Meet Ian Davidson: Lecturer in Vocals
It’s important to love your voice and nurture it. That’s why working with a good vocal instructor is invaluable, because they act as that extra set of ears to help guide you in the right direction. At Institute of the Arts Barcelona, self-confessed “complete vocal geek” Ian Davidson is doing everything in his highly-qualified powers to protect and nurture “the most superb instrument on the planet”… the piccolo.
Not really. It’s the voice – obviously.
Gospel and A Capella aficionado Ian is not only the founder and director of Balance Vocal Studio in Liverpool, but also a fully authorised Vocology in Practice instructor. (One of only ten, no less.) Now the leading vocal coach brings to Spain over a decade of teaching experience at the world-renowned Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. As rock and roll as he is professional, Ian has been backing singer for Sandi Thom, collaborated with legendary songwriter Guy Chambers and has conducted and arranged the choir for a charity chart-topper with Sir Paul McCartney and Robbie Williams. The Justice Collective beat The X Factor to the UK Christmas No.1 slot in 2012 and got him gold disc. Justice indeed – and the gospel truth.
Ian knows that our voices are completely unique, therefore you have to learn to fall in love with it before you can expect anybody else to, “Many of us often try to be something that we’re not, which causes problems when we sing”, he says. “We’d never try to make a flute sound like a tuba, so it’s good to really get to know all the quirks and sounds in your voice and by exploring this thoroughly, you can truly learn to love it.“
Being careful not to blind us with science, Ian tells us about Vocology, the dark arts he has acquired to help manipulate a student’s voice, answers if there is such a thing as being tone deaf, and explains why he always has a straw behind his ear – and why you should too.
You can hear what beginning vocalists cannot. What skills do you need to have this superpower?
Ha! Superpower! It’s funny to hear it described in that way. I think you have to be a little bit obsessive about what you hear. Training as a Vocology in Practice instructor really encourages you to really listen to every single detail. It’s far more than just “is the note in key?” We are listening for multiple feedback, such as ideal resonance, how much breath is being used, is the correct vowel being correctly applied to the pitch, accent, style, is there vibrato present or not? Can I hear any tension, or crackling that would indicate that the vocal folds are unhealthy? I am obsessive about vowel sounds as they are at the core of every sound we make. Working with students from all over the world has really challenged my perceptions of vowels. This all makes me an absolute pain to watch The X Factor with because I’m constantly over-analysing the contestants. It drives my wife crazy.
Why is so it important to look after our voices?
Knowledge is power. When you know your voice and treat it correctly – exercise regularly, warm-up and cool down – you minimise your risk of injury. From a physiological point of view, the larynx is technically a joint that is made up of cartilage, one bone, ligaments and muscles. We use our larynx and the vocal folds much more athletically when we sing than when we speak. Therefore it’s good to train this joint and the varyi¬¬ng muscles/ ligaments in the same way that we would any other part of the body – through exercises and specific, repetitive practice in order to establish a good muscle memory. From an acoustic and resonance point of view, we have to get used to our own unique set of resonance chambers – the throat and the mouth – which are divided by the tongue that acts like a sort of “sliding door” that can move backwards and forwards and up and down. This familiarity is only going to come with targeted practice, not just singing a song from start to finish.
There are only ten singing teachers in the UK with the Vocology in Practice seal of approval. What is Vocology?
Vocology is defined as the being the practice of habilitating a voice. Many people come to a vocal coach for one of two reasons – to feed a passion, or fix a pain. Rehabilitating a voice is fine, but we would much rather habilitate a voice so that we never have to rehabilitate it. The collective experience of the certified ViP teachers, its ethos and its student-centred approach to teaching really places the student at thecentre of what we do as an organisation. I was one of the founding members and was present at its inception, which makes it even more special to be a part of.
You have an MA in Music Performance and a BA in Music from LIPA. Why is it important to get proper training behind you in the Performing Arts industry?
