Learning the Learning Process

 

One of the biggest hurdles I have noticed my students dealing with is understanding and accepting the learning process.  Everyone comes to voice lessons with their own prior experiences about learning.  Often, those experiences include beliefs about needing to be right and fear of being wrong.  While these beliefs are strongly reinforced by society, they are not particularly helpful in the learning process for singing, because understanding what is right is much more comprehensive and much more capable of being replicated when you also understand what is wrong.

Singing is all about feeling subtleties in our bodies – tiny changes in the coordination between breath resistance (support), the vocal mechanism itself and the resonators.  As the student progresses, he/she feels fewer and fewer sensations as the coordination improves and freedom takes the place of compensatory tensions.  It is a completely individual process for each singer and something that simply has to be experienced.  All of the descriptions in the world can not take the place of actually singing and feeling what happens.  Usually after making a change of any sort, a student can not even describe the experience in words.

In the teaching studio, I make a great effort to create a safe, supportive, non-judgmental environment for learning.  Other teachers should also take this crucial step for the benefit of their students.  It isn’t possible for students to take risks if they feel they will be judged.  Willingness to experiment, take risks and make changes are very important prerequisites for being a singer.  Unless you happen to be blessed with perfect singing coordination that has never been interfered with, the learning process for singing will have to include trying new concepts and integrating them into your own singing voice.

I always tell new students that the teaching studio is like a scientific laboratory, a place for them to experiment with their own voices in safety under friendly guidance.  I also tell them it is not only alright for them to make mistakes, but it is actually important that they do so.  Even when in a supportive environment, it can be difficult for a student not to be judgmental about his/her own mistakes.  When I frame them as an important part of the learning process, it makes it much easier for the student to relax and release the need to be “perfect”.  In this inner world of profound subtlety, knowing what is wrong is usually just as essential or even more essential than knowing what is right.  The all-important coordination of the various parts that make the whole vocal mechanism is on a continuum.  Too little energy is not correct and neither is too much.  The balance has to be found.  Having the experience of doing too little and doing too much makes it much easier for the singer to recognize what actually is balanced and what is the healthiest functioning for the voice.

It is crucial for the student to begin to learn to become aware of his/her own body and of the small differences in sensations that occur when attempting to accomplish different vocal tenants.  When the student is aware, he/she can then truly being to participate fully in the learning process.  Experimenting, observing the results and analyzing how to adapt are the crux of self-monitoring and the ability to develop a healthy vocal technique.  Most students only have voice lessons once a week.  The rest of the time, they need to monitor their own singing, using what has been learned in the lessons as guidance.  The more aware a student is and the more able to analyze his/her own singing, the faster progress can be made.

Under these circumstances, singers are able to experience the type of joy that both the learning process and singing should beget.  Healthy learning evokes a natural sense of wonder and engagement.  Learning about one’s self is particularly compelling.  That type of learning is very empowering for the student.  Students should always be empowered by their teacher versus being told to rely on their expertise and authority.

The Voice Lesson

Many people have misconceptions about what voice lessons entail.  If they give it much thought prior to beginning, they assume that voice lessons are for learning music, singing through pieces, etc.  In actuality, voice lessons are for becoming aware of how you produce your voice, also called your vocal technique, exploring and mastering a better technical coordination (as given by the teacher) into your voice and then learning how to apply that new coordination to songs and arias.  A real voice lesson with a qualified teacher is focused on technique, not just singing through pieces.  Technique is what makes substantial changes in the quality of sound in the voice.

I find it interesting that so many singers always want to sing well all of the time in their voice lessons.  If they make a mistake, they become apologetic, make excuses or get upset.  A voice lesson is a place where singers come to learn to sing better!  When I explain that I am not judging them and that it is important to make mistakes in order to be able to feel what is the best coordination, my singers relax and can really begin their own journey towards their optimum voice.

