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Vocal Pedagogy: An Evolving Tradition

Chief Requirements for the Teacher: Experience, a sensitive ear, and the gift of intuition and individualization. 

- Giovanni Battista Lamperti, The Technics of Bel Canto


The most common approach to teaching voice is similar to the conventional doctor’s method. When a singer shows up with vocal problems (symptoms), the teacher offers “medicine” for each problem. The unspoken assumption, as with the conventional doctor, is that before the symptoms occurred the singer had no vocal production issues, so if the teacher eliminates the symptoms, all vocal problems will be solved. This makes no more sense than believing we are always perfectly healthy until we get sick. Even singers with no symptoms of unhealthy singing can improve their natural process. 

- W. Stephen Smith, The Naked Voice


Our advanced knowledge of anatomy, physiology, motor learning and psychology can and should promote great advances in vocal pedagogy. 




When I introduce a student to my pedagogical approach, I begin by explaining that the methods I use are designed to keep them involved in the creative process of singing without seeking to directly influence the sounds and sensations they produce.

While traditional approaches have generally focused on producing a desired sound (the outcome), these advances now make it possible to focus more on engaging in the activities that will achieve the desired sound (the process). 

There are a number of problems inherent in a technique that aims at producing a particular sound:

  • There are many different ways to produce a desirable sound, and the most expedient way to do it is almost never the right one.
  • You cannot truly hear your own sound while you're singing.
  • You cannot simultaneously sing and evaluate your sound because dividing your attention significantly diminishes your singing.
  • Major developments in technique often involve going through a period where your sound becomes less stable (i.e. worse) while old habits die away and new skills are ingrained.
  • If you have a preconceived idea about the sound you'll end up with, it will keep you from developing the uniquely beautiful, often surprising sound that is the real fulfillment of your potential.

If you're always evaluating the sound rather than examining the overall procedure, you'll likely take the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach to technique, ignoring what already sounds fine and focusing on "fixing" whatever is undesirable or unbalanced: It's too dark; it's too bright; the vibrato is too slow or too fast; the sound in the low, middle and high ranges don't match; it's too fuzzy, or too shrill.

However, these undesirable qualities signal technical flaws that must be addressed globally, not just patched up in those parts of the range where they're more likely to be revealed. The sound is likely the result of something you're doing all the time, even if it's only reflected in the sound in certain areas. An understanding of anatomy and movement will reveal what you're doing, and an understanding of motor learning will make it possible to stop doing it and choose to do something else.

Here's an example. Suppose you sing with ease, vibrancy and good resonance in your middle voice but find that once you get above the passaggio your singing becomes strained, your voice straight-tones, and your resonance becomes shallow.

If you're determined to do whatever it takes to improve the sound, it may seem that the solution is to manipulate your breath pressure (i.e. push) until you get the desired rate of vibrancy and shove your larynx down with the base of your tongue to create more space and resonance. It will still feel strained, but now you've got what passes for vibrancy and resonance, so you think this is just how you have to sing above the passaggio.

If instead, you investigate the physiological cause of the tensions and shallowness in this part of your range, what you discover will likely prove beneficial for your technique everywhere in your range. A number of things could be creating this problem, including insufficient airflow, tongue tension, jaw tension, over-heavy registration, or poor vowel definition. You'll then find that these issues were keeping your middle-voice singing from being as full and free as possible, but because it sounded good and felt comfortable you didn't realize it could be improved upon. Developing the coordination that will make your high range free, vibrant and resonant will greatly enhance the rest of your range as well.

There's no substitute for a good ear – it's one of the most important tools a voice teacher can possess. When an opera star successfully transitions from a performance career to teaching, it's usually due to the fact that all those years of being surrounded by great singing have made them skilled at discerning in their students the seeds of a professional quality sound and encouraging its development. But if they're serious about becoming as fine a teacher as they are a performer, they'll need to augment their skill set.

A good ear is only one of many tools a teacher needs to ensure progress among all members of their studio rather than just those with good intuition and imitative skills. The development of a comprehensive, free, and powerful technique depends on developing the movements and coordination that produce an outstanding overall sound.

Be mindful of the outcome, but keep your attention on the process.



Time for your technique to evolve? Get in touch to schedule a free 30-minute initial consultation and learn how focusing on the creative process rather than the sounds you're producing can transform your experience of singing: 







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