Dianna Rhodes – High School Teaching

Diana Rhodes is a registered secondary school teacher who has latterly devoted 10 years of her career to teaching singing in secondary schools in Auckland, New Zealand. She says that she spent several years awaiting software like Sing & See, after she became aware of the possibilities in developing technology, and it has not disappointed her. Here are some of her comments and suggestions for using Sing & See:

Most of us have a strong visual component in our learning style, yet hitherto singing teachers have been confined to working on development of the tonal concept in our students with few if any visual aids.

Tonal descriptors, individual sensation and use of analogy were the main teacher resources employed in working towards an acceptable vocal sound. Sometimes in the past this has led to the development of overly imagery-based and excessively teacher-dependent learning processes.

Singing teachers in the twenty-first century have the benefit of access to extremely good research literature, have a wide range of pedagogical books available and have the opportunity of membership in excellent professional associations. We are also fortunate to be living in an age where technology is developing at a pace that gives us an increasing range of tools and options to go about our normal business and lives. Sing & See is one such tool.

Whether working with contemporary or classical voice styles, our goals are fairly well defined when we teach secondary school aged students. They include:

  1. Building a vocal instrument, while being mindful of physical maturation.
  2. Ensuring that the instrument is developing in a healthy and sustainable way.
  3. Providing and encouraging suitable repertoire for standards based assessment.
  4. Keeping the students interested!

Many elements could be added, but for me, those listed above probably exemplify my own personal approach, with voice building as a priority. For this reason, S & S software has a most important role in my teaching resources. I use it with a laptop computer, a relatively cheap “chain store” karaoke microphone and a small, inexpensive roller-ball hand-held mouse, which enables me to stand back when necessary. Inexpensive colour printers are now available and make a welcome adjunct to this tool kit. My plans for the coming year include “before and after” printouts of the individual spectrogram for each student, to show them tonal development or other changes over a given period.

Most of us probably use vocal imitation as a matter of course in our teaching – we copy the white, breathy sound, the excessive wobble caused by pressing, the voice with too much twang or ping and its counterpart in the unfocussed voice with no cut. We know which resonator adjustments to make to achieve our required sound, but our students often do not.

This leads me to the use of the spectrographic display in Sing & See, which is my personal favourite of the functions. I use it to show my students the visual and readily observable differences in my voice when I adopt any dysfunctional styles. Of course I also describe my own sensations of palatal or pharyngeal adjustment, or any other relevant technique or lack of technique that is concerned with the production illustrated.

I will sing continuously on one note using a range of production methods, so that obvious differences in sound can be immediately visualized on the screen. I use only one vowel, so that different vowel formants do not interfere with the spectral envelope. I point out, for example, the sagging or disappearing higher frequencies, or the clashing of frequencies when they converge, or the excessive background fog caused by unused air from poorly approximated vocal folds.

Now perhaps I would show my student how a series of well-matched vowels on one note will appear visually, or a clean onset and release of the note, or a terminal vibrato for jazz singing. By this time they will be very anxious to see their own spectrogram and as the teacher I make a careful analysis of their own spectrogram with them. (Pavarotti’s spectrograms are available via Richard Miller’s research, but let us not pretend there is any one right or wrong spectrographic configuration for all singers! Only perhaps that we like plenty of energy between 2,000 and 4,000 cycles per second. Teachers will use their own ears to define a preferred spectrogram in any given style.)

The pitch trace is of wider value than I had at first assumed. Habitual “scoopers” or out of tune singers can easily follow up if the student has regular access to the software, but this feature also has value in other areas, such as measuring steady vibrato versus a “tight” sound. (in the latter, the pitch trace will rise as the larynx elevates, even at the same fundamental frequency.) Once again this gives my students the opportunity to visualize the concepts which can be so difficult and slow to develop aurally, when muscle memory and habit are often so deeply ingrained.

Dynamic level can easily be checked with the decibel meter. My students are frequently surprised at how those hard-out, pushed notes register so low, compared to a note with properly balanced vocal energy. They easily observe the decrease in volume which occurs when notes lose their ring.

This preliminary analysis can lead to as much or as little further visual work with Sing & See as I have time and need to provide for my student. I am still their teacher and this equipment in no way undermines my position – it merely reinforces my aural analysis and provides another teaching and learning dimension. Availability of a dedicated computer and Sing & See software in school would encourage me to develop specific remedial or developmental assignments for any one of my pupils as a need arises. I am working with my schools to provide this type of backup resource in the near future.

I should note also that there is a very comprehensive Sing & See manual available, which provides detailed information and systematic exercises for students. Those of us who work in a more holistic manner may find it too detailed, but it is intended as a resource for teachers, not a definitive course of “must do” exercises. In that respect it is probably an excellent security blanket for anyone venturing into this technological territory for the first time.

Dianna Rhodes, Auckland, New Zealand

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