A Freudian Voice Lesson

Freud’s famous couch. From here patients could talk out of sightlines with the therapist.

The classic image of Freudian analysis is a patient lying down on a couch with a therapist seated behind. The benefit of this approach is to assist in “free association.” Free association is the procedure by which the patient says everything that comes to mind—without censoring, without filtering, and without judgment.

The couch eliminates the habit we have of relying on visual feedback of face-to-face interaction when creating our dialogues with others. The removal of this visual feedback gives a patient a sense of temporary discombobulation, of being set adrift into themselves. Deprived of facial response, the patient is liberated to explore the innermost corners of the psyche. The therapist remains in the room, guiding thoughts and encouraging exploration of ideas or concepts discovered in the session.

What does this have to do with voice training? 

Removing the visual stimulus of a teacher’s facial/physical responses could provide a more liberating and exciting way of training the voice. How many students respond to the completion of a vocal exercise with “Was that right?” – immediately looking for approval! Students can become addicted to the visual feedback in the same way that a little puppy becomes fixated on receiving its next treat after it has performed a ‘trick.’

Here’s a suggestion for this week: turn your students away from you visually so that they cannot see you in their sight lines. They can look at a wall, a painting, out the window – wherever – they just cannot look at you or rely on any visual input from you. They should be encouraged to do the exercises and sing while noticing what the experience is like without visual input.

Deprived of visual stimulus from the teacher, the student might:

  1. Turn inward, becoming more present to their experience
  2. Evaluate and notice things happening more astutely or imaginatively
  3. Develop analytical listening skills and improve the ear and kinesthesia
  4. Take more ownership of what’s happening as they do the exercises or repertoire
  5. Rely less on the teacher and more on their own intuitions and experiences
  6. Replicate an experience that mirrors independent practice and performance

This “turning away from teacher” could be liberating for singers who have become dependent on visual feedback of the teacher (smiling, frowning, nodding, furrowed brow, cocked head, closed eyes, gestures, body language). Students will unconsciously interpret every single one of these stimuli, even if the teacher is not aware of it. These (mis)interpretations could affect the student’s complete experience of voice training! Think how often we rely on another’s face to tell us ‘how we’re doing.’ 

The teacher can guide verbally from the piano without being seen – giving cues with the voice or the piano – (for instance, gradually repeating a pitch at louder or softer volumes and having the student trace the contrast). Exercises can be constructed in the same way as before and the student can play with those concepts on their own, much like a child at creative play. If the teacher has a grand piano, the student can stand in the crook and look into the room or space and only turn to the teacher in moments of conversation between exercises or phrases. This has the added benefit of replicating the independence of performance as well.

Being ‘alone’ with the teacher’s voice and piano might yield interesting pedagogical discoveries for students who have come to rely on visual feedback as part of their singing education. It’s worth considering as an alternative to the ‘face me’ teaching style that has become so prevalent in modern studios!

Try it out and see what you discover when you can be ‘on your own.’


Rossini’s Exercise to Balance the Registers

“When I went back to stay in Bologna after abandoning my theatrical career, I was entirely taken up with the teaching of singing at the Liceo. I just mentioned homogeneity of timbre, equalization of the registers. Here, for example, is a model of the exercises that I prescribed, thanks to which I obtained astonishing results. It is simple, and the pupil himself, given a good ear, came to be able to correct himself.”  Then, sitting down at the piano, the Maestro struck the following notes:

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“After which the same exercise was continued through ascending semitones C-C-sharp, D-D-sharp, E, etc., to the limit of the voice’s tessitura, variable according to age and to the progress of the martyr or victim,” Rossini said, exchanging a smile with his illustrious former pupil Alboni.

“Without that first discipline, aimed at developing equality of timbre over the whole range of the organ, a voice, no matter how richly endowed by nature it may be, always will remain completely defective. Isn’t that the case, what’s more, with the brain, the most generous innate capacities of which demand long, studious effort if they are to acquire their full value?”


Michotte, Edmond, et al. Richard Wagner’s Visit to Rossini (Paris 1860): And, An Evening at Rossini’s in Beau-Sejour (Passy) 1858. Translated from the French and Annotated, with an Introd. and Appendix, by Herbert Weinstock. University Press, 1968.

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.

The Holy Buddha Smiled

“It’s interesting to watch the faces of classical musicians as they perform. Many players look as if they’re in pain: faces scrunched, heads and necks twisted, brows furrowed. And they look so regardless of the repertory they’re playing. A light-footed dance by Bach: scrunch, twist, furrow. A concerto by Mozart: scrunch, twist, furrow. Pain seems the primary emotion, and struggle the mode of work. In other domains of musical endeavor, however, there are many musicians whose dominant emotion is joy, and whose mode of work isn’t struggle but play. Take a guy like Elvis Presley. He was a consummate storyteller, and a singer of considerable vocal finesse. When performing, he seemed to be making fun of himself; he was both himself and his own knowing parody. His light-footed and light-hearted approach didn’t prevent his fans from going haywire!


Suppose that Presley represents profane energies, so to speak. Sacred energies, too, don’t need a furrowed brow. Consider the smiling Buddha, reminding us that in enlightenment you “embody light.” Or go on YouTube and watch the Golden Gate Quartet, a vocal group that has performed continuously (with personnel changes) since 1938. Their outlook in life is decidedly religious; after all, they sing mostly gospel, which is the word of God. Yet their music making is born of humor and joy. They deliver their songs with the cleverest rhetorical touches: accented off-beats, unexpected exclamation marks, the interplay of metronomic regularity and linguistic rubato. How about you take the same approach to your Haydn string quartets?


You can always decide that you prefer intense, passionate, and highly muscular interpretations. You can even decide that there’s no meaning in music unless there’s a fight between you and your instrument. I think you’ll be a better fighter if you know that you’re fighting; and you’ll know the fight more intimately if you ponder its alternative, which I’ve been calling the conversational approach.

By the way, Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Bruce Lee, and Morihei Ueshiba (the founder of aikido, a powerful martial art) were forever smiling. Strange, huh?”

BRUCE LEE - Hong Kong-born martial arts expert and film actor

de Alcantara, Pedro. The Integrated String Player: Embodied Vibration. Oxford University Press, 2017.

The Parable of the Crayon

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.