When working with children, I will often work more on learning music for a while, simply to get them used to having lessons, while working on technique only gradually and unconsciously through simple vocalises.  Once I judge that they (1) are used to the process of having lessons, (2) are attuned to changes that occur in their voices when doing vocalises correctly versus incorrectlyand (3) have the necessary attention span and focus, I begin to center the lessons on technique, asking them to become more aware of how they are singing.  With most children, it is important to build one skill at a time, not asking them to do too much.  Some highly-motivated children are able to balance several concepts at one time and can progress more quickly as a consequence.

Working methodically and easily with fragile young voices is key.  Under no circumstances should they be encouraged to sing loudly or push their voices, since this could create irreparable damage over time.  As children get older and begin to turn into teenagers, their voices get closer to adulthood and they are capable of accomplishing more technical work during a voice lesson.

With adults, I naturally work on a higher level.  I introduce one or two new exercises per lesson, depending upon the level of the student, instructing the student on exactly how the exercise should be done and briefly explaining the concept behind each one.  It is important for adult students to understand these concepts behind the vocalises, because the totality of the concepts make up the ideal coordination for singing.  Understanding them will help the student realize how the parts play into the whole.  Most of the vocalises I give are from the Swedish-Italian School, hundreds of years old and time-tested to train the voice in a healthy vocal production.  Because the exercises are what train the voice, they are not easy.  The true learning is in the vocalises!  Each vocalise teaches one or more important aspect of vocal coordination and to accomplish the coordination correctly, the vocalise needs to be done in a certain way.  I work with the student in the lesson, carefully monitoring how they sing the vocalises and helping raise their own awareness.

While working on vocalises with me, students begin to experience the range of sensations associated with the execution of the various vocalises.  Only by experimenting, making “mistakes”, getting feedback from a teacher, trying again and finding the sensation of “good” coordination, does the singer have the sensations of exactly what makes up a good coordination.  These sensations are absolutely crucial, because they essentially form guideposts for what is good, healthy singing coordination and what is not.  This is the crux of learning vocal technique.  Once a singer has experienced “good” coordination, I ask them to repeat it throughout the lesson as much as possible to reinforce the new habit.  The goal is to work on changing the old habit for the new, better coordinated one.

Our brains are wired to prefer the familiar.  It contains well-worn pathways for those behaviors that are habitual for us.  So, when trying to replace an old habit with a new one, we are fighting against our own biology.  Change takes time, persistence and patience.  The more the student can keep the new, good coordination going when singing, the more the brain is learning to accept the new habit instead of automatically reverting to the old.

Some singers learn to associate good singing with the sound that they hear.  This is a dangerous practice for two reasons.  First, singers hear their own voices from the inside through the skull, while everyone else hears it simply through air.  So, singers never get to truly hear what they sound like.  Using sound as a gauge can lead the singer astray, since what sounds good to the singer doesn’t sound nearly as good to everyone else and vice versa.  Second, singers sound very different in different spaces.  If a singer gets used to the sound of his/her voice in one small room and then performs in a much larger room, his/her voice will not sound the same and the singer will then push to sing louder to get the accustomed results.  Using sensations as a guide is a much more reliable and healthier method in the long-run.  Because students are not able to judge themselves by listening, they need a reliable ear to guide them.  Thus, taking lessons from a qualified voice teacher is by far the best to learn how to sing.

Practicing

How a singer practices when alone is the single most important factor in determining successful technical growth.  Practicing should be done intelligently and consistently.  Even advanced students can fall into the trap of simply doing a few vocalises unthinkingly as a warm-up and then singing through music.  That type of practicing is only helpful when your vocal technique is already set and no changes need to be made.

