“Knowing” and “Understanding” Singing

A recent book acquisition has done much to help me sweep away some of the clouds that have nagged me for some time in the pursuit of knowledge about the singing voice, as well as how skills for singing are acquired – or at least – how to think about them more practically.

Particular to the arguments were clarifications on usages of language around singing which continue to be a constant problem for the voice training profession today and cause much strife in online forums and discussions. Mostly the fuzzy lines between what has come to be known as “procedural” versus “propositional” knowledge.

Author V. A. Howard in his 1982 book Artistry: The Work of Artists has helped me to clarify some of the miscommunications that are rife within the voice training vs. voice science communities. It’s a dense, erudite, but highly recommended read for those in search of an academic (and at times philosophical) glance at the acquisition of artistry. He uses the singing voice as his model throughout the text, which I found delightful and intriguing.

On the question of “knowing” about singing (the purview of the scientist) and “understanding” singing (the work of the singer), Howard had some rather brilliant statements to make on the subject.

I’m including the notes from Howard’s book.

*****

Husler and Rodd-Marling conclude their book (Singing, The Physical Nature of the Vocal Organ, 1965) on this leading note:

Knowing is not understanding, nor is understanding knowing. The exact Scientist (who knows all), and the perfect Singer (who does and understands all) – neither will find it easy to unlock a singing voice unless they learn to complement one another. (1 – see footnotes below)

As the previous section may have helped to clarify, the singer’s “technical” jargon to a large extent reflects his “understanding” of singing (without constituting it, since anyone can learn to TALK like a singer), whereas the jargon-laden statements (where true) of the voice physiologist constitute his “knowledge” of the voice. The difference between “knowledge” and “understanding” in this context is illustrated by the fact that hardly anyone would expect the scientist to be able to sing merely on the basis of what he “knows” about the voice – whereas, somebody who talks like a singer is more likely to be expected to be able to sing, on the assumption that he “understands” what he is talking about.

This distinction between “knowledge” and “understanding” overlaps with one philosophers are accustomed to draw between two kinds of “knowing”: PROPOSITIONAL “knowing-that” and PROCEDURAL “knowing-how.” (2) Though contingently related in innumerable ways and contexts, their logical independence is demonstrated by showing that neither one implies the other. For example, knowing how to ride a bicycle may be explained as a constant adjustment of the curvature of the bicycle’s path in proportion to the ratio of the unbalance over the square of the speed; (3) but clearly, knowing that bit of physics is neither necessary nor sufficient for knowing how to ride. Similarly, a singer may know how to produce an “open,” well-projected tone by “placing” the voice on the upper edge of the chest bone without knowing that this is “the most effective way of influencing the Closers (lateralis and transversus muscles in the larynx) but also the safest because the chest bone-shield cartilage muscle draws and anchors the larynx downwards. (4)

Propositional knowledge is expressed in statements conforming to logical standards of belief, truth, and evidence, (5) whereas procedural knowledge consists of skilled performances, activities rather than statements, confirming to quite different standards of achievement as variable as skills themselves and their purposes. Though measured by different standards, judgment and intelligence nevertheless are still required to “know how.” In other words, “know how” in the sense of intelligent action refers to a trained ability, keeping in mind that not every ability is trained, for instance, one’s ability to see colors, feel a pinprick, or digest cabbage.

Now however many reflex responses and other untrained abilities may be involved in singing (e.g., the ability to discriminate pitches, to experience certain physical sensations, and the like), the singer’s “understanding” would seem to encompass at least this much: intelligent, trained ability or “know how” as directed and described and, to an extent, explained by the “technical language of the ear” – which is to say that the singer “understands” both through his actions and their effects AND “propositionally” in the terms of his own special language; that is, whenever the singer or trainer uses that language to utter a declarative sentence about the voice. Otherwise, the singer’s “understanding” embraces far more in the realms of sound, sensation, emotion, and musical performance that can ever be circumscribed by trained procedures, and still less by the strict logical conditions of propositional knowledge whether “technically” or “theoretically” expressed. I wish simply to observe here, and further on to argue, that “understanding” so construed may be involved at all stages of a complex skill, even the most elementary. It is a considerable feat of imaginative concentration and motor control, for example, merely to import a particular vocal achievement, say, that of the “supported falsetto” or “head tone,” (6) painstakingly built up over many months, into a simple musical phrase with its “complications” of variable consonants and vowels; not to mention textural sense or expressive dynamics.

