You Can’t Win Either Way

Voice Science or Vocal Pedagogy? You can’t win either way.

You need both but you can’t get married to either.

William Vennard, Marilyn Horne’s teacher, was one of the first people to do voice research with Bell Labs. His book, one of the best (and my personal favorite), Singing The Mechanism and The Technic, is clear and precise. Written for classical singers at about 1962, it is  comprehensive and practical. I have read it so many times, my first copy fell apart and now my second copy is looking dog-eared. Every serious singing teacher should read this book (and many others), more than once. Vennard successfully combines what was known about voice science in his day with the long tradition of classical vocal pedagogy as passed down over the generations. The book strikes a balanced tone between the two.

The folks who use “voice science” to sell their wares are not, in the truest sense, scientists. As someone who was studied in one of the world’s most prestigious music acoustic labs by the “founding father” of vocal acoustic research (my words, not his), Dr. Johan Sundberg, I understand voice science very well. I do not call myself a scientist any more than I say I am a jazz vocalist or a rock singer, even though the video posted on this site has me singing in those two styles. (I am a classical soprano and a music theater specialist). I do not use the science to show that I am “right”. I have videos of my larynx and vocal folds and show when I teach, and other research videos also, but I do not use them to claim that what people are seeing is “the right way”, I just show them so participants can watch the anatomy and physiology as it is operating in a live person or in several people. I have incorporated my knowledge of science into vocal pedagogy and I teach as a singing teacher, not a voice scientist.

If you looked at the video of my throat recorded while I sang, and you knew anatomy and physiology, you would see the same things I see. You would also see different things in other singers’ throats whose sound is similar to my own. Are their throats “right” and my throat “wrong”? Of course not! Would watching the video help you do what you see? Probably not, unless you were very unusual.

There are, however, teachers of singing who use research they have done to “prove” their methods are scientific. They have videos showing what their throats or vocal folds are doing to make a specific point about their own teaching principles. It is important to understand that their videos do not prove anything other than they are videos. That’s not science, that’s TV.

An ethical scientist is not for sale. A scientist does not do research by “custom order”. If you enter into research to prove something, it’s not research….it’s marketing. Research has theories to test, ideas to explore, not preconceived goals to prove.

Paying no attention to science is a good way to get lost in vocal study. Understanding voice science can help make whatever kind of training you get make sense. If it doesn’t make sense, either you don’t understand what you are being taught or it’s wrong. Knowing voice science (in isolation) doesn’t mean you will know how to apply it to yourself or to a student as a way to improve singing. You can be an expert in science and sing badly and teach poorly. Science can explain things to us but it cannot teach us how to make the science into practical, applicable behavior changes. It cannot make you sound great when you sing, but knowing it might prevent you from singing in a way that is truly terrible. MIGHT.

You Can’t Win Either Way – Be Careful

Find the middle path, otherwise you can’t win either way. What Mr. Vennard wrote in 1963 is still valid as basic vocal information, but it applies mostly to classical vocal production. If, however, you want to re-invent the wheel when you start singing or teaching CCM styles, stop. That isn’t necessary and it doesn’t make sense either. If it doesn’t feel good and sound good, stop. Singing is still more important than science. Don’t get them confused.


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