Wurgler, P.S. (1994). An Adjudicator Lists Ten Common Vocal Sins. Choral Journal (May), 31-33.


      by Pamela S. Wurgler

      Group vocal training is possible, even in a large choral setting, but in one-on-one instruction, when the choral director assumes the role of voice teacher, the individual singer really progresses toward the ideals of efficient, artistic singing. The student can experiment with concepts of voice production and expression, modifying and refining them as immediate feedback is received from the teacher. Choral singers are strengthened by taking responsibility for their own performances as soloists (this is the "Oh so that's what you mean" time). Voice production rudiments encountered in the ensemble setting are amplified and personalized. The unique qualitites of each vocal instrument, often subdued in choir for the sake of blend, are discovered and enhanced. A more resonant tone production is encouraged as the "noble" voice emerges. Interpretation of a solo song demands a student's complete familiarity with the composition and evokes a personal response to the text and the music.

      The choral director-cum-voice-teacher has a golden opportunity to build singers who, in singing solo, learn to contribute even more to the choir. After twenty years of judging singers, I have found that many fundamental principles of vocal production need to be restated for singers of all ages and at all levels of study. In fact, I have considered having rubber stamps made to simplify writing adjudication sheets. If I did, the following headings indicate what they would say.

      Open the Mouth

      The comment most frequently given admonishes the singer to open his or her mouth. It may be directed toward the singer who tries to sing out of a tiny opening, the stiff singer with "lockjaw," the shy singer who m umbles, or singers with many other vocal production problems. All singers need to visualize their voices as instruments. The sound emanates from the mouth, as sound is projected from the bell of a horn. In singing, space created by opening the front of the mouth enlarges the resonating tube that extends from the larynx through the throat and mouth (pharynx). This increased resonaating space enhances the tone. Many psychological as well as technical implications are embedded in this directive, some of which will be discussed later.

      Stand Tall

      As an instrument must be positioned correctly to produce an effective tone, the singer's body must be positioned properly to create a free and efficient vocal sound. This directive is easy to assess; it may be evaluated visually by both singer and observer. Are the feet spaced about a shoulder-width apart, with the weight balanced on both feet? Is the sternum lifted? ("Chest held high" may be the right idea but an embarrassing verbal directive to young women.) The singer should think "proud" or of being held up by a marionnette's strings. Are the shoulders back and relaxed? Be certain that shoulders do not move with the intake of air. Is the head in line? Visualize the spinal column (vertebrae) as it runs from the lower back through the neck to the base of the brain --vertically, is the spine in line (head tall, back straight, derriere tucked, knees not locked)? Are the arms relaxed and held loosely at the sides? The question of what to do with one's hands can be most efficiently addressed by placing thumbs at the side seams of the singer's clothing, a posture which promotes good singing alignment and discourages the ridiculous-looking and problem-causing "fig leaf" or "opera diva" hand positions. Overall, does this body look energetic, alert, and ready to sing?

      Breathe Low

      The breathing mechanism is the motor that generates energy to turn mental images into audible sounds. The maximum capacity of this energy is attined when the ribs are lifted up and out, the diaphragm and abdominal muscles work in a give-and-take relationship, and the breath motion is felt (and seen) at the belt level. Panting and sipping through a straw are activities which can be used to check the breath motion. The analogy ofinhaling to fill up a spare tire all around the waist also promotes the desired effect. Bending over from the waist and placing the hands waist-level at the sides will help the student monitor this expansion externally.

      Move the Air

      When the body is properly aligned and the breath is taken low (unlike quiet respiration or a runner's winded chest-heaving), the singer's next goal is to move the air. We sing by sustaining tones on a steady stream of air. Therefore, we must learn to support a consistent, energized flow of air. Everyday speech offers little or no reinforcement for this task; muscles must be trained specifically for producing a good sound on a wind instrument--in this case, the voice. Blow out imaginary candles; or better yet, blow so that the flame will flicker, but not go out. Make a hissing sound or use your air stream tohold a piece of paper to the wall. Without singing, the breathing muscles can be toned and made ready for singing.

