Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs


Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is something that I try to make young artists aware of as they begin their lives in the arts. It bears a striking resemblance to the chakra system of Hinduism.


When we start out as young musicians and artists, we have spent a great deal of time in the highest point of the pyramid (Self-Actualization)  because we’ve had the benefit of parents or academia to provide the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. Once we enter the ‘real world,’ it can create an imbalance in the pyramid if we are worried about the rent bill coming up or lack of ability to pay for lunch on our own.

The romantic idea of the starving artist is something that needs to die, a remnant of the nineteenth century through works of art and literature. Artists are human beings first, and they must see to it that their hierarchy of needs is in proportion. The composers and artists of the past had patrons that supplied the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. That is no longer true in our current modern system.

There is nothing more detrimental to one’s art than housing or food insecurity. The stress and anxiety from this experience can lead to desperation in auditioning and performing that affects how one ‘comes off’ publicly. It creates artistry that is predicated by fear and keeping the wolf away from the door. I once heard a casting director say that they can smell desperation in the room. If you are food or money insecure those feelings are at their peak because so much need is placed on getting the acting or singing job.

This is not to deny the reality of the struggle of many people in pursuing art, but an understanding the importance of Maslow’s levels can go a long way in helping an artist attain balance for the duration of a career. What’s present? What’s missing?

For many artists, our pyramid is inverted. We spend a lot of time trying to get respect for our work and self-actualization while leaving other lower levels out of the equation. For example: do you have a good budget behind you? Financial security gained through good money management goes a long way to give one a sense of stability – even if you’re not raking in thousands and thousands of dollars. As Jesse Mechem, the creator of the budget system You Need a Budget often says, “More money doesn’t solve money management problems!” Getting a good budget behind you will help you feel grounded and a daily inventory on where your money is going. I cannot stress the importance of this for young artists. 

Do you spend enough time with supportive friends and family? A musician can often self-isolate which leads to a deadening of one’s social health and wellbeing. Sharing one’s journey with a sympathetic ear can go a long way to relieving feelings of stress and overwhelm.

I encourage all young artists to contemplate how Maslow’s hierarchy maps to their own lives. Where is there balance or imbalance? It can offer a useful self-correction to give one a greater sense of wholism in life.

In the personal sphere, Maslow’s pyramid remains a hugely useful object to turn to whenever we are trying to assess the direction of our lives. Often, as we reflect upon it, we start to notice that we really haven’t arranged and balanced our needs as wisely and elegantly as we might. Some lives have got an implausibly wide base: all the energy seems directed towards material accumulation. At the same time, there are lives with the opposite problem, where we have not paid due head to our need to look after our fragile and vulnerable bodies.

Maslow was pointing us to the need for a greater balance between the many priorities we must juggle. His beautifully simple visual cue is, above anything else, a portrait of a life lived in harmony with the complexities of our nature. We should, at our less frantic moments, use it to reflect with newfound focus on what it is we might do next.


Bells Cannot be Unrung

Manuel Garcia II once said:

All control of the voice is lost once the cords become vibratile.

This quote always bothered me. There were all kinds of things I could ‘control’ in my voice once I started singing, i.e., moving the tongue, messing with the soft palate, altering the shape of the mouth and jaws, adjusting the vertical alignment of the larynx, and futzing with the back wall of my throat. So this statement didn’t make any sense to me for those reasons.

However, I recently read a quote in Douglas Stanley’s 1933 book The Voice, its Production and Reproduction: A Treatise on Voice Training, Production and Reproduction and it clarified Garcia’s quote. Stanley argues that the student who alters the voice after the tone has begun makes it impossible for the teacher to do any positive work with the technique:

Once the attack has been initiated, everything that the singer can do to produce a good tone has been done. Interference with the adjustment for the purpose of improving the quality which he himself hears is always destructive. From the teacher’s point of view it is fatal, because he cannot correct a tone when the adjustment is constantly being altered. Even when the pitch is faulty, it is better for the pupil to leave it so than to develop the habit of adjusting it by ear. Usually the proper direction by the teacher should correct the intonation without his even mentioning the fact that the tone is off-pitch. The vital point is that the singer must attack the tone definitely from a PRECONCEIVED CONCEPT of the characteristics and hold it absolutely constant in all characteristics. When a singer can attack a tone properly, and not until then, he knows how to sing that tone. Knowing how to sing a tone is primarily a psychological, not a physical, process.

