As surely as singing – that is the Italian school of singing – is allowed to die out, its decease will react upon instrumental music. Instrumental music gets its legato and the more subtle parts of its phrasing from the singer, while the singer owes his precision and more musicianly qualities to the instrumentalist. The two branches help one another, and while the vocalist acknowledges his obligation to the instrumentalist it is rank ingratitude on the part of the instrumentalist not to be equally candid. If persisted in, this ingratitude will be suicidal.
Deacon, H. C., Article on ‘Voice,’ in Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians, London, 1890.
Factually describing the voice is not the same thing as stimulating a student to learn. If an accurate description of the voice was all that was needed to stimulate a student properly, then anyone could learn how to sing merely by reading a correct description of how the voice works.
An accurate description of the voice is certainly important, but your student may need to be prodded, cajoled, induced, or inspired by many other expressions in order to learn to sing – and you want to have the flexibility to use whatever works.
– Joan Wall, singer and teacher
We live in a time when access to vocal knowledge has never been more readily available. The internet has opened the floodgates to pedagogical information unrivaled in our profession’s history. Today’s voice teacher can study anatomy, physiology, acoustics, linguistics, in addition to reading much of the historical pedagogical canon, not to mention the writings and biographies of the composers throughout history!
Bringing a recording device to a lesson is even a new development, and is now aided by the fact that every smartphone is equipped with a voice recording app. Students one hundred years ago were only aided by their notes, and a good working memory.
In that previous age, vocal instruction was passed on from teacher to pupil directly. It wasn’t until the 19th century that charts, graphs, and images came to be counted on for any reputable instruction. This may explain why the works of Tosi, Mancini, and others is so unfulfilling – there aren’t any pictures! It would be Garcia that gave us images galore in his Traité. This set the stage for a particular brand of pedagogy that became more interested in what could be seen with the eyes, than what could be heard with the ears.
With today’s electronic libraries of information, voice teachers no longer are required to sit at the feet of a Master teacher, asking questions and probing for technical solutions to problems. Many of the boards and voice teacher groups allow access to problem solving that would have been unthinkable one hundred years ago. Voice teachers then were pretty much on their own, and their own education was hopefully gained by studies with an aforementioned Master. This is why voice teacher adverts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are full of ‘lineages’ proving the merit and worth of the teacher being advertised. Sidebar: when that failed, they could always advertise as bel canto teachers – caveat emptor!
Concomitant with all this influx of knowledge, however, is a lacuna that is often not discussed: the ability to apply the practical theoretical knowledge of a mechanical system to enhance that mechanism’s function. In other words, it is one thing to know HOW something works, and another to MAKE that thing work. Herein is the domain of APPLICATION. This explains why teachers are always on the hunt for the EXERCISES!
What is so difficult about application?
Application is personal to every student, and no one set of exercises is going to be necessary for each student in differing stages of vocal development.
I once saw a teacher run through the same set of vocal exercises in the same order with every student that walked through the door – regardless of the student’s particular response to the exercises proffered. This would be comparable to a doctor offering the same medicine to every patient regardless of symptoms presented – they wouldn’t carry a license for very long.
It also brought home another point: that this teacher was not listening for the EFFECT of the previous exercise before moving on. There was no checking for ‘vital signs,’ as it were. Was the exercise comfortable? Did the action of the voice improve? Did the student gain more freedom of movement or was the exercise just another step in a ‘warmup’ in order to get into the more interesting repertoire? Technical building of the voice is never as glamorous, is it?
Knowledge of HOW the voice works doesn’t a priori give one access to knowledge of how to infallibly make that voice work. The MAP is NOT the territory.
What you know isn’t doing you any good if it hasn’t changed how you live. Knowing something doesn’t get you results until you apply it. – Zero Dean
How do you take a voice that is functioning poorly and improve it? How do you work an advanced voice and further its function and health? These aren’t transferable from just knowing how the system works, per Wall’s quote above.
