Philosophy 1 (Science in Vocal Pedagogy)

The next post will begin directly with laryngeal anatomy. What was supposed to be an opening paragraph about the importance of scientific knowledge in vocal pedagogy became long enough to merit a separate edition.

In the most natural voice, as already explained, the phonation process is spontaneous, and this is fortunate. It would be horrible if one had to manipulate the many tiny muscles involved in the phonation process. It is however of benefit to understand how the laryngeal structure behaves because the muscular imbalances that occur in vocal production occur unconsciously and because of the speaker or singer’s desire to produce a specific sound. When the mechanism is balanced, it is very flexible and able to produce a palate of colorful sounds as infinite as the imagination. It is not dangerous to create any of these sounds once in a while. Long-term imbalances are a result of chronic unbalanced use. Screaming many times in a row could injure the vocal folds. Speaking lower or higher than is appropriate for the given voice will cause a lasting unbalance if the inappropriate speech level is habitual. Such habits are difficult to resolve given the complex nature of the muscle system involved, and the problem of resolving faulty habits is exacerbated when the speaker or singer personally identifies with the sound that is being created (i.e. believes such a sound to be his or her natural voice). How to resolve the problems that a singer exhibits requires intimate knowledge of the workings of the vocal instrument.

The relationship between student and teacher is as fluid a system as human nature, and the relationship between a singer and his/her voice (yes singers often relate to the voice as if it were another entity altogether) is a very emotional one. The teacher’s part has at least two facets to it: 1) the relationship to the singer, which as any teacher/student relationship will be dynamic, psychologically ever-changing. 2) The relationship to the singer’s voice which should be as objective as possible. The relative objectivity of part 2 will render the more dynamic and fluid nature of part 1 much more manageable. In short, for the secondary relationship between the two human beings involved in the teacher/student relationship to be successful, the primary contractual relationship must be sound. This requires that the teacher should have a product worthy of the price that the student is paying. The product should be the teacher’s knowledge of the voice.

There are intuitive ways of perceiving what the voice does and equally intuitive ways of addressing technical issues. Traditional methods of teaching voice have developed because there was little empirical knowledge about the workings of the voice. As already stated, the workings of the voice depend upon the singer’s imagination or intuition. It seems fit that treating or training the voice should also be intuitive. I firmly believe that intuition must remain a vital component in teaching singing (beyond training the voice). However, I do not see scientific knowledge as an enemy of intuition. I believe that all intuitive processes are based on knowledge. Intuition is often a reaction to the limits of deductive reasoning. When one reaches a block, intuition often comes to the rescue. It is my belief that the greater our knowledge or capacity for deductive reasoning, the greater our capacity for intuition or creative reasoning.

Even though it is possible to teach voice without having the knowledge of anatomy and acoustics that is available to all of us, I find it morally questionable that a teacher would not want to know as much as possible about the nature of his/her field. But before we condemn every teacher who does not have a grasp of anatomy and acoustics relative to the voice (nor should anyone assume that I know everything there is to know about these subjects), it is important to remember that this information is complicated and is usually presented in a way that is interesting as the anatomy of a pet rock. Furthermore, I have not yet found the book that discusses anatomy beyond the points of origin and insertion of muscles and their basic functions. I believe we must be able to conceive of exercises that target specific muscular function. We cannot see the muscles at work during singing. However, if we have a clear understanding of how each muscular action contributes to the whole, we can devise exercises that focus on specific actions. Relative to phonation, one colleague once said to me that it was unwise to focus on the individual actions of laryngeal muscles since they all work to produce phonation. My response was in the form of a question: “How do we remedy imbalance in the combined functions of those muscles?” This is where I think science and intuition become compatible.