There is a pearl of so much wisdom in Stanley’s quote. It makes sense to me as a teacher, too, because so often students will self-correct but their timing is TOO LATE. The inverse can also be true: the student pre-tenses and anticipates the response, thereby creating more tension and/or constriction. Pitch quality, vowel quality, or intensity can suddenly shift after the singer has launched into phonation. 

AHA Moment:

The time for the correct action is before the sound has BEGUN. This is what Manuel Garcia II was referring to in his quote, not the manipulatory things I was doing after the fact. 

Tosi alludes to the same idea in his book Opinioni de’ cantori antichi e moderni from 1774 (!), albeit Tosi’s attention is drawn to the pronunciation of the vowel. As a matter of fact, until you learned this proper pronunciation of the vowel (pre-phonatory set up) Tosi thought you hadn’t even gotten out of your FIRST LESSON!!:

23. Let the Scholar be obliged to pronounce the Vowels distinctly, that they may be heard for such as they are. Some Singers think to pronounce the first, and you hear the second; if the Fault is not the Master’s, it is of those Singers, who are scarce got out of their first Lessons; they study to sing with Affectation, as if ashamed to open their Mouths; others, on the contrary, stretching theirs too much, confound these two Vowels with the fourth, making it impossible to comprehend whether they have said Balla or Bella, Sesso or Sasso, Mare or More.

What we’re trying to do in voice training is not deal with the sound AFTER it has been emitted, but before it has BEGUN!!! This really is (as Stanley noted) a PSYCHOLOGICAL and not a physical undertaking. Once phonation has begun, the conditions which brought about the original setup have passed. It’s over. What we’re trying to do as teachers is create the stimulus for the response of the vocal mechanism BEFORE it springs to life.

Our work is TRULY in the crucial milliseconds before the voice ‘fires off.’ If the conditions are not met from the start, the voice either 1.) does not match the singer’s conceptualization, or 2.) the instrument has atrophied or is sluggish in its response. Both would require different approaches in pedagogy.

Once the ball has been thrown, all control over its movement is lost. So it is with the singing of a vocal tone. 

This ex-ante concept is a TOTALLY different way of thinking about the singing voice. The RESULT of the work done by the voice is carried in the sound AFTER it has happened. Our attention is always on the sound the voice is making, but that is the EFFECT of a CAUSE.

For example, if a student has a habit of slurring up to a note and then correcting it after a few seconds, we would say the onset is faulty. But I hear you say, “The student ‘corrected’ the pitch, isn’t that the goal?” No. Because if the behavior of the slurring is not addressed and the onset perfected, the student will have a habit of ‘misfiring’ the voice and then correcting it after, and they will accept that as the correct ‘feeling.’ They have not had the proper FEELING of singing the note in the middle of the pitch, so the response is still faulty. This goes along with Stanley’s assertion that the singer hasn’t experienced the correctly sung tone.

Herbert Witherspoon in his 1925 book Singing wisely said on achieving the proper sensation:

Correct sensation may be a guide after it has once been experienced by correct singing; it cannot be obtained except by correct singing. We may ask a man who has never eaten an olive what an olive tastes like, or what is the real “taste sensation” of eating an olive. He will promptly voice his ignorance, and say, “Let me eat an olive and I will tell you.” The sensation then becomes a guide for future eating.