 

FOOTNOTES:

1. Citing Pierre Buteaux: “Knowing is not understanding. Science does not lead of itself to comprehension. To arrive there requires a great leap with the strict scientist’s methodological principles prevent him from making.” Mutation der Menscheit (Frankfurt, 1963).

2. See Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (London: Hutchinson, 1949), ch. 2; and Israel Scheffler, The Conditions of Knowledge (Glenview: Scott, Foresman, 1965), ch. 5

3. The example is Michael Polanyi’s in Personal Knowledge Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (London: Routledge & Kegen Paul, 1958), p. 50. Polanyi’s comments on skills (ch. 4) are particularly apropos of Husler and Rodd-Marling’s researches.

4. Husler and Rodd-Marling, Singing, The Physical Nature of the Vocal Organ, A Guide to the Unlocking of the Singing Voice, illustrated by Frederick Husler, revised edition (London: Hutchinson, 1976).

5. See Sheffler, op. cit., p. 21.

6. See Husler and Rodd-Marling, op. cit., pp. 59-62, for the physiological description.

Quote of the Day

“An important fundamental principle in teaching voice is that direct control over any narrow group of muscles used in the act of phonation is impossible, while conscious control over groups of muscles actuating members which should not be used in this act is possible of accomplishment. Upon this fact and upon the psychological side of the subject rests the possibility of really training the voice.”

Douglas Stanley, writing in 1933

**It’s VERY easy to manipulate muscles that SHOULDN’T be used in the singing act. What is more nuanced is the training of those muscles which SHOULD be involved. Many of the muscles which are terra non grata usually give the singer a sense of accomplishment that ‘something is being done’  – that they are learning to sing.

What is really being learned?

Manipulation. Great accomplished manipulation.

It is far more nuanced, elusive, and time-consuming to search for those responses which are beyond direct control but CAN be stimulated to make a beautiful (as well as powerful) singing voice. Interestingly, a voice built in this way becomes more responsive to the coloration of the psyche than a lifelessly manipulated voice which is very comme il faut, and lacks any influence of psychology upon the singing act. 

Rome was not built in a day.

– Justin 

Marchesi Claps Back

Lest we think today’s era of voice training is replete with ‘noise,’  nothing has changed in the past one hundred years. According to Mathilde Marchesi quoted below in an article in Etude Magazine in October 1913 (one month before her death), teachers were always ready to demonstrate their intelligence and to ‘show off’ their fancy theories, personal dissertations, and idiosyncratic philosophies. In our modern age, the mind-numbing chatter has increased due to the internet and the ability for anyone to have a platform to hold forth on vocal topics. (It can’t be missed that this blog is yet another place of vocal information – apologies for the added noise).

I often contemplate her argument:

How many people can tell you all about the voice, know all the behaviors of formants, understand every scientific term and say all the right words, and yet cannot themselves teach voice to another person standing before them in a studio? 

Knowing how baseball is played and all the rules and all the nomenclature still does not make you a baseball player at the end of the day.

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Knowing HOW a game is played, and all the rules and exceptions, does not prepare one to play the game well. Accumulation of vast knowledge in this arena is great – but doesn’t translate into hitting a single ball or the skills needed to run fast. 

There can be an enormous gap between the Theorist and the Practitioner and the lines are – and have been – blurred since about 1841 or so, perhaps earlier. As Cornelius Reid stated so eloquently,

It is ONE thing to know how a system works, and another thing to know HOW TO WORK the system.

The Theorist would know how the system works, the Practitioner could work the system. We DO need both in our profession. This is not to negate that fact! But what do we make of the Theorist who cannot teach and the Practitioner (who might know nothing of theory) who turns out very good, even exceptional, voices? And most importantly: What is our aim as teachers? To be better Theorists or better Practitioners? Note that I said TEACHER and not researcher, historian, or scientist – which I would place under the term Theorist. There really is only so much time in life – what should be our priority as teachers? (I realize I may be speaking to those independent teachers who do not find themselves in an academic environment, where theoretical work is the means whereby job security is assured.)

