Do you have to compete when learning to sing really well?

A challenge to traditional high quality singing teaching from  a co-operative method of teaching classical voice technique on a housing estate in South Yorkshire
by Richard Parry

The following text was originally published on the Youth Music Network in 2011. © R M Parry 2011.

Voices Project – towards a new singing culture
The Kimberworth Park Voices Project is created by Richard Parry to demonstrate that foundations of traditional high quality classical singing can be set out in an approachable way, within a co-operative, non-competitive environment.  This allows young people with widely differing musical, vocal and cultural experiences to improve their singing and self confidence using the building blocks of the classical tradition.  Abilities and cultural horizons of participants are broadened and we’re developing a network of opportunities for these young people to perform to a high standard in supportive, celebratory environments. This work, in turn, reinforces performer confidence and the culture of good singing within the local community.

Brief overview of competitive UK classical voice culture
Nearly all classical voice lessons are delivered on a one-to-one basis. One student. One teacher. For most children such classical voice lessons are prohibitively expensive so access to this learning and culture is generally limited to parental/family financial capacity or made available by competitive scholarship.

Our mainstream singing culture is seriously underpinned by the ethos of competition.  Successful teachers and academies select pupils they reckon to be the most promising students (providers often, quite naturally, a wish to excel in competition with other teachers and academies[1]) and students then compete with each other for opportunities to perform and gain platform experience.  These opportunities are usually come about through competitions and student projects during which students are individually judged and may be encouraged and given feedback.

Competition, cost, hard work and aptitude are part of the training for classical singing. This intense personal attention to a young person’s voice and performance character can then lead to a significant sense of personal triumph and community celebration for those individuals who successfully negotiate this classical singing maze. Yet, for every one those young singers who are celebrated as successful there are correspondingly large numbers of learning singers who are judged to have fallen short of the prize and they then carry the burden of a narrative that tells them, and the world, that they are less than fully successful at high quality singing. The competitive model champions a small number of successful singers and relegates the larger cohort of the “less successful” to a lower order.

This whole realm of singing pedagogy is frequently fraught with frustration and anxiety for both the successful and those others labelled by the teaching/performing community as “less-than-successful”. Competing pedagogical approaches and rival academies and schools within classical voice training exacerbate this anxiety which frequently leads to teachers criticizing the approaches and products of rival schools, teachers and students.

Good singing is highly prized in our culture and yet the basics of good singing as fostered and stewarded by the classical singing tradition are hard to access without significant financial resources and encountering a culture of competition.

The UK classical singing culture is marked by:

  1. significant barriers to entry
  2. variable and idiosyncratic learning environments
  3. high numbers of people who fail to develop their potential

A quick comparison –  the teaching of martial arts and the teaching of singing
The Voices project is based on a housing estate in the north of Rotherham.  If a local person is interested in learning Judo or Karate there are dozens of martial arts clubs in the area where the basics of the art and traditions are taught in classes. Individual martial arts coaching and tuition is available but it is possible to learn the basics and receive coaching in a social setting. If searching instead for classical singing only a few private teachers locally will be found with no opportunities to learn the basics of good, healthy, confident classical singing in groups[2].  Faced with this situation many people interested in singing decide to join choirs or musical theatre groups where they are able to hide their individual voices in choral singing with the hope of absorbing occasional snippets of solo vocal technique. this type of unstructured vocal activity would only really be regarded in the martial arts arena as the equivalent of rough and tumble play. In contrast, the Voices project seeks to set out the basics of traditional high quality singing to everyone in a group setting, and invites a wide community of young people to take part.

Is the Voices project seeking to train classical musicians?
No.  The project seeks to help young people sing well.  Classical voice demands high standards of postural alignment, vocal production, poetic and dramatic engagement, balance, breath distribution and flexibility, tuning, musical line, self discipline, enthusiasm and an enjoyment of sharing work with audiences.  Other genres of popular vocal music are underpinned by the same basic principles.   The Voices Project promotes an understanding of these core traditional skills and vocal qualities with young people so they can improve their singing, applying the basic building blocks to any style they choose.  Repertoire chosen by students so far on the project ranges from classical Italian song through musical theatre, pop to dance club anthems.

