Too Much In One Direction

In my teaching, I often talk about the idea of a pendulum when thinking about vocal development. By this, I mean that there is a continuum of behavior in the voice that we can balance from in order to gain insight into where we are at any given moment. But we must be on guard that we don’t get ‘stuck’ at either end in trying to fix problems.

The image of a pendulum as a representation of vocal pedagogical balance is a useful one. If we exercise the opposite of the student’s fault, we can often find a better response of the voice over time. Caution must be advised, however, that we don’t obtain a new vocal fault in trying to eliminate an old one.

For example, if the laryngeal position is too high, then exercises that work in opposition to this would help achieve a more balanced position. If the vowels are too spread, vocalizing with more narrowed lips can be helpful. If the chest voice is too strong, head voice can be exercised for a time. According to this line of thinking, exercises should be given that cause the opposite of the present fault.

The problem with a pendulum comes when the singer or teacher focuses on the opposite side for TOO long a period of time, thereby creating a new vocal problem and getting the student ‘stuck’ on the other side. Frederick Husler and Yvonne Rodd-Marling wrote about this exact phenomenon in their book Singing: The Physical Nature of the Vocal Organ (1965). When the teacher experiments for too long a period of time in one area, they create another one-sided problem. As they say in their book, our work is to strive toward the WHOLE of the voice.

The voice trainer, like the physician, carries out a therapy, his concern being to cure defects of a functional nature. He corrects unphysiological movements by exercising physiologically correct ones. He invariably carries out this treatment by way of his ear; his ear and that of the pupil. He hears analytically when working on parts of the whole; but he never loses sight of the whole so that the organ’s functional balance may not be destroyed. The creative side of his work lies in this comprehensive listening, in this striving towards the whole.


Not knowing, however, the physiological processes that underlie the practices he used to obtain the improvement, all his further work is now in danger of taking a wrong course. He does not realize that the ‘right’ he has been teaching will soon produce new ‘faults’. This is what happens. His ‘correction’ has accentuated, has isolated, one set of muscle movements, one manner of functioning, out of the whole organic complex. Further, by focussing the attention so long and so consistently on to one process (by using a particular sound-picture, ‘placing’, etc) other, and equally important processes in the organ have been brought to a partial, perhaps total, standstill. In this way, at least two new so-called ‘faults’ will have come into existence. Most artificially engendered disorders occur in this manner; and the more thorough the teaching, the graver the results. Should the pupil’s natural singing instinct be very strong, it will subconsciously resist, it will counteract the damage done and may, just possibly, assimilate correctly the thing ‘learned’. This very seldom occurs.

This is a rather strong argument for resisting the urge to keep a student for too long in any ONE corrective vocal exercise.

I try to remember the holism of the voice through the idea of the pendulum at all times. I have seen students get ‘stuck’ in one direction on my exercises, and I only have myself to blame. For example, by staying too long in lower laryngeal exercises (to counterbalance a high larynx), I’ve had students become throaty and guttural. Oops!

This is why some specific methodologies for training the voice can become rather limiting over time. A student may note rapid improvement at the beginning, but over time, the instrument will come back to a standstill, as Husler and Rodd-Marling described. If the image of the pendulum is lost, single-cure pedagogies spring up to claim that ONE thing is the secret to vocal technique. If the teacher believes these one-sided directives (breath, registration, resonance) are the answer to all vocal problems, one can miss the forest for the trees.

Another brilliant (and personal favorite) author who described the dangers of getting stuck on one side of the pendulum was Herbert Witherspoon. Writing in his magnificent book Singing (1925), he laid out a brilliant paragraph on the dangers of what can happen when the cure becomes the fault:

Again, teachers must continually keep in mind that any undue prolonging of the use of any phonetic may result in the forming of a new fault, because of the exaggeration of action and resonance which the use of the phonetic causes. Therefore it must never be forgotten that the acquiring of perfect coordination is the aim and end of all our study. To make this clearer, let us take a specific case. Suppose the pupil sings too much in the pharynx, due to the idea of “drinking in” the tone, of “attacking” almost like inhaling, or some habit or acquired fault. The teacher may ask him to vocalize upon HUNG, followed by MY, MING, MEE, and finally EE, using the opposites of the fault. If the pupil continues too long in the use of these phonetics, he will not only lose the habit which he is trying to change or cure, but he may acquire a thin, reedy, pinched tone, faulty in the opposite direction, and resulting from the vowel EE, which intensifies larynx action, raises the larynx, and causes the strongest reaction upon the larynx. We must use the phonetics simply to release tensions, change directions of action, alter resonances, until we can with safety use the complete singing sound of AH. It is really a very simple method of procedure, based upon actual principle and common sense, and the law of opposites.

As a teacher I must remember that pendulums need to move to create energy. Too much attention one on side of the arc risks creating problems instead of solving them. To develop a balanced voice, balanced pedagogy such as the above should be the goal for any teacher of voice.

2 thoughts on “Too Much In One Direction

  1. Love the pendulum image for discussing pedagogic strategy! I have also used it in this fashion: assuming direct perpendicularity as the ideal functional balance of the pendulum analogy, an imbalance (fault) would be too far to one side of that. If you only always correct a fault to the ideal center, your averages around a behavior will tend to remain to the side of the given fault. You have to be willing to swing beyond ideal to the other side a bit in order to recenter around that ideal perpendicularity. That is useful, as long as the swing in the other direction remains within generally healthy function. But I agree that ultimately the flexibility to continue to let the pendulum swing a bit past ideal behavior on both sides is necessary. A similar pedagogic principle is the use of mutually limiting opposites in order to avoid getting stuck in imbalanced extremes. Such as chiaroscuro. Or countering innate responses that can mislead: reversing the bright is forward and dark is back percept, since bright is forward can lead to a mouthy spread kind of bright and dark is back can lead to a dulled, swallowed kind of dark. Or balancing upward nasopharyngeal acoustic sensation (ring) with laryngeal settling to achieve a more neutral laryngeal poise.

    1. Oh thank you so much for contributing, Ken! What a beautiful enlargement of these ideas. It’s what makes teaching singing so challenging, yet simultaneously engaging, and ultimately fun as we explore and problem solve – moving the pendulum all around. And YES to getting the pendulum to the OPPOSITE site of the spectrum! Getting the student onboard for this certainly has caused consternation for them as they move into unfamiliar territory. But the results over time area nothing short of miraculous. So grateful for you and your work to elucidate this here, and elsewhere in the voice community. Very, very warmly, -Justin

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