Patricia Shanks

foundation-based voice instruction

helpful information for singers


For more information, visit studioshanks.com


As this site grows and develops, look for voice tips and articles on vocal technique for singers.

"Vocalises, Vocal Exercises, Warm-ups"
What they are. What they are not.

Over the more than 25 years I have been teaching, I have encountered countless singers who have not known exactly what the practice of vocal exercises is supposed to accomplish. When questioned, singers have responded with statements such as...to stretch the vocal cords, to toughen the vocal cords, to warm the throat up, to make the high notes come out easier or better, to clear the mucus from my throat. The list goes on.

Practicing vocal exercises is not like warming up the car in the driveway on a cold morning. Vocal exercises are not some form of vocal cord abuse and callus-generating toughening treatment. Vocal exercises are not voiced gymnastics, nor are they an entertainment or fun mini-songs made up of silly syllables to get the singer in the right frame of mind for song singing. Vocal exercises are not intended to be some form of habit or penance that will lead to vocal mastery simply because the exercises are practiced regularly (whether or not they are practiced intelligently).

Only when the singer understands what the exercises are designed to accomplish can the singer expect to make significant progress. A personalized and carefully devised regimen of vocal exercises practiced with sufficient understanding, confirmed and repeated appropriate sensory responses and well-defined practice session goals can provide the singer with a grounded center, a structural point of reference, and a solid foundation for artistic singing.

The singer who diligently practices vocal exercises can expect to develop more artistic singing and attain a higher degree of vocal mastery.

Hitting the Mark

Practice Precepts

The stage actor practices delivering his line, while walking toward a predetermined mark. Would he ever dare wander out onstage opening night, unrehearsed? Of course not! He might finish his line too quickly. He might finish his walk too quickly, leaving him with extra words and nowhere to go. What if he were to find out, on some ill-fated, unrehearsed opening night, that he can't yet walk and talk at the same time? Oh, no!

The baseball player practices hitting the ball into different areas of the park. Over and over again, he practices bunting and hitting balls into the outfield. If he is really into becoming a better hitter, he spends hours refining his skills in the batting cage until there is little doubt that when he goes out onto the field he will be able to hit the ball exactly where he wants to hit it. He will know how fast to swing and how hard to hit to meet the velocity and impact of the approaching ball. He will know how to tip the bat to send the ball into different areas of the field. He will know how to stand and how to be relaxed but in a state of excited readiness. Practicing makes him a more confident and capable player.

Here are a few guidelines to help you get more out of your regular practice.

Practice daily and, preferably, at the same time of day. If you only practice every now and then, you may only be practicing on the vocally yucky days. How can you know how you might sound on those (2-3-4-5-6) other days of the week?

Practice in the same place every time you practice. There is much to be said for structure and familiarity. This article is not long enough to list the benefits.

Practice when you feel rested, mentally clear, when you are comfortable and when there is nothing or no one to distract you.

Practice in an acoustically live or semi-live space. A bathroom is better than a living room with thick carpeting. Entry halls and kitchens may be good, resonant spaces. If all else fails, try facing into the corner of two adjoining walls. Stand about a foot away. Any reflective surface is better than an absorptive surface.

Practice with the aid of a keyboard. Acoustic pianos are more responsive to vocal vibrations than are electronic keyboards. The electronic devices will do nicely, though. If you have no piano, use tape-recorded accompaniment. Practicing exercises and songs "a cappella" (without accompaniment) is not a good idea.

A note about singing with CDs. It is best NOT to sing to pre-recorded CDs. Singers tend to imitate their favorite singers, instead of finding their own, unique voices. Imitation is just that. Imitation. It is not the real thing. Of course, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If you want to be a fan and show your idols that you can sing just like they do, that's fine. If, however, you want to become your own individual, independent singing artist, and discover what your voice is capable of and create your own sounds and styling, you'll learn how to do it your way.

Practice with a mirror. Look at that person in the mirror the way you would look at another singer. In other words, depersonalize and detach yourself from the reflected image. Don't zone out. How would you like it if your teacher stared at you with glassy eyes? Wouldn't you wonder, "Is the teacher paying attention to me?"

Be your own teacher. Don't accept anything you suspect your teacher would not accept. If you don't like what you're doing, figure out why, what the problem might be. Then, do something else. Nobody has a bigger interest in what you are working to accomplish than you do. Nobody. Not even your teacher. It's all up to you.

Practice the exercises, and practice them intelligently. If you aren't sure what you're supposed to gain from repeating each exercise you sing, ask your teacher. If you aren't sure why you're singing an exercise, why are you doing it in the first place? So, what's the answer? Don't give up the exercises. That's certainly not the correct response. Ask your teacher why you are doing the exercises. Then give them all you've got.

Have a goal for your day's practice. Determine what you will do with your time, and how you will apportion it. A few minutes to establish the right mindset, practice breathing, speak a few lines to make sure your voice is placed properly. Ten or fifteen minutes for exercises. A few minutes to consider what part of your songs you will work on, and how you will approach each phrase. Ten minutes to practice the songs. Three or four minutes to return to a favorite exercise or two to "reset" the voice and get it back on track if your song has derailed it in any way. This helps set you up for subsequent practice.

Write down the things that you need to work on and keep them handy. If you keep taking a high breath stick a post-it on your mirror that says, LOW BREATH!

These are only a few suggestions. There are many more ways you can make the most of your practice time. Start with these, and you'll be in good shape *

It is important to remember that no one can learn to use the voice in an effective manner by reading about voice production alone. It is my hope that these tips will help you experiment with your existing technique and add a new dimension to your vocal practice.

Patricia Shanks is a singer with more than 30 years private and conservatory voice teaching experience. She has sung as chorister with Opera Pacific, the Los Angeles Music Center Opera, the Los Angeles Master Chorale and with countless other groups and organizations. She has taught voice for the conservatory program at California State University Dominguez Hills, the Crestmont Conservatory in the San Francisco Bay area, the Gold Coast Conservatory in Thousand Oaks, and she has directed numerous choirs, choral and vocal groups. She is former director of the Moorpark College-based Amadeus Boys Choir and founding director of a children's show choir, The Tempo Singers. Patricia is a member of the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS), Music Teachers' Association of California (MTAC), the Southern California Vocal Association and the Orange County Musical Arts Club.

More information coming soon!

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