How the project works:

Basic environment
Young people from the ages of 10 – 16 are offered the chance to attend group sessions where the basics of good singing are outlined.  Group singing lessons and coaching are undertaken, and then an opportunity for individuals to perform/practice is offered, during which there is continued access to coaching and learning in a shared environment with the minimum of performance pressure.

Facilitative style
A person-centred approach lies at the heart of the project.  This person-centred practice is founded on the mainstream work of American psychologist and educationalist Carl Rogers[3].  The Voices project recognises every participant as having a voice, no matter what their previous experience of singing or music.  We create environments where every interested child can explore and develop their voice amid healthy and encouraging vocal training culture.   Each participant is encouraged to work on developing the basics of good singing themselves, and to share their progress, challenges and learning with others. They are discouraged from criticizing, judging or comparing the progress of others.  In this way the Voices project approach encourages a progressive, open, collaborative community of vocal students and performers.

Voice is more than music
Voice is deeply and inextricably connected to our humanity.  Whole cultures turn to their singers for relaxation, comfort, inspiration, spiritual reflection, solace and celebration.  The vocal instrument and singer are wonderfully expressive and capable of reflecting wide ranges of emotional and cultural impulses.  Manufactured musical instruments are created to give a stable tonal starting point for instrumental musical production, but the human voice is subject to an array of individual fluctuations and inconstancies of use, production and output.   Fear of singing in public in British culture is common.  This commonly occurring psychodynamic can impact heavily on the teaching and learning of vocal techniques and singing culture.  The Voices project sees learning to sing as a “whole person” activity and seeks to provide a trusted environment where the individual feels confident, respected and prized irrespective of their vocal abilities.  The energies, skills and values that are learnt during the vocal sessions not only release the basics of good singing but also dovetail with building personal confidences and insight into possibilities for the individual in interacting with others in a new, more open way.

The session leader provides to the whole group tailored presentations, exercises and feedback on the basic vocal building blocks. Individuals then offer to demonstrate their understanding to the group so that a wide variety of experience, progress and capabilities is seen and heard by the whole group. The participants are honestly praised and affirmed for those elements of vocal culture that they can grasp and handle. They are encouraged to explore and develop elements that elude them. Because this learning practice and process happens in a group all the participants have lots of opportunities to see others wrestling, struggling and succeeding with various building block elements. No single person’s development is the same and so the participants gradually begin to recognise and articulate the range and subtleties of the successes and developments of other group members. The whole group sees all the basics of singing, whether encountered as ease or difficulty, demonstrated by their fellow learners in many different ways. This non-competitive, friendly group activity and sharing is at the heart of an open, non-anxious approach to communal learning of the basics of healthy human vocal culture.

Community development and adult volunteers
Non-specialist adult volunteers are receiving singing lessons in the same way as that offered to children, and the volunteers take part in creating performance spaces for the young people, often performing themselves and setting examples as role models in participation and sharing learning.  Additionally the project has occasionally brought in visiting professional musicians to work with young people, and also offered project participants the chance to travel away from the housing estate where the project is based to meet and watch music professionals working in the pop, crossover and opera sectors of the music industry.  The project is also offering music based cultural consultancy to schools in the area.

No-one who is interested is excluded
The project has made open access to the programme an important feature of the work.  Lessons, coaching and opportunities have been taken up by children with learning difficulties, special educational needs, special educational circumstances and students identified as ‘looked after children’. All of the young people have been encouraged to participate in performance opportunities, and this blended singing community is a highly successful part of the project.

Voices Project: the content
The following elements constitute the basic building blocks of the singing teaching in the project.  The list is not exhaustive and the music leader uses and blends these foundational principles for individual student and group need using experience and insights gained over 25 years working in theatre, singing and education.

If you can speak you can sing
Singing is introduced simply as being extended speech.  Anyone can sing. Take a word. Say it. Now extend it….. you are singing!

A good vowel shows off your vocal instrument
Students are taught how the classical singer’s (Italian) vowels bring energy, clarity and beauty to the spoken and singing vocal instrument.

