Operant Conditioning in the Voice Studio

Every dog that I’ve known had a distinctive personality and character traits that made them unique. My most recent furry friend, Zoe, passed away in March of 2014, and she had her own special ‘princess’ personality.

As a dog lover, I have gained an interest in reading manuals on animal training and behavior. This is actually a field of science called ethology. Ethology is the study of animal behavior under natural conditions as opposed to laboratory-type observation. That is known as behaviorism, and is a different ‘animal’ of understanding altogether.

Ethology is the way that animal trainers learn to work with all kinds of animals in various situations. Understanding these behaviors allows the trainer to understand how best to work with each species. For example, chicken training (yes it’s a thing) is markedly different in structure and process from training a dog or a cat.

The system of training used by most trainers from an ethological perspective is operant conditioning.  Three things shape the behavior of all animals, including us:

  1. Reinforcement
  2. Punishment
  3. Extinction

In Reinforcement there are two modalities at play: positive and negative. In positive reinforcement, something good is rewarded after a specific response. In negative reinforcement, the good thing is withdrawn following a response.

How does this affect singing?

One of the things that I’ve learned is that DOGS DON’T SPEAK ENGLISH. They do not know what SIT, STAY, SPEAK means.

To train an animal, you must elicit the behavior FIRST. Over time you can assign a ‘cue word’ to that behavior so the dog learns to associate the WORD with the DEED.

We also want to reinforce the GOOD attempts so that we guide the behavior in a positive way. Many trainers use clickers to signal success so the animal knows that the attempt at the behavior was the correct one.

The Punishment aspect of training is REMOVING the reward. It teaches the student that the response provided was not the correct one.

In my studio, I do NOT repeat an exercise more than three times if it is not successful. If I continue to bang away at a failing exercise, I am ingraining and teaching the WRONG behavior. If I click the clicker at the WRONG TIME, my dog receives mixed messages. “What behavior was the right one?”

Now, human beings, while they are higher mammals, are NOT dogs. But these training principles are the same because until the singer has HAD THE SENSATION, we should refrain from NAMING the end-result behavior.

For example, until a singer feels certain vocal qualities with freedom and ease, it might be best not to say terms like “More forward!””That needs more lift!””Support that tone more!” or “Aim the tone up and back!” If the student could already do those things, why would they need us? This is the same thing as telling the dog to sit before they knew what that word meant: butt on the ground. It also makes you, the teacher/trainer, look silly: “SIT…SIT….SIT? SIIIIIIIIT…. SITSITSITSITSIT!!!”

Don’t teach over your student’s head. If they don’t know what something means or they are constantly looking at you with confused puppy dog eyes, then you are moving too fast. Slow down and get the response first – then name it. Better yet, let THEM name it. That way it will belong totally to them as a personal part of their singing and self-discovery.

It is about the student, after all.



One thought on “Operant Conditioning in the Voice Studio

  1. “Non voglio teste sbagliate; bisogna ubbedirmi come un can’!” [I do not want the wrong-headed; you must obey me like a dog!] —Francesco Lamperti

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