Cultivating Listening Skills

Why is critical and functional listening VITAL to a teacher’s ability in training singing voices? Why do I think that listening, above all other skills, is the most important for the teacher of voice?

Firstly, teachers of singing have to be able to extend their listening skills beyond their aesthetic. A teacher training sounds they ‘prefer’ are merely laying a tonal template over the action of the vocal musculature. This is how we get the infamous ‘studio sound’ that Richard Miller cautioned against. For instance, a classical teacher needs to be alert to training a voice to ‘make classical sounds,’ or a jazz teacher teaching students to sound like ‘jazz singers.’ Style is man-made. Vocal function is NOT. It might be good to read those last two sentences over several times and absorb their meaning.

Voice teachers need to be able to hear dysfunction in a voice that is causing roadblocks to a liberated action of the voice and free expression. If a teacher accepts a vocal limitation as merely ‘a student’s unique sound,’ they are doing a disservice to that student.

Second, imitation of the voice teacher becomes something to be on guard for, especially if the teacher is ‘modeling’ improper vocal behavior. If the teacher’s voice or vocal behaviors are not free, the student is going to imitate what they hear and see. If I start singing phrases or notes with a tip of my head, my student is going to unconsciously mimic that behavior and take it into their technical arsenal, even if it was never verbally expressed to the pupil. This is one of the reasons why voice teachers MUST continue to study as well as their students – for all intents and purposes they become a vocal role model for the voice student.

There is only one satisfactory answer to the problems that relate to the acquisition of vocal technique built upon freedom, spontaneity, and artistic liberty: the development by the teacher of listening skills where all analysis and evaluation are predicated upon the healthy and free function within the larynx and body. In short, to develop skills of FUNCTIONAL LISTENING.

There exists currently a wide ‘gap’ of views on the acquisition of singing technique (directly traceable to the mid-19th century), which have muddied the waters of how the voice is to be trained. Teachers focus on experiences of the sound, extensive treatment and energization of the breathing apart from voice, the wearing of ‘singing belts,’ the kinesthetic experience of singing into imaginary ‘sound-boxes’ in the head, supporting the voice, vowel modification, and other such admonitions.

All technical training of the voice should be firmly ensconced in a rock-solid and unshakable understanding of the principles of CAUSE and EFFECT. The confusion of these two elements has caused encyclopedic difficulties in the training of singers and has been the cause of much loss of time and resources in voice studios everywhere.

Unless a training program of the voice is geared toward the freedom and functional ability of the laryngeal mechanism all spiritual, aesthetic, resonance-oriented, respiratory, and tonally preferential admonitions are for naught. Throughout all the training of a voice, freedom of the voice and technique should be the DIRECT purpose of study; not an IMMEDIATE AESTHETIC goal.

This is the psychological roadblock for all my classical singers.

Student: How do I get freedom into the rep I’m currently singing? I can feel that the music I’m singing is going against much of the free singing I’m doing here in lessons.

The following question would be answered rather simplistically by the suggestion “Sing different music!” or “Pick different arias!”. This rarely goes over well for those used to screaming their way through arias that other teachers have praised as ‘market ready.’ That pesky market once again! But I digress.

To listen functionally to a voice is to understand intimately the mechanics of the voice coupled with CAUSE and EFFECT. Without an understanding of how the voice ACTUALLY works the teacher is throwing darts in the dark. Some technical work will succeed due to its novelty in the mechanism, but after a while its continuation will fall on dry ground. Without knowledge of the mechanics with cause and effect, we have no roadmap for the journey and are merely driving around without an idea of where we are in relation to our surroundings. There’s enough pedagogical knowledge today (both historical and scientific) to shun teaching carried out in this primitive Lewis-and-Clark way.

Functional listening is two part: physiological, i.e., how the mechanism is working, and acoustical, i.e., how the voice sounds as a result of that physiology through the vowel qualities.

For the teacher to implement positive technical direction in singing, understanding how the mechanism works and the results in ‘sound’ become (or should become) must be the teacher’s foundational approach to training. Not aesthetic, not ‘intuition,’ not tonal preference, nor spirituality, nor pink clouds, nor resonances, nor ‘bonhomie,’ nor particularly interesting sound qualities. Those other qualities, while interesting and potentially valuable as correlatives, should still be built upon the primary aural qualities of the voice as revealed through application of functional principles. If the teacher is not able to HEAR how the voice is working from a neutral, disassociated place of non-judgement, then layering in these other qualities becomes merely a pedagogical ‘dodge.’

A good mantra for teachers to adopt who wish to teach alongside functional principles is “Muscle correctness before sound.” Or as Husler and Rodd-Marling state, “First HEAR, then know.”