Bottom-Up vs Top-Down Vocal Training

Two Distinct Approaches to Long-Term Vocal Training

I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs in my vocal training over the years. At first, I couldn’t explain why some strategies worked and some didn’t.

When I began to suspect that a focus on exercising vowels and consonants was less effective than other exercises, I actually felt some shame.

Weren’t these the best exercises to solve all problems? Weren’t the other exercises, such as lip trills and humms only for “warm ups”.

Making the Old New Again

In my second time around as a beginning singer, I’m studying classical technique and applying it to contemporary singing.

I’m improving much faster now.

I’ve also added new exercises that I learned about from my independent studies and through experimentation.

I can now articulate the difference between what works so well now and what didn’t work earlier on.

The slower and less effective approach takes a top-down approach, focusing mostly on articulation in the mouth.

The better, faster and deeper improvements come from a bottom-up approach, focusing at first on breathing and phonation, then core sound qualities, and then vowels and consonants.


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Tell-Tale Signs of  a Top-Down Vocal Training Method

This is a short list of how I would best summarize a top-down approach to voice building:

  • Exercises emphasize open-mouth work on vowels and consonants. These are forever and always treated as the most important exercises to master.
  • There can be a lot of song work during private lessons, returning to vowel and consonant exercises to solve problems that come up during the song work.
  • Phonation training is considered to be happening during the vowel and consonant exercises. No other types of exercises are emphasized to directly strengthen, lengthen, and coordinate the vocal folds, without regard to vowels and consonants.
  • Teachers of these methods use a lot of confusing and poorly defined jargon, such as “find your mix”, head mix, chest mix, chest voice, head voice, falsetto, etc.
  • Breathing technique is de-emphasized or non-existent. Sometimes you are told that it’s important, but there’s no deep dive into how the breath engine works and the best exercises to make it work better.

What I have found most characteristic of the learning and development curve of this approach is:

  • Early improvement can be impressive.
  • Improvement eventually slows, then comes to a stand-still.
  • The foundational problems of singing, which are always grounded in breathing and phonation, are never solved because they are never given the full attention they deserve.
  • You’re never able to reach your goals as a singer. This approach can’t ever get you there.

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