her range. You know, when you’re listening for solfa and it’s right up there, you don’t hear do, do, do, do. You hear do, do, do, la. You know, the D had been lost. The vowel had changed because she was right up at the top of her range. As a creative performing singer, professional singer, to her that was just how you sing the O sound at the top of the range. That’s part of her voice. That’s part of how she performs. I’m sure it didn’t cross her mind that actually in isolation it’s going to come out sounding like a da.
Allan: Yeah, da, yeah. Yes, it’s surprising, isn’t it? These things that I think working singers do instinctively. Even I’ve heard many singers say no, I sing pure vowels. When you listen to them, they’re not. They’re modifying very gently, but they are modifying vowels. I think that’s often a problem in pedagogy is that what the teacher is telling you to do is not necessarily what they’re doing. They don’t know it. They believe that they’re doing what they ask you to do. But what they’re doing is not what they think they’re doing is often the problem. But yeah, I suppose as you go up, you aren’t going to get do. You would go to a da.
The simple rules would be, and there are some fairly simple rules to do with jaw position and tongue position and lip position, but basically, if you want a given voice quality to go higher, if you’re in your speaking voice and you can’t quite get that top note in your speaking voice and you want it in your speaking voice, open your jaw. Think wider aperture. Drop your jaw a little and put a smile into it. That’s going to make those notes easier to produce. But it’s also going to make you choose certain vowels. That explains why your singer sang da instead of do, which requires a much more closed mouth shape.
Christopher: Absolutely. Fantastic. Well, playing the part of befuddled singer, I think you’ve just cleared up three very important points for me in terms of breathing, what I should and shouldn’t eat and drink and not dying, and how I should think about my vowel sounds and making peace with that fact that they are going to change across my range. So I hope that for anyone listening who has encountered these common sticking points, or sources of myths that has helped clear some of those up.
Allan, you are one of the most impressively productive people I know. You’re involved in a wide variety of fascinating projects. So it may be too simple a question, but what’s next for your work and Le Chanteur Moderne?
Allan: Well, our next step, our big project that we’re working on … We’ve got two things going on at the moment. We’re currently working on having the teacher training recognized at Master’s level. That’s a big… there’s a lot of work going into that. And in our bid to I guess get the training out to more people and allow people to create their own learning plan, I suppose that sounds a bit buzzword-ish, but I genuinely believe people should be able to learn the way that fits their life.
The idea is that we want to be able to give people a choice to pick more tools and do them at their own rhythm. So we’re in the process of setting up an online classroom. We have lots of functional based voice training in there from a range of experts. So we’ve got a jazz specialist coming in to teach you how to sing jazz but based on voice function. How do you take this functional knowledge and apply it to making yourself sound more jazz. We’ve got a pop expert coming in. Musical theater people, classical people. We’re going to look at how to avoid getting tired. There’s just this massive range of online courses that we’re going to offer the people. They’ll be able to follow from home, at their own pace and their own rhythm. That’s the idea. So that’s what we’re doing at the moment. Everything is being channeled into that.
Christopher: Fantastic. That’s really exciting to hear about because I think my immediate reaction to your presentation I was lucky enough to see live was I wish everyone could see this. So getting out there online is a wonderful thing. If people listening are curious to know about that when it launches, and to learn more about your teaching in general, where can they go?
Allan: So there’s the website which is www.chanteurmoderne.com. If you don’t speak French, that’s C-H-A-N-T-E-U-R-M-O-D-E-R-N-E.com. We have a Facebook page, too which is Le Chanteur Moderne on Facebook. And we generally keep people abreast of everything of there. The website is only in French for the moment, although I am being bullied from all sides to get it put into English. So we’ll get up to there, too. We often publish articles in English and I have a voice mix on there as well so people can always check out that. And on the Facebook page, we publish in both English and French. So people can be kept abreast of everything that’s going on there.
Christopher: Perfect. Well, for those who, like me, struggle to spell French correctly, and were frantically trying to find a pen to write that down, we’ll put a link to that website and the Facebook page in the shownotes for this episode, and that will be at musicalitypodcast.com. Allan, it’s been such a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Allan: Thank you for having me. It’s been great fun.
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