Curated from the smartmusic music educator blog – by Susanna Botieff

Bringing Vocal Pedagogy into the Classroom

What is vocal pedagogy?According to Wikipedia:

Vocal pedagogy is the study of the art and science of voice instruction. It explores what singing is, how singing works, and how proper singing technique is accomplished.

Why should vocal pedagogy be an integral part of the choral classroom?

“The reason for investigating how the voice operates is to avoid muddled notions that make learning to sing more complex than it ought to be.” (Miller, 2004, pp. 222)

Teaching our students to sing beautifully, freely, and efficiently should be our first goal as choral educators. If we use the knowledge of vocal pedagogy, we can quickly and efficiently build our singers’ vocal technique, correct common vocal faults, and even help empower singers to protect their instrument from unhealthy vocal habits.

Are My Students Too Young for This?

If your students can pronounce Tyrannosaurus Rex, then they can pronounce Cricoid Thyroid.

Vocal pedagogy can be learned at any grade level as long as the delivery is structured to its audience. We have to meet the students where they are at so we can guide them to the next level. Kindergartners can understand that “singing is not yelling.”

Rollo Dillworth said, “Kids only think a rhythm is hard if you tell them that it is.” I feel that this concept can apply to all the “hats” we wear as choral directors. Teaching vocal pedagogy to elementary students creates understanding difficulties only if we make it difficult.

I recommend beginning by building a shared vocabulary. Do not be afraid of using “big” or “scientific” words. Be proactive: choose 2-3 main concepts/vocabulary words and incorporate them into your daily routine. For example, in your warm-ups you might say: “Feel the lift in your sternum.” However, in order to get there, you may need to use more colloquial speech as well as visual aides. If I am going to talk about my sternum, I need to point to it, then the students, in turn, can find their own sternum.

Lifting the Soft Palate, the Vocal Pedagogy Way

It is not enough just to know the components of the vocal process. Efficient singing is best achieved when students know how the vocal components function. Furthermore, students need to experience what efficient singing feels like. If we tell our students, “lift your soft palate,” but haven’t told them where the soft palate is, then they will have no idea what we’re talking about.

Here’s how I help students quickly discover where their own soft palate is located: I use assessable and descriptive words while interjecting the technical names we will be using in class.

“Take your tongue and put it behind your top teeth, now slowly slide your tongue up. You will pass a big bump right above your teeth called the Alveolar Ridge. This is important to locate for dictation purposes. Keep running your tongue up, you will feel a larger hard area called your hard palate. As your tongue continues up and then back (not too far, I don’t want you to choke), the hard palate will meet a soft squishy area. This area is the beginning of the soft palate, which continues back until it reaches that dangly thing in the back called the uvula.”

Once they know where the soft palate is you can now progress to figuring how to lift the darn thing.

To help my students feel and hear the effects of a lifted soft palate I have them sing while plugging their nose. If they get a nasal sound, it means the soft palate is not raised enough so air is escaping into the nasal cavity. However, the students who are able to sing with plugged nose without the overt nasal timbre coming through have successfully raised their soft palate. YAY!

(Note: if this exercise is done in conjunction with an [n], [m], or any other nasal consonant, the results will not be as clear cut.)

S/Z Ratio, the Female Changing Voice, Dysphonia and What to Do about It!

One frequently-asked question is how to tell when the adolescent voice is going through vocal mutation, or more colloquially, the voice change. With your guy singers, hearing the vocal change can be easier, because the male changing voice goes through a more dramatic shift. With the female changing voice, the change is more subtle, yet there are ways to determine if your girls are mid-mutation.

The S/Z ratio is a measurement that can help determine if a voice of any age or gender is experiencing dysphonia. Dysphonia covers a plethora of vocal abnormalities – including the voice change – that make singing or speaking difficult, and sometimes impossible. Discovering your singers S/Z ratio is an efficient and relatively easy way to find out if their voices are functioning properly. To measure the S/Z ratio you need only a stopwatch and a calculator, standard features on most phones. To do so, ask your singer to take a deep breath and sustain an [s] sound for as long as they can. Record the amount; then repeat the process with the singer sustaining a [z] sound on any comfortable pitch.

