Recently, a local record producer summoned Dr. Lynn Berg to help with an aspiring country Western singer. Though the singer had a lovely voice and could very well be a burgeoning local talent, his lyrics were unintelligible on every recording. Berg, head of the vocal performance department at Boise State and a talented vocalist himself, spent six weeks helping the singer reform his vowels and consonants so that his pretty country crooning could be appreciated, both in lyrics and melody. Then Berg sent him back to the studio.
"We don't hear our voices the way they really sound," said Berg. "Every singer needs someone to listen to them and give constructive feedback."
Berg has been teaching voice on the college level since 1977. He teaches singers to use good breath support and proper posture, to choose the right music for their voices, and to produce their voices in the proper place. Without doing this, singers risk straining the larynx and the vocal chords, which Berg said would be more properly titled "vocal folds." They are one of the most delicate organs in the body, and if they are damaged or traumatized, they will likely never fully heal.
"It is very important to maintain your vocal health," said Dr. Laura Rushing-Raynes, an associate of Berg's at Boise State. "You must establish good habits and maintain them for your whole singing life."
The quality of someone's voice, Berg said, is produced, not by the tensions of the throat but by the bone structure in the face. As strange as it sounds, every voice sounds different because every person's head is shaped differently, so each voice resonates differently. Many students, however, spend more time imitating the styles of popular singers like Metallica's James Hetfield than finding and embracing their own unique sound.
"Certain people, for whatever reason, can get by with things that the average person cannot do," said Berg. "Never imitate another singer. What may work for one person may not work for another."
Berg said that pushing the voice to do what it is not naturally inclined to—like growling through the chorus of "The Memory Remains," for example—is the primary cause of self-inflicted vocal damage.
Billie Forschler has been giving vocal lessons for 41 years. She said that 50 percent of her struggle with lessons is getting students to understand the limits of their own voices. When students finally strip away their preconceptions and learn to sing with their own voices and within their own ranges, it is then that they are successful.
The most rewarding part of her job, Forschler said, is when the student finally breathes correctly and hears his or her own voice ringing through. "You should see the looks on their faces," she said. "They didn't know they had it in them."
Forschler starts with the fundamentals of singing. First and foremost is breath control. The throat, she said, is just a passage for air. All the breathing is done with the diaphragm. This is what voice teacher Corey McKnight calls "the belly breath." In a proper singing breath, the stomach expands as the singer inhales rather than the chest lifting and the stomach pulling inward. This diaphragm support allows the singer to sing longer with more force and sustenance without straining the throat.
McKnight came to be a vocal coach, not through the academic road, but from touring with the a cappella group Chanticleer for six years. He stresses to his students that singing is an athletic activity. Singers must take care of their bodies. They shouldn't smoke, they need plenty of rest and they need to eat healthy food, including, for some singers, avoiding dairy products because of the way it coats the throat.
A student of McKnight's won this year's Association of Christian Schools International singing competition as a counter-tenor, the highest singing category for men, sung all in falsetto. Taylor Wuerth, 18, said that since beginning lessons with McKnight, he has extended his range by at least an octave. He will begin college at Westminster in the fall on a scholarship for vocal performance.
In fact, all of Wuerth's ambitions have changed because of his voice lessons with McKnight. He now aspires to fill McKnight's old place in Chanticleer.
"He has so much fun doing it, that it makes me want to do it," said Wuerth.
The real benefit of taking lessons with McKnight has been learning from McKnight's experience as a professional performer. He can teach more than the technical aspects of singing, Wuerth said.
For example, part of the reason that Wuerth scored so well at the ACSI competition was because he sang through an unexpected case of phlegm in his throat. Most singers would have cleared their throats or asked to restart the song, but Wuerth had been taught that there is no interrupting a performance for any reason. Wuerth said that after his performance, one of the judges approached him and said that it was "the mark of a true professional" that he continued singing. This, Wuerth said, is what has made McKnight's lessons so valuable.
Forschler also feels that the ultimate virtue of vocal instruction is found in the performance. Singing gives the opportunity to step out of oneself and become the song, bringing an audience along for the ride. Forschler called it the best natural high. "You're so awake, it takes a while to come down."