How Imagery Bites Us

Head_and_ImaginationI have often discouraged imagery-based instruction in this blog. The short reason is that people will interpret an image in many ways, and even when they seem to be on the same channel as the teacher, they may be guided to a way of doing things that is not the most easy and high-functioning way for the individual.

Why is imagery so popular nowadays as a teaching mode? How did we go from old pedagogical writings that never mentioned images and sensations to the modern day, where we have hundreds of “methods” that contain varying quantities of imagistic concepts? I don’t think we can ever know the complete answer, but I think it’s worth consideration.

I believe that there is some kind of truth about how a singer’s voice works that naturally causes an association between what he is feeling and the sound he is making. If your voice is working well consistently, and you have certain feelings associated with certain vocal behaviors, then you can start to use those feelings to verify that you are doing things the right way for you. When teaching others, however, you must never assume that your maxim about “how the ________ feels when you ________” will be exactly what they need. People are too different from each other to have the same result (vocally and  mentally).

In the 19th century, when we were first able to view vibrating vocal folds directly, we began to be obsessed with “seeing” the voice in action. During that century we also went from talking about “cultivating” a voice to “producing” it. Actions that were previously unobservable became ridiculous directives. For example, many singers and teachers now talk about “laryngeal tilt” and “lifting the soft palate” as things that must happen. When, how much, and by what means? What is the reason for demanding “laryngeal tilt”? Easier high notes? If so, then we must find ways of eliciting easier high notes; then we will know that the right action is happening. The action of “laryngeal tilt” outside of the totality of actual singing is alienating and mechanistic. It removes us from our voices somewhat and turns the voice into a machine that must be managed. This is the case with many other modern “must-have” pieces of technique.

Modern advances in science, along with ever-growing branches of psychology and parapsychology, seem to lure us further out on the disparate limbs of Machine and Magic. We create imagery out of the science, and we also cling to other imagery that completely spites science, because we are desperate to have SOMETHING to hold onto. Exploring function in an experimental, trusting, experiential way, taking into account the whole of the voice and the person, can seem so unspecific, but if we follow through, we can find the associations that work for each individual singer. Then the singer can feel in communication and ownership of his own voice, and “control” can be achieved by being in harmony with what is intrinsically right for that singer, not by compliance to rules demanded by a school.

This process of finding one’s own feedback (imagery, sensations, concepts) must happen for each singer, taking however long it takes. Trying to take a shortcut by telling all singers in a studio to go for a certain sensation, or to think of a certain image, will thwart potential development, even while it might make some things pretty. While a certain number of singers may be able to proceed with a particular studio manifesto, others will be lost who have done nothing wrong, but simply have not yet been able to nurture their voices in the way they need to. The ones who seem to succeed in the studio are being held back as well, since nothing is more valuable to a singer than to really, deeply know and love his own voice. Being a “product of a studio” pales by comparison.

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