Studies have shown that between normal voices and voices experiencing dysphonia there is no statistical difference in the length of time of the sustained [s] sound. However, in voices experiencing dysphonia of any kind, the length of sustained [z] sound is significantly less than normal functioning voices. (Eckel & Boone, 1980. Hufnagle & Hufnagle 1988)

Calculating the S/Z Ratio
Duration of 1st [s] seconds
Duration of 1st [z] seconds
Duration of 2nd [s] seconds
Duration of 2nd [z] seconds
Longest [s] seconds
Longest [z] seconds
Longest [s]/ Longest [z] s/z ratio seconds

If the s/z ratio is greater than 1.40, it is very likely your singer is experiencing some type of dysphonia.

The great thing about the S/Z ratio is that you don’t have to sit there and individually evaluate each student. You can pair your students up and have them each measure each other’s S/Z ratio once they know how to calculate it correctly. In under 20 minutes you could know who may be experiencing vocal difficulties or if your adolescent girl singers are being plagued by the voice change.

If you deduced that your adolescent girls are going through the voice change, then with your understanding of vocal pedagogy you know that the vocal folds are not completely closing, causing a “chink” where extra air is being released to create a breathy sound. The “chink” is the reason why sustaining the [z] sound can be problematic and difficult for adolescent females during the voice change. What does this mean for you as their teacher in the classroom? Give your girls a break, they are not trying to sound breathy on purpose. (Don’t worry, this too shall pass. ) Exploration of healthy vibrato will help them through this phase.

If the s/z ratio for an adult or a prepubescent child is found to be greater than 1.40, then (after double checking the math) you should recommend the singer see either their doctor or an Ear, Nose, & Throat specialist (ENT). HOWEVER, IT IS NOT OUR JOB TO DIAGNOSE DYSPHONIA! In fact, If we have not received a medical degree, we have NO RIGHT diagnosing vocal problems OR prescribing medicine. All we are allowed to recommend that our singer go see a medical practitioner and in the meantime we may “prescribe” water and vocal rest ONLY.

Healthy Vibrato

The fun thing about vibrato is that scientists do not completely understand why or how it occurs. There are educated guesses but not substantiated research. However, this is what we do know: Vocal vibrato is the rapid and slight variation in pitch. Vibrato is governed by two factors: rate and extent.

The vibrato rate and extent can be manipulated, however it can never be completely eliminated from the voice, only minimized. Manipulation of the vibrato can have a negative effect on singing efficiency.

Two of the most common vibrato fails are either trying to create MORE vibrato or trying to sing with LESS vibrato in the “straight tone” school of thought. Both require the singer to put a lot of extra pressure on the vocal mechanism. Both manipulations can cause undue vocal strain and adversely affect the vocal tone.

For healthy vibrato, the pressure needs to be lifted off the vocal mechanism. To do that try two exercises: The Ingo Tize straw singing technique and lip buzzing.

The Ingo Tize Straw Singing Technique

Put a straw between your lips as if you are going to take a sip through it. Sing the pitch only through it. This technique “helps to keep the vocal folds slightly separated so that there is not a strong collision between the vocal folds. That in and of itself is beneficial and allows one to use full lungs pressure and a full range of pitches without incurring any injury.” (Titze)

Lip Buzzing (aka Lip Trills and Bubbles)

Blow air through your lips to make them vibrate/buzz as if you were playing a brass instrument. You can sing an exercise on a “lip buzz” and then back to the words. You can also go back and forth while singing a song between words and the lip buzz. For your younger (or young at heart) singers, you can pretend your hand is an airplane and your lips are the engine. As the plane goes up, the pitch goes up, as the plane goes down, the pitch goes down.

I also encourage students to experiment with different amounts of vibrato by asking them the following: If 1 is the most minimized vibrato you can get and 10 the most operatic vibrato you can achieve, how would each in turn sound? How would a 5 sound? A 7? This is a safe way for students to try different sounds together as a class.

A Brighter Day, with Vocal Pedagogy Leading the Way

If we build our students knowledge of the vocal process, they will become more capable singers equipped to self monitor and peer mentor. If we take the time to teach the mechanics of singing, it will pay off in the end. By using vocal pedagogy in my classroom, I know I have guided my singers, regardless of age, to a better understanding of their vocal instruments. I know that they are capable of singing beautifully and efficiently in and beyond my classroom.

I hope this post encourages you to explore more vocal pedagogy in your classroom. Additional resources can be found both my session handout and through exploring my references below.


This post is based on an article originally published on the NAfME blog