Spinning All the Plates

A concept that came up in my teaching this week was the idea of spinning plates as a metaphor for teaching and learning to sing.

In training (hopefully) we’re aiming at learning how to invigorate many different aspects and functions of the larynx and the body – and then maintaining them over time.

Spinning plates is an apt descriptor of working around the voice to invigorate its various functions, and not getting too attached to any one plate. If a plate is about to fall off, you’ve got to pay some attention, lest it break. If a plate is spun to the exclusion of its companions, you get a fast moving well-functioning plate, but lose another aspect somewhere else as the others fall off their rods. Beginning students might only have 4 plates; an advanced singer several dozen.

We might have a plate for chest register, head/falsetto, laryngeal height/throat constriction, vowel shapes and definitions, intensities, articulation, legato, staccato, emotional flexibility while singing, Italian diction, French diction, and on and on.

Teachers are too one-sided if they think that ONE particular plate, or aspect of technique is taken to the exclusion of all the others. For example – if I think training is all about the breath, or the falsetto, or the placement, or the resonance, or the laryngeal height, or the yada yada yada…I may get so enamored of the minutiae I might not step back and look at the bigger picture.

At that point, I’m ‘specializing’ a function that may well nigh impede its development and ability to ‘spin’ in other directions. This is why ‘methods’ and ‘techniques’ can be SO dangerous. If you don’t have the bigger picture in mind, it’s easy to go into the weeds. I’m reminded again that the greatest singers said their teachers had no method.

This plate analogy explains why students who transfer to a new teacher will make rapid improvements in the first few lessons: the teacher is spinning new plates for the singer that might not have been started, or were neglected entirely. The newness of a particular ‘plate’ will lead the student to believe that the new teacher a god. In reality the teacher just spun a new plate or two. The voice has been invigorated in a new direction. 

Douglas Stanley had this much to say in his lecture to the Franklin Institute in 1931:

Vocal technic has heretofore been taught almost exclusively by singers, ex-singers, coaches, accompanists, music composers and, in a few instances, throat specialists. Now, all that is really true about the subject of voice must be based not upon the several and separate sciences of physics (acoustics), anatomy, physiology, psychology, and upon the laws of music, interpretation and dramatic utterance, but upon the sum total of all of these sciences. It will be quite evident, then, that, when this question of voice is considered from only one or even two special angles, the resultant deductions will inevitably be subject to error because of a lack of inclusion of the remaining angles.

Peter T. Harrison explained the same training concept in his book The Human Nature of the Singing Voice. 

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.

The ‘wholism’ (as W. Stephen Smith says) of the voice must never be lost in our aims of building the voice. Specialization is a kind of limitation that teachers might be ‘grooving in,’ if other functions and areas of the singing art are not given their due.


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