      Increase Throat Space

      If student singers are learning to sing by listening to the radio, they may have tight throats as a result of imitating high-larynxed pop singers. Or perhpas some singers try to articulate each tone with their throats. Most likely, they try to sing as they speak, and the hallow mouth space used for conversational speech is wrongly transferred to singing. The open, relaxed throat is a very different feeling. The familiar directive "drop the jaw" is a valid place to start, but it is not enough. The mouth space must increase by relaxing the back of the throat too. A yawn sensation helps achieve the down-and-back throat opening, as does the "dumb jaw" analogy. Remember that the jaw is a hinge which swings down and back naturally. The directive "feel as if you could swallow a grapefruit" helps some singers, while the image of keeping a big tube open assists others. The tongue should lie comfortably low and out of the way of the throat. It should not pull back from the front of the mouth nor hump up in the back of the mouth. (There is no reason, however, to evoke a non-existent problem by talking about the tongue.) If there is tongue tension --the tongue humps up and pulls back--the singer must work consciously to flatten the tongue by putting the tip of the tongue at the base of the lower front teeth and leaving it there while vocalizing on all vowels. Tongue depressors can illustrate the point physically, as can holding the tip of the tongue (wrapped in guaze).

      To relax the throat, attention is focused on the back of the mouth. The internal sound produced using the additional mouth space may seem quite dark or dramatic to the singer. With young singers, one may capitalize on that sound sensation, having them speak in their best "Dracula voices," "I vawnt to sawk your blawd." Use a hand mirror to check mouth space. Two fingers inserted vertically between top and bottom teeth can provide a memory aid.

      Arching the soft palate also helps to increase throat space. Resonating space in the mouth is not just "down-and-back" but also "up-and-over." Both are essential for good tone production, resonance, and increased range. Like the relaxed throat, the arched palate is used less in everyday speech and pop music than it is in classical singing. Without the lift of the soft palate area, a singer's upper range is cut off at the passagio into head voice (approaching the top of the staff). The notes immediately preceding that register changeareusually produced withvocal strain and are often flat in pitch if the soft palate is not raised. The tone is frequently nasal because the upper resonating cavities are closed off. Often the problem may be diaagnosed visually; the cheeks are flaccid, the lower jaw is tight and possibly jutting forward, and the head may be tilted back, causing visible strain in the neck muscles.

      Because the feel of the head voice is alien to one's speaking voice, the new sensation (and resultant sound) must be taught. Analogies and imagery work better in developing an arched soft palate than physical directives. Try an "inner smile" image and watch the cheeks lift slightly, pulling the nostrils slightlymore open. Recreate the beginning of a sneeze; inhale the scent of a rose. Pretend your fist is an apple; start of bite into it and feel the stretch of the soft palate muscles. Imagine a golf ball held by your upper and lower molars. Hold your hand horizontally at mouth level. Below your hand is your "dumb jaw"--let it hang; above your hand is your "intelligent jaw"--lift it up. Try a wide-eyed, open-mouthed, pleasantly surprised "aah." If the throat is relaxed and open, and the soft palate is arched, there will be no no need to delve into the confusing images of tone placement. THe well-produced tone will already be rich yet ringing, forward yet open; it will be a truly resonant sound.

      Pay Attention to Diction

      It is said that vowels carry the sound, while consonants carry the sense. Both demand the singer's attention. Vowels must be pure (without diphthongs), centered, and focused. Vocalizing on the vowels to "balance" them in all ranges and at all dynamic levels is needed to form good habits. When a pitch is sustained, it is the vowel whichis sustained. A challenging exercise is singing the text of a song on only its vowels.

      Consonants must be clearly articulaed: both beginning and ending consonants must be energized. We are generally sloppy speakers; the feel of clear enunciation is somewhat foreign to us. Most beginners have to be convinced of the need to exaggerate their articulation with more physical energy. Say and sing the articulators: "lips, teeth,tip of the tongue." Aggressive articulation will not only make the words more understandable, but also will assist in forward placement of the tone.

      Sing Phrases

      When we concentrate on refining the sounds of a particular word, we often achieve our goal in the resonant pronunciation of that word but forget to put each word into the context of the phrase from which it came. Syllabic text settings are particularly challenging. Early in the learning process, the singer should read the text aloud. The expression and meaning generated from this exercise not only will indicate appropriate breathing places but also will motivate the breath motion and dynamic intensity to shape the phrases. As the singer reads the text, he or she will find words which communicate action and feeling, natural text accents, climzses and denouements--all parts of expressive phrasing.