The bottom line is that training is important. Singing in Musical Theatre is especially demanding, because there is often a lot of movement/ dance involved and in many plays an intense acting journey that has to be successfully portrayed to an audience. Being physically and vocally fit is essential, so knowing your body, knowing your voice and ultimately knowing what is required from you as a performer is invaluable. Can you work with a director? Can you work with a choreographer? Are you prepared to work for eight shows a week, or go on tour for weeks at a time? These things all come from training and experience. The more training you have, the more likely you are to gain experience. I am an academic and consider myself to be a life-long learner and so to me a BA and an MA are really important qualifications to possess.
How is the vocal training you are giving the IAB students different to other Performing Arts establishments?
Here at the IAB I try not to blind the students with science – there are things that they simply don’t need to know. As a teacher I work on how well they can bring their vocal folds together (Closed Quotient), laryngeal height, vowel and consonant production and resonance, harmonic and formant tuning. All this probably sounds like gobblydegook to the average person, but in my opinion these are the essential and ultimately controllable elements to the human voice and so that’s what I work on.
What vocal goals do you help students achieve? (eg. singing louder, improving range, issues with breathing, pitch, intonation, style and stamina.)
Ha – all of the above! Add “correct pronunciation of the English Language” and you have the full list. The biggest challenge for me at the IAB is neutralising the Castellano/ Catalan accent, especially for those Spanish students who would like a career in the English/ American performing arts industries.
Can you describe a typical class to me?
The class normally starts with a warm-up exercise or two, and then we get into a vocal work out that’s usually designed to meet a specific training point that I feel the student needs. I try to get to songs as quickly as possible because singers like to sing and spending 30 minutes just doing exercises is soul crushing. I work in tandem with a great App called “VocalizeU”. The App allows the students to practice all the exercises that I give them in their spare time so that we have more time in lessons to work on songs.
What is your biggest struggle with teaching Musical Theatre students to perfect the way they use their voices?
- Balancing from the “chest voice” to the “head voice”.
- Learning how to belt efficiently and effectively without killing yourself or turning your audience to stone by pulling strange and ugly faces.
- Finding a suitable vibrato.
- Being able to sing both pop and MT.
- Neutralizing accents… especially here at the IAB.
Do you have any tricks or techniques to help students to make certain oscillations?
I have many dark arts that I have acquired over the years to help manipulate a student’s voice in one direct or another. My favourite tip though is to warm up through a long, thin drinking straw. In fact, I always have a straw behind my ear and I encourage my students to do so as well. The straw helps to rebalance the vocal folds by manipulating both sub-glottal and supra-glottal pressure that can help to stretch and thin the vocal folds and reduce any edema that may be present. It’s also quite a silent exercise so you can do it walking around without looking like a weirdo (much).
Do you have key tools you like that can help with things like jaw tensions to access certain sounds?
Jaw-tension usually comes down to overall tension in the body or posture issues. I use a vibrator (the least phallic looking one that I could find!) to directly massage the muscles in and around the larynx and the jaw. It’s a bit hit and miss – some people find that it really helps, some people not so much. Interestingly it can increase the sensation of resonance in the face when applied to one side of the nose. I also use Resistance Bands for students who need a little bit more tension in the body.
Is breathing important?
Too many teachers place too much emphasis on breathing. We’ve been doing it since birth, so we should be pretty good at it. However, sometimes people can take shallow breaths when they are singing, which can cause tension in the neck and larynx and therefore cause pitch issues. Those people need to learn how to take a more relaxed and deeper breath. If you are what’s called a “breathy singer” it’s usually because your vocal folds are not meeting correctly and too much air is escaping through them. When this is the case, I introduce exercises that allow the student to bring them together with an appropriate amount of tension to efficiently resist the air-pressure that is coming up from the lungs.
What about the importance of diet?
I’m carrying a bit of Christmas weight at the moment, so I’d prefer not to talk about diet right now… only kidding! Diet is important and so is hydration – especially if the student is suffering from something like acid or silent reflux. We talk about it quite a lot, but I don’t always bang on about it unless I think it’s a problem. (Besides you have to be sensitive when talking about diet because you never know if the student has a particular issue surrounding diet and food.)
