- The Washington Times - Monday, May 13, 2002

Marjorie Dwyer knows the challenge of teaching someone to sing. Mrs. Dwyer is the vocal music teacher for second through fifth grade at Randolph Elementary School in Arlington. She says the first information she shares with her students is the importance of listening, which is helpful when she asks them to match the pitches she sings or plays on the piano. After the students are successful at singing the correct tones, she teaches them proper breathing techniques.
"If you run out of air, you take a short breath and come back in," Mrs. Dwyer says to the fifth grade chorus during rehearsal. "If you have no air, you can't sing the part."
Singing is a difficult feat for many people, who confine their melody-making to private places, such as their car with the windows rolled up. However, vocal instructors insist that everyone can carry a tune at some level, if time is taken to train the voice.
At the beginning of every rehearsal, Mrs. Dwyer asks her students to perform basic body stretches. She takes them through vocal warm-ups, such as singing "Mommy made me match my M&Ms;" on various pitches.
Leonel Vasquez, 11, a fifth grade student in Mrs. Dwyer's class, appreciates this routine.
"If you start singing the song, and you don't warm up, you'll sound bad," Leonel says.
Kerry McCarthy, chairwoman of the voice department at the Levine School of Music in Northwest, says warming up is the most crucial period of every rehearsal because it opens the throat. She teaches professionals and amateurs of all ages exercises that promote agility in their voices, such as a "lip trill," which enables singers to reach high notes without pushing their voices. She hopes this skill will be transferred to the songs they practice.
She prefers that children not begin serious training until about age 14, when their bodies have matured. It's important not to strain the voice at a young age to prevent permanent damage. She says polished singing results from training the muscles and the mind to work together, which is a skill that develops in time.
"There's a lot of mental discipline, especially since your body is your instrument," she says.

People who use their bodies incorrectly to sing will find it difficult to make a joyful noise, says Susan Manola of Alexandria, who is a singer with the Choral Arts Society of Washington in Northwest. She also teaches private vocal lessons.
"When someone says that people turn around in church and look at them funny, or they've been told to shut up because they sing so poorly, what they are telling you is that this has been a very hurtful experience for them," she says. "Everyone assumes that everyone can sing."
For people who have problems matching pitch, Ms. Manola tells them to sing any note, and she sings what they are singing, which she says helps their confidence. Then, she shows them how their voice can go up or down, using her hand to illustrate.
Ms. Manola emphasizes good posture, which allows a singer to breathe most effectively. Breathing activates the vocal cords, which serve as the valve for sound in the body. She says singers often try to create sound by straining their throat and jaw or moving their shoulders. This tension only makes singing more difficult. Sound is solely created through the vocal cords, which operate best when they are relaxed. The voice box gains support primarily through the diaphragm, which consists of abdominal muscles that aid in respiration.
When Ms. Manola sees singers breathing incorrectly, she asks them to lie down on their backs on the floor and notice how their stomach moves out when they breathe. The stomach must come out to allow the lungs to fill with air. This is important because every basic principle of singing is based on the proper use of air.
For instance, opera singers who are able to project their voices without using a microphone have perfected the manipulation of the air they breathe. They have focused their air "forward," which gives them the ability to sustain phrases and produce greater volume and melodic range.
"If someone tells you that you are full of hot air, you are," Ms. Manola says. "You are a wind instrument."

Knowing how the tongue moves is important in pronunciation, Ms. Manola says. She instructs her students to put peanut butter on their tongues as an exercise when singing so that they are aware of its movement in their mouth. Since vowels, not consonants, are the most important letters to aid in clear pronuncation, Ms. Manola also creates exercises using vowel sounds, such as "ah" and "eh."
Although she uses these techniques for her students who are classically trained, the same principles apply to whatever style of music someone wants to sing pop, jazz, classical or opera.
"Good vocal technique is good vocal technique," she says. "If you have good vocal technique, you can do all types of singing."
Roger Burnley, a vocal coach in Los Angeles, who has trained such pop singers as Brandy, Macy Gray and Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, says that singing stars rarely talk about the fact that they have had vocal training. This coaching is similiar to the way an athletic coach instructs an athlete.
"It's like a sport," Mr. Burnley says. "We can all run. It doesn't mean we want to put in the time and energy to run a marathon, but it doesn't mean that you can't if you don't want to The general public thinks singing is a natural thing, that you either have it, or you don't. This is a problem for young people who think this is not within their reach."

Part of developing a singing voice includes taking care of the vocal cords, says Susan Miller, a voice pathologist at the Voice Treatment Center at George Washington University Hospital in Northwest. Ms. Miller, who holds a doctorate in communication sciences, says she has many patients who are singers who have lost their upper ranges after abusing their voices.
Ms. Miller asks singers to warm up their voice in the morning by humming or singing in the shower, which is a moist environment. Drinking lots of water keeps the vocal folds flexible for singing.
She suggests refraining from beverages that dehydrate the voice box, such as caffeinated coffees and sodas. Although alcohol doesn't contain caffeine, it creates a drying effect on the vocal cords, she says. Other activities that cause dehydration of the vocal cords are long plane flights, smoking and the use of allergy medication.
"Vocal folds are like humming bird wings," she says. "They need to be lubricated. They vibrate fast at high pitches."
When people yell and speak loudly, they should use proper breath support with the diaphragm to project the voice, Ms. Miller says. Otherwise, they will become hoarse. Throat clearing and coughing also are hard on the vocal cords and should be avoided. Swallowing or using non-menthol throat lozenges are better options. Dairy products often cause mucous, which clogs the throat.
"It's really important that singers take care of their voice," Ms. Miller says. "You can't go into a lesson and get a beautiful sound if your vocal cords are dry. You want the best performance."
Joan Gregoryk, founder and music director of the Children's Chorus of Washington, says special care should be given to the voice since it is the only instrument that travels with people everywhere they go.
"It's part of who you are," Ms. Gregoryk says. "It's one of the talents that doesn't need pen and paper or paint. You don't need anything else except your own voice to experience the pleasure of making music."


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