Vocal Technique by Claycomb - Part 1

American soprano Laura Claycomb

American soprano Laura Claycomb shares her thoughts on vocal technique

Over the years, many people have asked me about my technique. The main curiosity is how I sing my high notes or pianissimo high notes, especially lying down. What’s the secret? How about 30 years of voice lessons and 10 years of church choir before that? There is no magic secret; it’s called technique.

I have studied with many people over the years, assembling my own “bag of tricks,” but the main builders of my technique have been my first teacher, Barbara Hill Moore, the late Norma Newton, Gerald Martin Moore, and most lately, Sherman Lowe. I have picked up things from colleagues, conductors, and other instrumentalists over the course of my life, as well. My technique is mine because I have worked out what functions with my body, with all its wonders and challenges. I have easy high notes because of the length (rather, shortness) and thin edges of my vocal folds, in addition to other characteristics of my vocal tract.

That said, there are some points that can form a basis of technique for any type of voice. Over the next few weeks, I will give you the low-down on what technique means to me, along with video examples to use the advantages of an online magazine to its fullest.

 The three main talents of singing are a good ear (Do I hear the difference between good and bad when my teacher brings it to my attention?), body awareness (What was I doing in that moment when I made that sound?) and a good muscle memory (Can I reproduce something taught to me a second ago by tapping into what exactly I was doing physically in that moment?) If a student does not naturally have these talents and is not able to improve these three cornerstones of vocal learning with concerted work and practice, perhaps he/she should choose another career path. Being able to self-correct quickly is a requirement.

I will start by saying that it is difficult to separate the high notes from the rest of the voice. Our whole art form of classical singing is based on the integration of registers of the voice. Mrs. Moore always told me, “If you line up the middle, the top will come.” I always found this infinitely frustrating, as I wanted to WORK on the high notes, as I’m sure you do if you are reading this article. Even more frustratingly, she was right! What I also learned with the years was that the voice will only be lined up correctly when all registers are equally supported, as well. Your support does not need to “kick in” when you’re going into a difficult part of your voice: your support needs to be a stabilizing force throughout all of your singing.

My latest forays into teaching have brought me back to many basics. The problems we run into with singing usually involve different components of our anatomy wanting to do the job of another component. Almost always, these components are trying to “help support,” and instead, create problems.

Singing is also not necessarily rooted in reality, strangely enough. Our physical sensations in vocal technique sometimes do not match up with anatomical possibilities. We singers sound insane to a doctor, probably. But since we are dealing with mostly involuntary muscles, we have to activate them indirectly with imagery or sometimes just plain strange instructions. If I told you, “lift the front of your soft palate and expand your nasal membranes above it,” would you be able to do that? However, if I told you to feel like you are inhaling through your nose and mouth into the space behind your eyes, you would most likely be able to do just that.

The main tenets of my technique involve support, first and foremost, stability of the spaces in the mouth and palate, a mix of registers emphasizing the head part of the mix all the way down the entire voice, a neutral embouchure that lets the tongue primarily make the vowels (and even then, in a similar space to the other vowels), keeping all components doing their own job and not another component’s, closure of the vocal folds for attacks and concentration of the sound, legato, and high palate placement. Next week, I will discuss the fulcrum of everything in singing - the support.

Here is an example as to how I apply those principles in my singing ("Caro Nome" from Rigoletto by Verdi")