Training with reasonable extremes, or the pendulum effect

When trying to get something to change, you need to do something different than you have been doing before. Obvious, right? Singing is training of the mind and the body, and in order to learn new behaviors, we need to get the mind to think in a new way and the body to operate in a new way.

In order to get the voice to go to a new place, we need to overdo. If the tongue is lazy in diction, it might be useful to sing vowels more closed so as to find a greater range of ability, before settling into the middle. If the larynx is rising as pitch ascends, then exercises to stabilize the larynx, or even depress it a little, may be in order, before singing normally again. A voice that is too soft and fuzzy may need to emphasize chest voice and brighter sounds in order to find a more balanced middle.

After practicing an extreme, one should come back to the middle and see if/how it has changed. The teacher must be explicit about what are extremes and what the desired “new normal” might be, with plenty of caveats about how conditions and expectations can change as a voice develops. A student will explore extremes with more commitment if they know WHY they are doing it. Sometimes the teacher might want to ask the student to do something strange without telling them why first, so as to witness a more spontaneous response to a vocal stimulus, but in these cases I think it is fair to tell the student that before the exercise. Keeping a student in the dark about why you are picking a certain sequence of exercises can have these good and bad effects:

Good –

  • The student will execute the exercise without manipulating the result as much.
  • The student can be free to concentrate on the process, and not the goal.
  • The response to the exercise can be considered to be more genuine.

Bad –

  • The student becomes too dependent on the teacher’s “magic”, and will not learn to practice independently.
  • Analytical or logical thinkers will feel left out of the process if they do not understand why they are doing something. This can frustrate them.

When a level of trust between student and teacher has been developed, then the student is usually willing to go back and forth between blind experiments and thoughtful intentions while executing exercises. This ability to abandon oneself to the task at hand is a useful skill for performing artists. So is the ability to evaluate what has just happened, before trying again.

So there are two pendulum swings here. One is about the process of vocalizing, with the two poles being “just doing it to see what happens” and “let’s try to make it go THIS way”. The other pendulum that swings is in each exercise itself – at the physical and acoustical levels – where we overdo certain sounds or concepts to try to get the new default to move in a healthier direction. In other words, one pendulum swings between two parts of the HOW, and the other pendulum swings between two parts of the WHAT.

I have found that “overdoing” is a faster way to get movement toward a goal, because it makes the muscles and mind work harder, and it prevents perfectionism. Perfectionism can get in the way if we merely try to make it “right” every time instead of making it extreme. One needs a large range of motion, more than is required for the act, in order to have freedom within that act.

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