Being a Singer: The Art, Craft, and Science

Being a Singer: The Art, Craft, and Science


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Being a Singer: The Art, Craft, and Science provides the solutions you need to make practical, consistent changes in your singing. This book pulls back the curtain on how singing actually works, from cognition to anatomy to your amazing hearing system and even your instincts and emotions. Based on the training approach of Seth Riggs, supported by vocal science, neuroscience and motor learning, Being a Singer offers clear tools and strategies that train your voice, empower you to find solutions, build your awareness, and develop confidence. Stories and interviews will inspire you. Exercises with clear how-to’s, evaluations, and troubleshooting will train your voice, mind, and body. Exercises are available online.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781641602044
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 11/05/2019
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 1,126,411
Product dimensions: 8.00(w) x 10.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Linda Balliro has been nominated for a Grammy as Music Educator of the Year and is highly regarded at the Berklee College of Music. Her clients include nationally touring musicians, local artists, young opera singers, children, and teens. A graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music in vocal performance, she performed as a classical singer and studied for ten years with Seth Riggs, who worked with Prince, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Madonna, and Barbra Streisand.

Read an Excerpt



He told me I had a diamond in my throat, but that it needed polishing to remove the carbon it still bore.

— Birgit Nilsson, My Memoirs in Pictures

When I entered New England Conservatory of Music as an undergraduate student, I had already been singing in schools and churches for years. I began doing church "gigs" for special events at eight years old and toured my local area for a few years. Then I went on to various shows, concerts, and events throughout my teens. But I felt like something was missing. I had a voice, but I sensed that great singers were doing a few things I couldn't do. I thought I would study at the conservatory, learn everything I needed, and then live happily ever after. As it turned out, it was a bit more complicated than that, but my education, training, performing, and teaching have been a great adventure. Each experience opens new doors that I didn't even know existed, and there isn't an end in sight.

While I was a student, I read many singer biographies because I wanted to know behind-the-scenes details. How did great singers learn? Where did they study? Did they face any challenges? When I read My Memoirs in Pictures, the quote above inspired me to forge ahead, but I didn't really understand how much of an impact the idea had on me until I started writing this book.

Birgit Nilsson (1918–2005) was a highly acclaimed international opera singer. She had a tremendous career singing dramatic roles in Wagner, Puccini, and Verdi operas because her voice was a powerful force, with ringing high notes and an intuitive sense of drama. She sang an impressive "debut" concert in Stockholm when she was very young, but after the concert Isaac Grünewald, one of Sweden's most famous painters, said her voice needed "polishing." What? Such an impressive talent and gifted voice with a sensibility for music! Couldn't she just study music, get some experience, and become a star?

Not exactly. Like so many stars and celebrities, she appeared to have a meteoric rise to success. In reality, she struggled with her training for several years, was frustrated with her studies, and juggled money to pay for her lessons. Sound familiar? Despite it all, she was determined to develop a consistent voice she could rely on. The result? She became one of the greatest singers of the twentieth century.

You see, even a tremendously gifted artist like Birgit Nilsson struggled. She had difficult days when she didn't know if she could develop enough technique to carry her through a career, when she didn't have money and had to borrow dresses for performances. She had to work hard. She had to stay focused.

You also have a "diamond" in your throat. And just as a diamond is formed deep in the earth, laboriously mined, cut, polished, and finally placed in a well-crafted setting so it can shine in all its glory, your voice is formed deep in the core of your being through an intense process of biomechanics, acoustics, cognition, and emotions.

Becoming a great singer isn't about your "gift." It isn't about being "good enough." Becoming a great singer means discovering how to align your thoughts, emotions, and behavior to tell the story of the music and lyrics, no matter what you sing.

Performing for an audience can be transformative. Whether singing for family and friends, on the stage of the Met, or in Madison Square Garden, sharing and expressing your message will take you to an extraordinary place. You have everything you need to get there. You only have to craft your diamond, "remove the carbon" until you have a powerful, flexible, and expressive instrument.

In the following chapters, you'll learn and practice training methods developed by master teachers of the past five centuries. The exercises in this book have trained Grammy winners, Broadway stars, and opera singers, as well as students and recreational singers of all ages. Thousands of singers have depended on these exercises and this approach to train the coordination of their voices.

Before you begin training, you need to prepare — just as you would prepare for running a marathon. Singing is more complex than most sports, so you'll need to prepare your voice, mind, and body.

* * *

Singing creates a whirlwind of physical and emotional experiences for singers and listeners. While we luxuriate in a flurry of vibrations, airflow, memory, imagination, and sound, we tend to forget that singing is a motor skill, like riding a bicycle or using chopsticks. Learning a physical action, a motor skill, is called motor learning. Understanding the principles of motor learning can help you train your voice quickly and efficiently.

