The Singer’s Crucial External Ear


Most highly-skilled musicians, after extensive study, can look forward to a time of no longer needing a teacher to monitor them.  By then they have the knowledge and ability to monitor themselves both musically and technically.  At that point, they work with teachers to perfect specific pieces or spot-check technique, but otherwise work mainly on their own.  This is the ideal for professional musicians, but regrettably does not apply to singers.  Why is that the case?  That is because other musicians have the ability to hear themselves exactly as everyone else hears them, giving them accurate feedback to use to perfect their playing.  Singers hear their voices internally, resulting in a completely different tone quality in a numerous ways from what the external audience hears.  This feedback is completely inaccurate and using it as a guide has led many an unwary singer technically astray.  Singers need the crucial external ear of an excellent teacher to give them feedback throughout their development and careers, as will be discussed below.

Having an expert external ear while  making substantive technical changes is required for correct development.  It is all too easy for singers to get confused by the new sensations and sounds brought about by technical transformation.  This can make singers very insecure about their voice.  They need reassurance in weekly lessons that the sounds heard by everyone else are an improvement on their internal sounds.  Otherwise, they can backslide and lose precious time vacillating back and forth with their technique.  Since the internal sounds between the various registers sound as if they don’t match up in the least when sung correctly, singers also require the external ear to help them realize that these different sounds and sensations do indeed make a consistent-sounding and seamless voice to everyone else.

Once a singer has developed a solid technical base, it is still important to have a reliable external ear while making more refined technical changes.  These changes can seem just as difficult and overwhelming as other technical changes, so singers still need to be constantly given feedback and reminded of what the right technical choice is.  This is extremely important until the correct coordination becomes ingrained as the new default habit.  But also, the singer just needs reassurance that what sounds bad to him/her is actually beautiful to everyone else.  This is a paradox that singers have to deal with on a daily basis and is why singers need to learn to rely on the sensations while singing versus listening to themselves.

When a singer is at a more advanced level (auditioning and doing some performing), having that external ear is still crucial for success.  Singing an entire concert or role is demanding on the voice and proper preparation from a technical perspective is extremely important.  The standards expected of classical singers, even those just starting to perform, are extremely high.  Singers need to be given accurate feedback on what is happening technically at specific points throughout challenging repertoire and make changes to improve tone quality and stamina.  Working those refinements into the vocal technique ahead of time makes all the difference.

Having an expert external ear is a complete necessity when coping with the rigorous demands placed upon professional singers.  Between practicing, coaching, rehearsing and performing, singers can be pushed to their limit and need an expert available on a regular basis to help encourage and keep them headed technically in the right direction.  It is very easy for singers to push and press their voices, particularly when fatigued.  This can be very dangerous to a singer’s vocal health and career longevity.  Taking time to continue to study with an experienced teacher will give singers the feedback needed to keep singing healthily for the long-term.

Only when a singer has a solid, healthy, ingrained technique, is very experienced with his or her own voice, has an innate sensitivity and insight into his/her own vocal technique and does not have a demanding performance schedule is it really safe not to have the crucial external ear available on a regular basis.  Then checking in with a teacher every so often is feasible, because it is significantly easier to maintain a good technique with experience and little performance stress.  Even so, it is always better for all singers to avail themselves of an expert ear regularly to give them important feedback on their singing.

It can be tempting for singers to use coaches or singing colleagues as their external ear.  This is perfectly understandable, because they are often more readily available than teachers and are certainly cheaper.   But not all coaches and singers truly know how to recognize the very best technical singing is and how to achieve it.  If you want to use a coach or colleague as an external ear, you have to find out in a subtle way exactly how that person hears voices.  Assuming you have done your homework and trained your own ears to understand what the best classical singing sounds like, ask your potential external ear which singers s/he most admires and why.  The answer will be illuminating!  If that person appreciates the same singers as you do and for the same reasons, you both have a similar understanding of vocal technique and it could be a helpful collaboration for you.  If that person appreciates singers with obvious technical issues, it is best to look elsewhere.  Even though an external ear like this can prove very helpful, few coaches and singers are trained to hear the very small technical issues that, unchecked, could grow into much larger problems.  Only a very good teacher can help you regain and maintain a healthy, viable vocal technique.

It seems unfair that singers must continue working with teachers throughout their vocal lives, but it is the reality.  The nature of the instrument makes it almost impossible for a singer to develop and maintain a healthy technique without constant guidance.  Only with several decades of experience and a special sensitivity can a singer manage to monitor his/her own technique without the crucial external ear.


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