Can we learn to sing from a book? Absolutely not. I regard myself as reasonably knowledgable about voice, and a number of its related fields, including the teaching of voice. While I use the books listed here as reference tools, I think they might be only moderately useful to someone who isn’t a voice geek and voice teaching geek like myself. There is so much technical language, ambiguity, questionable arguments (and pseudo-science), and terminological confusion. How can we be sure what the writer means when we cannot see the physical technique they describe, feel what it is like in the body (or, for that matter, emotionally or mentally), or hear the vocal-acoustic result? Having voiced my reservations, here are few books that I have found worth dipping into over the years, including:
- Voice science
- Vocal methods and pedagogy
- Working towards performance (and auditions)
- Voice care, vocal rehabilitation, and body work
- Other reading
1. Voice Science
This list does not include clinical textbooks on voice (e.g. treatment of voice disorders), which are listed in a later section. The texts listed in this first section may seem daunting, with lots of scientific, specialist terminology, complex descriptions of physiology, physics, acoustics and psycho-acoustics. However, the more we understand about these concepts, the more we are able to separate fantasy from reality in what teachers or singers claim about their methods. Having a good grasp of the science also provides a basis for working out whether a particular physical approach is healthy, safe, or, indeed, whether it will achieve the desired result in terms of sound.
- Bozeman, Kenneth W. (2013) Practical Vocal Acoustics: Pedagogic Applications for Teachers and Singers, Pendragon Press, Hillsdale, New York USA [Vox Musicae: The voice, vocal pedagogy, and song No.9] – This is an excellent book. The science is well described, without being impenetrable. Bozeman manages to explain core differences between chest voice and head voice (the physical process and the sound of them) based on fact rather than than fantasies that seem to be so widespread on the web these days – and how to set up the larynx for these. He also provides clear explanations of how to work the difference parts of the throat and mouth (vocal tract) to resonate the signal coming from the vocal folds. He is a good educator, and provides useful, albeit very brief, suggestions on what the student / singer must do to achieve the different vocal set ups. Includes acoustic and visual examples using a Madde voice synehsiser, on a CD-Rom, playable on Windows or Mac.
- Bunch, Meribeth (1997) Dynamics of the Singing Voice, Springer-Verlag,Vienna – Some really great diagrams, a book written by someone who really knows about the voice; doesn’t give guidance on how to embed vocal technique, nor how to monitor for good practice.
- Coffin, Berton (1976/2002) Coffin’s Sounds of Singing: Principles and Applications of Vocal Techniques with Chromatic Vowel Chart, Scarecrow Press, London – Coffin’s work on resonance was ground-breaking, and paved the way for much of the work done by Titze, Miller, R, Miller D and Bozeman. Coffin picked up on the ideas of vowel modification and subsitution from the bel canto tradition, and taken it fowards by usefully systemising it. NB The book cover and its contents pages claims to include the vowel chart itself. However, this is not true. I even contacted the publishers and they could not explain this omission, or solve the problem. To get the vowel chart, you need to buy it with this link: Vowel Chart.
- McCoy, Scott (2012) Your Voice: an inside view, Inside View Press, Ohio USA – As with other voice science books, the reader has to be prepared to navigate anatomical diagrams and lots of Latin terms. At the same time, McCoy has worked hard then to try and translate that information into a lay person’s vocabulary, and to give some idea of a variety of teaching approaches. Includes acoustic and visual examples on a CD-Rom, playable on Windows or Mac (Yosemite or Mavericks)
- Miller, Donald Gray (2008) Resonance in Singing: voice building through acoustic feedback, Inside View Press, Princeton USA – This covers some of the same concepts as Bozeman (2013), whose book I prefer. The terminology is slightly different as well. It is handy to see how Miller uses the VoceVista technology for voice analysis and teaching, which is being used in some voice teaching departments in the USA. Includes acoustic and visual examples on a CD-Rom, playable on Windows or Mac, and VoceVista-Pro voice analysis software for Windows. [NB The name Donald Miller should not be confused with Richard Miller, the author of ‘The Structure of Singing’ (see below)]
- Titze, Ingo R. (2000) Principles of Voice Production, National Center for Voice and Speech (NCVS), Iowa USA – This book is a blend of solid voice science (with some very challenging mathematical formulae and algebra), and practical ideas for teaching; to get a feel for the content of the book, read summaries of some of the main sections in online tutorial articles. Titze is the Executive Director of the NCVS, and an important figure in voice science and pedagogy.