Let’s face another hard truth: knowing how the voice works can be learned rather quickly – perhaps even in the scope of an intensive week’s study of the extant literature. The HARD PART of the work is solving the mystery of THIS student’s voice.
In considering these points, I have come to the following beliefs:
We learn to sing by singing, course correcting as we move along, based on the SOUND of the voice, and the VISUAL aspects of the student’s body.
The proper response for singing must be drawn out through intelligent use and application of exercise, so that the student has the experience of what good singing feels and sounds like – (see the Witherspoon quote on this below).
No one exercise is more important than another, the response is what matters. Based on that response, the exercise can be repeated or discarded entirely. Failed attempts at exercise shouldn’t be repeated, lest the student learn the wrong behavior and reinforce it.
Slavish addiction to specific exercises stagnates creativity on the part of the teacher and the singer. It’s factory voice training. It’s limiting. It prevents the teacher from deeper knowledge and keeps the student from varied application.
Exercise without analysis/observation is meaningless and a total waste of time. Exercises should be directed intelligently and with an ear and eye to detail. This makes voice teaching hard, I’m afraid. Magic exercises are fool’s gold.
There is FAR too much talking in lessons and far too little singing (I am personally guilty in my zeal to explain too much. Silence is golden). Talking in lessons can be a psychological dodge to avoid deeper presence with the sound of the voice. Gaining greater presence with a student’s voice is an ongoing challenge for myself. Yes, sometimes it’s difficult to be with unpleasant sounds, or an unruly voice. But a teacher’s job is to find a way to beauty from within, and celebrate each student’s “Hero’s Journey” to vocal development. It’s also kind.
Mindful acceptance of the present moment and condition of the voice is the only way to effectively work the voice forward in a way that honors the body and mind of the singer. There’s far too much dissatisfaction in where we are, what this voice is doing NOW, and where we want to be – closing that gap can create anxiety, stress, causing a student to stop studying altogether.
Herbert Witherspoon, a pedagogue for whom I have immeasurable respect and admiration, said some pretty wonderful things about the process of learning to sing in his book aptly named Singing. Some gems worth considering:
Perhaps because the singer is dealing with the half-seen, because his instrument is part of his own body and self, this search after special action has gone on and on through century after century, each “ cog of the wheel” being examined and specialized upon, until natural law of coordinate physical action has become largely lost in a maze of detail leading only to confusion.
Witherspoon, writing in 1925, saw the effects of an overly mechanical and disjointed pedagogy, an inheritance of a previous age enamored by science and the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution. But his comments on LEARNING to sing will help wrap up this blog’s argument succinctly:
So, teaching the pupil to do something, to create sounds which will aid in establishing correct action, will cause him both to hear correctly and to feel correctly. But no amount of urging towards some vague, unknown, unexperienced sensation will bring him either the sensation, or the tone or resonance sought after.
It’s been several months since I posted on this blog. For much of 2017, my schedule became over-filled with teaching, coaching, and administrative tasks and pulled my focus and ability to work creatively. Frankly, I reached burnout status, and have spent the greater part of 2018 pulling myself back from its clutches.
To those that have read this blog and reached out to me to inquire about its continuance, let me say that I am very grateful for your encouragement and support. A special mention is reserved for my colleagues and friends Daniel Shigo and D. Brian Lee, two teachers and scholars who reached out expressly, and in whose esteem I remain indebted.
Having time away has been a very positive experience, since it has allowed me to ruminate on this blog and to question my purpose within the larger landscape of readily available vocal pedagogy material in the new media. Within the vast libraries of available information, what is my message?
I maintain I do not know everything when it comes to the human voice, or the training ideas purported by history. My purpose here has always been to share information, perhaps once neglected or even forgotten, which may be of use to the modern teacher of voice. While we can extrapolate quite a bit from the surviving materials, historical pedagogy still requires a bit of stitching and sewing various sources together and inferring meaning where writers have left some clues tantalizingly out of reach. Ah well – such is the dilemma of voice teaching.