Posture and breath
Physical freedom and poise in singing combine to enable the incoming breath to create the finest instrument.  This intriguing blend of posture and imagination is taught communally, from the feet up, using concepts from classical dance.  Forward weight on the feet, buoyant arches, central hips, the advantages of a gently raised, assertive looking upper chest, relaxed shoulders and free head and neck – these are introduced and constantly reinforced. There is constant encouragement for adopting habits of the lifted, flexible and dynamic physical posture that attends good singing.

Pitch – finding a comfortable starting place
Care is taken to help students discover an appropriate pitch range upon which they can begin to sing comfortably.  Many students pitch notes easily. A significant minority struggle to produce vocal tone at a suggested pitch. There is little patience or sympathy in general musical culture for these people who fail to readily pitch their voices to a required note. A degree of “musicality” or what is sometimes referred to as “tone deafness” is immediately established in the minds of many traditional music educators on the success or absence of this ability. The Voices project does not engage with this negative “tone deaf” terminology. In its place a learner-centred approach is used during coaching. A student who struggles to pitch notes is invited to hum or sing any comfortable note in their voice and maintain it. The music leader then finds that note on the piano/keyboard. The student is invited to repeat the same note or change pitch, and then the music leader follows on piano/keyboard.  Basic confidence of the student is established in this routine, and it is led entirely by the student’s capacities to alter the pitch of their sung tone. The student leads by producing tone and each vocalization is named and affirmed by the music leader. The exercise quickly loses any performance pressure for the student.  Working in this way a student who struggles with accurate pitching can begin to relax and build linked aural and vocal confidences with more tuneful singing over a number of weeks.

Engaging creatively and dramatically with text.
Students are encouraged to explore the text of their songs, and speak them aloud as part of practice.  A spoken pattern of text, if well rehearsed with singing vowels, can dramatically help students when performing the text to a musical setting. In addition, the exploration of dramatic authenticities when speaking song texts can help students find natural, healthy options for sung expression, when these dramatic instincts are combined with other elements of good singing.  Imaginative exploration and factual research into song texts also broadens students’ cultural experiences and repertoire of musico-dramatic forms and devices and the cultures which created them.  Famous, popular and published songs all usually bring singers into the imaginative company of dynamic and fascinating creative people from both history and present times.

Diction and crisp consonants
Crisp, theatrically inclined consonants help give rise to well formed singing vowels, and this forms part of the project’s teaching.

Learning rehearsal discipline
Being quiet is an important skill for musicians and theatre practitioners.  It is extremely hard to work collaboratively without this discipline of silence, listening and sharing contributions.  Focused, engaged attention and holding quiet for the work of others is a key value and skill continually emphasized and practiced in the project sessions.

Stagecraft and singer’s imagery
Elements of basic theatre craft and fun rehearsal play are essential for singers. Theatre play is explored and mixed with the traditional performance imagery of classical singers which has been used in the historical tradition of developing classical voice in coaching, teaching and practice. Lists of these games and the traditional imagery is not supplied here, but the music leader is happy to discuss and share further with interested parties.

The three main elements of good singing
All of the techniques listed above contribute to good singing in any style.  Classical singing, apart from its obvious distinctive repertoire, demands very particular blends of vocal and psycho-musical elements which allow control and freedom over the maximum range of the voice.  Developing this freedom and control is always attempted when training classical singers, but the techniques and culture of this learning can be learned and usefully employed in many styles of singing (eg musical theatre, pop, folk).  In addition to methods and practices listed above the project champions the understanding, practice and acquisition of the following three core elements. The blending of these three elements allows the singer to inhabit singing which is flexible, responsive and secure.