      A middle stage int he process of transfer from verbal expression to singing expression is to intone the text on a comfortable pitch somewhat higher than the speaking voice. In doing this, the singer will find that long notes, dotted notes, and notes tied across bar lines should not just "sit" but should move and grow with breath energy and intensity. Phrasing can be reinforced kinesthetically by "painting" the rise and fall of each phrase in the air with one hand. Or, in the same Dalcroze-inspired sprit, the singer may walk the meter beat or accented beats and move the upper body and arms to show phrases.

      Legato singing is a goal of vocal technique development. The connection of tones as one sings "on the breath" is a mark of vocal control and a standard of artistic expression. The image of "spinning" the tone implis the necessary breath movement. Florid or melismatic passages provide special challenges to the beginning singer. These sections must be sung without h's or pulses separating each pitch. The singer should look for patterns and sequences to determine musical breathing places and phrase shapes. Patterns may be isolated and used throughout the range to practice singing with the free throat and breath energy that the roulades require.

      Singers should avoid linking phrases inappropriately to exhibit the maximum inhalation possible, just as writers should avoid creating run-on sentences to show how many clauses they can put together. The text and the melody should inspire proper, logical phrasing. Beginners may need to plan extra or alternative breathing places; shortof breathing in the middle of a word, a singer should strive to make the best vocal sound possible even if it means taking an extra breath to avoid the physical tensions and loss of expressive potential that accompany running out of breath.

      Balance Registers

      Adjudicators often write, "The sound and production of your lower range is not consistent with that of your upper range." What usually follows is, "Work to develop your upper range." Register terminology is fraught with semantic confusion. Regardless of whether the terms "upper adjustment" or "head voice" are used, singing in the upper range must be taught. Neither everyday speaking nor singing with the radio or CD player prepares young singers for the feel of a head-voice production. Vocalizes that begin above the passagio area and descend in pitch promote the ability to carry the upper adjustment down, lightening through the "break" area to avoid a rough shift into heavy chest-voice production. Eventually, exercises must ascend and descend, combining registers. The singer must not inhibit the change of register by tightening the throat orfailing to givesifficient mouth space or breath support while ascending in pitch. Balanced registers require the development of both upper and lower registers and the freedom and energy to move between them. "Train, don't strain."


      1. Open Your Mouth

      2. Stand Tall

      3. Breathe Low

      4. Move the Air

      5. Increase Throat Space

      6. Pay Attention to Diction

      7. Sing Phrases

      8. Balance Registers

      9. Communicate

      10. Be Confident


      The audience should perceive aurally and visually the mood and message of a song. Visually, what do a singer's posture, facial expression, and eyes say about the music being performed? In any performance the eyes must be alert and focused, not glazing or roving. If the student is not comfortable making eye contact, he or she should focus ona point slightly higher than the heads of the audience. Singers should practice using a mirror to check the sincerity, consistency, and appropriateness of their physical expressions. Videotaping a rehearsal is an excellent way to evaluate the full effect of sound and sight.

      Be Confident

      The well-prepared, confident singer knows the music intimately and has developed vocal control over it. The singer has had sufficient rheearsal time with the accompanist and at least one dress rehearsal, possibly videotaped for evaluation.

      A good appearance will provide a psychological boost. The performer should be neat and well-groomed. Clothing should look professional, not fussy or trendy, and, most importantly, whould be conducive to singing, neither restricting nor distracting.

      The singer should practice the entire performance, including entrance routine, announcements required, cues to the accompanist, and bows, if appropriate. The well-prepared, confident singeris free to express the musicand experience the thrill of artistic communication.

      The Basics of Singing

      Contest comments provide both teacher and student one means of evaluation that can guide the pedagogical process. An adjudicator may offer a fairly detailed list of which basics of singing are and are not working. Constructive criticism of this nature also suggests technical approaches to vocal problem-solving. Comments are meant to inform the teaching process, an evaluation more valuable than the rating itself.

      At first glance, this "rubber stamp" list may appear to be a precontest checklist. It is actually a primer in the basics of singing, elements that are constant and transferable from solo to ensemble singing.