When you learn to ride a bicycle, you get basic instructions about the bike and where to put your hands and feet. You learn where the brakes and the gears are located, and then you swing your leg over the frame, hop on the seat, and push the pedals down to propel the bicycle forward. If no one is holding the bike when you pedal the first time, the bike will tip to one side or you'll fall. But as you pedal the bike with someone holding it, your skin, muscles, ligaments, and bones feel the forces of gravity, the weight of the bicycle, and the road beneath the bicycle. The body sends that information to your brain. As soon as your brain begins receiving information, it begins sending messages back to your body to correct your body position — tensing the right muscles, relaxing others, adjusting every aspect of your body required to balance on the bike. While you're enjoying the view and feeling the breeze on your face, your neurological system feverishly collects and sends messages throughout your brain and body in the background of your mind. You're not even aware of the activity that's going on because its unconscious, but you gradually feel the results. With each pedal, messages get faster and faster until the movement becomes automatic. Suddenly, your mother or father or sister or brother lets go, and you have your first taste of freedom, flying down the road with the wind in your hair.

Learning to sing is very similar. While you're singing, your mind is gathering sensory information, forming connections, storing the connections, and finally moving them to long-term memory until the movements become automatic and you can sing with the same freedom as flying down a hill on a bicycle. Singing involves incredibly complex movements: posture and respiration; coordination of the muscles inside the larynx, mouth, lips, tongue, throat, face, and jaw; and synchronicity with our amazing auditory system. You have to allow the unconscious neurological activity to take place. You can do that by focusing on sensory information — that is, your experience while singing.

You don't learn to balance on a bicycle by thinking about how fast you'd like to ride, which hill you'd like to explore, or the feeling of your feet on the pedals. You have to focus on the feeling of balance. It would take a very long time to learn how to balance on a bicycle if you weren't directing your attention to the feeling of the bike, the forces of gravity, and the weight of your body. When someone is holding the bicycle for you, it easy for you to relax and allow your sensory system to collect the information it needs. The same is true for learning how to sing. You don't learn to sing effortlessly by thinking about "hitting" the high notes, getting a "beautiful" sound, or how your throat feels. In singing, you have to focus on the senses of hearing, seeing, and physical sensation. In this book, these focus skills are called tactilize, audicize, and visualize.

Tactilize means directing your attention to the memory of a physical sensation. Do you remember the feeling of a dog's fur? Have you kneaded dough to make bread? Can you recall the feeling of the dough giving in to your hands? If you play tennis or dance, you have to remember the feeling of the body movements and positions in space. When you listen to or play music, you feel the beat, either viscerally or in actual movement, like tapping your foot. When singing, you can learn to feel resonance, vibrato, lung pressure, a relaxed larynx, or the feeling of "compression" or "leaning in" you'll need to sing powerfully. There is a "touch" that singers sense at the start of a tone. The manner in which you "touch" is dictated by the music and style, and this feeling can be memorized. When you direct your attention toward physical sensations that occur effortlessly, you'll learn faster and more efficiently. All singers use the sense of physical feeling and touch to sing.

Audicize means directing your attention toward your memory of a sound. You can "hold" the sound in your mind. (Sometimes it's difficult to get the music in your mind to stop so you can get some sleep!) You can audicize the sound of vowels, tone, or memories of melody and harmony. Can you recall the sound of your mother's voice? What does your favorite animal's voice sound like? Can you remember the vocal tone of your favorite singer? Can you hear in your mind the last time you sang a great high note? Every singer uses sound sense, and memory of a sound to sing. Our memory of sound and voice is so powerful it can be a problem; if you've been listening to one singer for a long time, the sound of that voice can take over your hearing. You may have to train your mind to hear the sound of your own voice instead. You can also train your hearing to recognize vowels and the acoustic properties of the tone (harmonics, frequencies, and amplitude).

Visualize means directing your attention toward your memory or idea of the way things look. Even blind people and animals have a "visual" memory. The visual cortex of their brains show activity when they remember an object or a position. They may not see the color and full details, but they remember the shape and spatial aspects of things they've experienced. So everyone has visual memory. Do you remember where you were last Sunday afternoon? Picture the place in your mind. Can you recall the colors, the shapes, the lighting? Can you see it in your mind's eye? That's visualizing, and you can use this skill to sing more effortlessly, freely, and expressively. You can visualize yourself singing onstage if you want to prepare for a performance — imagine the position of your mouth while singing a great oo vowel or standing with great posture. Visualizing is a sense that every singer uses to sing. You can learn to use it intentionally so that you can master your singing and performing.

Singers use all these senses when they sing. You can learn to direct your attention so you can change ineffective habits, develop better coordination in your voice, sing with more power and range, and be more expressive with the words and music. In the upcoming exercises and practice sessions, we're going to learn how to apply this to your singing until it becomes effortless.

