Stupid imagery isn’t always stupid

We are in an age where a scientific approach to pedagogy is considered extremely important. I have talked a lot about the limits of discussing acoustics and physics with a singing student. I think I need to talk more about the benefits of some of the unscientific, imagery-based, “wrong” ideas that can nonetheless still help singers.

When I came back to singing after my time away, I vowed to never fall for the “imagery talk” again. I scoffed at the blatant disregard for reality in how the voice works. I ran as fast as I could into the Functional camp as soon as I learned what it was. The concepts of Speech Level Singing, and then Cornelius Reid, and later, Jeannette LoVetri, felt sensible and right to me. I thought of imagery-based instructions as old-fashioned, science-denying blind alleys.

I have changed my mind, a lot. I think there can be tremendous value in some imagery in voice lessons. We are creative beings using our bodies in creative ways, and some people will respond to creative instruction that is more metaphoric than literal. Some of us are more like poets, others like scientists, and most of us have been both at different times.

I am learning new things all the time about how to sing and how to help other people to sing. Sometimes I develop a kind of coded language to tell myself what to do. It may involve a mood, attitude, gesture, or sensation that doesn’t “really” have to do with singing, but yet it makes me sing better. How can this be? Well, we are human beings. You could partly blame it on the uniqueness of our souls, or the accumulation of experience in every unique human life, or the different ways we all take in and act on information. We may all have larynxes and hyoid bones, but we do not share the same goals, ideals, experience, or habits. You can reduce it to explaining how the vocal folds work on a physical level, and how the vocal tract molds the sound, but we are teaching singers – not larynxes – people, not parts – artists, not drones.

Sometimes a well-conceived and kindly shared image can arouse a wonderful reaction in a singer. If that’s the case, use it! When an observation of improvement has been made, ask the singer (even if the singer is yourself): What did that feel like? What are some thoughts that might cause that, or something better, to happen? If I had to imagine a mood for that sound, what would it be? Which crayon would I use to draw a picture of what I’m singing? Jot these things down in a notebook. It gets very interesting. You writing to you, any message that comes to mind.

You can build your own singing world. You must, if you want to be a good singer. Don’t be ashamed to be as fanciful or as silly or as dramatic as you need to be, to sing better and feel better about it. However, if you end up teaching, stay open open open, especially when offering something “unreal” that you think is a sure thing. If “sucking in the sound” helps you and 50% of your students to phonate more efficiently, but it does nothing for the other 50%, accept it and move on. Enlarge your working vocabulary. Work with your students and yourself to develop personal images, feelings, and feedback. Keep the environment open and friendly for whatever works. Please know that factual, scientific, biomechanically accurate directives may be just as useless to some people as telling them to sing with a goose egg in their mouth, or a fountain of sound shooting out of their crown chakra. And always: acceptance, a chuckle, and encouragement to yourself and others.

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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