The unfairness of imagery as a teaching tool

dog with tennis balls

Many, dare I say most, voice teachers use a lot of imagery in their teaching.

“The resonance moves from out of the mouth up to the nose, then the eyes, then the top of the head, then the back of the head as you ascend the scale.”

“Imagine that your voice is a laser beam.”

“You should feel vibrations in the masque.”

“The voice needs to feel like it’s out in front of you.”

“Think down to go up. Let the counterweights of the elevator go down as your pitch goes up.”

“The place in your abdomen that feels ‘most activated’ is where your ‘support’ comes from.”

“Recreate the sensation of burping.”

“It’s like cotton candy when the air is coming through an open throat.”

“Sing with an egg in the back of your mouth.”

“Breathe down into your lowest abdomen. Yes, that low (knowing smile).”

“Release the breath.”

“Sing from your diaphragm.”

If you are already a singer, and especially if you are quite accomplished, you may recognize the bits of truth in the phrases above. If you are a singer with serious flaws, or just starting out, how can these things make sense? How do you tell someone with swallowing muscles locking up the voice, nasality in some of the vowels, and a head voice that has never really emerged, that she should “move her resonance”?

Where are the elevator’s counterweights – lungs, kidneys, abdominal muscles? How do I make my pelvic floor breathe; is that supposed to tingle, or make me pee, or what? If I don’t release my breath, I’m holding it, right? Like in swimming? So when I come to the surface and start breathing again, I’ve released it, right? Don’t I “release breath” every time I make a sound? How can sound emerge if I hold my breath? How about if I just sigh, or blow air out all at once? Obviously this “release” is something way more refined and complicated than what you’re telling me. How do I do that kind of “release”?

Teaching an image or sensation that a singer has never felt is like trying to describe the sound of a flock of geese to a deaf person, or a rainbow to a blind person. IF the person once had heard or seen these things, and experienced a disability later, it might be possible to elicit a mental response to them. However, for a beginning singer, or a singer who had a very different set of personal feelings about singing in the past, reiterating your favorite images isn’t going to help. If the singer somehow figures something out, then you can say “Aha! You have that egg in your pharynx now.” and the singer might make the sound the same way again and eventually adopt your terminology. That doesn’t make it particularly “effective”. It just means that your student has cracked your strange system of naming things.

It is more direct, easier for the student, and more sane, to teach functionally. You ask for a specific vocal task, see the result, and then change the task as needed to get closer to the goals of functional freedom – clear vowels, ease of singing, maximum pitch extent, dynamic flexibility, ability to move or sustain, and endurance. Let the student’s perceptions of those events fall where they may.

Ten lessons in a row repeating the same maxims over and over is discouraging to the student who is working hard to practice and understand, but simple for the teacher. A functional approach is harder for the teacher at first.

If a problem is persistent, the teacher’s work on it must be targeted, make sense to the student, and be broken down into steps that can yield some small improvement fairly quickly. That does not mean instant mastery. It means that you make the vocal task simple enough (with the roadmap to mastery in mind) that progress can begin. It is on the teacher to learn how to do that.

Trying out new images until something works is much less effective than trying out new vocal exercises until something works.

Teachers, perhaps you say “My students do fine with my imagery-related method.” How about the students you didn’t reach? How about those who quit? Those with “no talent”? Those who just didn’t “get it”? Those you didn’t accept in the first place due to their singing not being at some standard? How many more might you have helped if you didn’t insist on them imagining things with you?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *