The Taste of Sugar

Although one can read about the Zen in the martial arts, true knowledge of it is experiential. How do we explain the taste of sugar? Verbal descriptions do not give us the sensation. To know the taste, one must experience it. The philosophy of the arts is not meant to be mused over and intellectualised; it is meant to be experienced. Thus, inevitably, words will convey only part of the meaning.

Hyams, Joe. Zen in the martial arts. Bantam, 2010.

Hyams has nailed a foundational and often neglected element in voice training: learning to sing is an experience.

The voice profession has terms for thousands of vocal qualities (some proprietary to the individual teacher!). A student will walk in and may have NO prior experience with the following expressions:

Head voice Spin Lift
Support Stable larynx Legato
Staccato Chest voice Mix
Legato Edge Falsetto

My central aim is to get the student to EXPERIENCE particular vocal qualities. Working from the WORD we get confusion and end-gaining. Striving to achieve the word. I want a student to experience the above qualities in an indirect way that allows them to experience it- and THEN we can name the behavior. The student may very well have THEIR OWN WORD for the experience they’ve had! We should leave room for that.

This is why I will always struggle with directives such as:

“Support that phrase more!”

“Spin the tone more there.”

“Lift up before you go down.”

All of these terms ASSUME that student 1.) knows what you are talking about and 2.) has HAD that experience before. This is rarely, if ever, the case.

Let’s rework them from another angle:

Soufflé that phrase more.”

Chocolate the tone more there.”

Purple up before you orange down.”

Make sense to you? Think how the student feels hearing the above-mentioned directives in a master class with a famous teacher/singer, all WORD based.

WORD orientation is also a huge trap for intelligent singers who believe they are “doing the words,” when in fact, their EXPERIENCE of that word is entirely different.

Some of my favorite moments in lessons:


STUDENT: Gee, it feels like the tone is really spinny and alive and I have a good sense of elasticity in my body, and my breath seems to be lasting a lot longer.

ME: What you are feeling and experiencing is what some voice teachers and singers have called “support.”

STUDENT: Wow, I would never have thought that “support” would feel like that.


STUDENT: I really want to work on my “mix.” (Student begins to vocalize in what they believe is a mix, but is in reality just a long head voice.)

ME: So, that’s your “mix,” yes?

STUDENT: Yes, my last teacher and I have been working on it, but I can’t seem to get any chest quality into it.

ME: O_o

Clearly, each student was having a different experience in relationship to a concept through LANGUAGE. In the first example, the student had NO word or concept to work from and was able to find the “word” through the coordination of the body first. Their experience was remarkably different from how they interpreted the word from conversations with other singers and teachers.

In the second conversation, the student had been given the word first and told that their experience of that word was a mix,  but in reality, it was a head-dominated registration with little to no chest register participation. Both examples demonstrate how words can potentially get in the way of proper concepts.

I think that athletic coaches have a distinct advantage over us, they can monitor largely through their eyes. We voice teachers must monitor another person’s experience through their SOUND. When a student finds a very strong chest register participation, what is more important?: – that they understand a WORD or they have an EXPERIENCE of chest register? Once experienced, it lodges in the student’s consciousness and becomes an indelible experience in learning how to use the voice.

Coming back to our topic, I invoke the comparison with food and taste regularly in lessons. If you have never tasted sugar, you would be hard pressed to describe it. Using an adjective like sweet isn’t good enough. It’s the same with the word ‘support’ if you have never experienced that in YOUR body –  We voice teachers are a loquacious bunch and will do our best to ‘describe you there.’ Nonetheless, real time and energy can be spent in developing a pedagogy that can elicit the behavior first and then name it. Once experienced, the student has acquired an invaluable piece of information: what a particular vocal behavior FEELS and SOUNDS like.

Perhaps this is why TRULY great singers are so hard-pressed to describe their experience? It goes BEYOND MERE WORDS.

Pedagogue Herbert Witherspoon found a similar strain of thought in his book Singing:

Sensation is responsible for much of the confusion in teaching, because teachers try to induce correct sensation in the pupil through imagination, imitation, or suggestion, in order to get the correct tone, instead of asking the pupil to”do” something to cause correct action which produces correct tone, and which in turn will cause the correct sensation. That is, sensation is an effect and not a cause of tone. Correct sensation may be a guide after it has once been experienced by correct singing; it cannot be obtained except by correct singing. We may ask a man who has never eaten an olive what an olive tastes like, or what is the real “taste sensation” of eating an olive. He will promptly voice his ignorance, and say, “Let me eat an olive and I will tell you.” The sensation then becomes a guide for future eating.

Witherspoon, Herbert. “Singing.” New York: G Schirmer (1925).

WORDS in teaching only convey a mere SHADOW of the experience. They are NOT the experience.

Again: the word is NOT the experience. This should be taken to heart and contemplated as one works with all sorts of bodies and intellects. Experiential pedagogy also leads to a pedagogy that is student/experiential oriented and attempts to draw out the voice that is already there. WORDS can be an intellectual block and create a pedagogy that attempts to introduce controls from the outside in.

Get the behavior. Then name it.

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