I advertise George Leonard’s fantastic book, “Mastery” to all my studio singers and colleagues for its clarification and understanding of the process of personal development. Whether you’re learning a foreign language, piano, a sport, or SINGING, this is a valuable book for everyone.
Students beginning the singing process for the first time, or coming back to it after a long time will experience an amelioration and improvement of their singing voice usually within the first several weeks and months of starting voice lessons. This is what I refer to as “The Vocal Honeymoon”. This is the period of time when a voice will become more responsive, and maybe get some freedom that it didn’t have before as the instrument begins to ‘unlock’ and singing gets a bit easier.
This improvement is common to all skills we learn. What makes Leonard’s book so fantastic is that he explains what happens when we reach the FIRST moment of plateau; that decisive moment when the honeymoon is truly over, and we’re looking at our ‘spouse’ full in the face.
For the Dabbler, jumping into singing lessons is something fun. They’ve always wanted to try it, and have taken up other classes in personal development too: cooking, piano, languages, art, etc. When the Dabbler makes progress, he/she is overjoyed with the results and the ‘newness’ of their success. The Dabbler tells all their friends about their new voice teacher, and how excited they are about taking lessons.
But then, they hit a plateau.
For the Dabbler, this plateau is confusing and unacceptable. The Dabbler’s confidence is hit when progress isn’t as rapid as they expected. The enthusiasm of the Dabbler diminishes and lessons start to be missed; one by one. The mind fills with rationalization and the student decides that singing isn’t really the game to play. Or the Dabbler will decide that “I’m really not that good of a singer.” By finding something ELSE to study, the Dabbler can pick up something new for the thrill of the “new” and let others know that the singing thing just “didn’t meet expectations”.
Leonard represents the Dabbler visually as:
The Obsessive is another personality that is not able to settle for second best. All that matters to the Obsessive? RESULTS. Doesn’t matter or care how they are achieved, they want it and they want it NOW. They stay after lessons, send a million emails to the teacher asking about this theory or that theory of singing, wants to know what’s the latest thing in voice and singing and knows that just DOING DOING DOING is gonna get them where they want to go. Their success is rapid at first, and this is just what they expect! They push themselves ruthlessly, over-practicing to fatigue and burnout, and won’t heed any advice to measure their work, and have patience with the process. The Obsessive is all about the upward momentum of progress.
Then the plateau hits.
For the Obsessive? Unacceptable. They must push HARDER and HARDER. They’ll jump from teacher to teacher in an attempt to find some kind of magic holy vocal grail that will solve every vocal ill. They’ll do whatever they can to push past the plateau, riding a roller coaster of drive to get past the lack of progress and RESULTS.
Leonard depicts them as:
The third type of personality described is the Hacker. This person, unlike the previous three is willing to hang out on the plateau FOREVER. Doesn’t matter if she/he makes progress, as long as some baseline is kept so that they can continue to hack around with fellow hackers. For some, it’s not attending to the intricacies that often come with learning to sing. They’ll be content with an imperfect sound if they have a moderate amount of ability. They tend not to do too much work or study, and often don’t practice all that much either. They take lots of breaks in singing, and talk about singing but don’t do all that much. The status quo is JUST FINE for the Hacker. Don’t ruffle their feathers or push them too hard, because they just don’t want too much challenge.
Leonard depicts Hackers as:
But neither of these three personality styles are what Leonard calls “The Master”.
So what is A Master?
The Master’s Path is different from the above. When the plateau hits, impatience will set in, and perhaps frustration. But they’ll KEEP at it, and won’t change too much of what they’re doing. The scales that were given to them at the beginning will continue to be exercised, the practice routine won’t vary all that much, despite a diminishment of the rapid results that the exercises had at the beginning. This might be known as a ‘maintenance phase’. After several weeks of this work, however, the voice may improve again; taking on more flexibility, perhaps greater range, or power.
The plateau for some is like an EXORCISM of emotions. The moment it arrives, ask that deliberate question: “What will I choose?”
The Mastery Curve involves short spurts of progress coupled with a decline in progress to a plateau that is SOMEWHAT higher than the plateau that preceded it.
How do you move TOWARD mastery? Practice diligently, but practice for the sake of practice itself. Rather than being frustrated with a plateau, learn to appreciate it, just as you would the surges that come along with it.
Mastery is a journey NOT a goal or a destination. Find joy in regular practice, and just ‘show up’. Sing simple scales, warm up the voice. Practice is not something that you DO. It is something that you HAVE, and something you ARE.