The Alphabet Map (‘A to J’)

alphabetThe ‘3 + 1’ Map is a broad overview, and fits onto the Alphabet Map that starts to drill down into more detail. Our use of language can subliminally and powerfully affect how our students think about singing. It is worth noting that six of the nine points below are expressed as verbs. This is because in singing we are looking at processes. To sing is to experience ourselves dynamically, as life in motion. The words ‘posture’ or ‘alignment’ suggest fixed positions that we must find and then hold (leading usually to muscular rigidity), whereas ‘aligning’ – moving through and around points of equilibrium is closer to describing what is happening when we sing at our best. ‘Breath’ sounds like a thing, whereas in ‘breathing’ we are aware of constantly shaping expression, and sensing, responding, adapting to the physiological needs of the moment. This article is a quick summary, and there is a more comprehensive version of this A to J Map here. I am also hoping to expand the A to J model of singing eventually into a book.

 ‘A’ – Aligning: This is important for any singer to understand in terms of vocal freedom and efficiency, expressive potential and vocal health. How we align affects all the physical elements of the ‘3 + 1’ Map, and can benefit a singer without any other vocal knowledge. In Aligning, we can include not just feet, legs, pelvis, spine, shoulders, neck and head, but the some of the motor work of jaw, tongue freedom, and facial muscles (which will be revisited in ‘D’ and ‘E’). We can slowly add sounds (vegetative, primal or spoken), middle notes, and short musical phrases, always checking the integrity of our Aligning process. ‘A’ is also for Awareness; our awareness of aligning can grow by not vocalizing at this stage.

‘B’ – Breathing (‘Breathing System’): There are so many aspects of singing that are affected by breathing (at least 20 by my count, but that’s another article!), that this needs to be understood thoroughly. We should cover common points to avoid, what to feel for, and how to manage the antagonistic system of diaphragm and abdominal muscles. As with Aligning, much can be learned by not always vocalising.

‘C’ – Connecting (‘Vibrating’): This covers exercises on how we create clean onset and release of notes, avoiding both the ‘intrusive H’ and hard glottal attacks. Pitch changing is introduced, along with the principle of portamento, moving on to wider intervals, but avoiding extremes of pitch. These lessons can be complemented by theory of how air flow, air pressure and vocal folds interact to create what I call the ‘note in the throat’, and what pitch is, and how vocal folds adjust to vibrate at different speeds. Above all, as soon as a singer is starting to make sounds, they must learn not to listen, but to trust sensation. The optimal interaction of Aligning, Breathing or Connecting constitutes appoggio, and many vocal problems can be reduced by attending to A, B and C.

‘D’ – Dimensions of Sound: Here, we teach resonating work with the mouth parts, aggiustamento (modification) of vowels, and managing relative intensity of different harmonics in the sound to establish different timbres and vocal colours (tonal qualities); navigating primo and secondopassaggio (including the differences between men and women on jaw adjustment); loud and soft singing, crescendo and diminuendo. We cover theory of formants, chiaroscuro, projection (e.g. low notes carry best with highest harmonics emphasised), and explain vibrato (tiny pitch fluctuations) and tremolo (tiny volume fluctuations) and how these arise. This ‘D’ work is far easier when A, B and C are mastered first.

‘E’ – Enunciating: Formation of words is most successful when singers make this independent of the creation of the ‘note in the throat’, pitch, volume or resonating. Singers learn to deconstruct and reconstruct syllable progressions, and their relationship to pitch progressions, ultimately to create the perfect legato. ‘E’ is easier when ‘D’ is well under way; the work of ‘D’ and ‘E’ (‘Resonating System’) can lead singers to listening to themselves, and coming ‘off the body’ and ‘into the throat’, so a return visit to A, B and C is almost always needed.

‘F’ – Feeling: The word Feeling is used very loosely here, to include the Inner Life principle of the ‘3 + 1’ Map, and the 7 points of the Learning Map. Psychological conditions (the student’s own mindset) can make or break learning. We also know that thoughts and feelings determine how our voice sounds – as communicators and artists we depend on that fact! As learners, vocal technicians and performers, singers must master the ‘Inner Game’, the mind-body connection: imagination, emotion, intention, how we relate to ourselves and listeners, developing presence, handling distractions and nerves. Technical know-how is not enough; full vocal functionality requires emotional openness and a relaxed maturity.

‘G’ – Gymnastics: This is a catch-all term for a lot of the vocal techniques and effects that some students want to learn first, but need to be left until there is greater mastery of A to F. These include: pitch extremes, recitative, patter, staccato, sforzando, runs, coloratura, ornamentation, staccato; vocal set-ups such as belt, twang, growl, screaming, crooning; and microphone and recording work.

‘H’ – Health: Knowledge of voice care is a must. Good technique should prevent voice strain, but a singer needs to know about lifestyle issues; impact of stress, certain foods, beverages and cigarettes; getting adequate sleep and recreation, downtime between periods of singing; when not to sing; the symptoms of vocal strain or damage, when to seek clinical help, and how to recover from voice loss. Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) of the voice can be a sign that life choices, priorities and patterns of behaviour need a serious re-think.

‘I’ – Interpretation: This includes developing a deep feel for: text (its literary and historical context, meaning, sound and rhythm, delivering it as spoken theatre); music (phrase and gesture, rhythm, melody and prosody, form, harmony, texture and instrumentation); the relationship between text and music; theatre, character, story and situation; movement and visual impact; imagination; emotional openness and courage; knowledge of languages; performance practices.

‘J’ – Joining the Dots: Teaching requires us to categorise and sequence information, but ultimately, the singer has to integrate everything into one fluent process, which is the vocal performance. All of A-I, along with stage craft, engaging with others (audience, musicians, producers, directors, sound engineers and recording equipment and environments), all play a part. And as we learn about each element in all these maps, we evolve better warm-up, practising and learning routines.

Broadly speaking, the Alphabet Map can be a sequential, cumulative model for learning. But we must still remember that deep learning of singing is both iterative and non-linear. In practice, all the different elements relate to each other, and we need to keep revisiting them, as in the spiral model of learning. We also need to aim to be making music with our voices from lesson one (intelligent choice of music is integral to good teaching), even though the ease and versatility with which we can do that increase as we learn to navigate the whole Alphabet Map.

(This essay comes from my article ‘“I know where I’m going”, but does my student? Using cognitive maps in singing lessons’, first published in ‘Singing’ – the Journal of The Association of Teachers of Singing (UK), Issue 63, Autumn 2012, pp.10-12)

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