When working on your technique, you need to take the specific ideas you addressed in your previous few lessons and apply them to your practice.  This sounds easy, but it’s not.  It actually takes a great deal of patience and restraint.  It goes against singers’ inborn desire to sing without stopping.  Intelligent practicing is doing the vocalises, remembering the felt experience of doing them successfully in the lesson and analyzing each one to see how it measures up to that felt experience.  If the experience is different somehow, you need to stop, take a moment, think whatever is appropriate for the vocalise and try again.  This is when awareness and having made mistakes previously is so helpful.  By being tuned in to your felt sensations of singing, you can utilize those differences between what is right and wrong and essentially teach yourself during each practice session.  You are your own teacher!  Voice teachers offer technical understanding of singing coordination and are guides along your path.

It is crucial to stop, go back and make changes when necessary.  This is the only way to change your habits.  The new, good habit has to be reinforced as much as possible.  Just breezing through vocalises without making sure you are doing them with the best coordination you can muster will reinforce your current habits.

Each vocalise I teach encourages a specific coordination that is a part of the whole coordination for singing.  Many vocalises address more than one type of coordination.  When practicing, keep in mind the goals for that particular vocalise.  By picking certain vocalises that work on the same or related concepts, a focused practice session can be crafted.  This can be necessary at times, especially when starting a new technique or recovering from illness.  On the other hand, picking a series of vocalises that cover all of the basic concepts can be an excellent way to work on singing coordination as a whole.  Intelligent singing is also about knowing what vocalises and what concepts are easy for you to accomplish in comparison to those vocalises and concepts that are more challenging.  Doing the easier ones first before tackling the more challenging ones can often help.  The more you understand your technical needs and goals, the more you will be able to effectively craft personalized practice sessions for yourself.  Self-awareness and knowledge are key.

Sometimes it can be helpful to focus only on one concept, like releasing the jaw back and down, during a practice session.  All of the vocalises can be done while trying to make sure that function is being built into the technique.  This does not take the place of doing the vocalises with the concepts they are meant to teach in mind, but can be a helpful supplement.

Once you have practiced your vocalises while focusing on technical concepts, it is time to apply those concepts to repertoire.  This is a crucial step to the learning process.  Don’t expect those technical concepts to transfer themselves!  You should take one of the concepts at a time and work on the song or aria with that concept in mind.  It is often helpful to do one repetition of all or part of a vocalise emphasizing that concept first and then singing a phrase.  Repeat this process over and over.  If you were not able to successfully incorporate the technical concept, try that phrase again.  After you have worked through a section, then switch to another concept and work on the same music with that concept in mind.  Go back and see if you can alternate thinking about both of the concepts.  Working this way strongly encourages the new habits in the music, but again takes a great deal of patience.  The more links you can make between the vocalises and the music, the faster your technical progress will be.

Consistency of practice is the other big key to success.  Even the most talented singer with the help of a wonderful teacher will not progress quickly without practicing.  Practicing consistently reinforces good habits of singing coordination and nothing else can take its place.  Singers need to think of themselves as Olympic atheletes.  They certainly set a practice schedule and stick to it.  Without discipline and sacrifice, it isn’t possible to be an Olympean.  Singers need to show the exact same type of discipline and sacrifice.  You should aim to practice 5-6 times a week.  If a full practice session isn’t possible, still set aside 10-15 minutes to do a few vocalises.  They are more crucial than singing repetoire.

There is a certain approach of singing only vocalises for an extended period that was the traditional method of training in the Italian School.  Luciano Pavarotti is an example of a recent singer who had that type of training.  It has the advantage of strongly reinforcing good habit of coordination before working on repertoire, which is by its nature more challenging.  For those with loads of discipline and a desire to improve quickly, this approach can help.

It is in the best interest of the motivated singer to understand the learning process, in order to get the most of out voice lessons and practice sessions.  Too many singers give up responsibility of their voices to voice teachers.  No one else can sing for you.  It is your instrument.  Use the guidelines in this article to become more aware, practice intelligently and be empowered to take control of your own learning process.

 

For more articles and information, visit my website, http://www.thebricelandstudio.com

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