The Pedagogical Middle Way

Chest up! Chest relaxed!

Belly in! Belly out!

Don’t place the tone! Place it in the cheeks!

You must only sing piano! Don’t sing too softly!

Since the mid-19th centuries teachers have taken sides across all different pedagogical directions. The arguments among teachers of earlier periods were not as full of disagreements as they became in the 19th century. We are the descendants of the 19th century ‘method’ and ‘mechanistic’ pedagogical system. The 19th century was our pedagogical Tower of Babel.  

As I get older, I have learned that living in extremes isn’t psychologically healthy for me. When I become inflexible in my thinking then it only hurts me, and it limits me as a teacher and singer.

Is there a way to train a voice that embraces both sides?

LOUD SINGING:

Loud singing can help build strength in a voice. I use loudness when I’m working the chest register in singers. I use a volume scale with students (1-10), and ask them to sing at 8 or 9. This can help build the strength necessary in the vocal folds – especially for quieter students.

Loud singing can cause strain if not properly gauged. It can make a singer hyperfunctional and also cause muscle tension, especially if they cannot sing at quieter volumes.

SOFT SINGING:

Soft singing can help overdoers relax and stop pushing so much.

Soft singing can constrict and collapse the throat.

FAST SINGING:

Fast singing can help the voice gain flexibility. It is also helpful to override a singer’s tendency to over-analyze and hesistance to ‘let go’ of control.

Fast singing can also cause the voice to lose control and can cause a shakiness and weakness in the throat. For singers accustomed to loud singing only, this can be too difficult (hence the classical vocalists who claim “My voice doesn’t move.”).

SLOW SINGING:

Slow singing can help build the instrument, giving the singer a sense of control over the voice. It can also lay bare any technical deficiencies in the sound, and heighten awareness of constriction.

Slow singing can also put tremendous pressure on the voice. It can strain the breathing as well as the intrinsic muscles of the voice. It can cause the voice to stiffen and become inflexible.

In each one of these cases, the directive did not change. But its result DID. I wouldn’t want a student to sing softly if it was going to cause their throat to cramp. I’d want them to experience more open-throated chest register FIRST, then introduce softer singing with the feeling of the chest register still ‘in the throat.’

We could continue on and on through the course of different vocal factors (high, low, fast, slow, bright, dark, clear, breathy, back, staccato, legato). Each one of these factors when applied could improve the voice, or cause huge problems.

There is NO perfect vocal exercise, and no way can be considered to be THE way.

However, understanding vocal function can give a teacher a way to use these tools. What works for one singer will not work for the other. The application of exercises should come from the listening that occurs in every exercise. What is this voice saying about itself through its sound? What does this voice NEED right now?

When we stand astride vocal maneuvers as absolutes, we fail to see the middle path that can embrace ANY technical idea. Rather than arguing our points, can we agree that each has positives and negatives?

Then voice training can be carried out in a way that allows all responses of the voice to emerge.

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