My Personal Journey to Vocal Relaxation
I started out my musical life as a soprano and could sing effortlessly without any self-consciousness. At first, I sang hymns at church, then I discovered Annette Funicello in “The Babes in Toyland,” and later, Julie Andrews in “Mary Poppins” and “The Sound of Music” (I’m revealing my age here). I sang along with those soundtracks as often as I could…Julie and I were tight!
Because I sang so much as a kid, when I hit puberty my voice change was a breeze, and I soon became a low bass. Singing was still easy and fun…and I got to play characters like God in my church youth group skits (we gave an outside performance of a Noah’s Ark, so I climbed up on the roof and delivered my lines as low as possible).
When I started my music studies in college, I took voice lessons for the first time and everything went downhill from there. I’m not disparaging voice teachers, after all I’ve been one for over 38 years, it’s just that they didn’t know how to teach me because actual low basses don’t come around very often. They were brilliant musicians, I learned a lot from them, and they were wonderful people, but they just didn’t know what to do with me and frankly, I was equally confused.
Despite it all, I sang well. I sang solos, and recitals, I sang in choirs, and people liked my voice, but singing didn’t feel free and comfortable like it was before college.
Then I went to graduate school where I worked with a teacher who was seriously incompetent. After 2 years with him, my voice was so completely tense that singing was not fun. Singing should be fun.
So how, you might ask, did a freely and happily singing boy soprano end up being such a vocally constipated low bass? Well, the double-whammy was that I trusted that teacher and had low self-esteem at the time…a deadly combination.
Trust is very important to the learning process because if you can’t trust your teachers, you’ll doubt everything they say. That said, you may develop a level of trust with your voice teacher, but that doesn’t mean they know how to teach you effectively. It’s always important to pay attention to your inner voice and ask questions even if they’re considered impertinent. If your teacher can’t answer your questions and doubts respectfully, or at least tell you they’ll do some research to find the answer, move on and don’t worry about hurting their feelings! They’ll survive.
Well, this graduate school voice teacher decided that I had a high voice right off the bat and set me on track to develop my voice in that very unnatural direction. Of course, I let him because he was a good musician, a nice guy, I trusted him, and he sounded like he knew what he was talking about; he was a graduate level teacher after all. But he didn’t listen to me, and he asked me to do things that I went along with but deep down I knew weren’t right for me. Because of my low self-esteem, it took a while for me to speak up.
After almost 2 years of this abuse, I finally spoke up. I walked into a voice lesson and told him that something was wrong with my voice technique because singing was had become difficult. His reply was to tell me that there was nothing wrong with my technique, and I was just supposed to sing. That’s it. End of discussion. Apparently, I was wrong.
That was the proverbial wakeup call that allowed me to see him for what he was: a graduate level voice teacher who didn’t know anything about my voice after 2 years, and who didn’t seem to understand much about voice technique either. I didn’t need the credits anymore, so I quit. He wasn’t pleased. He survived.
I had finally come to understand three concepts that would eventually dig me out of that vocal mess:
I decided that singing should always be fun, easy, and comfortable.
I could never trust another voice teacher again until I understood more about how my voice works. I knew the science but had a disconnect with applying it to actual singing and speaking.
Any exercises a teacher gives me should always focus on relaxation, freedom, and ease in my natural range. My true voice. How do they find that? By listening.
After graduation I felt tense and hoarse all the time and my voice had become completely unreliable whether I was singing or speaking. Even though I had singing gigs and people loved my voice, I was uncomfortable singing in public and would shrink away from opportunities sometimes. I also realized that my students could sing more freely than me…so at least I was doing something right as a teacher.
And then one day I heard a story on NPR about a woman who had developed chronic hoarseness after an illness. The story was about a laryngologist who solved the problem by massaging her throat. The laryngologist called the problem "Functional Dysphonia.” So I tried his massages on myself, and they made a noticeable difference.
I went on to experiment with massaging various muscles in my throat, neck, shoulders, and jaw and my range began to expand in both directions, mostly down, and I began to sing and speak freely for the first time since I was a soprano. I can’t say I had figured out complete relaxation by this point, but I was on the way. I began to follow what my voice wanted to do not what others thought it should do.
I was sure I wasn’t the only person to figure this out, so a search led me to the McClosky Institute of Voice and The McClosky Technique™. They teach the same thing I had figured out but with much more clarity. They helped me take that final step to be able to sing and speak over my whole range with complete relaxation.
I was excited about the program, so I took their course of study and became a Certified McClosky Voice Technician (CMVT). We studied anatomy, physiology, vocal acoustics, teaching techniques, speech training, speech and singing exercises, and deep listening. We also studied how to work with voice dysfunctions and diseases. Most importantly, the McClosky Technique™ is “applied science,” which means it’s based on how our anatomy, physiology, and vocal acoustics function, not how we may want it to function. And it’s not complicated. The basic premise is that our bodies naturally want to speak and sing, so working with your body’s natural ability to breathe and phonate is the key to vocal relaxation and freedom. It's called “flow-phonation.”
I’m finally able to sing and speak easily and expressively in my true voice and range for the first time since I was a soprano, and it feels amazing!
Bertram directing and performing with the choir at Westside Unitarian Universalist Congregation, where he was music director.