What’s personal, what’s universal

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We have a hellacious level of confusion in talking about vocal technique due to the conflation of the universal and the personal. In teaching, we must minimize this and make the boundaries between the two very clear.

Everyone has a larynx. The anatomical structures and functions are the same for all. There are variations in size and shape, just as there are with pianists’ hands and dancers’ feet, but there are universal principles about how the vocal folds make sound. Therefore there can be universal ways to train vital vocal fold functions including:

  • thinning and thickening of vibrating edges
  • longitudinal stretch and relaxation
  • degree of adduction
  • resistance to varying degrees of subglottal pressure

Everyone also has a pharynx. This is where vowels, resonances, and overtones are formed. Functions here can include:

  • tuning and detuning specific overtones
  • forming intelligible vowels for communication of words

Related physical issues include:

  • the larynx’s suspension in the neck and its interconnectedness to surrounding structures
  • spinal and head alignment
  • the posture and supporting muscles of the torso
  • many other things, from diet to choice of shoes!

All the above are universal issues of “technical training”. They can be addressed in myriad logical ways that will help to increase functional freedom.

Personal experience of the voice training experience includes:

  • feelings of all sorts
  • any visual image associated with a vocal phenomenon
  • metaphors in general
  • any thought or expressed words that describe the sensations of a vocal phenomenon
  • the relationship of the teacher and the student on emotional and intellectual levels

As singers, the synthesis of the universal and the personal DOES and SHOULD happen. However, as teachers, we are short circuiting, end-gaining – whatever you want to call the counterproductive act – if we try to rely on “…as if…”, “you should feel…”, or virtually any sentence that starts with the word “Be”. It is disrespectful of the singer’s experience to tell them that their experience is faulty, yours is better, and that they have to think/feel/express like you do. (The word “experience” here refers to the moment-by-moment perceptions involved in learning to sing, not “performing experience”.) You can share your experience if asked, but please have the humanity to always include the caveat that different singers can report very different personal experiences while singing well (or poorly!).

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