Mirror Neurons and Teaching Voice

Weekly Teaching Tip – July 20, 2014
by Mark Baxter

Mirror, mirror, on the wall – who are the greatest teachers of them all? I’m sure a name or two just popped into your mind, but no matter who you view as the prominent pedagogues in our field the real master teachers aren’t the big names. In fact, the most influential instructors of singing can’t be seen without a microscope! The reason I mention these tiny teachers is because thousands of them invade your studio each and every time a student walks in. If you’re wondering why you haven’t noticed the crowd it’s because these teachers are well hidden inside everyone’s skull. They are specialized brain cells called mirror neurons, and it’s impossible to teach singing without them.

In 1991 on the campus of Parma University in Italy, these brain cells were discovered the way most scientific discoveries are made – by accident! A scientist named Giacomo Rizzolatti placed electrodes on a live monkey’s brain in the area that plans and performs movements. While the monkey was sitting there, a student walked in the room eating an ice cream cone. Dr. Rizzolatti observed that every time the student brought the cone up to his mouth for a lick, cells in the monkey’s brain for that same movement activated the monitoring equipment – except the monkey wasn’t moving a muscle. The monkey’s brain was “mirroring” the student’s brain. After several years of experiments, a paper on the findings (Action Recognition in the Premotor Cortex, Rizzolatti et al, 1996, Cogn. Brain Res. 3:131– 41) ignited a blaze of new research and inspired some scientists to claim mirror neurons to be the most important discovery about the human brain to date.

The reason these special brain cells are such a big deal is that they explain a lot about how humans really learn to sing and why listeners connect with singing on such a deep level. The existence of mirror neurons explains why a novice student may not be able to match a pitch played on the piano but can sing it once you demonstrate with your voice. This is despite the fact that he or she can see the piano key being played but cannot see your vocal folds in action. Mirror neurons are the reason people sing better with a vocal recording than with the karaoke version of the same song. The singer on the recording is unconsciously guiding their mirror neurons through the actions of the melody like a stencil guides a pencil.

Contrary to what all parents say, it is really the mirror neurons of babies that teach them how to speak. As your parents or guardians spoon-fed you various words, your brain was busy absorbing the way they spoke. What your brain learned back then didn’t show up until you matured – but it explains where “natural” or “gifted” singers get their head start and why the rest of us need time to develop. If a student heard well-balanced resonant voices when he or she was young their larynx and throat will automatically posture themselves better for singing then someone who heard tense or inhibited voices. So be patient with those who struggle to grasp your instruction; unfortunately their parents got there first!

Contrary to what all voice teachers like to think (including me!), it is your students’ mirror neurons that taught them how to sing better. We can demonstrate sounds, suggest behaviors, use metaphors and analogies to describe sensations but we can’t literally show students how to sing. Even x-rays of singers in action don’t provide as much guidance as mirror neurons tuned-in to another singer. All the research science regarding the voice is informative but not instructive. There have been too many fantastic singers through the ages who didn’t know a thing about the physiology of singing to claim otherwise.

So what, one may ask then, is it we voice teachers do for a living? First and foremost we represent the potential of a voice that is in love with singing. By modeling balanced behavior lesson after lesson, the inhibited and dysfunctional programs that students first walk in with are gradually reprogrammed by their mirror neurons. We guide these changes based on what our own mirror neurons inform us is occurring in the bodies of our students. Monkey see, monkey do is a two way relationship! The best lessons are when both teacher and student’s brains are lighting up like the Milky Way in an inky-black sky. Each twinkle representing a neuron burning and learning as we’re reaching and teaching. So mirror, mirror in our brains – theirs do the teaching but we hold the reins!

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