Frightening Instruction

It’s frightening to listen to instruction that has no basis in reality and that rests entirely on ideas that are not grounded in any rational codified system that is broadly accepted and widely acknowledged as being valid. This, of course, happens every day if you are dealing with vocal instruction. When it happens in a master class and everyone is nodding and clucking approval, one has to wonder if the entire room thinks the Emperor is still wearing his clothes.

There is so much nonsense in the profession as to be laughable, but sadly, the game that is played is that gobbledegook is actual information. First and foremost, in order to be SANE, people must stay in touch with the body and how it processes whatever data it experiences, as it happens in time, moment by moment.

We live in a society that thinks its feelings. If you are asked, “How do you feel about that?” and you respond by saying, “I am having trouble getting my work done,” that is not a feeling. You might feel angry or sad or frightened that you are not getting your work done. It might make your chest feel heavy, or make it hard to breathe or make you clench your fists. Those are feelings and sensations that reside in the body. The way you feel about having trouble getting your work done has to begin by being either a sensation or an emotion, located in your body as somatic experience. Mostly, people have no idea what the previous statement means. Guess what? That will make you very confused and you will find it hard to trust your own judgement, to follow your “gut” or to know “how to listen to yourself”. If you are a performing artist, that’s deadly.

In this state, it is easy to get lulled into thinking just about anything and it is easy to be brainwashed. Beliefs not based on trust of your body and its experiences will lead you astray. Emotions are feelings and sensations and must pass through your body as feelings and sensations. How you react to them is open but you have to experience them to react to them. Think about that. How can you learn to direct something you don’t actually experience?

Information that is meaningful has to be heard, seen, felt, and sometimes tasted and smelled, for instance, such as when one is studying to be a chef. Singers need to hear and see and those things operate through the ears and eyes but also through the mind as visual images and cognitive recognition of things like pitch (notes), volume, and other auditory cues. They have to listen and look, inside and outside. Seems obvious, no?

Instruction which tells the singer feel this, don’t feel that, or release this or make that happen, is poor. It is better to ask a student singer, “When you read these words, what do they mean to you? What is your reaction to them? How do they make you feel? What is your reaction to that feeling? Now, if you were having that experience in your own life, right now, and you had to say those words, how would you sound? Let’s find out!” Then, in exploring this (together, teacher and student) the singer would have a chance to work towards making a sound that has something to do with their life experience and that would give the voice natural power and meaning. Most vocal instruction doesn’t go near that, sometimes even in a master class. Not good.

No, it’s not a substitute for basic vocal function learned through exercises but if you can already sing decently and no one helps you connect that sound to meaningful personal expression, who cares? That’s why many people don’t like opera. A lot of it sounds like loud, empty howling.

Voice teacher gobbledegook:

Open the space, make it vertical. Keep it high, don’t drop. Don’t do your “singer thing”. Stop being hung up, be free. Try to make it looser, don’t hold your jaw. Watch that you don’t fall out of the buzz. Keep the spin going. Draw up from the belly more. Want it, really want it. Go for it. Stop thinking too much. Remember how that felt. Keep the dome going.

B A L O N E Y.    S P A M.    K O O L   A I D.   S C A R Y.

Translation in plain English:

Let your jaw go straight down. Keep your mouth/lips in an oval shape. Smile. Focus your attention on what you are saying. Allow your body to move. Allow your jaw to hang as loosely as possible while you pronounce the syllables. Articulate as clearly as you can while you sing. If you can hear and feel a kind of firmness in the sound, stay with it. If you can sing softly and easily without a lot of pressure on your belly or your throat, that’s great. Be sure to contract (lift, engage, work with) your abdominal muscles while you are singing. Be very clear, as the character, that this is a very important moment and the stakes are high. Know what it is that is your character is saying and why and then sing as if it were vital that you be heard and understood. Focus your thoughts on that and only on that. While you practice, pay as much attention to what you hear and feel as you can and make note of those things so you can return to them next time. Remember that as you get more skilled in your singing, changes in your soft palate will allow you to sing a sound that is fuller and has more harmonic richness because the vowel sound shape, inside your mouth, will change.

Advice. Suggestions. Queries. Guidelines. POSITIVE statements (no “don’t’s”). And no one should be given more than ONE of these at a time. ONE.

Yes, I recently went to another master class. Yes, I was frustrated (angry, in my gut). Yes, you’ve heard all this before.

Someday, an entire audience will know that this kind of teaching is meaningless and they will not sit there making excuses for the teacher because the instruction is “artistic” or “creative” or “passionate” or “well-intended”. We’re not there yet. Not at all.

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