Over a long and distinguished career, Tona de Brett became known and respected as one of the foremost authorities on the voice. Having gained an ARCM in teaching at the arts centre at Dartington Hall, she taught at the City Lit for many years, as well as other adult education centres. Before she retired she taught from her north London home.
Tona appeared on numerous TV and radio programs and was asked to write articles for ‘International Musician and Recording World’. Extracts from those articles can be seen under the heading ‘vocal points’ below.
Choosing a Teacher
There are many people who tell me that they won’t take lessons because they’re afraid that their style may be changed. Not true. A good teacher will help you to develop your individuality and will encourage you to create your own style. After all, your greatest asset is that there is only one you!
You may sound a little like one singer or look similar to another, but you will never be exactly like anyone else and, though it’s a good idea to imitate singers you admire from time to time, don’t slavishly copy them.
It is impossible to study singing all by yourself. You need to find a teacher whose judgment you respect and whose ear you feel you can trust. After all, you can’t hear your own voice as others hear it. Yes, you can record it and listen to it on the machine, but the machine can’t advise you on how to improve tone quality or tuning, whereas a teacher can and will.
Personally, I like to give at least one trial lesson to a prospective pupil before he or she makes any long-term commitments. It is difficult to decide whether you will be able to learn with anybody after just a consultation. I think a trial or sample lesson is necessary for both pupil and teacher and I would be wary of schools or teachers who demand payment in advance and before having given a trial lesson. You should expect to pay the full fee for such a lesson; this is money better spent than if it were a ‘consultation fee’ for half an hour’s chat!
Your teacher should be able to show you how to do exercises and how to use the necessary muscular support; you mustn’t be surprised or embarrassed to be grasped round the middle or punched lightly in the diaphragm! Singing is a physical art! Never be afraid to ask questions. You need to know why you are asked to do this or that, and if you don’t understand the reason, don’t simply let it pass, ask ‘why?’
A frank and open relationship is essential between pupil and teacher. All sorts of emotions are involved in singing as I’m sure you will understand, and your teacher should be the sort of person in whom you can confide and can happily trust with your confidence.
If you live in, or near to, a large town or city, which has an adult education centre, you may well find excellent tuition in singing classes. A class situation can be very useful for the beginner. It’s not nearly as expensive as private tuition. It’s good fun doing breathing exercises and vocalising with other people and it is very interesting and informative listening to others perform and hearing the help and criticism given to them as well as benefiting from the opportunity to sing in front of an audience. If you can sing confidently before a super-critical audience of fellow-students and the teacher, Wembley will hold few fears for you! You may also find that the teacher would be happy to give you private lessons.
The foundation of all good singing is breath control. Remember that your lungs expand low down, your shoulders shouldn’t rise up around your ears, and allow your abdominal muscles to relax as you breathe in. You will need their support when you sing.
Here are my pet exercises, though if you have favourites of your own, use them as well! Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth for the first two exercises. You won’t breathe in through the nose when you sing, it can be noisy and takes too long. I simply want to be sure that the nasal passages and sinuses are free, as they are all part of your resonating space.
Stand with your feet apart and bend over so that your hands are almost touching the floor. Make sure that your head and shoulders are completely relaxed. While in this position breathe in a little way, allowing your torso to rise a little with the intake of breath, then breathe out and flop down again. On the third intake of breath stand up slowly and gradually raise your arms above your head, thus lifting your whole rib-cage high. You should breathe in slowly through the whole movement. Then flop down again, exhaling as you do so. Do this three or four times.
Stand comfortably upright with your weight a little more on one foot than the other. If you stand guardsman-straight tension can creep in. Relax your lower abdominal muscles and breathe in slowly as you raise your arms sideways to shoulder level, then bring them forward, really stretching ahead. Again, try to make the intake of breath go on for the whole movement. Relax your arms back to the sides, breathing out as you do so. Repeat this exercise several times. You have now stretched your lungs and body and will be feeling very good! You may find that the first exercise causes dizziness to begin with, don’t worry, it soon passes.
Stand or sit comfortably, and pant. Don’t slouch, because your lungs need space. Your diaphragm comes out as you breathe in, and pushes in as you breathe out. This is a good exercise for strengthening the diaphragm. Practise it rhythmically. Start with a slow four to the bar, then pant in quavers (eight to the bar) and go on to double that when your muscles are flexible.
Swimming is an excellent exercise too. Not just messing about in the pool of course, but making yourself swim several lengths breathing correctly. This also strengthens the lower abdominal muscles, which is vitally important since the voice is supported largely on these muscles.
