It’s an ironic sign of the times: On the one hand, thanks to karaoke and shows like “The Voice” and “American Idol,” everyone fancies himself a singer. On the other hand, few in our visually driven culture take the time to consider how a beautiful singing voice or even a well-modulated speaking voice is produced.
Not so Jeanai (gen EYE) La Vita.
“The voice is our only instrument,” she says. “It’s the most important part of our self-expression.”
The lyric coloratura – who has brought her lush sound, pyrotechnical top notes and gift for vocal filigree to such roles as Konstanze in Mozart’s “The Abduction From the Seraglio” and Leïla in Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” – is also dedicated to helping others make the most of their native instrument. As a voice teacher, she offers not only private instruction, but also lessons two days a week at the Music Conservatory of Westchester in White Plains. There she works mainly with singers. But she has also trained actors – she herself is a member of Actors’ Equity – as well as businessmen and women looking for that edge in the corporate world. Her clients have included voice-over artists and even a lecturer on a cruise ship.
“Training singers is much more complex,” says La Vita, who also teaches music theory and directs the musical theater program and youth chorus at the conservatory. “The biggest difference between singing and speaking is that in singing you are sustaining pitched sounds over rhythm.”
But whether you’re a singer, an actor or someone just looking to improve the quality of his voice, you must work on the same three areas, La Vita says – posture, breathing and tone production.
“People who have less confident voices tend to have less confident body language,” she says.
In making her students more aware of their posture – standing straight with the body centered and balanced – La Vita employs principles from the Alexander technique. Developed by the 19th-century Shakespearean actor Frederick Matthias Alexander as a way to help him combat chronic hoarseness, the Alexander technique is actually more of an approach or process in which the practitioner learns how to move efficiently to free the body.
Now that we’re standing properly, it’s time to breathe. No, not just inhale and exhale, but breathe correctly.
“The biggest challenge is breathing,” La Vita says.
That’s because many people think breathing means scrunching the shoulders, tightening the chest and making a big effort.
And they would be wrong. Proper breathing, particularly in singing, is diaphragmatic.
Or as La Vita puts it: “Breathe into the back and into the base of the ribs.”
She demonstrates this by placing her hands on either side of the bottom of her rib cage, taking a breath into the belly and then letting it out with a slow, sustained “S” sound, like a hissing snake.
In this kind of breathing – called ujjayi breathing in yoga – the abdominal muscles and diaphragm work as a kind of bellows, spurring the breath from the lungs through the trachea, or windpipe, into the larynx, or voice box, where it passes through the small opening between the undulating vocal folds or cords and then through the critical, resonating pharynx.
“The nasal pharynx is akin to the soundboard of a piano,” La Vita says.
Now we’re ready for tone production, although easier said than done, because – again, particularly for singing – we have to add another element, the ear. What makes a voice appealing? It’s not only its timbre, but the way and pace with which you produce words.
With actors and public speakers, La Vita uses less pitch-related vocal exercises and concentrates more on reading excerpts from magazines and other texts aloud.
With singers, especially those learning the classical repertoire, the emphasis is on tonal beauty and dramatic delivery achieved in part by keeping the sounds focused and forward. This means the vowels have to be pure, the consonants added just at the end, certain words elided and nary a diphthong in sight. (To which you would say “ah men” rather than “ay men.”)
We have a chance to observe much of this as La Vita coaches one of her students, 14-year-old Boris Morocho, a talented bass-baritone who studies music along with the core curriculum at Ossining High School and who good-naturedly tolerates the standard “Boris Godunov” joke that is the fate of any classical singer named Boris.
First, La Vita puts him through his paces with some vocal exercises, including an octave arpeggio on the phrase “It’s Easy,” the “ea” syllable being sung at the top of the arpeggio, with the idea being that the “ee” sound is the most forward and focused to produce. Then Boris sings from a selection of works he’s studied, including Giulio Caccini’s “Amarilli, mia bella,” a late-Renaissance, early-Baroque song that’s one of the standards of the repertoire.
At one point, La Vita asks Boris to step away from the music stand, which all voice students enjoy hiding behind.
And that is perhaps the fourth and most difficult thing a voice teacher must instill in her pupils – confidence.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” La Vita tells us. “You’re not confident in your voice and your voice shrinks even more.”
Fear, however, is a funny thing. It can paralyze you, but it can liberate you, too.
“Mostly,” she says, “you have to learn to get out of your own way.”
Tips for a healthy voice
We may not have pipes to compete with Beyoncé, Kelly Clarkson or Angela Meade – three of Jeanai La Vita’s faves – but we can take steps to ensure that our voices remain in good working order.
1. Don’t smoke. Ever. Obviously. “Horrendous,” La Vita says.
2. Watch what you eat and drink. Alcohol is dehydrating; coffee and tomatoes, acidic. Soda and other sugary drinks just gunk up the delicate vocal cords, La Vita adds. Stick with plain tea and room-temperature flat water.
3. Develop an exercise program that includes weight lifting and aerobic/cardio activity. Swimming is a wonderful complement to singing, La Vita says, because so much of it is about breathing.
4. In selecting a voice teacher, particularly for a youngster, do your homework. “Some teachers say you shouldn’t study voice until you’re hormonally developed,” La Vita says, “but I don’t agree. If you have a good teacher, then you have to start early, because you must train the ear.” However, you don’t want to be belting out age-inappropriate stuff at 12, she adds: “Be very selective.”