Ivy Walz

The Voice Studio of

Ivy Walz

Associate Dean, School of Music

Practice Strategies:Tools for Building Vocal Technique

Practice Strategies:Tools for Building Vocal Technique

exercises and tools for singers to free and develop the vocal instrument

Posted by Ivy Walz at 12:50PM   |  Add a comment
Ivy outside

Sometimes you'll laugh and sometimes you'll cry
Life never tells us the when's or why's
But when you've got friends to wish you well
You'll find a point when you will exhale…

I’ve always been a fan of Whitney Houston’s singing, and recently as I was preparing some vocal exercises based on finding a full connection to the breath, this soulful song from the Movie Waiting to Exhale popped into my mind’s audio loop.

As a younger singer, I was often preoccupied with taking a “good breath”, and conversely, my attempted exhale was often way to forced, held, stuck or virtually non-existent. Through researching and learning about breath, I have found that one way to find a full-bodied inhale is to work at it by exhaling to the point where I feel “empty”. Playing with this exchange where the exhale is intentionally long and sustained helps the body to find that centering, luscious, energizing sensation of what is known as the reflexive inhale.  

Inhaling is a reflexive action; we have been doing it since we took our very first breath! The principle muscle of the inhale is the diaphragm; that very large, domey-shaped muscle that literally separates the thorax from the abdomen. When the brain sends the message to “take a breath”, the diaphragm descends, pulling the lungs down, creating a vacuum so that air enters the lungs.

So why a full exhale to find this innately natural action?

Put simply, the exhale will bring about the natural intention of the body to take a breath.

Now I’m aware that I am simplifying things here, and I do not mean to underplay the very real skill that must be achieved for proper breath management in singing and supported speech. It requires much time and dedication for most singers and professional voice users to develop the skills and nuances related to support, thoracic flexibility, energizing different kinds of phrases, finding an optimal breath/body balance for each individual instrument, etc.

However, working on a very simple action that is both understandable and achievable allows one to participate in the body’s natural ability to exhale-to-inhale. Upon further application, a singer may choose to connect the action of exhaling with their intention of any breath concept they are currently developing. It can be combined with positive self-talk related to vocal technique, pre-performance mindset, setting the intention of a phrase or song, or really anything relevant to that individual’s practice. Furthermore, and possibly most importantly, this exercise may be used to Slow. Down. The. Mind. We are all aware of the challenges of creating space to set aside the normalcies of the day and simply focus on breath.

Steps for Exhaling Fully to Allow Reflexive Inhale in the Practice Room:

  1. Begin with some gentle stretches such as the “rag-doll”, bending side to side, and gentle neck rolls to warm up the body and mind for focusing on breath.  

  2. Find a comfortable standing or sitting position. If standing, take some time to connect to the floor, feeling the feet, wiggling the toes, and unlocking the knees with gentle knee bends. If sitting, move forward on the chair so that the sit bones are more directly supporting your weight.

  3. Exhale. You may try [fff], [sss], or [ʃʃʃ]. When you feel “empty”, allow the body to inhale.

  4. After a few rounds of exhaling-to-inhale, start to pay attention to the how of your exhale and inhale. What breathing muscles do you feel releasing for each? What breathing muscles do you feel activating for each? Check in with alignment and body tensions. Let go of anything that is not serving the exhale-to-inhale action.

  5. Add your beautiful voice to the exhale. Sing a familiar vocal warm up pattern, or just let yourself sing whatever comes to mind. At the end of each phrase or pattern, move directly into the exhale without stopping the flow. Again, when you feel “empty”, allow an inhale and sing another phrase, or sing the pattern again, modulating up or down as you wish.

  6. Once the flow of breath exchange feels more connected to your body and instrument, gradually let go of the [sss], [fff] or [ʃʃʃ] and start to sing as you normally would, with the usual exchange of sing-inhale-sing.

Additional ways to incorporate this exercise:

  • Use it in the body of a song to explore how much breath your instrument needs for each phrase. Work slowly, extracting the breathing of the song from the tempo structure.

  • Use this exercise with spoken text, allowing the breath to become more connected to the words. Recite a line of text then exhale-inhale, repeat the same process with the next line or repeat the same line. Focus on the meaning of the words as you go deeper.

  • For auditory practice, try this exercise while hearing (audiating) each phrase in your mind. It may be helpful to close your eyes as you do this and place your hands on your abdomen and thorax. Is there a place in the phrase where your breath stops, tenses or gives up? Explore those points and see if you can play with a more energizing quality to the breath.