One thought that has given me particular pause is being slavishly devoted to attaining a high level of scholarly research and knowledge – and not being able to teach the information to a human voice, heart, and mind. I could see myself transformed into more of a musicologist than a singing teacher. Balance in all things is necessary, I’ve found.
I’ve refrained from writing not only out of necessity, but also from the need to actually work on my teaching. There seems to be a terrible chasm that one can fall into: a pedagogy writer who comes up empty when faced with a pupil, or a fantastic teacher unknown the general public at large. This is either/or thinking, of course, but I could see myself falling into the trap of writing well, but not being able to transmit anything of value to the student.
I’ve also pondered what is, to my mind, THE pedagogical question: application. I have spent many years collecting, studying, evaluating, and considering the various theories of the voice from the past 300 years. But the ultimate question I find myself facing in the presence of a student is always – what do I do with THIS student, at THIS time in their vocal development, and is the BEST choice for them? Will this help develop their voice or will it cause an irretrievable loss of time and resources? I’ve become weary of theory at this stage in my life, and I am much more interested in application, and the creative employment of exercise in the training program.
Preach not to me your musty rules,
Ye drones that mould in idle cell;
The heart is wiser than the schools,
The senses always reason well.
Air from “Comus,”
Perhaps this points to the assurance provided by the proliferation of methods. It gives a sense of security, sometimes false, sometimes true, upon which all voice issues can be solved or negotiated. It can cast aside the persistent, gnawing doubt which can be commingled with the teaching of voice – it is all so mysterious. This ephemeral aspect may explain the proliferation of unabated egocentrism and insecurity in the profession of voice teaching as well.
In continuing this blog, I do not wish to take the vantage point of an expert or authority, especially since my work does not center itself upon WRITING per se, but on the instruction of voice. Instead, my desire is to share my ideas and experiences as a teacher of voice in the 21st century, buffeted in the extremes of over-scientific dehumanization, to the ludicrousness of pedagogical nincompoopery.
I wish to ask deeper philosophical questions. I wish to strive for a greater authenticity, intention, and immediacy in my writing. Pedagogical writing can either be too erudite and academic, or too familiar and flippant. I wish to strike a balance between these poles.
Exploration of more insightful questions might include:
Why do we sing?
What is singing’s purpose within the warp and weft of the human experience?
How can we build a pedagogy that affirms the best of the oldest traditions, and yet allows the individualism of the singer in their personal process of self-discovery?
What are we to do with the student who simply cannot make progress, despite our best efforts?
How can I bring greater presence into my teaching experience, and lessen the familiar security of the “I Know” mind?
What precepts of mindfulness can be actively engaged in teaching?
I sincerely hope to serve others on the path to creating singers, developing artists, and enabling human beings to express the highest and noblest parts of themselves.
I love this video. It spoke to me in the way that I see pedagogical discussions progress. It also (I think) sums up some of my apprehension regarding ‘science’ as the total salvation of all vocalkind….
We go to science because we don’t like relativism in teaching/pedagogy – but perhaps that’s where the richer answers to the singing equation rest?
Some of my take aways and impressions – from the transcript:
1. We, as voice teachers, are moving to science as a validator as a way to avoid uncomfortable, deeper conversations about singing.
2. @ 2:08 – we accept ideas if they’re scientific truths, but everywhere ELSE we are in the arena of RELATIVISM and “who are you to say thatism.” This is problematic, because some questions are outside the realm of science and can’t be solved with a formula or experiment.
3. That just because a question can’t be answered with 100% accuracy scientifically SHOULDN’T be a reason to not address it.
4. There CAN be examples of good and bad arguments OUTSIDE of science.
5. No one’s talking about trying to impose conclusions on anyone else in the way that the Pope or the Emperor used to do. It’s all about trying to make sound arguments proceed logically and attempt to persuade others of your cause through reason and a bit of charm.
6. Rational democratic discourse depends on people engaging with one another trying to figure out ideas and not running away from complex issues by dogmatically shutting everything down.
