I have written about the dangers of an imagery-based mode of instruction for voice. Images are generally conveyed with words, sometimes also with gestures. Examples of imagery in voice teaching would be directives like:
- Direct the sound against the hard palate.
- Fill with air down to your lower abdomen.
- Split the resonance between your throat and nasal cavities. (Cool discussion of this idea here.)
As David Taylor postulates in The Psychology of Singing (1908), the driving force behind most voice instruction may well be imitation, and the words used are given more credit than they deserve when a good model does so much more for the student. Regardless of the quality of the modeling, however, most voice teachers give a lot of verbal instruction, and virtually all singers give themselves “feeling and sensing” instruction when practicing. Some of these sensations can be very strange.
The concepts that a singer concentrates on definitely do have effects, because they can switch to a different concept and get a different effect. If a concept leads to a reliable effect, who am I to say it’s a “wrong” concept? None of the bullet points above are physically real, yet those concepts help some people. If they sing well, why should we call it “wrong”? If they are causing a useful interconnected, complex action to happen in a reliable fashion, can’t we just accept that? My thinking has changed from accepting ridiculous imagery for which I had no frame of reference (which therefore didn’t help), to rejecting all imagery, to admitting that I have developed my own personal “images” (and “feelmages”?) whether I liked it or not, by singing and practicing and studying for many years.
Cornelius Reid wrote often about “concept”. Having a concept of the quality of the vowel, the pitch, and the volume to be sung in an exercise determines the outcome. Change the concept, and you change the sound. Reid’s followers advise allowing this to happen reflexively, meaning one would improve a voice by engaging new patterns of pitch, vowel, and volume, and allowing the voice to respond spontaneously to those parameters. Where I had problems with this way of working was being frequently unable to get “the right concept” into my mind. I remember a teacher working with me on my /a/ vowel. He said “Just say ‘ah'”, which I did. Then he said, “That’s a strange way to say it.” But he did not show me how to say or sing an “ah”. He didn’t seem to be able to describe the problem clearly, or I was unable to understand. Was I supposed to go listen to a bunch of approved recordings of /a/ vowels? Was my speech habit something that needed correction, and if so, how? Should I get speech therapy? Was a “pure vowel” (in Reid parlance) going to suddenly spring forth if I just practiced enough? Was I a hopeless case who would never find a spontaneous path toward a free throat? Am I stupid? NOW I understand what was wrong with that vowel, but with no model, no direct instruction, and no experience of “correctness”, it was slow going.
“Do it like this.” “Try this.” “Let’s see what works better.” “That isn’t working for you.” “Ah, that was glorious. What did you do or think there?” “Some people find this idea helpful.” These are not dirty phrases. Messy, yes, but essential for my learning.
Regardless of what instruction we are given or vocalism that we imitate, we can learn to hear and feel what is functionally better if we practice paying attention. “Better” means that it is more easy, pleasurable, and pleasing to the ear. That is what we move toward. If my work in the practice room includes singing through my mustache and you get there by focusing on your heart chakra and he gets there by observing what happens when he thinks about nothing at all, and we all grow and improve, let’s leave each other in peace about our concepts.