There is nothing more disappointing to me than the teacher who, perhaps in an attempt to gain celebrity or fame in the vocal arena, demonstrates their academic grasp of all the theories of voice, or worse – media flash and pizzazz – and when faced with a living student fails to offer anything of practical – dare I say empirical – value. Nothing is more consternating to me than to sit in an excellent voice presentation followed by practical application that tells the student that they need ‘a deeper connection to their breath.’  -_-

Students and teachers are treated to mini-dissertations and lectures of all kinds but leave more confused and even less able to incorporate these diatribes into a practical vocal pedagogy. In one particular presentation on the science of the voice, a presenter demonstrated their profound knowledge with a singer hooked up to all manner of electronica, showing all manner of colorful graphics on the screen, and yet throughout never once LOOKED at the student who was singing. How dehumanizing. Is that the future of voice pedagogy? I hope not.

Coming back to the matter at hand, many fascinating voice THEORIES do not translate into PRACTICE. And yet, practice is truly the purview of the teacher in lessons with a student. In the same way, an athletic coach must get improvement in a player to win games – they must help in the acquisition of skill, not lecture on muscle development theories. So too, we must get the singer to improve in function and thereby assist in the development of a musically viable vocal instrument. We are the coaches on the field – the scientist’s domain is the laboratory, and both skills may not transfer. An acoustic chart tells you nothing of the psychological makeup of the singer and why they are resistant to vocal development. The vowel chart can’t capture the nuances of human sound as expressed in emotional coloration and the infinite ways a voice can paint sounds of joy, anguish, terror, or elation. (Pray it never does – for then we’ll have truly created singing machines.)

We’re learning now through information on skill acquisition that speaking LESS in lessons leads to greater development than a dictionary of words can provide. I’m reminded of a famous acting mantra:

An ounce of behavior is worth a pound of words.

I have a hypothesis: I think scientific theory is safer ground to stand on in polite vocal society. We can package our arguments around factual peer-reviewed work and avoid a too-easy bruising of egos. Knowing the theory protects us from the imposter syndrome of charlatanism of our craft. The living art of teaching is rarely discussed because it leads to trickier, more intimate and HUMAN conversations. There’s more for everyone to disagree with. Science lends a feeling of being on safe, democratic ground. Yes, it helps us weed out bad ideas about the voice – and for that, it has a role to play, but frankly, messier application/empirical discussions are the types of conversations that could bear the most fruit for a practical education of singers. It is my opinion that the weeding out of bad application and the solidification of excellent application is equally as important as learning complicated theories of how the voice works.

What application can make the greatest number of voices improve?

That is what I am drawn to as the teaching years pass.

 

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Mathilde Marchesi had strong words about the role of the voice teacher and believed that the work of the instructor was to help build and restore voices – not to hold forth in elaborate theoretical discussions. 

 

Here’s is Marchesi’s quote, taken from Etude Magazine from October of 1913. She lays out her values in voice training: produce good singers. How we do that is why I have studied the writings of the past several hundred years – how did they do it? Those teachers of days gone by seemed more interested in the development of the voice in service of a singing art – today’s climate seems more inclined to turn the singer into a lab rat.

There are people at this day who talk eloquently about breathing, training and singing to such an extent that one can not take the time to listen to all their dissertations. I would like to tell them all to remain perfectly quiet until they have produced one pupil to prove their own knowledge.

I would not demand that their pupils be very celebrated. Stars are rare. Like the planets, millions of miles apart, even the most successful teacher may hope to see but a very few during the course of a lifetime. It is only fair that the teacher should be judged by the best voices she turns out, the successes,—for unless the pupil comprehends the instructions and carries them out the teaching of the very best master may come to naught.

