Can you accept changes in your sound?

In my initial lessons with the student, I make it clear that we are going to work on improving their vocal function. I don’t bring aesthetics into the discussion with most students, and it usually never comes up directly. But it often comes up indirectly, especially in adults.

Usually, teens will accept the growth in their voices’ functional capacity and the new sounds that come along with it. They are still maturing and growing in so many ways, and they are used to change. The attitude of openness to change is probably the main reason why young people learn faster in general. My older students who have this openness also make fast progress.

Most adult learners have lived with whatever they have for a long time and are at least somewhat prone to the “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t” syndrome, whether they realize it or not. They come wanting to sing “better” but rather than being open to what “better” means, they first have to negotiate between what they think it means, and what I say that it means. This is not bad. It’s just something teachers of adults have to understand. A lot of the teaching of adults consists of encouraging them to open up to new ideas.

I’ll refresh my definition of “better” here before going on. A student has made a change for the “better” when they have come closer to this:
“The ability to sing high and low, loud and soft, slow and fast, with maximum ease and good diction and the appropriate sound for the style, results in a voice that is inherently “good”.” I’ll stop putting that word between quotation marks now.

When a student does something better, I have to be very supportive and encouraging, and I tell them why it’s better. I often end the supportive statement with “and it sounds great”. I always support the idea that the better-functioning sound is a good one. This is not a ploy; I really believe it. However, sometimes the singer doesn’t believe it yet. Some singers may never believe it. But the ones who came to change how they sing and how they think about singing will suspend their disbelief and keep working for freer function. They usually come to understand and enjoy the changes as they come.

Some singers with naturally beautiful timbres (even with tortured techniques) want to be able to sound the same, just easier. It often doesn’t work that way, however. Usually new timbres emerge when the ability changes. For some singers, the acceptance of new sounds is the only thing putting brakes on their progress. I have recently taught one very talented singer who is so anxious about altering his beautiful sound that change invokes anxiety. He is still quite resistant to it. Sometimes an enormously talented person goes through a dark night of the soul where they realize that change may represent a redrawing of their picture of themselves as an artist. The investment that they have put in themselves may seem to be at risk. Some of those people will not change, ever.

As a teacher, sometimes a decision needs to be made as to how confrontational to be, if at all. As I get older and whatever-er, I find that getting the student to confront their own resistance is much better than me saying at the third lesson “The problem here is that you’re too attached to your present way of doing things to improve. You’re a mess and you need to have a complete makeover technically.” There are two main things wrong with being a confrontational teacher. 1) It can upset the student unnecessarily and erode the supportive environment of the studio and 2) The teacher may be wrong. No one has a monopoly on the truth (although I have met teachers who have claimed to have THE answer to how the voice works), and any of us can be wrong at various times.

If you enjoy this blog, consider grabbing a copy of Sane Singing: A Guide to Vocal Progress, available in print and ebook!

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