Misuse of effort is an everyday occurrence in singing instruction, and getting a singer to a place of freedom and balance forms much of the pedagogical content of voice lessons. Theodore Dimon (whose book The Elements of Skill – a personal favorite) tells a story about a student struggling with learning to write:
Many years ago, when I was first starting to teach, a child was sent to me by his mother, who said that when he wrote at school, he tied himself up in knots and couldn’t write legibly. His teachers, who felt that he needed more practice, encouraged him to work harder at his penmanship. He was also sent to a specialist who gave him a number of exercises designed to improve his motor coordination. In spite of this advice, however, no one had been able to help Josh, for the simple reason that his teachers were so focused on what he was doing— on getting him to do the right things— that they could not see how he was quite literally trapped by his own efforts. What made matters even worse was that all the help Josh was given by his teachers further reinforced his already harmful tendencies, with the result that his problem got even worse. By the time Josh came to me, he was struggling to form his letters, gripping the pencil so tightly and working so hard to control it that his letters had become even smaller and more illegible.
How this parallels the journey of so many singers! In an effort to do it right, we end up doing too much or doing the WRONG things in order to achieve the ends we wish to attain. Tightness, constriction, fatigue, loss of range and power all indicate results of end-gaining.
F. M. Alexander termed this phenomenon end gaining, which he defined as:
the tendency we have to keep our mind and actions focused on an end result whilst losing sight of, and frequently at the expense of, the means-whereby the result is achieved.
Should vocal pedagogy focus on the object to be learned (good singing), or HOW the object is being learned? When performances, juries, or competitions loom over a singer, tricks and rushing become the means-whereby the student gains faster results in order to stave off the fear and insecurity of a recalcitrant voice during a performance.
This has always been my criticism of the academic jury system of voice training in the United States. Regardless of a student’s particular vocal development, an impending jury causes all manner of end-gaining as the student struggles with new music, text, foreign language, technical skill – while under deadline. (Does nature work on deadlines?) Students are rarely given lengthy semesters to explore, discover, or understand themselves through their voice. Combine this with a single-lesson week and the general level of stress the average student experiences, and it’s a wonder anyone learns to sing at all.
To all the above, a system of music practice is set up that encourages a repetitious drilling of music and exercise: a perfect recipe for constricted, muscle-bound singers literally teaching themselves the wrong things in every practice session. They are repeating (and therefore ingraining) errors. Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes PERMANENT.
How did Dimon go about helping Josh learn to write?
Instead of asking Josh to write, I told him that I wanted to do some drawing; to this end, I asked him to gather a couple of crayons and to make some large circles. After he did this for a minute or so, I told him to try making the circles smaller and smaller, until he could make a very small circle without any sense of strain and struggle. This new strategy worked. By getting him to draw instead of write, he stopped using the tension he associated with writing and could then form letters without tying himself into knots.
At the simplest level, then, we can begin to unravel Josh’s problem by finding an alternative to his normal way of doing things. The problem in almost all forms of learning is that we get stuck by our own trying— stuck into ways of doing, into tension, into bad habits. The harder we try to make things right, the more we get in our own way. We have to learn instead to do something different, to focus our attention in a new way. We are then able to do easily what seemed so difficult.
How does this apply to singing?
Let’s consider that singing a specific pitch is a form of ‘letter tracing.’ As singers, we learn over time to trace notes with our voices in scale-based exercises – a learned behavior.
Perhaps, like Dimon, we should categorize differences of approach as vocal drawing and vocal tracing. And taking this analogy even further: what if end-aims of methods and systems of voice training are (in their own way) types of fonts and calligraphy the student must learn to master? Perhaps we are trying to make our voices match a particular font (or style)? Helvetica. Palatino. Sans-serif. All methods of writing style (singing).
Like Dimon’s approach, a singer should be allowed to draw freely with the voice – move up and down, sliding, gliding, exploring (in a totally mindless fashion) the movements of the voice up, down, loud, soft, fast, slow – any number of explorations which are only limited by the student’s creativity. What’s happening in the neck, shoulders, torso, jaw, tongue while all this free exploration is being done? Can we notice and make subtle changes during free play? Some singers have never been afforded play in singing.
This play requires a rather childlike submission to making sound. Intellectualism is not welcome here and will only serve to stifle the process and the creativity. Laughter may ensue – so much the better!
Students who cannot match pitch will gain greater skill in singing if they are allowed some time to play and draw with their voices in meaningless patterns. They gain greater motor skill by being allowed to devise unique patterns with their voices instead of being forced to follow a pre-existing one. I often call this process ‘reconnecting the voice to the ear.’
To immediately demand a voice respond to a tracing process (in exercise or song) is to cause a voice to potentially end gain to achieve the goal. Getting a student to trace letters before they have good motor skills and understand how to use their hands (voice), works them into an end. This will only cause an increase in problems later on, not eliminate technical misuse.
But we are often blocked precisely because we want and need to accomplish something; our instinctive focus on “doing” brings into play the very habits that interfere with our capacity to learn. As an alternative to our usual modes of trying, we must find out how to transform our responses to the challenge into constructive means by shifting our focus and circumventing these harmful habits. This is when we forget about trying to “do” the right thing and start thinking creatively for our purposes. This is when we begin to learn how to learn.
Dimon, Theodore. The elements of skill: A conscious approach to learning. North Atlantic Books, 2003.