The way to get to free, un-self-conscious, non-manufactured singing is to elicit spontaneous responses that move toward easier ability. In functional teaching, it is my goal to get a spontaneous vocal response through exercises, in teamwork with the singer. [Sidebar: “teamwork” is crucial. I’m not imposing “good singing” on a singer.] When something “works better” we see if we can reproduce it with the same stimulus (exercise). As long as we are in experimental mode, all is well. It gets more interesting as we go beyond experimenting and get into more extensive training.
Two snags often emerge in doing the work on vocal function:
- If the student knows in advance what the goal of the exercise is, they may consciously, semiconsciously, or unconsciously employ unhelpful methods to achieve that.
- A student may find a new ability spontaneously and easily, but try to “lock it in” with a faulty concept of how to reproduce it.
These two are especially problems with smarties. One of my wise teachers says, “To be a good singer you have to be very optimistic and a little bit dumb”. If a person doesn’t think too hard about what they are doing while exploring new vocal skills, results can be more reflexive and spontaneous. If the singer is a thinker, however, problems can arise as they make all sorts of associations, cross-connections, deductions, and “conclusions” that can block further access to spontaneity.
Therefore, I need to introduce some randomness and wily ways into the proceedings to keep the smart singer’s approach fresh. Some ideas:
- Rapid alternations of two complementary exercises.
- Not always starting at the bottom of the range and ascending for each repetition. Skipping around pitch-wise, within reason.
- Doing an exercise with one parameter changed, but that still accomplishes a goal on the teacher’s agenda.
- Doing an exercise requiring concentration on the musical elements, not the physiologic ones.
- Not explaining the purpose of an exercise until after results become consistent.
- Earning the student’s trust by warming up with easy, feel-good tasks, then throwing something new and challenging into the mix as a stated experiment to “see what happens”.
- Going just past a point of failure “to see what happens”. Sometimes the singer, knowing that they have already cracked a note and having been given permission to do so, can get new results “on the other side.” (Teacher must have the brains to know how to do this safely, and when not to.)
- Encourage the singer to focus on something unrelated to the main point of the exercise in order to keep the physical response free.
- Reassure the smart singer that vocal ability in well-chosen exercises will lag behind its appearance in performance. This is why we learn new technique separate from old repertoire, and why we don’t want to sing difficult repertoire while making changes in vocal approach.
- Encourage neutral observation of vocal results during practice. It’s all information, not a validation or repudiation of your life’s purpose or right to sing!