Knowing isn’t Doing

Factually describing the voice is not the same thing as stimulating a student to learn. If an accurate description of the voice was all that was needed to stimulate a student properly, then anyone could learn how to sing merely by reading a correct description of how the voice works.

An accurate description of the voice is certainly important, but your student may need to be prodded, cajoled, induced, or inspired by many other expressions in order to learn to sing – and you want to have the flexibility to use whatever works.

– Joan Wall, singer and teacher

We live in a time when access to vocal knowledge has never been more readily available. The internet has opened the floodgates to pedagogical information unrivaled in our profession’s history. Today’s voice teacher can study anatomy, physiology, acoustics, linguistics, in addition to reading much of the historical pedagogical canon, not to mention the writings and biographies of the composers throughout history!

Bringing a recording device to a lesson is even a new development, and is now aided by the fact that every smartphone is equipped with a voice recording app. Students one hundred years ago were only aided by their notes, and a good working memory.

In that previous age, vocal instruction was passed on from teacher to pupil directly. It wasn’t until the 19th century that charts, graphs, and images came to be counted on for any reputable instruction. This may explain why the works of Tosi, Mancini, and others is so unfulfilling – there aren’t any pictures! It would be Garcia that gave us images galore in his Traité. This set the stage for a particular brand of pedagogy that became more interested in what could be seen with the eyes, than what could be heard with the ears.

With today’s electronic libraries of information, voice teachers no longer are required to sit at the feet of a Master teacher, asking questions and probing for technical solutions to problems. Many of the boards and voice teacher groups allow access to problem solving that would have been unthinkable one hundred years ago. Voice teachers then were pretty much on their own, and their own education was hopefully gained by studies with an aforementioned Master. This is why voice teacher adverts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are full of ‘lineages’ proving the merit and worth of the teacher being advertised. Sidebar: when that failed, they could always advertise as bel canto teachers – caveat emptor!

Concomitant with all this influx of knowledge, however, is a lacuna that is often not discussed: the ability to apply the practical theoretical knowledge of a mechanical system to enhance that mechanism’s function. In other words, it is one thing to know HOW something works, and another to MAKE that thing work. Herein is the domain of APPLICATION. This explains why teachers are always on the hunt for the EXERCISES!

What is so difficult about application?

Application is personal to every student, and no one set of exercises is going to be necessary for each student in differing stages of vocal development. 

I once saw a teacher run through the same set of vocal exercises in the same order with every student that walked through the door – regardless of the student’s particular response to the exercises proffered. This would be comparable to a doctor offering the same medicine to every patient regardless of symptoms presented – they wouldn’t carry a license for very long.

It also brought home another point: that this teacher was not listening for the EFFECT of the previous exercise before moving on. There was no checking for ‘vital signs,’ as it were. Was the exercise comfortable? Did the action of the voice improve? Did the student gain more freedom of movement or was the exercise just another step in a ‘warmup’ in order to get into the more interesting repertoire? Technical building of the voice is never as glamorous, is it?

Knowledge of HOW the voice works doesn’t a priori give one access to knowledge of how to infallibly make that voice work. The MAP is NOT the territory.

What you know isn’t doing you any good if it hasn’t changed how you live. Knowing something doesn’t get you results until you apply it. – Zero Dean

How do you take a voice that is functioning poorly and improve it? How do you work an advanced voice and further its function and health? These aren’t transferable from just knowing how the system works, per Wall’s quote above.

Old retired man playing chess at the Jardins du Luxembourg, Paris
Knowing the rules of Chess, doesn’t necessarily prepare you to become a Chess Master. The rules won’t change – but the GAME does. You must PLAY THE GAME as a teacher of voice, and stop referring back to the rules. The rules allow you to play the game, but they are NOT the game.



Let’s face another hard truth: knowing how the voice works can be learned rather quickly – perhaps even in the scope of an intensive week’s study of the extant literature.  The HARD PART of the work is solving the mystery of THIS student’s voice.

In considering these points, I have come to the following beliefs:

  1. We learn to sing by singing, course correcting as we move along, based on the SOUND of the voice, and the VISUAL aspects of the student’s body.
  2. The proper response for singing must be drawn out through intelligent use and application of exercise, so that the student has the experience of what good singing feels and sounds like – (see the Witherspoon quote on this below).
  3. No one exercise is more important than another, the response is what matters. Based on that response, the exercise can be repeated or discarded entirely. Failed attempts at exercise shouldn’t be repeated, lest the student learn the wrong behavior and reinforce it.
  4. Slavish addiction to specific exercises stagnates creativity on the part of the teacher and the singer. It’s factory voice training.  It’s limiting. It prevents the teacher from deeper knowledge and keeps the student from varied application.
  5. Exercise without analysis/observation is meaningless and a total waste of time. Exercises should be directed intelligently and with an ear and eye to detail. This makes voice teaching hard, I’m afraid. Magic exercises are fool’s gold.
  6. There is FAR too much talking in lessons and far too little singing (I am personally guilty in my zeal to explain too much. Silence is golden). Talking in lessons can be a psychological dodge to avoid deeper presence with the sound of the voice. Gaining greater presence with a student’s voice is an ongoing challenge for myself. Yes, sometimes it’s difficult to be with unpleasant sounds, or an unruly voice. But a teacher’s job is to find a way to beauty from within, and celebrate each student’s “Hero’s Journey” to vocal development. It’s also kind.
  7. Mindful acceptance of the present moment and condition of the voice is the only way to effectively work the voice forward in a way that honors the body and mind of the singer. There’s far too much dissatisfaction in where we are, what this voice is doing NOW, and where we want to be – closing that gap can create anxiety, stress, causing a student to stop studying altogether.

Herbert Witherspoon, a pedagogue for whom I have immeasurable respect and admiration, said some pretty wonderful things about the process of learning to sing in his book aptly named Singing. Some gems worth considering:

Perhaps because the singer is dealing with the half-seen, because his instrument is part of his own body and self, this search after special action has gone on and on through century after century, each “ cog of the wheel” being examined and specialized upon, until natural law of coordinate physical action has become largely lost in a maze of detail leading only to confusion.

Witherspoon, writing in 1925, saw the effects of an overly mechanical and disjointed pedagogy, an inheritance of a previous age enamored by science and the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution. But his comments on LEARNING to sing will help wrap up this blog’s argument succinctly:

So, teaching the pupil to do something, to create sounds which will aid in establishing correct action, will cause him both to hear correctly and to feel correctly. But no amount of urging towards some vague, unknown, unexperienced sensation will bring him either the sensation, or the tone or resonance sought after.


3 thoughts on “Knowing isn’t Doing

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