Teaching yourself to sing can be a confusing and frustrating experience.

For various reasons, singers will try and go it alone, and while not often the best option there are ways to make the process more efficient and effective.

In this episode, John gives his Teaching Triangle, the method he uses to stay on track when working with a student or practicing his own singing.


For those of you who want to delve more deeply into the Teaching Triangle, you can get John’s FREE three-part video series by clicking HERE.


Episode Transcript

Episode 48 – Teaching Yourself to Sing

Hey there, this is John Henny. Welcome back to another episode of the Intelligent Vocalist.

I might be a little rusty today. I’ve actually just taken a two-week vacation. I often don’t get to do that, and I really didn’t do much other than do a Netflix marathon. Took me about a week to kind of like chill my brain, and then I spent a week just kind of reading and thinking, and watching interesting things. I can give you some recommendations. I really like The Staircase. I think it’s like a 13-episode docu-series on murder trial and a case that would just really confound you, but it’s a really interesting look at our justice system, and how important it is to have a good lawyer. And then, there’s a movie called the Calibre that’s on Netflix. Just imagine deliverance set in the Scottish highlands, it’s only about a hundred minutes long. And it’s just, it’s a movie that will just have your heart pound. It’s a great thriller. I really enjoyed it. It might be a bit too intense for some people, it does get a bit violent, but very very good movie.

So I am back. I may be a little bit rusty today, but I’m back, trying to get the brain back in gear, back in work mode. And today I thought I would talk about teaching yourself.

Now, some of you opt not to study with a teacher. Maybe you tried a teacher and didn’t work out. You didn’t get the results you wanted, or you’re just trying to have a go with it yourself. Maybe you don’t have it in your budget, or whatever your reason that you’re not with a teacher. So you’re trying to teach yourself voice. I want to give you some guidelines. But also, those of you who are with a teacher, you need to realize that you are teaching yourself as well. You’re only going to see your teacher once, twice a week at most, for a half-hour or 60 minutes, unless you’re incredibly wealthy and able to buy up your teacher’s schedule. They’re not going to be with you all the time. And you are going to, in your practice sessions, effectively teach yourself.

So what I’m going to give you is something I called The Teaching Triangle. This is a method that I use to stay on track when I am working with a student. Now, it is best to have a voice teacher on a regular basis. I say that not only as a voice teacher, but also as a singer. You really do need somebody monitoring your practice, etc. So I would give the disclaimer that you should have a voice teacher but it’s not always practical.

I remember during my study years, there would just be times where I couldn’t afford a teacher maybe for a couple of months. I have to save up and get myself back, so I would have periods where I wasn’t able to study. I wasn’t happy about it but it was just being realistic.

So this is my Teaching Triangle. Now I will tell you, if you want to look at this more in depth, you can go to johnhenny.com/48, because this is episode 48, johnhenny.com/48. And you will go to the show notes page for this episode, and I will have a link where you can sign up. I have a 3-video series on my Teaching Triangle. So you can sign up there, and you’ll need to confirm your email address. You will be opting into my email list where I do send out emails, some of them are marketing emails but not all. A lot of times I’m giving different information. A lot of people enjoyed it. But you know what, you can always just unsubscribe. The button is right there. You can watch the videos, and then unsubscribe if you don’t dig what I’m doing. No harm, no foul.

Let’s talk about the Teaching Triangle.

There are three parts to the triangle. Basically you have, if you’re working with yourself, you have the Current Condition; what is going on with your voice? What are you struggling with? What is the balance issue? Whatever it is; you’re squeezing, you’re cracking, you’re breathy, etc. Then you have to go into the Consider. You have to understand why you are having the problem. And then the third part is the Consult, where I will then take that issue, I’ll consider why it’s happening, and then I hand it back to the student. I consult and give them an adjustment to the exercise or a new exercise, and then I just keep that triangle in motion. Then they will again give me a condition, I will consider it, and then I will consult.

Now here’s the mistake most of us make when we’re teaching ourselves. The condition isn’t that hard to figure out. You can hear, if you’re squeezing, you can feel it. Or if you’re out of tune or if you’re cracking, etc. And what most of us will do is, they will jump from the first point of the triangle to the third. They will jump from the Consider to the Consult. You’re basically consulting yourself in this scenario. So you’re telling yourself the new exercise that you need to do or the adjustment that you need to do. But we don’t get to the Consider. We have the Condition, and then we have the Consult, but the second part is critical. Why is this happening? Okay? You have the What is happening, then you have the How to fix it, but if you don’t get to the Why – I’ve said this over and over again – the Why is critical. So, within the why, you have to just stop, look at the condition, and ask yourself. Breakdown different reasons that would be happening.