Consequently, find out who are the representative pupils of the teacher you contemplate studying with and make an effort to hear those singers yourself. It is a serious matter and one you can not give too much consideration to it in order to form a definite opinion. One should hear a great many of the best pupils because I have known the case of teachers who have had the good fortune to secure one star pupil, but who have been unsuccessful with most all others. One or two successful pupils mean nothing. It may be the case that these star pupils have marvelous natural gifts for self-development, or they may have studied with some worthier master early in life and concealed the fact. You should hear at least ten pupils and if they all have the one method, that is if they all sing uniformly well and are devoid of the common vocal faults,—if they have the one way of doing what they do, if they have the one voice production, the same beautiful even legato, the total absence from every indication of physical effort—then and only then can you judge the master.

Metamorphosis

I grew up on a farm in Peculiar, Missouri. My maternal grandmother was a music teacher in the Kansas City school district for 35 years. My mother and father introduced me to all kinds of music in my childhood from a multitude of genres: country, pop, rhythm and blues, gospel, oldies, musical theater, and light classical music.

I was not exposed to opera and classical music until I was in my early teens when I started exploring the genre as a result of studying voice with a classical teacher in Kansas City. I fell head over heels with opera and devoured every recording and every book I could find on the subject. I set my intention at a young age that I wanted to become an opera singer. (I had already been performing professionally from the age of 10 when I toured around Missouri singing at different country opry houses. My young dream was to be a country music singing star). When the opera bug bit, I began self-directed studies in Italian and later took French in high school, double majoring in the language in college alongside music.

In college, I received my bachelor’s degree in Vocal Music Performance, and later received a Master’s degree in Opera. Throughout my education my love of opera was strong, and I was blessed enough to perform with several opera houses throughout the United States.

However, over time as I’ve begun to teach, it’s become apparent that more and more of my students have no interest in classical music or learning how to sing opera. As an independent teacher, rather than refuse to teach other musical styles, I dove headfirst into learning as much as I could about the demands of this music, and how it could be successfully sung with a healthy vocal approach.

I’ve accumulated a studio of singers that hail from all backgrounds and genres of music searching for help in singing more comfortably and healthily. Some are even recovering from vocal injury, as I experienced myself in my own vocal journey. While I do still have classical and opera students, their numbers are not comparable to those singing non-classical music. Because of my students, my own singing interests have decidedly changed. I no longer sing as much classical music as I used to, nor do I consider myself the hardcore operaphile that I once was all those years ago. Today, I find myself more drawn to other styles of music such as jazz, pop, and new composers of musical theater, both as a teacher and as a singer.

This has been a very difficult thing to reconcile because I’ve felt I was somehow betraying classical music or my past teachers, whom I continue to love dearly. I also felt I would be letting other people down if I didn’t carry the ‘classical voice’ flag, or at WORST, they would think that I somehow ‘sold out.’  It has taken me years to reconcile myself to these perceptions, sown in fear, and they have held me back from exploring other genres as a singer myself – potentially stifling my own vocal creativity, exploration, and progress. Why can’t a singing artist pursue more avenues of expression? 

Perhaps these discoveries come as one enters middle age, and one begins to slough off years of habitual behavior and thinking. It feels like a breakup of sorts, but I know that to grow is to evaluate one’s realities and accept what is truly happening and move toward new horizons and experiences.

In the end, singing (of any style) is about connection and shared humanity through music. That is true whether the genre is a grand opera or a small band in a smoky bar. I have learned to be less judgemental as a result of broadening my musical palate, and I have found that it has also made me a happier person. I have met wonderful human beings from all walks of musical life that have enriched my life immeasurably. I have friends in bands, opera halls, jazz clubs, and one just debuted on Broadway. I’m grateful for each of them and value them as unique musical artists.

As I move forward, a large part of my metamorphosis is giving myself permission to sing new songs – songs that are not classical – and I have learned that I MUST sing them for the happiness of my spirit.

As I continue I am anticipating that this blog, too, will slowly metamorphize as I move forward in my own musical and teaching endeavors. I’ve worked to lay out a historical exploration of the history of voice training within these blog pages, and I hope to continue those studies for pleasure on my own – but I do not wish to be seen only as ‘the history guy.’ That has become a kind of straitjacket that has gradually stifled me from personal growth and other more fruitful discussions.