2. Vocal methods and pedagogy
A number of these books could have been listed in the first section, as they include significant information on anatomy and acoustics. But I have listed them in this section because I think their primary theme is about how to teach and learn singing. All of these books have something important to offer the singing teacher or singer. However, I think it is extremely difficult to translate the science of voice into a teaching approach that is intelligible to student singers. There is excellent advice in Chapman (2006) and Miller (2000), and those are the books I would go to first; they are brilliant teachers, but I don’t think they necessarily make clear the links between the science and the singing exercises they recommend. Kayes (2000) is useful, especially for the singer of contemporary (as opposed to the ‘classical’) vocal styles; but I think it is also possible to misinterpret her exercises, and end up doing something with the muscles that is different from what Kayes has in mind for the student. As I said, I think it is very hard to talk or write about singing in a way that illuminates for the singer or teacher exactly what is needed – I myself find writing about voice technique very challenging. Singing learning and teaching is best achieved through a multi-sensory approach, that includes hearing, seeing, and feeling what is going on. There is no adequte substitute for the student and teacher being in the same room with each other.
- Chapman, Janice (2006) Singing and Teaching Singing: A Holistic Approach to Classical Voice, Plural Publishing, Oxford – The book I recommend most frequently; good sound ideas, and some great exercises at the back; something of a patchwork quilt, rather than a systematic book, but very useful nonetheless
- Kayes, Gillyanne (2000) Singing and the Actor, A&C Black, London – One of the principle exponents in this country of Estill Voice Craft. Very thoroughly researched and put together. Explains some of the principles of safe ‘belting’, the style required in much music theatre, though she quickly points out that this is better learned from a teacher than from a book. Excellent explanations for much of what happens from throat upwards, but I have reservations about this method concerning its teaching on breathing and support. It lacks rigour in this area, and does not seem to indicate the importance of expanded lower ribs to brace the diaphragm and engagement of lower abdominal muscles to manage breathing, so that the vocal folds and larynx can work optimally. The book appears to neglect the importance of different learning styles, or the inner life of the person.
- Martin, Stephanie and Darnley, Lyn (1996/2004) The Teaching Voice, Whurr, London
- Miller, Richard (1996) The Structure of Singing: System and Art of Vocal Technique: System and Art in Vocal Technique, Schirmer, Boston – Some very good stuff in here, but not a book for the fainthearted. It is very dense, with lots of technical and anatomical language; I think only voice pedagogy geeks like me would dare to wade through it all. [NB The name Richard Miller should not be confused with Donald Miller, the author of ‘Resonance in Singing’ (see above).] Richard Miller was a pioneer in voice science and pedagogy. To read an appreciation of his life and work, click on The legacy of Richard Miller: remembering a vocal giant.
- Sell, Karen (2005) The Disciplines of Vocal Pedagogy: Towards an Holistic Approach, Ashgate, UK, ISBN 0-7546-5169-X – Despite first appearances, this book has too many opinions and not enough evidence to back them up, what I would call ‘pseudo-scientific’. However, there are some good sections in it, and I found the overview of the history of vocal pedagogy useful.
- Smith, W. Stephen with Michael Chapman (2007) The Naked Voice: A Wholistic Approach to Singing, Oxford University Press, Oxford – Smith is Professor of Voice at the Juilliard School of Music, and has taught at Aspen Music Festival and School, and the Houston Grand Opera Studio
- Stark, James (1999/2008) Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy, University of Toronto, London, ISBN 978-0-8020-8614-3 – The ‘go-to’ book for understanding much about bel canto, not least, to realise that bel canto is not a ‘method’ – so avoid teachers who say it is and that they teach it! There has also never been a consensus on what the different terms mean.
3. Working towards performance (and auditions)
Singing is not just about science and mechanical technique. Its ultimate purposes are expression, communication and art. These three texts help bridge the gap between the technical workout and working with music, lyrics and character. They also take us towards the performance space itself, and the audiences who come to hear and see us.
- Emmons, Shirley and Thomas, Alma (1998) Power Performance for Singers: Transcending the Barriers, Oxford, Oxford University Press ISBN0-19-511224-5 – An excellent and very practical book on the inner life of the performer – has very wide application to life in general; written by an eminent singer/voice teacher, and a sports psychologist who has coached many Olympic athletes.
- Harvard, Paul (2013) Acting Through Song: Techniques and Exercises for Musical-Theatre Actors, Nick Hern Books, London – This is one of the few books of its kind, and has a wealth of wisdom in it, and useful exercises. I am cautious about Harvard’s claims that we cannot manage or control emotions, as there is plenty of evidence from the world of science and psychotherapy to suggest otherwise. However, that aside, I think this is a valuable book for any singer’s or actor’s shelves.