So, if you are not able to sing a note – let’s say you’re hitting it, it’s really flat, and it’s really strained. Okay? The possible Why’s are; you are squeezing  or over-muscling at the vocal fold. Okay? There is a squeeze. The second one that you can be doing is, the muscles that make up the folds themselves, which are called the thyroarytenoid muscles or the TA muscles. This are the ones that contract for lower notes, and they thicken up the folds. And you need a little bit of activity in those muscles on the higher notes, unless they are in the extreme higher notes. But too much activity in those muscles will cause you to not reach the note because we have muscles outside at the vocal folds, called the cricothyroid or the CT muscles, that pull and stretch. And If those aren’t able to pull and stretch, if those TA muscles are pointing against them too hard, then you’re going to be over-muscled, and not going to be up to pitch. So, those can be over-muscled, and also the muscles that close the folds and resist the air can be over-muscled.

Then the other part of the condition is if the vowel is too wide, if it’s too shouty, if you’re getting the resonance too much in the first resonator or the throat resonator, to really simplify things. If you go back to earlier podcasts where I talked about resonance, where I talked about vowels, you basically have two resonators – the throat resonator and the mouth resonator. The key for nice, strong high notes, if you want them kind of really belty or strong, is that this mouth resonator or the second resonator begins to dominate over that throat resonator. And you do that through vowel adjustments. If you keep too much of the resonant energy in the throat resonator by too wide of a vowel, and then the larynx coming up, then that would cause the voice to seize up as well.

Now you can use a wide vowel without seizing up, that’s another topic, but usually for most singers, the wide vowel will trigger response in the nervous system to jam up to the folds. It’s basically your shout reflex. We’re all good at shouting. It’s a primal response to danger. I’ve said this before – if well-trained singers find themselves at riptide out in the ocean, they are going to splat the vowel, HEEELP! They’re going to pull chest. They’re going to strain because their instinct will take over. Our ancestors that weren’t good at shouting tended to get eaten and didn’t become our ancestors. So we are the long-term offspring of people good at shouting. The shout mechanism will kick in. So there.

So now we’ve done the Consider. Now, of all of those, the usual culprit, that’s why you always want to record yourself as well so you can do some analysis not in the moment, is going to be the vowel. So let’s say here’s my condition; I go for a note, I’m really yelling, it’s straining, I’m not hitting the pitch. Okay. What’s going on?

First I’m going to look at the vowel, see if a vowel adjustment is going to work. So that was my Consider. And then my Consult is, let’s do the exercise again, but we’re going to narrow the vowel a little bit, or rebalance the vowel. I try it again. It’s better but it still feels a little squeezed. Okay. So there is my Condition.

What is my Consult? Perhaps I need to flow a little more air, and back off the vocal fold closure – the intensity that’s going on. So maybe I’ll put “Do the scale again.” Maybe I’ll put an H, HUUUUUH to get a little more airflow, and to resist the muscle a little bit. So then, that is my Consult. I try it again. “Oh. That’s actually working pretty well.” There’s my Condition.

So my Consider is, let’s do more of that. Then my Consult is, “keep going. Let’s take it up, let’s take it down. Work it on a scale up and down.” And in that process you will be teaching yourself.

You know, one of the key things when you’re working with your voice, and this is a mistake that is see everyone make including myself, is it’s very very easy to get frustrated with your singing. The voice is such a temperamental instrument. You know, a note will be working one day. I mean, there are days when I feel like “Oh my gosh, I am a singing god. Like my vocal cord should be on Mount Rushmore.” Maybe on the left hand side, I think they can fit there.” But then there are days when it is just absolute mess –and I’m trying to sing the same note. Because it all depends on our stress level, and if we’ve slept enough, or it died, and if we have any reflex. There’s so many things – hydration, etc. so it’s easy to get frustrated.

Here’s what often happens. The singer will go to a scale, as they’re teaching themselves or in practice, and they don’t get a good result. And your first thing is, Damn it! And you try it again. Well, what you’ve done is you’ve actually just wasted that event because you didn’t consider. You just took something, you got frustrated, and took another flying whack at it. And then that makes you frustrated again. So then, you try something like an over-correction. You just try some big – I’ll use the word gross, as in not precise adjustment – and that sends you the other way. You’ve gone from squeezing out to flipping. Again, frustration. So you take another crack at it.

