When a student is under the weather or out of sorts, what’s a singing teacher to do? Alexa Terry shares eight tips on providing useful singing lessons – without any singing.

Imagine this: Cora Collins, a recent musical theatre graduate, has a lesson booked for tomorrow afternoon, but she gets in contact to cancel due to suffering a stomach ache and sore throat.

“I think the takeaway kebab I ordered at the weekend has upset my stomach,” she says in her email before adding “I’m also suffering a minor bout of hayfever,” Cora assures you that she’s enjoying her online singing lessons during the Covid-19 lockdown but worries that they’re causing disruption to her household and that she’ll be forced to stop.

‘It’s Elementary, my dear Watson…’

Snapping our tartan braces against our chest, we can analyse the information we have been provided and propose some options.

Cancellation policy

Having a cancellation policy in place is important to create client accountability, to implement mutual respect between parties and to reduce the risk of revenue loss. Cora has adhered to the 24-hour cancellation policy. If she decides against the alternative options we can offer, she can continue with the cancellation without charge or reschedule her lesson for a later date.

What we can do

Before we skip immediately to the cancellation option, let’s consider what we can do if Cora is under the weather but still interested in engaging in a meaningful way. After all, the art of singing doesn’t just involve performing songs or running vocalizes. There are many ways to provide a valuable singing lesson. Here are eight ideas to get us started.

1 Stretching, steaming and self-massage

When inflammation is suspected, as in Cora’s case, we can help to reduce it with the use of gentle semi-occluded vocal tract (SOVT) exercises. We could spend some time guiding Cora through a short routine of sirens and descending glides which stretch across the range comfortably, using the straw, a lip trill or the puffy cheek, for example. If she owns the appropriate equipment, we could encourage Cora to steam with a nebuliser, steamer or the old-fashioned way by covering her head with a towel and holding herself over a bowl of hot (but not boiling) water. Additionally, guiding Cora through a series of stretches and a self-massage routine could help her to identify tension, perhaps being held in the articulators, or in the trapezius, sternocleidomastoid or platysma muscles, for example. Cora may then find it helpful to include such exercises in her warm-up routine. Check out these resources:

2 Awareness through movement

When a long-standing knee injury threatened his mobility, Israeli engineer and physicist Moshe Feldenkrais decided to analyse how he used his body. These “awareness through movement” studies led to the development of the Feldenkrais Method. This is a neuroplasticity system used to improve kinesthetic awareness. (Read more about singing and Feldenkrais here). Considering Cora’s circumstances Awareness Through Movement (ATM) exercises may be appropriate and insightful. Check out Singing With Your Whole Self by Samuel H. Nelson and Elizabeth L. Blades which describes more than 20 ATM exercises that can be applied in the physical and virtual voice studio. Keep an eye out for our review of this handbook coming next in our literature review series!

3 Breath function work

Just uttering the phrase “breathing for singing” can cause all cans of worms to implode. But as Cora currently requires limited vocalisation, a breath function focus may be useful. We could guide Cora into finding a more efficient lower abdominal inhalation. Hopefully, this can be done without antagonising her tender belly too much, if the current tendency is to breathe in a high clavicular fashion. Using gentle unvoiced sounds like a sustained hiss or a SHH, we can look at the behaviour of the inhalation and exhalation muscles and use exercises to ensure that both sets are functioning efficiently.

4 Vocal health education

Understanding and maintaining vocal health can prevent vocal injury. It’s a subject that shouldn’t just be left to explore on a rainy day but Cora’s situation offers us more time to discuss vocal health tips in more detail. These discussions don’t have to be heavy and can be made fun with a game of “Vocal Health Hangman”. (Read about it here in our case study of a yelly singer). Within this exploration, we can talk about hayfever and how it’s really a case of “mistaken identity”, where the turbinates interpret pollen as an enemy in error, causing the body to react with compulsive sniffing, sneezing and eye streaming. General advice for hay fever suffers includes:

  • Keeping windows closed
  • Nasal irrigation with a neti-pot or nasal rinse
  • Anti-allergy pillows
  • Increasing water intake to replace hydration which may be lost when taking antihistamines due to their drying effect.

We can also discuss the relationship between singing and diet, and acid reflux and how to avoid its onset.

Tips to share include:

  • Avoid foods that produce excess mucous and provoke throat clearing, such as spicy foods, dairy, caffeine and greasy foods (like oily and fatty takeaway kebabs). This is quite individual. One person may feel the burn after a gooey slice of Bruce Bogtrotter’s chocolate cake, while another may crank up the number of “ahems” after a round of French fries
  • Raise the head of the bed
  • Don’t lay down for at least two to three hours after eating
  • Take the time to relax and enjoy your food. The body can’t be in a state of stress and digestion simultaneously.

5 Music theory and ear training

Explore improving musicality through music theory and ear training tasks. If the singer is a music theory novice, introduce them to the notes on the treble clef and bass clef stave. When I do this I start by using popular rhymes (such as E.very G.ood B.oy D.eserves F.ootball). For Zoom lessons, share your screen so that both parties view the whiteboard. Then draw these diagrams and pictures. Once they are familiar with the notes, get the singer to guess a song which you have notated with the singer confirming the notes on the stave, which you then play out on the piano revealing a track. You could also try the music theory practice and sight-reading app Staff Wars. This is a Star Wars themed notation game (yes, really) where the player shoots the note which arrives on the stave at different speeds. We could also work on major and minor interval recognition, understanding song keys and recognising time signatures, which could be helpful when purchasing the sheet music for audition repertoire.

6 Repertoire Search

As a recent MT graduate, Cora could benefit from building a reliable audition repertoire file. We could use this session to discuss how to put together an audition repertoire folder with necessary casting considerations in mind. These could include playing age, vocal ability and casting type. It would also be a good opportunity to do a “dummy run” repertoire search. We could read through the synopsis of a show while listening to the soundtrack together, and then identify where Cora would fit. Studying previous casts can lead us to other productions and characters and help build a broader knowledge of the MT genre.

7 Song interpretation and character development

We can still work on repertoire, but with a focus on song interpretation and character discovery. Studying song in terms of background story, character journey and lyrics can bring musical storytelling to fruition and create a more three-dimensional performance. Sometimes, I will ask the singer to rewrite the lyrics in their own words to find their connection to text or find different words on which to lay emphasis which can bring new meaning to the story. This clip from the BBC’s Shakespeare Live! at the RSC is a great example of this.

8 Review goals and reflect on progress

Digging out old session recordings to watch or listen to together has many benefits, as it:

  • Provides a comparison to acknowledge progress (for both singer and teacher)
  • Allows the singer to hear themselves outside of their own heads
  • Gives the singer an opportunity to learn how to criticise themselves constructively and with compassion
  • Gives feedback on performance regarding what is successfully communicated to the audience and what has become lost
  • Helps to drive future lesson focuses and the review of current goals.

There are many ways in which lessons can be adapted for the unwell or hindered lockdown singer. If you would like to share the ways in which you continue lessons for the likes of your Cora Collins’ share them on the BAST Trainers Facebook group.

About Alexa Terry

Alexa TerryAlexa Terry is a vocal coach, singer and writer based in Hampshire. She initially trained in Musical Theatre obtaining a BA Honours Degree from Bath Spa University and has since performed as lead vocalist onboard Aida Cruises, and for new musical theatre projects in London’s West End. Alexa regularly reviews for BritishTheatre.com and studied with Book, Music and Lyrics (BML) as a Musical Theatre librettist.