Someone once said that the voice is like a ping-pong ball balanced beginning on a fountain-jet. If the water pressure falters the ball will fall. If the breath control wavers, the voice becomes unsteady and it is then tempting to try to control the sound with the throat muscles. Don’t be tempted. It’s not worth it. It is much better to work at your exercises and sing with an open throat, trusting your middle to see you through.
See how long you can keep a sound going. Hiss gently like a punctured bicycle tyre, or hum with lightly closed lips.
Obviously it is not always necessary to take a huge breath. If you have a short phrase to sing, take a smaller breath. If you overfill, you can find yourself with an uncomfortable mount of air left over. Be practical. Read your lyric through, find the places where you breathe when speaking the words, and then sing, breathing at those same punctuation marks.
Please don’t smoke anything! Eat and drink sensibly and regularly and keep the voice moist by drinking lots of water. Don’t practice when you have a bad cold, you’ll only strain the chords. If you were a runner with a sprained ankle you wouldn’t run until it was better. When you are getting better, start with deep breathing exercises and gradually begin to use the voice. Don’t launch into songs with high passages, warm up gradually with vocal exercises before getting to work with the band. Rehearse in a smoke-free atmosphere too. Make it a rule that no one smokes except during coffee breaks if they must!
Once you have a secure vocal technique you will find that an occasional rest, whether enforced or by choice, will do you do harm whatsoever. When your technique is really reliable you will be able to rehearse through most ordinary colds; only a throat infection will stop you.
The main problem with trying to work though a cold is that one doesn’t honestly feel like singing. It is hard work drawing the breath in and finding the energy to give the sound the necessary muscular support and it is then, when the diaphragm doesn’t want to expand, and the lower abdominal muscles go on strike, that the throat takes the strain! So, honestly, you’ll progress more quickly If you relax and concentrate on getting better rather than struggling on regardless.
Once you are loosened up, sing a few word phrases starting with ‘Bella Signora’ and really make the windows rattle with the power and the length of that top note. I chose Italian words because the vowels are all pure and open, no diphthongs, and it is somehow easier to overact on such an operatic phrase! One of my students told me that people stopped in the street to listen when he was singing this exercise in his front room! Enjoy singing, and other people enjoy it too.
Some singers complain that they find exercises boring and indeed exercises can be boring if the singer doesn’t understand that they are necessary to build up a sound foundation. Without the foundation the song is at risk. It’s probably fine on a good day, but with rock-solid technique all days are good days!
No matter how much ‘style’, or how many tricks he has up his sleeve (or in the recording studio), the plain truth is that there are no short cuts! It’s all down to technique.
Let us assume that you have now gained that technique and are ready to stun the public with your performance. Perhaps you want to perform a favourite pop standard. How do you set about it? Do you buy a recording by a favourite artist and copy his or her rendition? Or do you buy the sheet music and set about the job from scratch? I would go for the second way. I would study the lyrics first, deciding on the overall meaning and where the emotional highlights occur. If it is basically a sad song perhaps there is a wry, slightly humorous line somewhere? Find it, understand it – it will add the pathos that pulls at the heart.
Next, learn the melody line, and make sure that you match the word phrases with the musical phrases, breathing at the most natural places. (Though it can be very effective to carry an occasional musical phrase over, if you have lots of breath and if it really adds to the effectiveness of the song.) Now memorise the song. Sing it around the house, in the car or on the street (if you’re brave enough!). Make it as much a part of your daily thinking as – oh – the news – the girl/boyfriend – what to wear or eat. Live with your song until you are totally familiar with it, until it is yours.
The singer whose song has become truly his own is the one who can put it over best because he understands exactly what he is saying and knows exactly how to say it.
When studying the interpretation of a song with your teacher, discuss these things freely. Ask for advice of course, but don’t just do what your teacher says! Think about it, try it – maybe you can make use of some of the advice, maybe not. Use only what you need.
When you hear another artist sing your song, listen carefully. Perhaps you can borrow an idea; perhaps his or her interpretation sheds a new light on the meaning. Remain free to interpret differently if you decide you feel differently about it. This is the beauty of live performance, of course. No one performance is exactly like another. A different audience, a new venue, another outfit to wear and the song varies! It lives! Although it is wonderful for the listener to hear a loved song on record, there is simply nothing to compare with the excitement of hearing that song live. So! As the performing artist, it is up to you never to let your audience down! You have your technique under control; you know your song as well as you know yourself. Go out there expecting your fans to love your songs as much as you love them, knowing that you are going to get a great thrill out of performing for all those wonderful people, and I guarantee that everyone will have a fabulous, wonderful night out.
