The Experience is the Thing

Here’s a quote from Pedro de Alcantara’s book “Indirect Procedures.”

You can’t perform an act correctly until you’ve had the experience of performing it, and you can’t have the experience without performing the act. This vicious circle, kept closed by faulty sensory awareness, is one of the great stumbling blocks of musical pedagogy— and, indeed, of life. Every time a music teacher (or vocal coach, or conductor) asks you to do something, you interpret the teacher’s instructions according to your habitual, faulty sensory perception, execute the now-distorted instructions with your habitual misuse, and judge the results of your own playing through faulty sensory perception. If your sensory awareness is faulty, most of what you do takes you away from achieving your goals.

I’m reminded of Herbert Witherspoon’s analogy about tasting olives in his book Singing, published in 1925 – until you TASTE the olive, you don’t know the experience of an olive – even if you’ve heard everyone talk about olives and think you know what they taste like. This relates to EVERY dubious term we use in voice training: support, resonance, registers, squillo, etc.

“Support that phrase!” 

If you’ve never had the experience (or taste) of “support,” how are you going to achieve it or know what it is when you do it? The direction assumes the student knows 1.) what “support” means, and 2.) has experienced “support” previously.

Both may or may not be true.

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).

Once you have the experience of an olive, you have achieved an understanding of what is meant by olive. Witherspoon says the EXPERIENCE of singing well can only be had by SINGING WELL. It’s so paradoxical, and yet we don’t talk about this in pedagogy circles.

Joe Hyams describes the same phenomenon in his 2010 book, Zen in the Martial Arts:

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.

From the above, it would seem that our aim in pedagogy should be focused on the means whereby we can INDUCE the experience of good singing, not just assume fancy scientific descriptions of what is happening will do the trick. Even those are descriptions of something that has ALREADY occurred – not HOW to do it.

That would be something we could call voice pedagogy. Like fancy words about the taste of an olive  – until you experience it – all that language is meaningless. To use another humorous analogy: if you are training a dog to sit, the most important thing to do is GET THE BEHAVIOR FIRST, then you can call it whatever you want. It’s the behavior that matters. Dogs don’t come programmed knowing the meaning of “sit.” We must INDUCE the behavior!

My job as a VOICE TEACHER is to assist in the inducement of experiences of singing, and singing well, which may be a totally foreign experience. All fancy words and sciencey terms will prove to be an enormous stumbling block if I can’t ultimately get the student to the experience.