The Psychological Appeal of “Direct Control”

Anyone who has attended a Masterclass in singing is struck by some of the admonishments given to the students at these events. One often sees instruction given to manipulate some part of the vocal system for a different result. A student suffering from a weak glottal resistance to the breath is given the instruction to “support more,” or “sing on the breath.” The resulting tone quality, because of the hyperactivity of newer muscles being drawn into the singing act, becomes more brilliant, more vocally ‘present.’ Sometimes, these vocal changes are swift and very dramatic. The audience is amazed by this teacher’s teaching skill, but those accustomed to working with voices can only shake our heads at what has been layered over the singer’s already dysfunctional approach: a tight glottal squeeze coupled with ‘diaphragmatic drive’.

Walter C. Foster has a great observation of the appeal of systems of direct control, and also correctly placed them within the context of a twentieth century pedagogy. These ideas were not features of any older sources that I’ve found on singing. The appeal of these methods is tied to their ‘instant fix’ or ‘hands on’ approach, which gives the student and teacher a sense that something is being ‘done.’ This way of direct working becomes fabulous fodder for the Masterclass, because the audience is given the usual impression that something is being taught. The problem and question becomes, “Yes, but is the CORRECT thing being taught?”


…because the singer can exert a degree of direct control over some of the movements of these parts [larynx, tongue, lower jaw, soft palate, and lips], and because direct control appears to offer a “hands on,””quick fix” solution to some vocal problems, the idea of directly controlling the movements of these parts has become a prominent feature of twentieth century mechanistic pedagogy. Certainly it is true that as a corrective measure for some faults, the conscious, direct alteration of the positions of these parts of the instrument may prove partially beneficial. For example, the singer who constantly sings with his head raised and his jaw jutted out, or with his head lowered and his jaw pushed back and down upon his larynx, may be helped somewhat by the directive to position his head in a more median position and to relax his jaw. But this directive will only be beneficial within a limited range of pitch and volume, unless the more fundamental issue of “operational disbalance” is addressed and resolved. Why is the head raised and the jaw jutted out, or alternatively, why is the head tilted forward with the jaw drawn back and down, depressing the larynx? These positions are the results of typical reflex movements of parts at and above the level of the larynx, as the system struggles to regain balance – a balance lost due to excessive driving force, and one that, under these circumstances, can only be reestablished through equally excessive incorrect patterns of resistance.


Foster, Walter Charles. “Singing redefined: a conceptual approach to singing that includes a study of the emotional process and the imaginative capacity, linguistic awareness and musical awareness, singing concepts based on the responsive nature of the instrument, and exercises designed to promote a technically correct, artistically expressive singing tone.” (1998).

2 thoughts on “The Psychological Appeal of “Direct Control”

  1. My comment is really just a big “Thumbs Up” for Walter Foster and his book. I have personally studied with Walter. He’s a great person and a cream-of-the-crop vocal pedagogue. He absolutely, positively “knows his stuff.” GET THE BOOK!

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