The Death of Poetic Imagery

“Imagine your throat is filled with a big pink mist.” “Imagine you have a watermelon in the back of your throat.” “Sing as if the sound were outside your cheekbones.” “Picture the tones strung together as if they were a pearl necklace.” “Release the tone on your air and let it spin.” “Support more from the diaphragm.” “Vibrate the bones of your forehead.” “Send the sound across the street.” “Let go of your jaw.” “Stop squeezing the sound.”

I could go on but you get the idea.

We were all taught with phrases like these that were supposed to mean something. Since they were accompanied by some kind of sound (usually) we could try to imitate what the teacher did and hope that would get us closer to the ideal, but it was a real leap of faith to do so. If you had a good ear, and you could mimic the teacher closely enough, maybe you got complimented for “correct placement of the tone” and figured that, finally, you were doing “it” right and had at least a vague notion of what “vocal technique” was supposed to be.

Breath support and resonance. Those two big items. If the sound is bad and you can’t see why, it has to be somehow the fault of the breathing. If the resonance isn’t right, is has to be the fault of the placement, with the breathing added. That’s it. There really wasn’t anything else…..

Bring the sound forward. Lift the tone over the back. Focus the sound in the masque (that is the one I hated the most), release the air as you elongate the vowel, keep the palate lifted as you aim the resonance high up into the face. On and on. Surely, this is a way to make people think they are crazy, untalented, and hopeless at learning to sing. Only those with great tenaciousness,
great determination or very thick skin could study singing and not give up.

The reason I am a zealot about functional training is that this stuff made me a wreck — physically, emotionally, mentally. I have no idea how I survived, although I got into serious trouble at least once. What kind of nonsense has been perpetrated over the past two hundred years against the poor sorry student who wanted to study singing?

“Don’t think of your throat.” “Make believe you have no jaw.” “Sing as if your head was empty.” [MY head was empty???]

And then, there are these three biggies: “Don’t listen to yourself.” “Stop listening to yourself.” “You are LISTENING TO YOURSELF!!!!!!!!”

Deaf people do not sing. If you can’t hear yourself, you sound like someone who is deaf who has learned to speak only through bone conduction. If you do not hear and listen well, you will not be able to match pitch. The reason you get louder in a noisy environment is because you can’t hear yourself well. You can’t help but hear yourself, so trying not to hear is like trying not to see yourself when you look in the mirror, an exercise in utter frustration. PLEASE.

You can certainly ask a skilled vocalist to sing as if she was in a beautiful place and feeling very relaxed, but you must accept whatever tone the vocalist gives you while she has that image in mind as being itself. And, if you ask an unskilled vocalist to do the same thing, you could get widely disparate sounds, one after the other, and you would have to accept those, too, without objection. Images do not work to teach technique to beginning students and are only useful in advanced vocalists with a high degree of vocal control when they are searching to reach a specific kind of artistic result.

We are on the road to the death of poetic imagery as the foundation of teaching vocal technique. I wait eagerly for the funeral.

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2 thoughts on “The Death of Poetic Imagery”

  1. Excellent post! In keeping with your point, Katherine Verdolini (Carnegie Mellon) gave a presentation for NYSTA a few years back in which she presented research showing that imagery was only useful when addressing physiological events. This presupposes a great deal of skill on the part of both student and teacher. You are right: it’s not for beginners.

  2. I’m not big on imagery either and also suffered some of the negative aspects of the uninformed use of imagery early in my training. However, I think it can be used appropriately, even with a beginner. As a teacher of singing, one can never have too many tools in the toolbox. You just have to choose the proper tool for the task. Don’t use the wrench as a hammer, you’ll just ruin the wrench.

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