- Rodenburg, Patsy (1992) The Right to Speak: Working with the Voice, London, Methuen – An interesting first half on general psycho-social issues of voice; the second half is mostly about the mechanics of voice (well-written). (Also wrote a chapter in Well-tuned Women). Also wrote The Actor Speaks: Voice and the Performer, (1997) London, Methuen 0-413-70020-8 – combines the best of the first book, and her second book The Need for Words: Voice and the Text – a good all round text for voice production and projection.
4. Voice care, vocal rehabilitation, and body work
- Andrews, Moya with Summers, Anne (2002) Voice Treatment for Children and Adolescents, Thomson, UK – A first class piece of writing. There are some really useful exercises towards the back of practice sentences (e.g. with many words beginning with vowels to help with stammering and glottal stops).
- Aronson, Arnold (1985) Clinical Voice Disorders: An Interdisciplinary Approach, Thieme, New York
- Butcher, Peter, Elias, Annie, Cavalli, Lesley (2007) Understanding and Treating Psychogenic Voice Disorder: A CBT Framework, Wiley, Chichester
- Butcher P., Elias A., Raven R. (1993) Psychogenic voice disorders and cognitive-behaviour therapy, Whurr, London ISBN 1-870332-20-6
- Callaghan, Jean (2014) Singing and Science: Body, Brain and Voice, Compton Publishing, London – There is no excuse these days to pretend that scientific advances in the understanding body, brain, voice and acoustics. This book is a helpful attempt to navigate the terminology of the many schools of thought on singing, and to anchor information in the most up-to-date hard science. Not a book for the general reader, but invaluable for the serious teacher, and for singers who really want to grapple intelligently with different singing methodologies.
- Egoscue, Pete (2000) Pain Free: A Revolutionary Method for Stopping Chronic Pain, Random House – Singers must be prepared to understand what makes for functional ways of aligning the body, and how to correct for dysfunctional lower back tension, or neck and shoulder tension. Egoscue’s clear explanations and well targeted exercises have proved extremely useful to a number of my voice students.
- Garfield Davies, D. and Jahn, Anthony (1998) Care of the Professional Voice: A Guide to Voice Management for Singers, Actors and Professional Voice Users, Oxford, Butterworth-Heinemann – Very sensible and useful info about voicecare.
- Green, Margaret and Mathieson, Lesley (1989) The Voice and Its Disorders, London, Whurr
- Mackenzie, Robin (1983) Treat Your Own Neck, Spinal publications, New Zealand – Not a voice book, of course, but some great advice about how to unlock your neck and shoulders.
- Shewell, Christina (2009) Voice Work: Art and Science in Changing Voices, Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester – A thick book, with lots to work through. I don’t know how useful the huge bank of exercises would be, because I think they could be applied only if one had a deep and holistic understanding of voice. I prefer exercises to be contextually embedded in other core concepts that need to be observed while trying an exercise. Also, this book is not specifically for singers, and would perhaps be useful more for speech and language therapists looking to help with vocal rehabilitation.
- Stengel, Ingeburg and Strauch, Theo (2000) Voice and Self: A Handbook of Personal Voice Development Therapy, Free Association Books, London/NY – The authors are speech and language therapists based in Germany, and they have developed a form of speech and language therapy that can work within a clinical setting but manages to incorporate a level of personal work for patients. Their basic premise is that all work on the voice is work on the self; change in voice can come about only through change in behaviour; for this to be lasting change requires becoming a different person, so they see vocal change as requiring systemic change within the person. They explore what they call ‘transfer’, moving from the controlled conditions of the clinical setting into the fluency or ordinary life (what I suppose Jung would call movement from conscious competence to unconscious competence). Time is given within clinical sessions for clients to reflect on the personal impact of a functional change, and the depth of reflection is controlled by the client, albeit guided and contained by the therapist.
5. Other reading
- Armstrong, Frankie and Pearson, Jenny (eds.) (2000) Well-tuned Women: Growing Strong Through Voicework, Women’s Press, London – A very timely book; two particularly good chapters are listed below.
- Coyle, Daniel (2009) The Talent Code, Bantam Dell, New York, ISBN 978-0-553-80684-7 – My absolutely favourite book debunking the myth of ‘talent’, the idea that some people are born to greatness, and nobody else can train themselves to be great if they weren’t born with ‘magic genes’. A hugely important book for any learner, and any teacher. For my own article summarising some of the core ideas, read ‘Singing is a learned skill, not a ‘gift’ we are born with‘.
- Nelligan, Annie ‘Releasing the spirit: the voice in self-defence’, in Armstrong & Pearson (2000) Well-tuned Women: Growing Strong Through Voicework, The Women’s Press, London, pp.110-122
- Rodenburg, Patsy ‘Powerspeak: women and their voices in the workplace’, in Armstrong & Pearson (2000) Well-tuned Women: Growing Strong Through Voicework, The Women’s Press, London, pp.96-109