Elevating Singers in the Modern Band Classroom

“Fly” Nicki Minaj (feat. Rihanna) 
I came to win, to fight
To conquer, to thrive
I came to win, to survive
To prosper, to rise
To fly, to fly

Modern band teachers across the nation are helping their young musicians win, fight, conquer, and thrive. One of the challenges of the modern band classroom is working with both instruments and voice in the same setting. Below are a few practices to help elevate the singers in your band to make them stronger musicians and vocalists. Here’s to helping our young vocalists fly! 

Microphones and Equipment
Make sure there is a microphone available for rehearsals and performances. Microphones do more than just amplify the voice, you can use a different tone that usually would not carry, like soft and breathy. Ensure there is a monitor (a speaker that faces the performers) on stage for performances and rehearsals as well. It’s very important that vocalists can hear themselves, so they do not overuse their voice. If your vocalists are over singing, it is likely they cannot hear themselves over the rest of the band and need to be turned up in the monitor. 

The microphone should be close to your face, about one to three fingers away. When singing higher, typically you pull the microphone away to avoid peaking. Mics need to be angled directly towards your face, not straight up and down. Make sure you as the instructor model proper mic use and monitor your vocalist so that they are consistent with practicing good mic technique. 

Vocal Technique
Singing is an incredibly vulnerable act, and I am sure we have all faced the challenges of boosting our students’ confidence when it comes to singing. There is an added pressure to singing because your body is the instrument, and for young musicians, that body changes daily. Students who are already comfortable with singing are ready to identify mistakes – it is what leads to progress. Celebrate and accept all the sounds that come from your vocalists! 

Vocal cracks are one of the most embarrassing vocal mistakes that can happen, especially with young ones with changing voices. In layman’s terms, a vocal crack typically happens in the middle of the range where the head voice and chest voice would “mix.” I frequently describe it as a woodwind squeaking on their reed. Lean into that crack and continue to let your airflow through that range of difficulty. When the vocalist is self-conscious and pulls back airflow, they are less likely to successfully sing through the range. Signs of vocal health issues are going hoarse and losing your voice- not usually vocal cracks. That is a normal part of getting comfortable with your voice, just like a squeaky reed.  

Making Lyrics Secondary
Beginning singers can get over-focused on the lyrics and how the original recording of the song sounds. Help them understand the song beyond the lyrics by having them take time to sing the roots of the chords. This is a great exercise the whole band can do! For more complex songs, give your singers a lead sheet (as opposed to just lyrics with chords overtop) so they can follow the rhythm and melodic contour of the notes. 

When you are learning a song, encourage your singers not to get caught up in being perfect – keep going. Keep singing, keep exploring, keep listening. Step in and model some improvised riffs, lyrics, and melodies with your vocalists to show them the different things they can do. Stress the importance of listening and singing along with the original and other recordings of the song. Looking at covers on YouTube can be insightful for how other singers have interpreted the song. Again- another great exercise for the whole band. 

Improvising
Vocal improvisation is such an important and challenging skill in popular music. To start, have your vocalist focus on a small musical idea by giving them a short lyrical pattern to sing. For example, if you are working on “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers, use the phrase “lean on me” and have them explore different melodic ways to sing that phrase while the instrumentalists jam on the chorus. The notes can go up, down, inverted, double time, drawn out. Below are several ways to riff on this phrase that you can provide your vocalists. 

Help singers rewrite the melody with these tips: invert the melody, repeat the same note, change the articulation, use neighboring tones, and use other notes in the chord (such as singing B instead of D in a G major chord). Rewriting melodic phrases is a great way to overcome range issues as well if the song is ever too low or too high. 

Implementing some of these techniques with your vocalists will have them soaring high along with the rest of the band. 

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Laura Ferguson is a general music and choir teacher at Marine Park JHS 278 in Brooklyn, NY. She received her Bachelor of Music in jazz studies from Ithaca College and is currently pursuing her Master of Science in music education from Queens College. 

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