The Layer Cake of Singing, or Training the Whole Singer

I had the great privilege this past week to teach a workshop at the Sister Singers Network Festival in Urbana, Illinois, hosted by Amasong. It was amazing to connect with so many incredible women, and sing, talk about singing, talk about music, listen to music… a wonderful time. My workshop was titled Training the Vocal Athlete, and focused on using the warm-up period of a choral rehearsal as a space to strengthen the body, voice, mind, and music. It ended up as a crash course in voice education, with a few specific examples of vocal exercises and how to teach them most effectively. As I prepared for the workshop, I looked through notes and rehearsal plans from the past several years, and returned to an organizing theme that I first used when I was a graduate student, teaching class voice:

The Layer Cake of Singing

The five layers are (from foundation to top):

1. Supportive and energized body

2. Efficient, and actively released breath

3. Active resonance and conscious vowels

4. Free articulators and streamlined diction

5. Thoughtful registration

The Layer Cake of Singing: You have to imagine the candles and frosting roses on your own...

When you cut a slice of a layer cake, you usually cut down through the whole cake, getting a wedge that includes all the layers and frosting. But when you construct the cake, you have to build each layer individually, connecting them with frosting, to create a whole. It’s the same with singing. When you sing a song,  you are using all of your self: your body – the way you stand and move, the way you breathe, and the interior and exterior shapes you make with your mouth; and your mind – thinking and attention in the moment, engagement with the text, rhythmic and melodic phrasing, active listening. With the caveat that I don’t like to talk about the mind and body as separate (we embody our knowledge and ‘think’ with our bodies), I represented the ‘thought’ components in the diagram with the frosting (green). You have to imagine the candles and frosting roses yourself.

Without the base layer of a supportive body, free from harmful tension but full of energy and poise, the cake would fall down. The breath cannot be fully used unless the singer is balanced and generally using her whole self well. Breath “support” is a supportive, thinking body. Likewise, the vowels and freedom of articulators depend on the free flow of this supporting, buoyant breath. Each layer relies on the one beneath it, and on the thought and attention that makes it all work together.

Building the layers of the cake as part of an ensemble warm-up period can always support the work of the chorus, especially when exercises promoting ensemble unison and improvement of listening skills are included in the mix. I tend to find that as each singer discovers individual vocal freedom and dexterity, the chorus is able to be more responsive as a whole, and ensemble unity improves. Each singer enjoys singing more, and can contribute her own voice more freely to the choral sound.

One thing I really enjoy as a voice educator is working with choruses to give them to tools to grow their sound and their enjoyment of singing. Whether that’s through an introduction to the Alexander Technique, or in a Sound Direction workshop that focuses on the intersection of Alexander principles with vocal training, I strive to address the unique needs of each group of singers to support each singer and the work of the conductor. For more information, please contact me. I would love to discuss what a Sound Direction Workshop might look like for your ensemble!

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