Vocal Automatons

Here is another basic rule: practising should never deteriorate into something mechanical. The term ‘training’ must be taken in its original sense: to draw out, to foster, to release.

An organ is ‘mechanized’ when regulated artificially to such a degree that its unconscious natural impulses no longer take much active part in its movements.

Husler and Rodd-Marling understood that a deadening of the voice occurs when training becomes mechanically oriented. It seems that mechanization continues to be a very real struggle as we look for vocal solutions to the singing conundrum. The emotional, spontaneous nature of the voice is rarely discussed in modern pedagogy. We stay in safer, less subjective waters by talking about scientific concepts and mechanical functions. Nature, spontaneity, intuition and that je ne sais quoi of singing are harder to pin down.

My personal fear is that an exclusionary focus on these more scientific areas (and their inherent elevation) lead to a kind of singing and teaching that becomes ‘mechanized’ to affirm a scientific theory. Subsequently, the singer becomes detached from him/herself in an effort to validate and ‘hit the targets.’

A number of things can be responsible for mechanizing the vocal organ. For instance, practising in a routine way by reeling off a prescribed series of exercises for a prescribed length of time, thoughtlessly running up and down the scale, and so on, while excluding the ear as much as possible. This, unfortunately, seems to be a favourite form of teaching.

I get really concerned about ’empty’ practicing with my own students. Often I don’t WANT them to practice on their own because I have no way of knowing what they’re doing or what they listen for in practice. Even more concerning, they could be practicing the wrong (albeit familiar) responses. Empty running up and down of scales can lead to a sort of ‘one step forward two steps back.’

Rote, mindless running of exercise mechanizes the vocal organ, according to Husler and Rodd-Marling.

I’m struck by Husler’s and Rodd-Marling’s observation on the exclusion of the ear. That resonates with me. Another fear I hold is that in the rush to gaze upon the charts and the spectrograms bandied around we inadvertently develop a dissociation with the ear and our ability to hear qualities of sound for their spontaneity, FREEDOM of function (i.e., health), and their emotional content or lack thereof (something I’ve never seen discussed in chart analysis).

In science, the primary aim is to describe and explain, not to induce – and that is where the lacuna between science and teaching occurs. Our primary job as teachers of voice is TO INDUCE! Einstein is reported once to have remarked that it is not the purpose of chemistry to reproduce the taste of the soup. Chemistry may nevertheless explain it, and that provides not a bad analogy for the relation between voice physiology and the phenomena of the voice as metaphorically described – but the teaching of voice is mainly induced by the teacher’s jargon along with verbal illustrations, imitation and other less direct means.


For those that would construct a ‘scientific method’ of teaching, the authors go on to state:

But the voice is mechanized most consistently by the type of teacher who, with enthusiasm plus a ‘scientific method’, does his best to transform the vocal organ into an artificial instrument. He works with ‘attitudes’ and ‘adjustments’, he forms ‘props’ and ‘supports’. Using all sorts of intricate methods, he fixes every part of the instrument: tongue, palate, throat, chest, diaphragm, abdominal wall, until the organ’s original vitality has entirely disappeared. The ultimate result is a badly damaged voice. The dangerous thing about such methods is that they very often appear to be successful; they may stimulate the organ for a short time, but the success is never more than temporary.

And this is something I struggle with: turning voices into machines. Dead, inanimate things – or trained monkeys. Push this button to make the voice do this, another to accomplish that. I’m concerned about the props and supports brought in today to help the voice trainer in their job.


If the voice is organic, are we able to find a distinction between training that allows a response from WITHIN versus one that imposes technique from WITHOUT? Would we know the difference? Straws, balls, straps, bands, vibrators, and all sorts of ‘supports’ are used today in training – but what is the endpoint? Are we training a machine? Does the voice need a prop to find itself? How much MUSCLE does the voice need? If a voice is that badly in need of props, is it pathological? Why were the Old Masters adamant about lack of effort or force in singing? Did Farinelli learn to sing with aid of a vibrator? I don’t have an answer to this, but I feel today we consider props and supports as a requirement in training – they are our salvation. And a more pointed question:

If we need so many props to sing, is there too much force and pressure in the first place?

Why aren’t we talking about that?

A word here about the term ‘technique’. To define it is a matter of some difficulty, because it is not easy to decide whether technique applies to singing at all; if it does, where does it properly belong, and where does it end, or where should it end? This may be a pointer: organic being has no capacity for living ‘technically’: to impose technical measures upon it invariably signifies the presence of some alien force. Technique, in short, is not a physiological term. Of course the singer, and especially the voice trainer, cannot altogether dispense with so-called technique, if the problems involved with singing are to be dealt with successfully. The latter must have recourse to ‘technical’ practices to unlock the organ, while the singer is forced to employ them because what he has to perform often exceeds the present capacity of his vocal organ. ‘Technique’, in other words, is a useful tool but nothing more; a crutch, as it were, to help the unfinished or the ungifted singer. Technique as such has nothing to do with the true singing principle. The perfect singer (ideally speaking) is one who has succeeded in overcoming all forms of technical usage; he is past the stage of needing help, he sings with a fully liberated vocal organ, from its inmost nature, with every impulse, urge and drive belonging to it. His singing is a continually creative act. To create is to bring forth from an existing reality; technique is ‘fabrication’.


There are some really philosophically profound things to consider in this assessment of the concept of technique. Technical singing can quickly become mannered singing. The voice has been constructed, and the singer stands apart from it à la The Wizard of Oz – flipping switches behind the green curtain. Many great singers said they were only peripherally aware of technique – calling upon it under duress brought on by illness or suboptimal vocal function. Paradoxically, children sing, often quite beautifully, with no time to acquire ‘technique’. Their voices are free, clear, and resonant and yet they remain ignorant to concepts of vocal pedagogy.  Singers in the 19th century remarked that the best teachers of that time PRESERVED these children’s natural function into adulthood – which would betray a sense of technique. Organic development from within?

If technique isn’t the answer what is? It would appear we need to maintain the emotional, intentional aspects of the voice as a corollary to solving functional problems. The joy of singing must be ever-present. Something I covered earlier in this blog. Keeping the singer in his voice, his ear, his heart, and his mind seems to be the best way forward as we pursue this amazingly challenging world of voice training.

Consequently, though training cannot be carried out entirely without technical means, it must always include a purely irrational factor, a certain psychic state, call it emotive expression, to draw the vocal organ back to its intrinsic nature. It must never be excluded from the voice for any length of time because, in the most natural manner, this strange efflux establishes the closest connections between physical and spiritual, material and subliminal. Creative forces are called up by the ‘joy of singing’. The true singer’s need of melos points out the path he should follow. The desire to produce tonal beauty summons up some of the most vital processes in the organ of singing. And in our case, beauty, that intrinsic element in all organic being, does indeed, and quite automatically, exercise a regulation influence.

To recapitulate: avoid too much EMPTY TECHNICAL gymnastic; it injures, brutalizes and ruins all substance. The only reason for ‘technical’ practising is to overcome technique.

And here is an ancient maxim: ‘Sing often – but a little at a time’ (Giuseppe Aprile)

Husler, Frederick, and Yvonne Rodd-Marling. Singing: the physical nature of the vocal organ: a guide to the unlocking of the singing voice. Vintage, 1976.

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