When Neither Way Works

What happens when a person is trying to get out of a bad vocal habit and doesn’t yet have a really strong new habit to replace it with?

If you are a process-oriented, rather than goal-oriented, teacher, this happens frequently. If the person is motivated to get better and is already out in the world singing, he wants results. He wants to get better fast and know what is necessary for that to happen. He wants to be told do this and don’t do that, and he wants to have whatever you give him work right away. Unfortunately solving vocal problems is rarely a fast or short-term thing.

Habits, whether consciously developed through training, or acquired along the way in life, rarely go away immediately. In the case of unconscious (not deliberate) habits that interfere with vocal production, they have to be brought to the level of conscious awareness before they can be remedied and that can take time.

Teacher: Your throat is very tight. It closes and tightens when you go up.

Singer: I know. I thought that was what everyone did.

Teacher: No. That is a habit. We need to teach your throat to change pitch without doing a bunch of other things that aren’t necessary.

Singer: How do we do that?

Teacher: Let’s start like this………..

T: Your throat is tight. It causes your tongue to retract and your vowels to sound muffled.

S: It does? It feels OK to me. I think it sounds sort of warm and round when I sing.

T: Well, most of the sound isn’t getting out because of the way your throat is functioning. 

S: But I am supporting the tone the way I was told to and I am keeping my larynx down, too, just like I was taught. How could my throat be tight? I don’t understand.

T: Let’s experiment with some other exercises and see if we can get a new or different response from your throat. Try this………

S: I have an awful time in my mid-range. I can’t seem to keep the pitch accurate and my volume control is very unpredictable. I think it’s my breath support. It interferes with my placement. It’s making me very anxious.

T: Your mid-range is weak and it sounds as if you might have a vocal fold issue there…..perhaps some bowing of a fold or a partial paralysis. Have you ever had your vocal folds examined by a laryngologist? 

S: No.

T: Well, the first thing to do is get you examined by someone who knows how to evaluate professional singers. When can you set up an appointment with your laryngologist? 

The exercises provoke movement and the movement provokes awareness and the awareness grows both kinesthetically and auditorily over time. As the function returns to a more normal response, and as the reflexes of the throat are restored so that breathing is easier, the singing will get also easier but not necessarily more consistent, and therefore, musically speaking, better, right away. Freedom increases but stability decreases.

This trade-off is necessary but it is difficult for both the singer and the teacher. If the teacher does not pull in two ways at once, the problems will not go away, but the student can end up confused and frustrated. If the student can’t live with some vocal messiness and disarray the process cannot happen at all. You then end up flipping back and forth between two kinds of problems that both persist.

Just as you cannot will a plant to grow faster, no matter how much plant food or water you give it or how much sun it is exposed to, so, also, can the voice not be made better “right away” without paying a price. When fixing a voice that is in some way “broken” or less than optimally functional, zigzagging between two temporarily better alternatives might seem like a way to get nowhere in a hurry, but in the hands of a skilled teacher who knows how to address and resolve functional vocal issues, this is the  most productive direction in which to work.


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