  • For expression, sit or stand in front of a mirror, and as you exhale-to-inhale, give yourself different attitudes or verbs to think as you engage in the action. Employ the imagination and encourage expression in the face. Add a gesture, and play with marrying your breath energy to a more full bodied expression.

Remember that exhaling in life is healthy! This action creates space for your thoughts and feelings. It can allow us to let go of unneeded things, to trust ourselves and find grounded joy!

Resources for Further Study:

BabyFace, performed and recorded by Whitney Houston. Waiting to Exhale, Exhale (Shoop Shoop). Arista Records, 1995.

Bunch Dayme, Meribeth. The Performer’s Voice: Realizing Your Vocal Potential. London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005.

Dimon, Theodore Ed.D. Your Body, Your Voice: The Key to Natural Singing and Speaking. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2011.

Farhi, Donna. The Breathing Book: Good Health and Vitality through Essential Breath Work. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1996.

LeBorgne, Wendy. The Vocal Athlete. Plural Publishing, 2014.

McCoy, Scott. Your Voice: An Inside View, Mulitmedia Science and Pedagogy. Princeton: Inside View Press, 2004.

Nelson, Samuel H. and Elizabeth Blades-Zeller. Singing with Your Whole Self: The Feldenkrais Method and Voice. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, 2002.

Studio Rendering Inc. “The Mechanics of Respiration”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hp-gCvW8PRY (accessed July 19, 2013).

Wall, Joan and Robert Caldwell. Breath. DVD. Produced by Pst…Inc. New York: Insight Media, 2005.

July 12, 2019, Dr. Ivy Walz, DMA


Posted by Ivy Walz at 1:09PM   |  Add a comment
Ivy Walz, mezzo soprano

When I was a teen-ager there were pop-centered television shows where people put on lyp-synching acts. People would dress up in elaborate costumes and create choreographed routines to perform while they moved their lips in synchronization with pre-recorded songs. It was fascinating and fun to watch on TV, and also very fun to play around with among friends and family in the living room. As a singer, I've discovered that this same action can be applied for music that I'm preparing to sing in performance. I've shared this exercise in the voice studio, and students report that they also enjoy it as a practice strategy.

I am often reminded that for each new song text we must prepare, we are asking the articulators to learn what is essentially a choreographed dance routine. In the same way a dancer practices certain movements in succession until they become succinctly expressive, the muscles of the tongue, lips, jaw and soft palate are engaged in "learning" to create succinct movements for accurate, and ultimately artistic articulation. If we do our job fully, we will gain the ability to articulate with flexibility that provides optimal resonance capabilities. Of course this is one element to achieving a balanced instrument, but one that can make a major difference in the ability to achieve a powerful performance. 

So how do we work on the text so that the rigidity of the tongue becomes more flexible? Or so that the extra effort of the jaw subsides? One way is to use the non-aspirate whisper or "lip-synch".

Steps for Non-Aspirate Whisper or  Lip-Synching in the Practice Room

  1. Write out the text: It is useful to write the text out on a piece of paper to isolate the text from musical notation. Complete an IPA transcription and a word-for-word translation. If the text is in your first language, it is still very useful to write a summary of the meaning of the text. You may choose to write in different colors to show personal meaning in your words.  
  2. Sit or stand in a comfortable position where you may easily see the words you have written out. Place the paper on a music stand or book that allows you to maintain balanced alignment. 
  3. Speak the words without using your voice or "Lip-Synch" the text! Be careful not to whisper, because this is tiring for the voice. You may feel that air is moving, but be sure you are absolutely quiet as you form the words in your mouth.
  4. Add a mirror: Use a standing mirror or a smaller hand held mirror to watch yourself as you form the words. What do you see? Is there excess tension anywhere in the formation of the words? Notice the lips, jaw, tongue. Which words, syllables, consonants or vowels feel or look harder?
  5. Make a list of the sounds that are unclear or harder, and practice moving through them more slowly to discover on your own how these sounds are made. Be sure to bring this list to your teacher so that you can work on clarifying them together. Then you can go back and employ this strategy again with improved understanding. 
  6. Once the movements of the words look and feel easier and lighter, go ahead and sing your text. What do you notice? Does the text feel easier to produce? Do you feel you know the words better? 

This strategy may be additionally benefical for the following reasons:

  • For kinesthetic practice: improves kinesthetic memorization of a text.
  • For vocal rest: A practice strategy that allows you to rest your voice.
  • For auditory practice: Can you hear the melody and accompaniment as you lip-synch the text? Allows a break from auditory self-assessment because we are not singing. 
  • For expression: Watch in the mirror, and as you lip-synch, employ the imagination and encourage expression in the face. Add gesture.

May, 2019 Dr. Ivy Walz, DMA









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