The folly of imagery-based voice instruction

“Drink in the tone.”

“Place the voice in your _____ (hard palate, mask, sinuses, top of your head, etc.).”

“Feel the tone as a narrow beam coming out of the back of your head, the higher you go, the further back it points.”

“Up and over.”

“Breath into your solar plexus.”

These are all phrases that you might hear in a voice lesson. For a singer who is building their voice, what could they mean?

Student’s monolog: How do I know whether this thing that I cannot observe someone else doing is something I should be doing in my own body? How do I know that feeling placement in my mask is better than in the center of my head? What if I can’t make myself feel that thing? Why don’t the people in “Great Singers on Great Singing” agree with you, or with each other? Well, everyone in the studio accepts what you say, so I guess I’d better figure it out and find my mask and spin my air and drink in my tone, or I’ll never improve.

The instructions quoted above are bewildering to someone starting out. They are all descriptions of what an experienced singer might feel as they sing, but as instructions they are unclear. They are effects and not causes.

How does one cause good singing, then? One has to elicit vocal actions that work. How do you do that? You give the singer a task that is designed to elicit a better vocal response. When a clear task is given, such as singing a particular vowel, pitch, and volume level, you get a result which can then be evaluated for health, freedom (ease), and viability for song. In a young singer, you must start with these basics.

This levels the playing field. Whenever this discussion occurs among voice teachers, someone says that “You have to have different approaches for different people.” or “I use an eclectic (I loathe that word in this case) approach. Whatever works.” or “This is how my teacher and her teacher taught, and it gets results.”. Yes, these things may “work” well enough for the students who have stuck with you. But if they don’t work for some students, please don’t blame the student. They are nonsense to many. Those students deserve a better approach that doesn’t require them to imagine what it might be like to be inside your body and head.

To cite one area in which teachers get it wrong, to start with resonance (vocal tract shaping) before getting basic pitch-making, flexibility, ease, and strength going, is to ossify the body into a posture that may make phonating more difficult than it needs to be. Becoming concerned about conforming to a particular sound aesthetic before you have made spontaneous sounds denies your body-mind the opportunity to find its way. Trying to direct breath into parts of the body where breath does not literally go is to confuse the body and to instill distrust of what is real.

A teacher who can teach function will guide the student by asking for vocal tasks that are clear and immediately doable. When a better result has been achieved in an exercise, the teacher must be in the moment to say “That’s better!” and “Do you know why it’s better?”. The teacher must have real reasons and not airy-fairy imagery-based descriptions.

Then, and only THEN, if the student says, “It feels like the tone is so small and concentrated and coming out of my forehead!” the teacher can say “That is your sensation. Perhaps that can help you know that you’re on the right track at this point in your singing. Let’s do that some more and pay attention to what you are hearing and feeling.” That singer may then start to develop a personal vocabulary of imagery and sensations that they feel when they sing.

Many singers use similar phrases for sensations for certain vocal tasks. However, there are many great singers past and present who do NOT agree at all on what they are feeling. It is a huge mistake to generalize metaphors, sensation, and images to all singers. It is also important to remember that the sensations of singing can change in one person over time, whether that singer’s vocalism improves, stays the same, or declines.

This leads to a future post’s subject, how singers listen to themselves (or don’t).



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