I remember some of my first concerts as a final year student. The cold halls, shivering in my evening dress, hearing tales of experienced concert-artists wearing thick vests and long-johns under their glamorous gowns after I had frozen on the platform! The awful jolt of the heart if I made a false entry, which nobody but the pianist and I noticed, the wonderful warmth of applause and the unbelievable shouts of ‘encore’. The first time that happened I hadn’t brought another song, so I simply sang the last one again!
Much more recently I have appeared in music-hall, which presented new challenges. An atmosphere so thick with smoke that it seems impossible to breathe deeply, a piano so old that some of its notes don’t play at all, and the pitch is way below concert pitch. The drunk who shouts out rude remarks and once, a man with a laugh like machine-gun fire! The songs are great though, and I love dressing up in Victorian gear!
The pub scene for the budding pop singer is a little similar, though fortunately the piano is not necessary. At least you can be sure that your instruments are properly tuned!
Let us think about the day of a performance. Don’t fix any interview or photo-sessions for the same day. Concentrate on preparing both mentally and physically for your performance. Sleep late if you can. Eat a good meal around mid-day. Warm up with some vocal exercises before your meal and again later if you wish, but don’t overdo it. It’s best not to rehearse the whole programme on the day of the gig, better dress-rehearse the night before. You’ll probably have time for a short rehearsal during the sound-check, which would be a good idea.
Make sure that you can sing comfortably in your chosen costume; avoid tight belts, use stretchy material if you want to wear a figurehugging garment. Constricting collars or choker necklaces can literally choke you. Look after yourself and enjoy a leisurely preparation.
The problems of touring are quite different to those of the occasional live gig from a home base. The need for self-discipline is even greater and the whole of your free time should be programmed towards the evening’s work. It is difficult to completely relax in strange surroundings, and when you are sleeping in a different place every night, there can be a great deal of stress. Some people may find it necessary to unwind after the gig by going to a party. Good idea, provided it doesn’t go on too long and become too drunken! Get some exercise each day, take a brisk walk or go swimming. Eat one good nourishing meal a day – nobody keeps well on junk food, and if you get over-exhausted or catch a cold your performance will suffer.
Sing some exercises daily and think your songs through from time to time. Try to remember how each song went in performance, record the show and listen to it the next day and decide whether the meaning really comes across, or if other changes need to be made. Discuss it with the group, and rehearse a little if you get the chance. Don’t over-use the voice. Your voice is like any other part of you, if it gets tired, you will strain it.
I assume that your sound-system is good and that you can hear enough of yourself to know that all is well. I quite understand how disconcerting it must be not to know how you sound, and the automatic reaction of singing as loud as possible in order that you can hear yourself. Where possible make sure that you can hear yourself. Get the group to turn their volume down if necessary – they’ll probably deafen themselves if you give them a chance. Remember it’s the quality not the quantity that counts.
A lead singer or solo artist carries most of the responsibility for the success or failure of a song. He or she is ‘out front’ telling the story and putting over the emotional content of the number. If the listener has to struggle to make sense of the words on first hearing a song, much of its impact is lost. I suppose one could look on this situation as a sort of challenge to the listener, ‘see how many times you have to listen to the song before you can understand it! Got it in three? Fantastic! Another inaudible set of lyrics will be on offer next week! Often the listener gives up very quickly and turns to the record sleeve for the lyric.
Some of the responsibility rests with the producer, of course, but it is almost impossible for someone who knows a song intimately – and has worked with the vocalist for hours on end – not to hear the words. I think an outsider should be brought in to give an opinion before a new number is released.
I would suggest that you speak your lyric through before you sing it. Notice first of all where you naturally punctuate the lines in order to make sense of them, and then breathe at these commas or full-stops if you can. Sometimes, in order to express a powerful emotion or to stress a particular word, it is a good idea to take a snatched breath in a slightly unnatural place. At other times you may not want to interrupt a beautiful melody line so you don’t take a breath, although you punctuate the sentence mentally in order that it should make sense.
Next, taste the words. Discover where your tongue is for an ‘I’ or an ‘n’, for a ‘dr’ or a ‘t’. Notice that the tongue comes between the teeth for ‘th’ and lurks behind them for an ‘s’. Next consider the more explosive consonants. For ‘p’ a light popping of the lips, for ‘b’ a softer fuller pressure
Try chanting this sentence on one note somewhere in the middle of your range: ‘The humming of innumerable bees’. One can sing every single sound, even the buzzing’s’ (‘zz’) on the end of ‘bees’. Sustain the vowel sounds and the consonants and try to keep in perfect tune all through. It can be surprisingly difficult to do this.
