How Do I Get There From Here?

I’ve been dealing with a nagging teaching concept in the last several months.

The issue is the continuum of vocal progress or development. How will I know from a developmental perspective what is going on in a lesson, and how will I make the determination of what to do next? How do I know what to DO at any given point in time? How can I build on new skills while still including newer ones as the voice matures and develops?

Many of the old Italian treatises on singing follow a linear format of building from simpler intervals to more complex scales and such.  As I’ve talked about before, many old books start with single tones, and work up to long, extended phrases, scales, and cadenzas.

Because of this linear approach from a largely musical perspective, I’ve often found it frustrating to teach within the confines of this methodology. The Old Masters did the best they could to put down their thoughts and approaches in their writings, but the voice is IN NATURE, and development of a human body and mind is usually not done in a linear fashion. A teacher who prescribes a similar set of exercises for all voices in the same order is similar to a doctor distributing acetaminophen to all patients, regardless of age, gender, or illness.

So, what educational approach might work for this organic system?

Last week, I spent time studying the spiral learning approach. My colleague D. Brian Lee has written on the subject in the past, and I visited his blogs for more information on this modality.

Spiral learning is not necessarily a new concept. It is predicated on ‘learning by doing.’ This is vital in voice training. There is usually far too much theorizing and talking going on in lessons. I, myself, am guilty of descriptions in lessons, and I am always working on DOING more, TALKING less. We learn how to sing by SINGING, not talking about singing.

In spiral learning, the student learns in a sequential fashion, touching on a topic for a short time, and then moving on to something else. The premise is that the topic may not be mastered in the first go around, but will be revisited in future lessons (hence the ‘spiral’). In each lesson the student does the ’rounds’ of vocal behaviors that engender freedom and ease in the system.  By keeping to a spiral, the teacher can work between different parts of the system. Each time the teacher visits a part of the spiral, they can check for greater ease, strength, flexibility, range, and freedom in the voice.

What areas of vocal training should be visited in a spiral session?

I’ve listed a series of four zones that can be addressed at any given time in a training session. Within each zone, teachers can ‘spiral’ for quite some time, later moving on to another zone as needed. For example, exercise of the larynx through principles of registration may be a single spiral as work is done in chest and head voice. Each of these zones are interdependent on the other. Work in one zone will affect the others as freedom in one will inform the others.


The Larynx:

The source of vocal sound can be developed through exercises in registration (vowels, dynamics, and pitch). Exercises that focus on stretching, tensing, opening, and closing of the vocal cords will ensure that the mechanical freedom of the instrument has been fully invigorated.

The Suspensory Mechanism:

Husler and Rodd-Marling call the extrinsic muscles that cradle the larynx the ‘elastic scaffolding,’ a term which I like a great deal. These are the muscles that raise and lower the larynx in the neck. Attention to freedom in the muscles that inspan the larynx can be addressed through particular exercises. There are many kinds of throat constriction, which should be eliminated through aural awareness.


The breathing system should be free, open, move easily, and be liberated from any ‘doings,’ or overt systems of ‘support.’  Tension in any part of the breathing system has a negative on the other zones of the vocal system, and can cause tension in the suspensory mechanism and the larynx itself.


The position of the body affects the entire vocal instrument. The released position of the suspensory mechanism in the neck, the ribs, torso, and breathing system are all affected by the position of the body in space. Lesson time can be devoted to postural consideration to ensure a proper response among the other zones of the singing instrument.


Working in this spiral way, the teacher is liberated to explore the voice while maintaining creativity and spontaneity. I like this idea, and I have finally found some ‘inner peace’ with it. It is not about fitting the student to some pre-ordained mold, but allowing the voice to find itself through attention in the different ‘zones.’ If I am able to stick to the ’rounds’ of the spiral, the student will be allowed to improve in the time their voice needs.

Peter T. Harrison summed up the idea of working this way in his vital and necessary book, The Human Nature of the Singing Voice: Exploring a sound basis for teaching and learning:

The idea that progress is linear, ‘a to z’, is clearly incorrect when we consider the voice as something organic. It is tempting to gauge success by the attainment of useful items, such as high notes, loudness or being able to sing for long stretches, but if we consider that all these facets are interdependent, we realise that we pursue one or two of them at the peril of damaging or falling short of the whole. Thus, high notes might be achieved at the expense of flexibility, loudness at the expense of quality, and so on. In a viable process of vocal work we must attend to all the facets of the voice, strong and weak, in proportion. This doesn’t mean the mathematical division of time spent on forte, piano, legato, high notes. On the contrary, such ‘skills’ are intrinsic to the singing voice, and it is the voice as a whole that needs to be released and developed. Work must be apportioned so that the structure of the singing voice will gradually come together, and the innate vocal capacity of the individual be realised as a whole. There is no magic in this, only systematic, thorough and meticulous hard work.


The image of a spiral indicates development and refinement, achieved by constantly ‘doing the rounds’ of all facets of the instrument from the deep postural superstructure to the finest margins of the glottis. At each slight turn we see where we are, rather than where we ‘should be’ in relation to the whole, working from reality, not false assumptions. This also helps to ensure that we lay firm foundations for each stage of progress. The reluctance to move in the sensitive and crucial area of the emotions may call for spirals of careful affirming work. Spiralling work can enable us to check out progress from different angles. Constantly changing the perspective can help us to work thoroughly and incrementally without cutting corners, and without getting stale. The work should always be fresh. Indeed, however well we may think we know a voice, we should always begin work as though we are meeting it for the first time. In this way there’s no room for boring routine or mindless repetition. Because it can be difficult for the singer to assess progress, it’s important to constantly point out what is being achieved incrementally – a little more strength here, greater ease there – as we proceed. Returning constantly to every facet of the instrument and weighing it up against the whole helps the singer to become self-aware and gain confidence, while assisting the teacher in measuring balance, strength and details.


Harrison, Peter T. The human nature of the singing voice: exploring a holistic basis for sound teaching and learning. Dunedin Academic Pr Ltd, 2006.


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