An accomplished pianist and vocal arranger, you specialise in Gospel and A Cappella. What is it about this kind of vocal music that you love?
My love of Gospel Music is tied directly into my faith as I’m something of a Godbotherer. However I first really fell in love with it when I watched Sister Act and Sister Act 2 for the first time. So Whoopi Goldberg introduced me to Gospel and I’ve loved it ever since! It’s a highly emotive art form and form of worship and it just resonates with me. I can’t explain it more than that really. I love the human voice and in my mind it is the most superb instrument on the planet. Getting a bunch of people together to sing without musical accompaniment is truly awesome and gets me every time.
The limbic system is the ‘emotional’ part of the brain. It can help choirs sync vibrato and even heart rates. Have you ever seen evidence of this?
Happens all the time! Vibratos always tend to sync in a choir setting and when it does it’s thrilling. It’s also one of the qualities that really adds to the appeal of Gospel Music for me. The soaring vibratos all in synchronisation definitely do something to my brain.
You were backing singer to Sandi Thom. Ever had aspirations to step into the limelight, to be a “punk rocker with flowers in your hair”?!
I have always loved backing vocals. It stems back to singing in choirs and just generally loving harmony. As a backing singer you don’t have the pressure that a lead singer has. I hate it when “celebrity judges” on those TV shows use the term “backing singer” as a way to imply that what they heard wasn’t good enough. A lot of time backing singers can be far more talented and capable singers than the leads! You only have to listen to the 4 singers who regularly provide all the vocals on “Strictly Come Dancing” in the UK. They are awesome, true musicians. When I was younger I did have performance aspirations, and I have performed in Gospel choirs all over the country, but I love teaching and I love directing. It’s definitely more common to see my back than to see my front on stage! I would love to take part in a Musical, that’s definitely something on my bucket list.
What has been the most memorable moment of your career?
There are many memorable moments. Some of my favourites are when a former student that you taught becomes successful in their career. It’s such a thrill to see them gaining recognition for their work and it’s equally a thrill to think that you have played a small part in guiding their voice. Also, the Hillsborough Justice Collective single getting the Christmas No.1 slot in the UK was pretty memorable though I must say.
You’re particularly fascinated with the condition of being tone deaf. Does it really exist?
Yes, sadly there is. It’s called “Amusia”, which is best described as a clinical tone deafness. I’ve just completed my MA this past year and my thesis was on the differences between Amusia or Tone Deafness and Persistent Tunelessness. Amusia affects about 4% of the population, which is 1 in 25 people, so it’s quite a lot, and at the moment there appears to be very little that can help people with this condition, although the Tomatis research, which is something that I’ve just been introduced to does appear to be very interesting. The flip side to all of this is that 96% of the population can sing in tune, which is a great statistic.
I have a phobia of singing. You have coined the phrase ‘adophobia’ to describe this. Am I curable?
If you don’t have Amusia then yes, definitely. I can’t promise to turn people into the next Beyoncé, but I can certainly help people to overcome their adophobia and discover the joys of singing, which has many well-documented physical, mental and emotional health benefits.
Finally, what are your top tips for maintaining vocal health and a long career from your voice?
Practice, practice and practice – in 20-minute blocks (there’s a lot a research out there about our attention spans and retention of information). Don’t just sing a song from start to finish, target the tricky areas and practice. Warm up and cool down after before and after every rehearsal, practice and performance. Don’t talk over loud noise in clubs/pubs etc. If you have acid/silent reflux, get it treated. Don’t smoke and only drink in moderation. Sleep. Be grateful to everybody and anyone. It’s a huge privilege to be blessed with a beautiful voice and to be able to bless others with it. Don’t ever take it for granted, and be grateful for every opportunity you get.
As published by Institute of the Arts Barcelona, Feb 2015.