Now vary the length of vowel or consonant. Try two beats on the ‘I’on ‘sing’ and one for the ‘ng’, now one beat for the ‘i’ and one for the ‘ng’. You may want to sing the word differently in different songs. Great! Vary the colours of your words as widely as you can. Your lyrics will really come alive this way.
Experiment with dipthongs too. ‘Night’ is made up of two vowels, ‘aa’ and ‘i’. Dwell on the ‘aa’ and sing ‘i’ for almost no time at all, and you have a round classic sound. Narrow the ‘aa’ and come more quickly to the ‘i’ using the slightly nasal tone, and you are verging on the American. Take the word ‘dream’. Sing it low in the voice and your mouth shape is virtually the same as in speech. Sing it at the top of your range and you must use the open throat and open your mouth a lot wider unless you want to produce a strangled shriek!
Singing in a Recording Studio
Here we go now! Into the studio to record the album that is going to make you a superstar, surrounded by screaming fans and golden discs! You’ll have to prepare really thoroughly for your studio performance if you want this dream to become reality, so sober up and let’s think about it.
Personally I enjoy live performance tremendously and find it very challenging to have to make an immediate impact with my songs. To have your audience in your power, to raise a laugh or bring a tear to the eye, there’s glory for you!
I must admit, I have only very limited recording experience and find it very hard to create atmosphere when there’s only me and a microphone. Also the thought of possibly having to sing a phrase over and over again before a satisfactory result is achieved terrifies me! And yet it is often necessary. Surely the ideal way to record a song would be to get it all perfect at the first session. There would be a natural spontaneity about the interpretation and a freshness in the voice that must often get lost as the day wears on, and the singer becomes tired and, worse still, fed up with the repetitious business!
Try to prepare yourself so that you can give a good performance early in the session. If you are recording an album, make sure that you are not recording a whole record’s worth of vocals at one time. Arrange it so that the instrumentalists record a few tracks, then you go and do the vocals; the band works for a few days, you sing the next numbers and so on. Having to do all the vocals one after the other can be very exhausting.
I am assuming that you know your songs inside out, and that you have been singing them in a comfortable key and at the right speed. Don’t leave the choice of key or tempo until the last minute, you must have the song ‘in’ the voice before you changes can throw you badly.
Do keep in practice. Do your daily vocal exercises, rehearse your carried songs, sing along with records and take lessons or go to classes. Most adult education centres run singing classes of one sort or another. If you live in London go to The City Lit, Morley College or Goldsmiths College. They all run excellent classes in all sorts of singing, from Jazz to Opera, with classes in voice production which are wonderfully useful for keeping the voice in training. It’s really no use saying to yourself, I think I’ll take a holiday while the boys get the backing tracks down!’ You’ve really got to be tough with yourself, discipline yourself, and give yourself a daily routine of physical and vocal exercises, then you’ll be in good voice, and will be much better able to cope with any problems that may come up during recording.
I have heard a good many stories about recording sessions, and one thing becomes increasingly clear. The studio may be superbly equipped with all the latest gadgetry and what-not, but if the atmosphere is unpleasant in any way, the session goes badly. I would insist on a ‘No Smoking’ rule for the singer’s sessions. It is essential that you breathe clean air. Air-conditioning can be good (except on one disastrous occasion when the dust was blown in rather than sucked out! It can also make the atmosphere too dry; a humidifier or some potted plants regularly watered can put this right. It would be a good idea to have some lemon tea or water on hand in case dry air tickles your throat.
The size of the recording area is important too. One very large young man was asked to record in a booth the size of a telephone kiosk. He told me how claustrophobic it was and how foolish he felt singing in such a confined space. This particular lad could also see various technicians and hangers-on chatting amongst themselves, smoking and drinking and so on, totally unconcerned with the session in progress, and simply by being there they destroyed any chance he had of creating an atmosphere in which he could perform. I suggested to his record company that they should find another more thoughtfully-run studio in which to record!
Rose and Jill of Strawberry Switchblade thoroughly enjoyed a recording session in a church; the acoustics were wonderful and carried their voices most effectively.
I think that it is a good idea to wear your performance clothes too; no need to go overboard with the hair and make-up, unless you feel very strongly about your appearance, but singing in clothes that give you a sense of occasion as well as being comfortable to work in can be very helpful.
Remember that your producer is there to help you create the songs. It is your talent and personality that are going to sell the songs, which makes you a very important property. Don’t get big-headed about this, just remember it and be prepared to accept your producer’s criticism and advice, which should always be constructive. If you can’t get along with your producer it is best to part company and find someone else. Do find someone whose work you admire and who understands your work, someone genuine and concerned. His personality should enhance the final result, not stamp all over it!