* * *

Singing involves many sections of the brain: areas responsible for thinking, hearing, feeling, movement of a variety of muscles, ligments, and bones. Neuroscience has discovered that the connections between sections of the brain have the most impact on how we function. Learning means using information from your experience to change and form these connections. This is called neuroplasticity. You're able to change and learn new things because your brain is "moldable." That's what you're doing when you're learning to ride a bicycle or learning to sing — you're molding connections that will make it possible for you to sing with freedom, power, and flexibility. While learning, the volume of your brain actually increases! Once the new connections are firmly established, the volume returns to its previous size. Our brain is so smart; you just have to allow this to happen. If you're distracted by your voice, your sound, or your fears and beliefs, the unconscious functions of the brain don't work very well.

If you want to change your singing, you have to change your focus.

You can create the best environment for motor learning by focusing on your senses. Focus means directing your attention. You're continuously directing your attention, either consciously or unconsciously. You focus when you brush your teeth, although it's so automatic that you're only aware of focusing for a nanosecond, while your unconscious mind is quite busy carrying out all the signaling that needs to take place to get the toothbrush between all the nooks and crannies. When you're learning something new, you need to consciously focus much more and for a longer time because you're forming new neural networks.

Where do you direct your attention when you're singing, intentionally or unintentionally? You've seen that your brain collects a great deal of sensory information when you're learning, working feverishly to develop new connections. The information it collects depends on where you're directing your attention, your focus. If you're thinking about whether or not you sound good, or what other people think of your voice, or what you ate for breakfast, you won't be learning how to sing, or delivering your best performance. If you're directing your attention toward negative or limiting beliefs — "I don't think I can do this," "I don't understand this," "My voice can't sing that high"— repeatedly reaching for high notes or blowing huge amounts of air to get through challenging areas, you won't be singing with freedom, power, and flexibility. Focusing on the past or future, or on negative thoughts, is unintentional. Good singers are very intentional. They direct their attention to the sensory information they need to sing easily and expressively.

You will learn more about this later, but for now, remember it's important to write down your experiences and perceptions so you can find out where you're focusing and how to change it. Developing intentional focus will allow you to grow the neural connections you need to master the craft of singing.

So, now you know. No matter your "talent," no matter your singing ability now, no matter what problems you may have had in the past or with other voice training, no matter how many years you've been struggling, you can learn to sing freely and effectively.

* * *

Words to Help You Focus on Your Experience

Tactilize means focusing your attention on your physical sensations so you can memorize the physical sensation, or "touch," of what you're going to sing before you sing it.

Audicize means using your mind's ear to memorize what you've heard and hold it in your mind, especially before you sing, but also for feedback while singing.

Visualize means using your mind's eye to see what you want before you do it.

Throughout this book, you'll find questions, troubleshooting, and reflections to help you chart your experiences, fine-tune your craft, and build your understanding of your own experiences. At first, they may seem time consuming, or like extra work, but these tools are crucial: they will help you form neural connections stronger and faster than you ever thought possible. And you'll continue discovering more and more when you can look back on your answers throughout your training, even for the rest of your life. As you progress, answering will become easier, helping you to facet your voice, until knowing becomes a simple habit.


When singers come to me for the first training session, I need to know a few specific things about them before I listen to their voice. I have to consider conditions that could be affecting their voice or I may not understand what I'm hearing. If you sang a big concert the night before, or if you have a chronic cough, the sound of your voice may be different than if you just came back from holiday. When I understand your current conditions, I can evaluate your singing more effectively and choose exercises that work for you in the specific moment.

Now this is your job. Before you begin training your voice, you can evaluate the current condition of your voice and singing habits. When you answer the following questions, you'll understand a great deal about conditions that are affecting the way you sing.

Circle the best answer for your current conditions.

1. Do you feel hoarse or "tired" in your throat today?

Yes / No

2. Do you warm-up or balance your voice before singing?

Yes / No

3. How much time do you spend everyday training your voice?

A) None.

B) A few minutes.

C) An hour.

D) Whatever I need.

4. Does your voice get tired when you're learning new repertoire, memorizing a song, or writing a song?

Yes / No

5. How is your general health? Do you have any current health conditions that may be affecting your voice? Asthma, allergies, sinus issues, respiratory ailments, metabolic issues, history of nodes, muscle tension dysphonia?

A) My health is great.


Excerpted from "Being a Singer"
by .
Copyright © 2020 Linda Balliro.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 Mobilize Your Voice, Mind, and Body,
2 Discover What Needs Training,
3 Connect the Lower and Upper Ranges,
4 Extend the Connection,
5 What About Breathing?,
6 Refine Resonance,
7 What About Power?,
8 Broaden Perspective,
9 Expression and Interpretation,
10 Expand Flexibility,

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