FEAR – Or Doing Versus Talking About Doing

Physical skills, which singing is, must be learned by doing. Most skills, like dance, but sports, too, are taught by those who have become experts at doing the process themselves. They impart their wisdom, in one-to-one sessions, and in classes. They teach what they know from life experience. I can’t imagine a golf pro who didn’t golf or a dance teacher who had never actually danced. Somehow, though, singing seems to be treated differently and I wonder why.

It is true that just because someone has done something, they may not understand how they do it. It is true, also, that knowing what one does, doesn’t mean that you can relate it to someone else such that it helps them do it in the same manner. But not to have experienced it at all and still teach it……how does that work? On the basis of observation alone, what is the criteria for deciding how to coordinate the necessary behaviors and attitudes? It seems to me that such teaching adds to the considerable confusion about what’s going on, most especially in the case of singing.

“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach”. An awful aphorism, but one that turns up anyway. I suppose that a lot of people who never had careers, or had them but not at a very high level of public acclaim or financial recompense, “retire” into teaching because, what else can they do? Being a professional or professional-level amateur singer doesn’t much prepare you for anything else. What does one do with all those years of making musical vocal sounds? Let them go to waste?

On the other hand, people who play piano in singing studios often go on to teach singing, even if they have never sung themselves. This has been accepted in singing since its beginnings. No one has ever studied if such teachers are better, worse or the same as those who teach from having first been singers themselves. It would an interesting study.

In my opinion, one of the key ingredients to effectively teaching Contemporary Commercial Music, or pop, rock, jazz, country etc., is to be willing to make the sounds of those styles oneself. My Institute at Shenandoah requires that everyone who wants to pass the certification exam be willing to make the sounds, (at least in a small way) not just talk about them. The reason I did this is because some sounds that are pretty harsh can be made without vocal stress and some sounds that are pleasant can be made with a good deal of tension that is covered up by acoustic patterns that please the ear of the listener. The best way to tell the difference is to learn to feel the process of sound-making at a subtle level. Interior musculature differences can be perceived, although not by a beginner, and not by someone who has been taught that to “feel” anything in the throat is bad. The ears can be fooled, if not backed up by some keen kinesthetic awareness. The eyes, too, don’t always have anything to look at that seems signficant.

This brings me to the following. Why are classical singers so afraid to disturb their vocal production? What is the level of fear that makes them hold on so tightly to what they have learned? This isn’t an unusual attitude, although I grant that not everyone feels that way.

Here is my answer. If you have invested thousands of dollars, years and years of time, and both mental and emotional energy trying to make your voice do something it was never intended to do (remember science says the vocal folds were evolved to protect the lungs from foreign bodies, not for sound making. That came later), you get very invested in the results you have produced. Your voice becomes a “Ming Dynasty” vase or a Rembrandt painting…..you don’t want to do anything that might “damage” or disturb it. Then, of course, your voice and your singing become a museum piece, and energy has to be expended on maintaining it “as it has always been”. This isn’t the greatest mindset to be in if you are teaching. One has to assume that the majority of time the people being taught are youngsters or beginners. Do they want to learn how to be a “museum quality replica” or do they want to know how to sing “what’s happening now”? Answer that yourself.

Example: I have a bunch of students who do experimental theater. One of them was creating a piece that called for all sorts of sounds….grunts, inhales, squeals, noisy exhale, growls…..you name it. When he had an occasion to work with opera singers his reaction was “what’s wrong with these singers? Why don’t they want to make the sounds I am asking them to make?” I explained that growling was likely not on the menu of preferred sounds for someone who might be singing Mozart after this particular work was over. An understandable attitude to me, but perhaps not to him.

Conversely, when this artist was asked to perform a simple Broadway show tune, he was hesitant. Not his expertise, not his world. Not so different, then, the position of the opera singer who was also reluctant to go away from operatic sounds.

If, however, we aren’t willing to continue to be open to new sounds and new patterns of making sound (or new styles of music), how do we expect the students to be open? Aren’t we supposed to be role models? A cardinal rule of leadership is: Never ask anyone to do something you yourself would not do. If you don’t “walk the talk” (sing the sound) then how can you expect your student to do so and do it well? Where are their auditory role models — the ones who know how to do it properly who are acting as the guides of the voice?

Are you afraid to let go of “your sound”? Are you afraid to sound like a rock singer, lest it ruin your voice? Then don’t teach rockers. Have the integrity to teach from what you have at least attempted to do (it doesn’t mean you have to earn your living singing rock songs), or say that you just don’t go there. Face your fears, but overcome them. Voices, like people, are resilient and adaptable, especially in an atmosphere of joyful experimentation. If you treat your voice gently, with respect, and go slowly, fear isn’t necessary. To paraphrase the saying…..”Be the sound you want your student to become.” But please don’t teach what you can’t or won’t even attempt to do. The world of singing doesn’t need more of that attitude.

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One thought on “FEAR – Or Doing Versus Talking About Doing”

  1. It is so good to hear your “voice”. I was at the workshop in Virginia and I expressed how it was a life changing experience for me. I only was able to attend level one so I am still “finding my way” as a novice. I eat up every word you say. I am glad to be a part of this discussion group and one day if I ever get our picture finally loaded on my computer I will send it to you so you’ll remember who it is who is talking to you! Jody Haas

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