In thinking about writing this particular blog post, it wasn’t until I heard the song below by the Mamas and the Papas that it solidified into a cohesive message  – every lyric rings true to my experience.

Finding our own song and singing it is a lonely journey – but we must sing iteven if no one else sings along.  

Nobody can tell ya;
There’s only one song worth singin’,
They may try and sell ya,
‘Cause it hangs them up to see someone like you.

But you’ve gotta make your own kind of music
Sing your own special song,
Make your own kind of music even if nobody else sings along.

You’re gonna be knowing
The loneliest kind of lonely,
It may be rough goin’,
Just to do your thing’s the hardest thing to do.

But you’ve gotta make your own kind of music
Sing your own special song,
Make your own kind of music even if nobody else sings along.

So if you cannot take my hand,
And if you must be goin’,
I will understand.

But you’ve gotta make your own kind of music
Sing your own special song,
Make your own kind of music even if nobody else sings along.

 

The Teacher’s Duty

From Edward Foreman’s essay Modern Pedagogy (unpublished):

 

In order to accept payment for teaching voice, the teacher should:

  1. Understand the mechanics of the voice, not in the abstract anatomical sense, but in the practical sense from his own experience
  2. Understand that while all voices are mechanically the same, no two singers can be taught quite the same way in this day and age
  3. Understand the difference between being able to sing the notes and being able to sing the composition as a whole, with style appropriate to its historical period, language, and genre
  4. Understand that the relationship between the person and the voice is the single most intimate relationship of all, and respect that relationship, in order to heal any breach between the singer and his voice.

Some teachers hasten to point out that they are not psychologists, by which I take it to mean “trained in psychology,” or “holding a degree in psychology.” It is impossible to teach voice without learning a great deal of practical psychology through observation, and it is a wise teacher who arms himself with some rudimentary behavioral information at the outset of his teaching career. This is not to be confused with psychological therapy or counseling, but the teacher who does not take into account the psychology of the student will never be able to help the student fully unlock the mass of interferences and inhibitions which the modern student brings with him into the studio.

This work must be done through vocal exercises, which are the teacher’s province, and not through analysis, which is not. There is abundant evidence—from early Antiquity—that “music hath charms to soothe the savage breast.” The various powers ascribed to music include its value as therapy, and the teacher must realize that this is happening in voice lessons, whether he likes it or not, and learn to deal with it accordingly.

In this society at this time, there is no excuse for being unaware of the therapeutic activity which takes place in a voice lesson, which must be guided, understood and utilized to the student’s benefit. It is no longer appropriate to deal only with the voice as though it were an abstract study happening outside the context of the whole person. Simple logic requires that we understand the integrated nature of all human activities, and learn to utilize that understanding in helping the student to fulfill his potential.

This view of vocal pedagogy was gradually emerging at the end of the 20th century. It is too early to predict what advances the study of human nature and behavior may contribute to stabilizing the chaotic condition of pedagogy in the 21st century.

While we cannot go back and revive the actual pedagogy of the 17th and 18th centuries—which would require 17th and 18th century Italians as students, and reversion to the musical styles of the period, and would prove inadequate to the vocal demands of modern music and performing conditions—we might take note of the salient features of that pedagogy which are relevant in the modern world: Time, discipline, simplicity of method, and a stress on the artistic expression of vocal musical ideas.

The pressures on the average academic student of voice do not permit the kind of focus necessary to master the art of singing, either as vocal emission or as interpretive art. In addition to a course load unrelated to music or performance, the regular requirements of juried examinations, grading “progress,” opera workshop participation, and the generally stressful pace of modern life distract the student from the kind of attention he needs to pay to the simple act of vocal emission, much less the art of singing itself.

The private teacher—an almost endangered species—has the leisure of avoiding academic entanglements and distractions, but financial considerations often reduce the amount of time he can devote to a single student. Unless the student has a patron able to provide relief from the necessity to work two jobs and afford him enough time in actual personal study with the teacher, the present conditions will prevail, with the results which can be heard all around us in poor vocal emission and unformed artistic expression.