Weekly Teaching Tip – May, 19, 2014
by Mark Baxter
Hey – you won the lottery! To celebrate, you decide to take five of your best friends out to a fancy restaurant. Once everyone is seated you announce that you’ll be doing the ordering. “Filet mignon for everyone!” As you look around the table you see a few smiling faces and a few frowns. Okay – maybe that was a bad choice. “Instead, let’s all have Clams Casino and lobster!” Now the few friends who were smiling about steak are frowning and only one friend is excited.” Hmm. “Okay guys, lets get out of here and go across the street for some Kong Pao chicken!” Once again – your idea receives an assortment of smiles and frowns. What does it take to have happy friends?
Well, it turns out friend #1 loves steak but friend #2 is vegan. Friend #3 hates seafood and friend #4 is not a fan of Chinese. Oh, and friend #5 is very allergic to peanuts. It seems your desire to treat everyone the same is not such a great idea after all. You could ask that some friends modify their diets to make your celebration simple but they will certainly be compromised in doing so. If you inquire enough, you’re bound to find one dish that agrees with everyone but no doubt that would be the culinary version of the lowest common denominator – and no way to throw a party.
What does this silly story have to do with teaching singers? Well what if your five friends were vowels named AYE, EE, AH, OH and OO? What if, instead of a party you’re working with a student who’s struggling with a song; some words are cracking and out of tune and other words on the exact same pitches are fine. Turns out vowels are a lot like people. Feed them all the same way and some will be happy and some will not. Singing, by the simplest definition, is a melody created by sustaining the vowels of speech. The only difference is that we feed vowels air pressure to sustain them – not food.
So what does it take to have happy vowels (and friends)? Variety. The stream of air we produce to vibrate our vocal folds can be as wide-ranging as a New Jersey diner menu. Skilled singers constantly calibrate their air pressure to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of each and every sound. Most of these adjustments are too small to sense so great singers learn to focus on an intended result – not on a behavior. Even though each vowel is treated slightly different, all vowels can shimmer with the same resonate quality. Ironically, it is a varied airflow that creates a consistent vocal line.
Singers who struggle do so because they try to control their reflexes, meaning they force their will on a song. You can’t impose an OO vowel with AH’s air pressure and expect a happy, vibrant, vowel. It’s like serving caviar to children. When a vowel is not happy with what its being fed it will become turbulent and hard to control – like a child asked to eat caviar. The scary thing about singing for those who struggle is that the vowels fly by so quickly it doesn’t seem possible to consciously adjust each one. To a singer wrestling for control, a song can feel as chaotic as a group of kids in the midst of a caviar food fight! (OK – I’m done)
Fortunately, our reflexes are Spider Man fast, which means we don’t have to consciously instruct our breathing to make all those minute adjustments. You simply have to ask for a balanced feeling (no strain) as you target a specific sound (intended result). At first this approach feels awkward. Singers who struggle tend to be impatient when practicing and flip back and forth between producing a sound they like and feeling comfortable. They modify vowels unnecessarily and compromise their artistic intention. This reinforces a hyper-vigilant mistrust of their reflexes. When you expect something will sound or taste bad – it usually does. This is why the guidance of a teacher is so valuable.
A great voice teacher has both the knowledge and the patience to lead a struggling singer out of his or her limited perspective. With a steady supply of encouragement and an adventurous spirit, caring teachers expand a student’s singing experience, just as my wife expanded my culinary perspective from that of an extremely picky eater to – well, a less fussy child. She accomplished this miraculous feat by serving up incredible dish after dish and only explaining the ingredients afterwards. It’s best not to instruct people how to sing or eat well – it’s better to trick them!
When a student has a negative perspective, a positive change feels like an accident. I like to call them happy accidents. Experience being the best teacher of all, it was only after losing count of how many happy accidents occurred when I forgot to worry about or anticipate a difficult note in a song that I began to trust my vocal reflexes. Great teachers don’t interrupt this process by quickly fixing every little flaw. They let the student struggle a little and learn from the happy accidents. Even though I knew I hated garlic and onions, I began to notice how often I heard those words every time my wife described how she made a dish I just devoured. Happy accident, it turns out I love garlic and onions.
When I was young I could not imagine myself singing through registers or swallowing vegetables without a struggle. I was an unhealthy singer and an unhealthy eater. Now, after thousands of gigs and over thirty years of marriage, I no longer even think about vocal registers when singing or what ingredients are responsible for a delicious meal. I just focus on the flavors. After many happy accidents I’ve learned to trust that my reflexes will dial in a wonderful blend of ingredients if I don’t consciously police the way I sing, and my wife will do the same in the kitchen if I just stay out of there!
It takes a lot of restraint to allow a student to struggle in a lesson with something as simple for us teachers as singing through the passagio. But without self-discovery the experience for the student will be shallow. It’s the difference between teaching and telling. It is my non-reaction to their issues, modeled after my wife’s non-reaction when I worry that I won’t like a dish I have yet to taste, that gives them permission to explore. Once the happy accidents start mounting up the students begin to trust me and trust themselves. As you all know, it’s that trust of the vocal reflexes that provides singers with a wonderful array of tonal colors and dynamics. Translation: Happy accidents equal happy students!