How We Think About Singing

Everyone organizes the physical world through their five senses. We take in sight, sound, touch, taste and smell and calibrate the world around us. Each of the senses has it’s special place in the brain and sets off certain events there, so we experience a constant interplay between brain and world, world and brain.

Our culture is primarily one that is visual/kinesthetic. This means that we get a lot of visual stimulation all day long and also a good amount of information that is aimed at feeling, both tactile and emotional. We in the city get a lot of auditory stimulation, too, whether we want it or not. There are certain professions that would involve smelling various things all day, and certainly the cooks and chefs of the world are heavily involved with both smell and taste.

As vocalists we deal quite a bit with sound (both musical and vocal) and also with feeling (both movement and emotion), but also in how we look (on the outside) and how we visualize the process of making sound (inside the mind). Smell and taste probably don’t count for much in singing unless we use them as sense memory while performing. The inner and outer feedback loops need to be congruent in order for singing to be reliable and replicable. In other words how you think about the sound, (how it looks to you in your mind), how you feel about it and how it sounds, all have to be congruent. THIS IS CRUCIAL.

Except for me, I have never seen anyone address this as a topic as a part of the process of being a singer or learning to sing.

How do we store in the brain (mind) the experience of making music through the voice?

From personal experience, it is different in every person. In fact, one of the miracles of teaching is that a person who is your student can come at the experience of singing in just about any way including one that is completely different from yours.

I have students who think of their voices as instruments first. The sounds they choose to make are driven exclusively by musical parameters and they are willing to get to those musical expressions in any way they can. I have students who are driven by character. They are actors first who think about what the character is doing, what drives the person, why are they saying/singing these words. The sound comes in whatever way it does. I have singers who are interested in telling me a story, not based on a character, but who also listen to the music and sing in a way that is integrally part of a chord structure or a particular kind of musical form. They want to honor both the music and the words equally. Others might want as specific kind of sound in which to do the singing (classical singers are in that group) as being paramount. They will need to always put vocal sound with musical and linguistic parameters together in a very specific way. I have students who are thinking mostly of rhythms, of how the words are used in terms of beats and rests, short and long, loud and soft (beat box vocalists and some rock singers are in this group). I have students who think intervalicly, striving always to be accurate with intonation and very quick movement. Everything else comes after that. I have students who are going to learn a dance first and then hopefully be able to sing at the same time. I have singers who have to sing particular pitches in a specific song or songs that they have been hired to perform and discover that the pitches are mostly out of their normal range. If they need the job (and that is typically the case) they must find a way to sing whatever it is, and that is what drives the whole piece.

I could go on.

Sometimes it helps to ask the vocalist: how are you thinking here? What was on your mind while you were making that sound? Be prepared for some wild answers. If it is a nine-tone scale on ah, and you are looking for it to be consistent in both quality and volume but it’s not, and the student says she was thinking about riding her bike on a bumpy road, would that be useful or get in the way?????????? If you have never asked the question, you can’t possibly know the vastly different kinds of answers you will get. And, if you want the person to learn to have control over the sound, they have to think about having control over the sound.


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