Judging your early artistic efforts is artist abuse. This happens in any number of ways: beginning work is measured against the masterworks of other artists; beginning work is exposed to premature criticism, shown to overly critical friends.
Cameron, Julia. “The artist’s way: A course in discovering and recovering your creative self.” London: Pan Macmillan (1995).
There’s nothing like the feeling of working with a nascent voice, helping it to find new abilities and new ways of making sound. Giving the voice more volume, more range, more openness of expression. How many students have I personally worked with that come in with repressed throats, barely able to open their mouths or make even moderately loud sound?
Then these little vocal embryos go off to demonstrate these new sounds for friends or family. Maybe it’s a demonstration of an emerging head voice, or perhaps the greater power of an open chest sound…
All it takes is ONE person – ONE person – to make a comment or criticize the vocalism to send the poor fledgling singer back into the nest and destroy all their enthusiasm and self esteem. This psychological repair can take MONTHS – MONTHS? – sometimes YEARS to recover and rehabilitate. Sometimes it never happens, and the singer gives up – believing friends and family that they have NO talent for singing. That little bird never sings again.
People think I’m crazy, but this is precisely why I don’t think it’s psychologically healthy for many new singers to sing publicly before they can withstand this kind of criticism, especially if it’s from friends and family. It is so disconcerting and aggravating to pick up the pieces of a singer’s already fragile ego in the studio. In the Old Italian school, the singers never sang publicly on the stage until their training was complete!
The human larynx is the first site of repression on the human body.
Think about that for a while.
It is the first body part that we are told to control. We must BE QUIET as children. My own family told me “CHILDREN SHOULD BE SEEN BUT NOT HEARD,””HUSH UP IN THERE!,””QUIET DOWN,” or my favorite (just kidding): “SHUT UP!” Many NEVER use their voices again because someone else in the family doesn’t like loud noise.
Studies by Kenneth Phillips in his book Teaching Children To Sing have shown that boys with awkward pubertal voices do NOT sing into adulthood if they are criticized or ostracized in singing groups. That is a loss of men’s voices on a scale that should make us all sad.
Beverly Sills once said that the reason her speaking voice was so low was because her parents told her to ‘lower her voice.’ Rather than get quieter, she simply dropped the pitch. A search of Sills on YouTube verifies this lower-pitched speaking voice, despite the fact that she was a high coloratura soprano.
Edward Foreman had this to say about development of the young voice:
The emotional life of the child causes a physical mechanical approach to the voice
which results in an actual shaping of the vocal organs. From the earliest years, before the child can make rational choices, fear and imitation cause the child to use muscular repression to shape the voice into an acceptable means of communication. This prerational use of the voice causes the vocal organs to adopt specific coordinations which are interferences and inhibitions to the free and natural use of the voice. The child will continue to control and limit the voice by this basic shape—which is a reflection of the personality of the child—until it’s changed by Transformative Voice.
For Foreman, the Transformative Voice was the fully potentialized human voice that changes the sense of self and frees the human from socially induced repressions. Is it any wonder that Cornelius Reid connected voicework to Reichian therapy, which attempts to free repressed emotions through muscular movement?
In our current turbulent times, consider how many people (gays, lesbians, minorities, transgender, women, children, the aged) have their voices SILENCED. Free speech is bound inexorably with VOICE. Consider how much we tie FREEDOM in general to FREEDOM of SPEECH!
So what is to be done? How can we nurture an emerging voice’s abilities?
We as teachers need to do better at helping our society understand the role of VOICE – in ALL ITS manifestations both physical and metaphorical. Training a voice is a time in which many sounds will be explored – perhaps not all of them good. Early efforts should not be judged against professional artists. Television talent shows have made everyone an armchair critic of what is good and bad in vocalism, yet children bring home finger paintings from schools and are always praised for their early efforts.
We need to view an emerging singer as a delicate child, and celebrate every new discovery, every new bit of art that they bring home. Perhaps students should be made a aware in lessons that they may receive criticism as they try new things and they need to know how to react when that occurs.
The slightest comment or criticism can SILENCE a voice for life.