Sequential Learning

In singing, there isn’t really any specified sequential learning. It’s not like learning to read. First there are  the letters to learn — their names and how to write them. Then there are simple words and recognizing the sounds the letters represent. Then longer words and sentences, then building grammar and finally understanding abstract concepts of language.

With singing most teachers begin with breathing. The reasoning behind this, I think, is that a certain amount of air pressure in the lungs seems to help us make sound without straining in the throat. There are all kinds of ways to teach breathing but almost everyone agrees that you don’t breathe “up high” and move the chest up as you inhale, you breathe in “down low”, making some kind of movement in the area of the belly, and that during the exhale, something should continue to happen in the belly muscles. The shoulders should remain relaxed. After that, the agreement ceases.

Other teachers might begin with some kind of sound making, perhaps finding a lighter, higher pitched sound and singing it in some kind of descending pattern. Five note scales going down by half steps, or an octave arpeggio beginning on 8 and going down to 1 are common. There are descending slides and lips trills and other exercises, too.

Some teachers have pages of musical notes to be sung on various vowels or syllables, done in specific musical patterns and sequences, and give them to student to learn. Sometimes they use the same exercises with every student in every lesson and sometimes they change. Each teacher has his own approach.

Some teachers talk about “resonance” right away. They want the student to find “masque resonance” or “forward placement” and spend time looking for that. They may or may not explain “resonance” as a kind of acoustic behavior.

It’s possible to approach singing by learning a song. In doing the song, the teacher might make suggestions that fall into a kind of technical zone, particularly as related to breathing and pronunciation. Then there might be some discussion about what the song means and how to express that meaning.

Any kind of approach can work. In the hands of someone with a clear idea and the ability to communicate effectively, anything can be a useful teaching tool, particularly if the student is talented, able to explore on her own and willing to practice. Sooner or later, if the work continues long enough, and if the information being conveyed makes some kind of physical and musical sense, better singing will emerge. Even approaches that make no logical sense can work, not because of the specifics in the approach but because the person teaching can convey, sometimes through example, sometimes through flowery language, what the desired sounds should be.

There is a body of knowledge, however, in kinesthetic studies that has broken down physical learning, with awareness of how we develop, change and condition motor control, and the psychological or intellectual aspects of comprehension of those adjustments. In order to ascertain where to begin the training process and to determine what aspects of it are most appropriate for the student, the teacher has to have an objective way to assess and measure vocal function and personal characteristics at the outset of training. Not too many teachers have that.

In the end, clarity of intention produces the best result, both in teaching and in being a student, but the intention has to be grounded in reality in order for the results to be truly useful. Sadly, in terms of singing, that is often far from the situation. Learning to vibrate your forehead doesn’t mean you can sing well or even sound pleasant.

More about this topic in upcoming days.

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One thought on “Sequential Learning”

  1. I was just discussing this on Monday with another choir director in my district.

    And, I hypothesize that because most singing (and choir) is not taught in a systematic, sequential way, learning is minimalized. When we compare music reading ability of an 8th grade choir student to that of an 8th grade band student, they are miles apart in achievement. Band utilizes a much more systematic and sequential approach. BUT, doing so with choir would have a terrible “dehumanizing” effect, I feel.

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