Vocal scientists deal with everything from the physics of fluid dynamics relative to skin tissues to muscular biomechanics and beyond. No vocal teacher in his/her right mind is going to concentrate on those details while trying to help the student sing a better staccato D# in the cadenza of Caro nome. In fact, many teachers avoid this dilemma altogether by avoiding science. The scientifically-minded voice teacher often misconstrues the little knowledge we have about the voice as pure science. The truth about applied vocal science for the professional singer is that it is not pure science and never will be. As a scientifically-minded voice teacher, I believe that our job is to learn as much as possible about how we can impact the function of the vocal instrument, and much of the scientific information that is out there can provide us with a means of cause and effect. Ergo, by suggesting that the student does “exercise A” (cause), the diagnosed vocal malfunction should disappear and the student should then produce a sound that is balanced relative to the nature of the student’s voice (effect). If only it were that easy! Our enemy is time. Habitual vocal malfunction is a result of often mild, unconscious abuse against the balanced nature of the vocal instrument. The resulting imbalance is therefore muscularly programmed and muscularly toned. To relearn original balance requires retraining the instrument by influencing new muscular habits that will meet with resistance from the old. Therefore effect will not be immediate. And the amount of time necessary for such effect cannot be determined, because the history of the malfunction is unknown, and the nature of the cause is also undetermined. If a teacher prescribes an exercise to remedy a fault, it cannot be ascertained how long it will take to see results, because the amount of time that the student practices cannot be truly regulated. The speaking habits of the students will have an effect on the relative efficiency or inefficiency of the practice regimen. How long the student has suffered from noticeable unbalanced singing will be a factor. Dozens of other factors relating to lifestyle will come into play. However, this does not categorically refute that the exercises prescribed by the teacher do not work. It simply means that it is not possible to observe the workings of the vocal instrument as easily as it might be to observe the progress of an Olympic athlete training for the marathon. I believe firmly that knowledge of muscular function and acoustics does impact substantially the process of learning to sing. I will begin with a discussion of laryngeal musculature and function and hope to present it here in a manner that can be easily grasped such that those who have felt alienated by scientific jargon might find the subject matter more approachable. © 01/01/2008

Coming next: Phonation 2 (Laryngeal Anatomy- Intrinsic musculature)

5 thoughts on “Philosophy 1 (Science in Vocal Pedagogy)

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  1. I never get tired of reading what you have to say.I love the concept you touch upon today, where you say “the relationship between a singer and his/her voice (yes singers often relate to the voice as if it were another entity altogether) is a very emotional one”Being a hobbyist singer, whose main job has been childrearing, I often make parallels between the relationship with my voice and the relationship with my children. Indeed, I often view my voice as another “child” of mine.Just as there are so many parenting styles, and so many things we want from our children, and so many ways to approach our relationships with our children, there are the same choices with the way we treat and relate to and “parent” our voice. Developing the voice being a task that can be compared to the task of raising a child.The analogy really goes very far. There is an underlying science to raising children, and we can read about it, etc…, but applying the “science” depends on so many factors, and, like in developing the voice, there is a major component of intuition, and applying the science of it becomes an art. (Same is true with doctors in medicine.)Just as we have to examine what we want from our children, think about our motives, it is also good to become aware of our motives regarding our “other children” of our voices.If a mother expects perfection from her child because she wants the child to bring her some kind of glory in the world, the pressure on the child can be detrimental to the health of the child. Same thing with the voice.Also, if the mother expects the child to conform to the image of another child, a picturebook image she has of what a child should be, the child can be harmed by the expectation because the individuality of the child has not been respected, and the child is not given the space and freedom that he/she needs to become what she truly is meant to be. This too can happen with the voice.I also want to mention that sometimes parents ignorance of the science behind child-rearing can be harmful. Some parents are able to do a great job based on instinct, and also if they had good parental models who somehow had the natural abilities of parenthood. But others need a little training and help, exposure to child development so that they can be reasonable about what can be expected/demanded of a child and what cannot.I leave it to you to carry the parallel further, because it goes on and on. There is just so much to it.But this is one of the things that I love so much about you and your thought, JR, that you penetrate these truths.Please keep all this coming.


  2. I look forward to reading more of your entries on this subject. As a singer who has gone through several teachers and 10 years of lessons, but still feels like I do not have my technique established, I am seeking information that can help me improve on my own. Right now, I don’t know how to apply this physiological knowledge to the actual activity of singing, but I’m hoping to get some ideas through your blog. Thanks for doing this!


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