Voice Training Off the Rails


We have two accelerating trends in vocal pedagogy that show no signs of slowing down soon. A few words describing each (wording changed slightly to protect the privacy of the sources [OK, I admit, and to avoid needless defensiveness and lawsuits]):

“Inhale from your tailbone along the back of the spinal column up to your head. Then sing imagining the breath going down the front of the spinal cord back to the tailbone.”

“The participant was then hooked up to the electroglottograph, with which different timbral qualities were elicited and quantified through spectral analysis visualization software.”

In one trend, we have myriad articles, books and workshops becoming available that include subtle energy fields, quantum physics, telepathy, and chakras as related to singing – tending toward and including woo-woo. In the other trend, we have the academy’s embrace of “hard science”. This includes quantifying every physical phenomenon of “voice” and pointing to these variables as teaching tools. See the website of Voce Vista which uses the slogan “See what the experts hear.”

Empirical teaching, derived from previous trial and error, the way of the seemingly distant past, is by comparison so simple, so plain, so dull and tedious. The ear training and exercise required of teacher and student can be a buzzkill, man.

No explanation of an observed or desired phenomenon, whether from woo-woo or acoustics, can be helpful to a singer unless there is a way to learn how to do the thing. What WORK must the singer do to learn how to do the thing? How do pieces of spiritual or scientific wisdom fit into the desire to make a singer more skilled at singing overall?

Functional: “…affecting physiological or psychological functions but not organic structure…designed or developed chiefly from the point of view of use” – Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Training in any activity is about the USE of some sort of function. Is it too audacious to say that we improve vocal function by exercising various vocal functions in a healthy way? (Hint: NOT)

You see, empiricism is an important part of science, so I’m not categorically anti-science. Music is an expression of humanity, so I’m not categorically anti woo-woo. But if imagery and computer-assisted monitoring are your main toolsets, you are missing a lot of what used to work about voice training. How do you learn to hear whether a vocal sound is made with unnecessary tensions? How do you get a strong lower register to integrate with a strong but uncooperative upper register (i.e., smooth over the break)? How do you turn a breathy tone into an efficient, full sound? How do you get breathing to be easy and automatic so you can move on to the harder parts of training?

Functional vocal training, based on empirical observations of cause and effect, is not arrived at by an “eclectic approach” that includes every interesting piece of vocal wisdom available. Scientific observation of vocal phenomena is fascinating, but must be quickly set aside for the actual training of vocal function. Singing is a human body-mind activity, not a technological one. On the woo-woo side of the current madness: taking care of a vocal injury, poor vocal fold adduction, muscular weakness, wrong vowel concept, or lack of coordination can rarely be accomplished with positive thoughts and images, unless accompanied by action.

You train for better singing (tennis playing, writing, interviewing, dancing, coding) by practicing the use of your skills, working with new concepts about your intentions, becoming more aware of the results of your practice with new concepts, and reiterating these steps many times. Of course you can continue to dream and continue to observe, but to be able to do it better you have to practice doing it better. Principles of how to practice doing it better are not a new thing, just not so cool-hot as the poles of woo-woo and technology.

3 Replies to “Voice Training Off the Rails”

  1. Brian,

    As always, you are on the nose. This article is at the heart of teaching in that it is BOTH an art and a science. We can’t ignore either, but BALANCE is key.


    I run a voice analysis lab in an academic setting, but I put up front on our website (and in the curriculum), “…one of the greatest values of such a lab in a conservatory environment is to help cultivate—through ear training exercises—a more nuanced understanding of what to listen for in a singer. In a sense, we can use the technology to train our ears to not need the technology.” I do not care that H1 was 3dB quieter in sample A. I care if you know what it sounds like and can you guide your student’s singing body to make the necessary change.

    For performers (and teachers of performers), at its best the technology is a tool to train you to listen functionally, teach functionally, and sing with a free and unconstricted body.

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