You’re not utilizing the event. You need to stop and really consider what’s happening. And then, in the Consult, in the new exercise, you try something, and then you consider that. That’s how you are going to systematically breakdown what’s going on with your voice.

Now, when you are teaching yourself, what you do not have is you do not have a second pair of ears. You do not have the real-time feedback of a teacher. Now, I think, in the future there will be software that will be able to give you some pretty darn good, easy-to-understand in-the-moment feedback. Yes there does exist – VoceVista, and different things – but for the average singer, that’s a lot to try and learn. I think it just really simplified and really breaking down the process. I believe that’s coming. But for now, I don’t know if it’ll ever completely replace a teacher, that’s a whole another debate that I don’t want to step into, but you need to be able to break that down systematically.

And because you don’t have that second set of ears, here’s what I will do. I will set up a recording device. Let’s say I’m trying a scale. Okay? I will write down three adjustments I’m going to make.       The first one I’m going to try; a couple different shades of the vowel. And the second time, I’m going to do an adjustment in the muscle. Okay? How intensely I’m closing my folds.

And the first one, as I’m working with the vowel, as I’m recording this, as I make my adjustment from one shade of the vowel    to the second one, I will snap or clap to give an auditory cue to listen closely to my adjustment. To see if that worked. To see what the result was. And if it didn’t work, why didn’t it work. And what was the adjustment that gotten me closest to my desired result. Did it get me closer or further away? And then I can go to the amount of muscle that I’m using. And then I’m going to start pretty breathy, and then do an adjustment to what I feel is like 30%. And then I’m going to go to 40%. Then I’ll snap (or clap). And then I’ll estimate to what I feel is 50%, then I’ll snap. And maybe I’ll take that up to 70%. And then I go back and listen. Then I can see or listen to the auditory cues as I snap. “okay, this is me at what I feel is 40%, or me at 50%. Does that take me closer to or further away from the goal?” it’s systematically breaking it down. And I’m not saying spend your entire time practicing like this, but do spend some of it. Warm yourself up. Run your exercises. And then do some focused work. Maybe spend 10 minutes of your practice session, 15 minutes.

In this type of deeper, intellectual exercise, where you’re really breaking down and understanding your voice, becoming your own teacher, even if you have a teacher, do this. And when you’re working a song, another mistake is just running songs top to bottom. You need to do that for the musicality part of it, for getting the road map of the song. But just take one part of the song, maybe take a part that’s giving you some trouble – one day take part that’s giving you medium trouble, another day take one that’s giving you a lot of trouble – and use the same system. Put on your recorder. Write down, “I’m going to try this with this shade of the vowel. I’m going to drop my jaw more on attempt #2. I’m going to move my tongue slightly forward on #3.” And then go ahead and sing those, and listen back. And look at those and start taking some notes. Start really really focusing on what it is that you are doing.

If you are going to replace a voice teacher, you’re going to have to do some work if you really want to learn to do this, and really really improve your singing. If you’re one of those people who are really blessed and singing is pretty easy for you, I caution you. There’s something, in poker they call it a leak. A leak is either you’re making big mistakes, but usually for good players it’s little small mistakes that they will make. And so they will consistently look at their game to find the leak. If singing is not that difficult for you, you feel like you’re a natural singer, look for your leak. Look for your weak points.

A lot of times when people finally come to me, it’s little notes that are grabbing them. It’s not the high notes that kind of have those. It’s little brief notes where there will be flash of tension or imbalance, and then over time, that starts to become greater. So everybody really needs to kind of get in and do this.

So hey, I really want to thank you for listening to this episode. Again, if you go to johnhenny.com/48 you can get the link to get my 3-video series on the Teaching Triangle. It’s going to go deeper into this, so head over there. And if you happen to be at the website, if you think we maybe good fit for lessons, you can always click on the LESSONS tab, and request some information.

And coming up soon, I’m actually working on my Contemporary Voice Teacher Academy. I’ve got a number of beta testers in there who are going to the course and giving me feedback, and helping me with the paths that’s taking and creating new contents with. That is going to be coming up soon. That is a way that you can actually learn to become a voice teacher, with my online membership course. I’ve done one before called Voice Teacher Boot Camp, this is kind of like my 2.0, and I’m really focusing in on that. I’m getting some really good feedbacks. And I really think that this is going to be really helpful. And even if you haven’t taught voice before, this course will ultimately show you everything; from how to play piano for teaching, and how to do your first lesson. I mean, I’m pretty excited about it.

So hey again. Thank you so much for listening. Until next time. To better singing! Thank you so much. Bye.