Case Study: Working with shy singers

Imagine this: a new client, 13-year old Polly Peters, arrives promptly for her singing lesson. As you  welcome her to your studio you notice her clinging to the sleeve of her jumper and presenting a stiff posture. Polly’s jaw pulses as she chews the corner of her mouth, and when you ask a question you are either met with a nervous giggle or a softly spoken answer, breathy in tone. For some, singing lessons can be rather exposing and you sense Polly’s apprehension. You ask her how her friends and family would describe her, and she replies: “urm – quiet, funny and hard-working.” She begins to sing in a way which twins her speaking voice, and she stops after a verse – her cheeks flushed.

‘It’s Elementary, my dear Watson…’

With a cherrywood pipe smoking at our lips (it’s just a prop!) we can make note of some initial clues which might help us compose an appropriate plan: 

  1. Shy Personality
  2. Stiff Posture
  3. Breathy Tone 
  4. Clenched Jaw

So, how might we begin to work with Polly?

Personality: 

It’s clear that Polly has a shy and nervous disposition – rather opposite of our Sally Simpson character from our first case study blog. Considering the trait descriptions she believes her friends and family would assign her, we could conclude that timidness is universal in her life, rather than it being exclusively first lesson jitters. With this in mind, the stiff posture, breathy tone and jaw clenching could all be a result of personality type rather than fixed vocal habits. 

Therefore, we might need to call on some of the following: 

  1. Patience: If we want to remove the shell from a lobster, we don’t hammer away at the entire fishy carcass. If we did, we would likely be left with an unsatisfying crunchy crustacean dinner and a kitchen spattered with lobster peel. Gordon Ramsay advises, once poached and warm, to extract parts of the lobster with gentle twists, squeezes and pushes in order to draw out the meat. Equally, we don’t want to immediately throw expectation and potentially overwhelming tasks at Polly, but instead, slowly encourage and gently challenge her along the way. It may take some time for Polly to poke her head out from her shell and, for a while, this may require us to sing along with her or reduce the amount of information we introduce each session, for example. However, a generous dollop of patience may just reinforce the safe space we have created and the team we have begun to build. 

P.s I think lobster is totally overrated!

  1. Humour: If those closest to Polly describe her as ‘funny’ she evidently has a sense of humour. Being able to laugh and surrender to silliness can encourage us to free ourselves from our inhibitions. We could include funny tongue twisters in our warm-ups or disguise technical exercises as games, for example. Humour, I find, is also a good way for a singer to accept the mistakes that they will inevitably make as they develop their instrument. If I am playing a scale on the piano and press a wrong key I will often purposefully address it and laugh it off with my students, which almost acts as permission for them to happily make mistakes in their learning without self-detriment. A relaxed and merry atmosphere may just help to crack the shell a little more! 
  2. Outlining Achievement: As a hard worker, Polly may respond well to small yet frequent reminders of what she is achieving. I like to use a rating system whereby the singer allocates a number to how an exercise or sung phrase sounded or felt to them: 1 being ‘not the best’ and 5 being ‘pretty damn awesome.’ Simply flitting from a 2 to a 3 is boost enough to recognise that things are moving in the direction of improvement. 

Out comes the Straw: 

Not only one of the best things since sliced bread (this blog has been written in the company of hunger pangs – can’t you tell?) but, due to it’s semi-occlusion of the vocal tract, singing through a straw is almost inaudible (which is why it’s perfect for those public transport warm-ups!) Getting Polly making sound through the straw may not be as scary for her compared to singing full sections of song out loud. Not only will she be making sound with, potentially, more confidence, but she may also experience the added straw perks of better laryngeal set-up and a more energised tone with no added effort. Plus – it can be fun, especially if you add a bottle of water to the mix and make a game out of blowing bubbles.

Breathy Tone: Exposure to Louder Sounds

Breathiness can be linked to many things, some of which include: 

  1. Stage of Development
  2. Weak Vocal Fold Adduction
  3. Tension
  4. Unbalanced Breathing Mechanism

All of the above could apply to Polly but understanding the tendency for her speech to be delivered in a light and breathy tone we can expect that of Polly’s singing voice too, highlighting cricothyroid muscle (CT) dominance, aka head voice dominance. It is likely that Polly is missing a genre of richer sounds from her vocal library – ones which are more chest voice driven and, therefore, thyroaretnoid muscle (TA) dominant. We can help introduce Polly to more TA driven noises in a way which is not too overwhelming through the medium of primal sound. 

In the lower section of our voice, we can call out sounds such as: HEY! OI! UH-OH! WAIT! STOP! all of which can be assigned an emotional underpinning. I like to connect the sound or phrase to something relatable for the student. For example, if they have a pet dog who likes to chew on their favourite trainers I might get them to say: STOP IT, ODIN! (that’s the name I would give to a dog, by the way; bit of a Marvel fan), or get them to imagine their dog trying to steal their favourite food off of their plate: THAT’S MINE! or GO AWAY! or GET OFF! I might even play the primal sounds ball game that I outlined in the ‘Sally Simpson’ case study to add that element of fun. 

These sounds can then be taken onto a scale pattern, targeting that lower, chest voice range initially. So, for Polly, we could get her to sing: ‘GO AWAY, STOP IT!’ on a 3-tone ascending scale (especially as these include some harder consonants which are great for working better vocal cord closure), beginning at approximately G3 or A3 and moving up to around the F4 or G4 mark, each time using the emotion and scenario to drive the sound.  

Singing has been proven medicinal for many, including asthma, Parkinson’s and depression sufferers. We aren’t trying to change Polly as a person but, the benefits that singing boasts in terms of confidence building and lowering levels of anxiety may well challenge some of the unease and timidness that she experiences, and positively impact other areas of her life. Where appropriate, we could also extend our encouragement by offering performance opportunities, even if it’s a few lines sung to our next client, or to her parents at the end of a session – maybe even a duet performance at a karaoke or open mic night. 

As we know, not all exercises will work for every voice as each singer is individual, so don’t be afraid to experiement with how you approach working with your ‘Polly Peters’.

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