  1. The ‘placement’ of the voice in the vocal mask. Students are encouraged to explore how much of their vocalization falls naturally into the ‘vocal mask’ of the upper face, and discover which good vowels feel as though they naturally lodge in that region.  Gentle exploration is the watchword here. Students share experiences of humming.  Over weeks and months students become more comfortable with exploring the range of comfortable resonances and vowels felt to be easily ‘lodged’ in the mask.
  2. Singing with a loose jaw. The importance of securing a loose jaw in aiding vocal freedom is emphasized and encouraged.
  3. A well-hosted incoming breath sets up the vocal instrument and enables the best physical platform for the intonation and distribution of the phrase to be sung.  Whilst professional singers and their teachers notoriously disagree amongst each other over the best methods of breathing the students on the Voices project are taught to explore gentle inward breaths on a relaxed, buoyant posture. The aim is to imaginatively approximate a gentle inward breath that might accompany a sudden, happy, joyful surprise.  Care is made to ensure that students don’t create additional tensions in their jaws, necks, shoulders during such inhalation and this type of relaxed natural breath pattern is taught as the beginning of easy healthy high-quality vocalisation.

Classical singing professionals reading this article might be interested to know how the subject of ‘breath support’ is handled.  In the Voices project all singers are introduced to the basic abdominal muscles that “fire” during normal speech.  The importance of engaging these  muscles during singing is then emphasized, because frequently anxious attempts at vocalisation may leave this musculature isolated and redundant.  Once students are experienced and relaxed in the approach to inward breath outlined above they are then introduced to the notion of ‘breath support’ as being the prolongation of the abdominal feeling that may arise when a relaxed breath of joyful, happy surprise is taken.

Making singing technique simple and adoptable
The project takes a no-nonsense approach to the above techniques.  For many years classical singing techniques have been shrouded in mystery for professional singers in salons and conservatoires, and the techniques and images mixed inextricably with the personalities and gifts of the teachers. Whilst this has created great classical singing culture of the past and the present, it is not inevitable that this must be the only culture in which to learn the healthy basics of good classical singing. It is possible to learn this tradition in a non-competitive, social environment.

The Voices project is exploring a facilitative method where the basic vocal techniques and song culture are described, demonstrated, and practiced. Students are encouraged to experiment, adopt, leave alone or ponder upon the project content as they feel best.  The environments of not judging, not over-analysing and not competing means that the culture and techniques of good vocalization are played with and absorbed in a more relaxing way than in traditional singing classes.  Students are aware that they are handling valuable ideas and methods, but there is no pressure for them to construct the materials and perform in a pressured way.  It is trusted that an understanding of the basic techniques will inform their development as singers and creative people throughout the whole of their lives.

Potential for further training of non-competitive singing facilitators – an national campaign
Adult volunteers have undertaken the same activities as the young people on the Voices Project. The adults seek to support the children, better understand the project ethos and act as peer student role models and an ongoing source of reference and enthusiasm for good basic singing.  No attempt has been made to train the adult volunteers as singing teachers, although it recognised that non-competitive facilitator training for professional singing teachers around this non-competitive, collaborative Voices project culture would be a profitable and important further project for national consideration and development.

The writer is a professional singer and was very fortunate to be able to gain access to classical singing culture and development without having to compete. This opportunity came through the generosity of an established professional singer with a national performing and education profile who offered many years of gentle lessons and coaching which formed a model of apprenticeship and fostering largely absent in today’s singing culture. The article above focusses very much on destructive and negative aspects of contemporary classical singing culture that arise through competition and anxiety, but the writer also has experience of the huge generosity of spirit, culture, intellect, time, attention, resources and spirit that are the foundation of all healthy singing communities and hopes that new ways of celebrating and sharing this more widely can be developed nationally.

[1] See Marafiotti “Caruso’s Method of Voice Production” for an analysis of the unhealthy development of European vocal pedagogy, many elements of which still pervade UK voice teaching.

[2] A quick internet search enquiry will reveal the contrasting opportunities available for people seeking martial arts training and singing lessons. In Rotherham there are many group classes catering for all ages and abilities in martial arts, and just a handful of private teachers for classical singing.

[3] Rogers worked as a psychiatrist, but broadened his work in the educational field, setting out core conditions which created an environment and relationship in which an individual might learn and grow.  His work underpins much of modern counselling theory, and is practically applied in the private and public sector.  He wrote the books On Becoming A Person and Freedom To Learn and a UNESCO published article introducing his work can be found at

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