This is why I believe the long tone was the first prized exercise of the Old Italian School. You were able to fix the emission of the voice FIRST. The establishment of proper habits was done from the beginning. As I have said in many posts, the long tone affords a wealth of pedagogical advantage: the onset, the physical alignment, the subtle teaching of breath management, the establishment of the registers, the vowel sound, the pitch, and the intensity. Mastering these elements can be done on single tones, in which the attention and the ear only has ONE particular goal to deal with.

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The long tone was the first exercise in nearly all Italian treatises on singing for several hundred years. This example has been taken from the Grammatica of Anna Maria Celoni, one of the few early female Italian pedagogues. Numerous other examples can be found in Spontini, Crescentini, Aprile, Corri and Crivelli (who taught messa di voce first!), Bassini, Rossini, Marchesi, and countless others. 

And speaking of the ear, Daniel Shigo has written extensively on the importance of the ear in singing – and I firmly believe that he is on to something of prime importance. The ear – and especially the MIND’S ear – is the true watchman of the voice. In the same way, the eye is the watchman of the painter or pianist. But the ear must hear the sound before it has begun – the tricky part of building a new concept of vocal tone. David Clark Taylor knew this as early as last century in his writings.

In order to find a freer response, the student (and teacher) need to allow for a process of starting the voice predicated upon a spontaneous reaction to a pattern of pitch, vowel, and volume – even if the RESPONSE is WRONG!!!!

For this reason, I’m convinced that instead of a student fearing ‘being correct,’ they need to develop more ability to ‘let go’ and then observe after the fact. Otherwise, there is no way to teach the correct sensation of singing well.

Here’s an example: Sally sings flat or sharp. If Sally gets too focused on being ‘right’ she will usually tend to constrict the voice in an attempt to sing in tune. She’ll be bringing all that pre-tension into her singing from the start. Suppose, however, we simply ask her to sing a single pitch, vowel, and dynamic, and then ask her to ‘let go’ – release any inhibition, EVEN if the pitch, vowel, or intensity is WRONG.

In this way, she will be building a ‘singer’s reflex’ which is the whole aim of training anyway. This is why some pedagogies work from speech into singing, to create spontaneous utterances. Mary Saunders Barton’s work includes much of this in building the chest voice in her singers.

Cornelius Reid outlines a similar concept when he described the process a singer could undertake to find a freer vocal response before the fact. I refer to this list often with students to achieve a more organic way of approaching this pre-phonatory aspect of pedagogy:

  1. Assume an erect, comfortable position.
  2. Conceptualize the exercise projected solely in terms of a particular arrangement of pitch, intensity, devoid of any qualitative properties associated with “my quality” or a teacher’s aesthetic preference.
  3. a) open the mouth naturally, b) breathe amply without concern for how the breath is inspired, c) think the vowel form and exercise pattern at the same time, and d) allow the tone to emerge out of the thought form.
  4. Sing the phrase on the vibratory impulses initiated with a strong, rhythmic elan.
  5. Listen to the textures of the new qualities that emerge as a product of this discipline and identify with its accompanying sensations – recording each, not as a definitive good, but one among many textural modifications that occur spontaneously and can lead to the discovery of an intrinsically natural tone quality.

Going forward, I will be curious to explore these ex-ante psychological components in the training of students. It begs some salient questions:

  • How do we get a singer to a BETTER concept of pitch, vowel, and intensity through purely PSYCHOLOGICAL means?
  • How can we improve a faulty self-conceptualization?
  • Where do we confuse CAUSE with EFFECT?
  • How do we bring more ATTENTION to this ex-ante area of pedagogy? Voice science seems more interested in post-facto analysis. We as teachers need to realign our attention back to the ex-ante because that’s where teaching pedagogy rests. (At least if we are interested in improving vocal responses before they occur.)
  • How can a singer experience a correct sensation of tone if they have NEVER felt it in their voice? (This is THE pedagogical question IMHO)
  • How can we sing a sound we have never heard ourselves make?


“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.



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.

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.


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.